Is Religious Strategy Acceptable on Survivor?

Te Tuna Banner From Survivor South Pacific

Te Tuna Banner From Survivor South Pacific

During the most recent season 23 of CBS’s television series Survivor: South Pacific the strategy employed by the final five contestants Albert Destrade, Benjamin “Coach” Wade, Sophie Clarke, Rick Nelson, and Brandon Hantz from the merged Te Tuna tribe was claimed on the tenants of honor, loyalty, and integrity combined with a professed Christian religiosity. Coach appears to have originated the honor, loyalty, and integrity creed when the five original Upolu tribe members met at the beginning of the show. The created pact remained solid despite many temptations to turn on each other. Of course in the end, the five eventually made decisions to vote each other off considering many factors including results from immunity challenges and the return of Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth from Redemption Island. As a result, after Ozzy was turned away in the final vote, the last three only included Albert, Coach, and Sophie. In the end, Sophie won the support of jury members walking away with the million dollar prize.

Survivor is Just a Social Experiment

In his speech before the decisive jury vote, Albert correctly reminded those from whom he sought support that, “If you look at the game in its truest essence, this is a social experiment.” Survivor is an interesting program because individual interactions are observed by viewers from a distance without vested concern for who wins or gets treated unfairly. Viewers can scrutinize players’ physical, mental, and social actions while pondering their reactions in similar situations. Although there is no way for television producers to provide a complete rendition of all social interactions between contestants, depicted clips are appealing. Though the environments are distant and isolated, the physical, mental and social struggles can be likened to individuals’ lives, but deprived of negative implications. Survivor is a fun social experiment to watch as it has a potentially analogous reality without personal responsibility.

Conversely, contestants are not detached from the negative implications and must take personal responsibility or they will be voted out of the competition. Additionally, the participants might forever be scorned by the general public for the way they played the game. Even though this is a game, real world ramifications remain.

I am not sure why Albert delivered this social experiment reminder as part of his speech before the jury. Could he have been seeking sympathy for his strategic interpersonal transgressions? The jury vote is a closing grade on the competitors’ performance, so principles of honor, loyalty, and integrity suddenly might have less playful relevance.

Each contestant confronts ethical dilemmas while struggling to remain competitive. While this is a television produced competition, the social environment has a stark reality. So, how does a participant bring game to this reality competition? Should the game be practiced with the same moral standards as would be expected outside the game?

Survivor’s Vegas & Roman Ethos

As I ponder these questions, I often reflect on the saying “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” This phrase has tempting stickiness. It is human nature to feel some desire to drop personal morals for a time rationalizing individual accountability has been furloughed for an ephemeral spell. The saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” might be the foundation of the absent minded Vegas ethos. As a result, “When in Vegas, do as Vegas visitors do.” Remember what you want, and forget the rest.

Of course on Survivor, the television producers are recording everything, so nothing is hidden. But Survivor contestants may feel justified to live by a different ethos, because what happens in Survivor is on Survivor (remember it is just a game show), so forget it. Likewise, while on Survivor, do as those on Survivor do, to win.

How far can this reasoning be applied? Can a married man or woman strike up an amorous relationship with another contestant to win their support? Is it okay to let lack of clothing display your body immodestly? What is an acceptable lie by one tribe member to another?

Maybe this is not a “yes” or “no” question? It may seem inconsistent, or somewhat hypocritical, to justify changed ethos in one environment than another. But, it could be that it is okay to live by changed standards, but only to a certain point. If so, what constitutes going too far?

More than any previous season, contestants on Survivor: South Pacific used religion to justify strategic outcomes. As a result, Contestant Whitney Duncan, an original Savaii tribe member and 4th jury member from the Te Tuna tribe, was disgusted. She lectured Coach concerning this at the jury vote:

“I feel like you used Christianity to manipulate your whole tribe and put fear into them.”

Coach shook his head with seeming confusion and disagreement as if to say, “Whatever.”

Part of Jury During Final Vote on Survivor South Pacific

Part of Jury During Final Vote on Survivor South Pacific

An opposing view was put forth by contestant Edna Ma, an original Upolu tribe member who was dismissed earlier than expected by the Te Tuna final five. She reasoned to fellow jury members (rather than questioning the three remaining finalist) that religion is an acceptable Survivor strategy:

“Congratulations. We are all here to play Survivor. Everybody knows that. And, the inherent ingredient is manipulation. We are all going to be manipulated. The majority of time, we are going to be manipulating people. And what is the most historic way to manipulate people? Religion. That was successfully utilized. We shouldn’t be sitting here going ‘Oh, duped!’ It was our own fault. We voluntarily came here to be duped and we shouldn’t hold any hard feelings by these people duping us because we signed up for this. And these people did it successfully. They managed to dupe each one of us. Congratulations.”

Ozzy is shown shaking his head affirmatively during Edna’s comments.

Are Ozzy (assuming he agrees with Edna) and Edna correct? Have signed contestants on Survivor agreed to a potential environment with religious deception? Or, is Whitney justified being offended at the way contestants used Christianity as part of their strategy?

Religious Strategy Examples from Survivor: South Pacific

I decided to go back through the final two episodes of Survivor: South Pacific to document the use of religion along with more salient references to honor, loyalty, and integrity. The following includes narrative notes explaining events during these final two episodes. Strategic and religious discussion obtained from contestants during the results show is also added. I watched the shows multiple times to do my best to transcribe the dialogue accurately. If I have made an error, it is not intentional nor likely egregious. But if anything is mistakenly referenced, I apologize beforehand to the characters involved.

I hope you find the documented examples helpful as you consider the ethics of using religion strategically during a reality television game show. Is it justified to use religion as a strategy considering you should do what contestants do to win on Survivor? Remember some might reason that what happens on Survivor is on Survivor (it’s just a game show), so forget any moral implications. Likewise, while on Survivor, do as those on Survivor do, to win.

Episode Broadcast on 12/14/11

Night 32

After the five remaining Te Tuna tribe members voted off Edna, Brandon reminds the celebrating group:

“The most important thing for us to do is give thanks to the person who did this for us.”

Final Five Te Tuna Tribe Members Pray Together

Final Five Te Tuna Tribe Members Pray Together

Supportively, Coach pipes in and says:

“Let me pray. Is that cool?”

They then gather in a circle holding hands and pray.

Day 33

The next day, Ozzy defeats Edna at Redemption Island. Albert is shown speaking to the camera about his true motives:

“The interesting thing about the honor and integrity card is in the game of Survivor, I don’t care a single thing about honor and integrity. I really don’t.”

Brandon plans with Albert to get to the final together. He tells Albert:

“This is fate, man. This is… we’re in God’s hands. It’s going to be okay, Bro. The only things that can spoil it right now is us.”

Sophie discusses the need to get rid of Brandon to take on Ozzy at Redemption Island. She then tells the camera:

“[Brandon’s] the most loyal, the most trustworthy, the most Godly man out here. And that’s not somebody I would want to go to the final three with.”

Day 35

The five go to an immunity challenge with pizza as a reward to the winner. Brandon wins the immunity challenge. After his victory, he yells:

“Thank you Jesus! Thank you Father.”

Brandon Rejoices to God After Winning Immunity Challenge

Brandon Rejoices to God After Winning Immunity Challenge

Brandon’s winning the immunity challenge did not fit in with Coach and Sophie’s plans for voting Brandon off the show. Coach tells the camera:

“I believe in Divine intervention. It was not Brandon’s time to go home tonight. He saved his own skin by winning immunity. And I’m at peace with that. I’m pissed, but I’m at peace with that.”

Since Brandon could not be voted off, the attention turned to voting off Albert. Albert had told Rick that he was going to take him to the final three. Rick tells Brandon and Sophie of this promise while Brandon and Rick eat pizza (immunity challenge reward). All eventually get very upset at Albert. In order to save himself, Albert pleads to Brandon for forgiveness and mercy. Trying to be a good Christian man, Brandon contemplates forgiving Albert:

“Everyone has lied in this game, everyone, even myself. So I am really, really, really, struggling to consider to keep him in this game. … he may not have had the intentions that I think he had. And I strongly, strongly, believe that Albert deserves to be here.”

Brandon sides with forgiving Albert. He is then shown telling Albert:

“If I have to, I’ll give you my immunity necklace.”

Brandon explains to Coach the reason for forgiving Albert:

“.. you know that by now, God speaks to me. And, you know that I would never make a decision to hurt me or you more than anybody in this game... This example would be probably the pinnacle of why we are out here. Forgiving. If we can’t forgive our brother, our Heavenly Father will not forgive us.”

Then Coach reflects to the camera:

“I want things to be easy and simple, and earlier today it was kind of black and white because we had one man, Albert, that had just completely lied at camp. So it’s justification that he goes. But, then Brandon brings in forgiveness and the immunity necklace and it makes it so hard to determine right from wrong. It makes it so hard to figure out who should go, who deserves to stay, which alliance I should be in, which people I can trust.”

The camera reverts back to the earlier shown conversation between Brandon and Coach. Brandon and Coach debate concerning what God wants:

Coach to Brandon:

“Who are you going to write down?

Brandon to Coach:

“I honestly believe this is what God wants us to do.”

Coach to Brandon:

“Remember now, this is what God wants you to do. But, what I need to do right now. I need to pray. And promise you this; I will do whatever God tells me to do.”

Brandon to Coach:

“I understand that you got to do what God wants you to do, but I know he doesn’t want you to write my name down.”

Coach Prays During Survivor South Pacific

Coach Prays During Survivor South Pacific

Coach is shown praying before tribal council. He explains to viewers:

“I bowed down, and humbly sought God give me an answer of what I should do tonight if Brandon gives his necklace to Albert. I begged God to speak to me like he has never spoken to me before. I asked God to give me the Holy Spirit of Divine Interpretation and Wisdom. I prayed, and there was a name in my head over and over and over again. And I cleaned the slate and I asked for it again, and it came over and over and over again, and over again. My soul has never breathed like it does in this moment.”

Night 35

The final five go to tribal council and Jeff Probst (Survivor's Host) comments on Brandon’s power at tribal with the immunity necklace. Surprisingly, Brandon says to Jeff he wants to give the immunity necklace to Albert. Brandon explains that he is staying true to his commitments made that he would give his own place in the game for them (probably meaning Coach and Albert). This commitment includes lying down on his sword for Albert if in trouble. Coach explains to Jeff that:

“…a couple of hours ago Brandon was going to vote for Albert, but then he prayed about it and he felt like he should give the necklace to Albert.”

Coach Bows His Head at a Tribal Council

Coach Bows His Head at a Tribal Council

Jeff reminds Brandon that Albert is a competitor in a one million dollar game. Brandon responds that he considers these guys (Coach and Albert) his best friends. He notes that through Christ there is a connection:

“I was drawn to them. It wasn’t by coincidence.”

Jeff asks Albert for his take on Brandon’s comments. Albert replies:

“When I got to this game, something told me that there’s a bigger reason why I was here. And what makes Brandon’s decision not look crazy, is because we feel like our bond is real… it was at a different level spiritually when I bonded with Brandon and when I bonded with Coach.”

Jeff questions Albert’s Christian selflessness:

“So is there a part of you as a Christian man, who now wants to take the necklace off and do the same thing that Brandon just did for you?”

Albert responds to Jeff:

“If I realistically believe that he is in trouble, yes.”

Jeff asks Sophie and Rick for their thoughts. Rick tells Jeff it would be interesting to see if Albert would give Brandon back the necklace if he thinks his is in trouble? When pressed by Jeff, Albert follows up by saying:

“Honestly, I don’t think he is going home tonight, so I am not going to give him the necklace back.”

Something was probably edited from the interaction as Jeff suddenly says to Coach that he somehow got involved in this. Coach’s answer to Jeff is:

“… I don’t mind the responsibility because, I got down on my knees in the sand and I prayed that God give me an answer on what I should do tonight. And, everything is meant to be as it is supposed to be, so I am at complete peace.”

Jeff then asks Brandon:

“Brandon, are you at peace?”

Brandon responds:

“No Sir.”

Jeff follows-up asking Brandon:

“What’s stirring inside you?”

Brandon replies:

“Coach is going to do what God wants him to do, and if God wanted him to vote me out, I believe he (meaning Coach) would.”

Coach Tells Brandon to Get Redemption After Tribal Council

Coach Tells Brandon to Get Redemption After Tribal Council

The five vote. As Rick writes Brandon’s name down, he looks at the camera and says:

“Dumb move.”

Coach says to Brandon, hugging him as he leaves after being voted off:

“It’s God’s will. Go win Redemption.”

Episode Broadcast on 12/18/11

Review of Events from Previous Shows

At the beginning of the final show, when reviewing the events up to that point competition, Coach exclaims to the camera after finding the immunity idol:

“Are the stars aligned for Coach or what?”

Another item from the review of events up to that point competition, Coach is shown proposing a deal with Ozzy while on a reward visit to Redemption Island:

“I’ve got a perfect final three scenario. You, me, and one other person. I give you my word as a Christian man.”

Coach Talks Strategy with Ozzy During Survivor South Pacific

Coach Talks Strategy with Ozzy During Survivor South Pacific

Coach is then shown saying to the camera:

“When I say as a Christian man, I promise you that this is what I am going to do. That’s an irrevocable promise.”

As the final show review of events concludes, Albert is heard to say:

“I have no qualms about doing whatever it takes to win this game.”

Night 35

Brandon is shown arriving at Redemption Island waking up Ozzy. He tells Ozzy he got blindsided and:

“I fell on my sword for Albert last night.”

Ozzy is heard commenting on Brandon’s reasoning for being voted off:

“He wasn’t blindsided, he gave up the frickin immunity necklace. Whenever you give an immunity necklace, your ass is going home… Brandon is supposed to be playing this loyalty game. When, in fact, he’s playing a blind faith game. He’s playing the game like he’s playing a God, and he’s not. He’s playing with human beings that are greedy and want that money.”

Sophie tells the camera she thought it was cowardly for Albert not to give Brandon back the necklace in front of the jury. That same night after the jury vote, Albert lies to Coach and Sophie that he didn’t know Brandon was going home. Coach confronts him for lying. Coach explains to the camera:

“Albert knew that Brandon was going home tonight. There’s no sense for that lie. Just own yourself. Own your actions. I’m sick of people coming out here and trying to look like they’re holier than thou. I won’t stand for any more of this jury politicking, hamming it up with the other side.”

Day 36

Brandon loses to Ozzy in Redemption Island challenge after sliding down the pole. He comments:

“Thank you, Father,” as he looks up to the heavens.

Ozzy and Brandon After Redemption Island Challenge

Ozzy and Brandon After Redemption Island Challenge

Jeff says to Brandon after the immunity challenge:

“You seem jubilant even though you just lost.”

Brandon explains:

“I may have lost this game of Survivor, but I’ve won. In the beginning, I came out here to win a million dollars. But, about seven days in I had a heart to heart with God. I hold no bitterness to nobody and I am going to hold my head up proud.”

When revisiting their earlier conversation about taking each other to the final, Coach promises Ozzy (when talking about giving him the immunity idol):

“If I think that you’re in jeopardy, absolutely.”

Day 37

Ozzy wins the immunity challenge by stacking cards to a designated high mark. Later that day, Coach tells the camera:

“Loyalties will be broken tonight.”

Here is an interesting conversation between Rick and Coach before vote to send the next person home.

First, Rick to Coach:

“My main loyalty lies to you, so… ”

Coach to Rick:

“No… Dude, trust me man.”

Rick to Coach:

“So what are you thinking on your vote though?”

Coach to Rick:

“I’d vote for Sophie.”

Rick to Coach:

“Would you vote for me?”

Coach to Rick:


Here is a piece of an interesting conversation between Ozzy and Albert before vote to send next tribe member home. Ozzy tells Albert:

“Coach told me he wants to take me to the end. He gave me his word as a Christian man. So if you want to vote for Rick, I think it is foolish because Coach is going to get rid of you next.”

Night 37

At the next tribal council, Coach does not use the immunity idol (worn around his neck) to save either Rick or Sophie. Rick is voted off the show. Before the vote, Ozzy makes Sophie cry after launching various insults. Also, Ozzy airs Coach’s promise to take Ozzy to final. As Rick leaves, Coach stands up to give a friendly gesture as part of the sendoff, but Rick refuses.

Day 38

The next day, Coach talks to Ozzy about airing his Christian promise. Coach says he felt betrayed and saddened. Ozzy explains to Coach that he felt distrust. Ozzy proposes to Coach to tie the vote to force Sophie and Albert to build a fire as a challenge determining who goes home. Coach says he likes the idea.

Sophie Lays Hands On Coach's Head After Being Anointed Dragonslayer

Sophie Lays Hands On Coach's Head After Being Anointed Dragonslayer

Sophie wins next immunity challenge opening the way for Ozzy to be voted off the show in the next tribal council. This opportunity can be considered a form of revenge for Sophie considering how she was ripped by Ozzy during the last tribal council. Coach informs Sophie that after her victory over Ozzy at the immunity challenge, she is the new dragon slayer.

Ozzy knows he is likely to be voted off, but hopes Coach will support him. He pleads to Coach to honor his word to take him to the final, but Coach explains to Ozzy he betrayed that trust. Coach admits to camera that he has said since day one that he wanted to take the strongest warriors to the end and that Ozzy has been that in every sense of the word. Ozzy says to Coach:

“It’s also a word of a Christian man that you gave to me. This is where it’s real; right now. I know you’ll make the right decision, man.”

Night 38

At tribal council, Coach laments to Jeff that it is not an easy decision even at this point in the game to vote off Ozzy considering his comeback from Redemption Island. Ozzy tells Jeff that if Coach is a man of his word he’ll keep his promise to take him to the final. Jeff asks Coach if this is hard considering he has always wanted to play the game with honor. Coach agrees with Jeff saying:

“I think this game is very hard, especially if you start out this game and say you want to play it honorably. And I’ve always said, you know, I want to take the strongest people to the end. But, I think that these two here are also very strong. The only thing that sets Ozzy apart is that he came back and coming back is an almost impossible task to get to the end. And so that is the dilemma.”

Albert Thanks God After Tribal Council Vote

Albert Thanks God After Tribal Council Vote

The jury claps for Ozzy after being voted off. Albert says to himself looking up:

“Thank you, God.”

Day 39

The final three (Albert, Coach and Sophie) take down camp and prepare for the final jury vote.

Night 39

Final Three Contestants Face Final Jury

Final Three Contestants Face Final Jury

During the jury vote, Brandon angrily asks Coach:

“At the beginning of this game, you said that as a man of God that you would never, no matter what, vote me out of this game. Is there anything you got to say to me?”

Coach responds to Brandon:

“I want to say thank you for raising the bar. You have raised all of our standards higher and you have preached the name of Jesus Christ and it was a rally cry for us and it was an honor to play with you. And with you, you know, I honestly think you should be here. And I saw you being here. You were not meant to go home brother. I know you feel hurt, and I want to make it up to you.”

Brandon then asks Albert:

“Albert, how do you feel about using God to get to the final three?”

Albert tells Brandon:

“I have never once used God in this game, and I know that I would be willing to do anything to win this game; anything. The one thing I would never compromise is my personal relationship with God. And I know that this game seriously brought me closer back to my walk with my God. And I thank you for that.”

Brandon follows up by asking:

“I appreciate it and I honestly feel that you are being genuine with me. Just a really quick question. Did you know that I was going home? Did you know that I was going home? Did you know that I was going home? Yes or no? Yes or no? Yes or no? There is no explanation. Did you know that I was going home? Yes or no, or I will move on and then you screw yourself.”

Albert replies to Brandon:

“I did not know that you were going home.”

Brandon responds to Albert:

“Okay, that’s it. That’s all I needed to know. You lie. Thank you.”

Brandon Confronts Albert at Final Jury Vote

Brandon Confronts Albert at Final Jury Vote

Original Savaii tribe member, and later Te Tuna tribe member (5th person jury member), John Cochran questioned Coach at the final jury vote concerning his talk about honor:

“But what I don’t appreciate is all this talk about ‘honor’ and stuff. You say the word so frequently that the word means nothing to me. So I was wondering if you could share your strategy, but don’t talk about ‘honor’.”

Coach explains to Cochran:

“I came into this game wanting to do all the right things. And when you try to please everybody, you end up doing all the wrong things. I tried and I fell short. I stabbed a lot of you in the back, and I am sorry that I did what I did to get here. I know that this was my third and final time and I wanted to get to the end and every day I would justify my actions. And at the end, it just became on convoluted mess and I did not know how to get out of it. It was like a deck of cards. I kept stacking it up and stacking it up and it looked so nice for so long, and then as is evident right now, everybody hates me and the deck of cards is gone and my game that I tried to play is in shambles. And as I have proven from day one, since I have been on Survivor, I am a terrible strategist. I’m just not that kind of person. In my real life, I am not a devious person. I’m not a strategist and it came to bite me.”

Episode Broadcast on 12/18/11

Results Show

After Sophie was announced as the Sole Survivor and winner of the million dollars, Jeff asks her about her success:

“I think I had, you know, my finger on the pulse of the game the whole time. And, I tried to just figure out other’s motivations. I kind of worked within the framework of the game. They created, you know, this religious framework. This idea of being loyal, being trustworthy, and I just kind of worked within that and got to the end.”

Sophie Clarke Announced Winner of Survivor South Pacific

Sophie Clarke Announced Winner of Survivor South Pacific

Jeff later asked Coach about the use of prayer during the show:

“Explain to me about the prayer thing because there was more praying this season than ever. And I’m not, I’m not discounting it. But, here’s what I am trying to understand, and I know from the streets that a lot of people are asking me this. It’s one thing to pray because this game is incredibly tough. It’s another to pray for that guy to find a clue on day 22 of Survivor. But where was that line for you?”

Coach explained to Jeff:

“I think that to some people, our prayer might seem trite, hypocritical, maybe shallow. But, you have got to realize something. That is a shakable world out there and you want to grasp onto something if you have faith that is unshakeable. Now, in the past I prayed every day, the difference here is that with a lot of these people, like Brandon and Albert, it became almost like a prayer-palooza where everybody was praying openly, every day. It really became ingrained into our fabric of our society. But, to grab onto something like faith, that is unshakeable. It’s very real to me, and it’s very real to these other people like Brandon and Albert that prayed every single day.”

Redemption Banner From Survivor South Pacific

Redemption Banner From Survivor South Pacific

Ozzy explains to Jeff during the results show how he found God in nature on Survivor:

“We have been talking about God a lot. And, this is where I find God. I go out there and I absolutely am in awe of the world that we live in and to go out there again and to really know and understand that I as a human being, this is where we come from. We come from nature, and to go back and to sort of commune with nature, it’s the closest that I have ever felt like I have ever been able to have a conversation with God. And is to me this is where God lives.”

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