This week I am returning to some thoughts and concerns about authoritarian leaders. A critic told me recently that I should not get into politics but, as he said, “just stick with the theology stuff.” I understand his concern. I have no desire to argue about either U.S. political party, both of which I know quite well. I am currently a Democrat but grew up in a very Eisenhower-Republican home. My Dad, in fact, was a Republican county commissioner in lower Michigan and I worked on his political campaign. Today, as an historical theologian, I am very concerned about safeguarding human dignity and authentic Christian values. “Theology stuff” as my critic would say. My concern is the degree to which supporters of the forty-fifth U.S. president, are pushing the United States toward an authoritarian regime. Not just banning books but banning people and restricting civil rights.
Across the globe in countries with long-established democracies, authoritarian leaders have taken advantage of people’s fears and anxieties in a rapidly changing world. They condemn the “problematic” people and have become advocates of hatred, violence, and passionate demagoguery. We see a similar development in some fundamentalist religious movements.
Authoritarianism is hardly a new phenomenon. In the early twentieth century there were repressive authoritarian regimes in countries like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and the Croatian fascist Ustasha movement. While some researchers debate the causes of authoritarianism, the public and institutional behavior of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers is rather clear-cut.
ADDICTION: Just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers sell and promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of authoritarian leaders. We now see classic examples in our daily news. The primary focus of the authoritarian leader is the leader. The authoritarian leader uses and manipulates people to achieve the leader’s goals. The leader’s campaign message is often loaded with dishonest fabrications and emotionally charged bully-talk.
SUBMISSIVE: Authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era.
BLIND OBEDIENCE: Easily incited, easily led, and reluctant to think for themselves, authoritarian followers don’t question. They obey. They are attracted to and follow strong leaders, who, in often theatrical style, appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. And they respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. The unknown and the different become the enemy.
ANTI-CHRISTIAN: What authoritarian leaders want to implement is undemocratic, tyrannical, and often brutal. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity. Then, in reality, it becomes an anti-Christian social cancer starting to metastasize across the society. Blurred vision and bizarre rhetoric are the result. There is indeed a strong correlation between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism.
FUNDAMENTALISM: Authoritarian fundamentalists see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They consider themselves – and their authoritarian leaders – as messengers sent by God. They seize on historical moments as prophetic and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. They believe that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist worldview. They therefore condemn and demonize their opposition as evil. By way of By way of example, on April 28th in Cleveland, Texas, five victims, including a nine year old boy, were killed in an attack which began when the family asked their neighbor to stop firing his gun because their baby was trying to sleep. The far-right, authoritarian governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, demonized the victims of the Texas shooting in a tweet calling them “illegal immigrants.”
Also in Texas, in Grapevine 20 miles northwest of Dallas, some religious and political leaders have called a school board election this week a spiritual battle between forces of good and evil. During a Sunday worship service, Robert Morris, a megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to former President Donald Trump, warned his congregation that Satan was at work in area schools.
FAULTY THINKING: All authoritarians go through life with barrel-vision and impaired reasoning. Their thinking is sloppy and they are slaves to a ferocious dogmatism that blinds them to evidence and logic. As Adolf Hitler reportedly said, “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” I often think about a good example of faulty-thinking, given many years ago by my college logic professor: “All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, sharks are fish.” Today of course one hears faulty-thinking authoritarian politicians and their supportive religious leaders asserting: “All Muslims are terrorists” … “African Americans are lazy”…“Feminists are undermining male and female identity”… “Gays are destroying marriage and family life.” And on and on it goes. Falsehood and nonsense that denigrates and kills people.
SO WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT AUTHORITARIANISM?
Certainly we need to confront authoritarianism, because it is a malignancy that threatens and polarizes society. We need to speak-out now or forever hold our silence. But it is not enough to talk about it or write articles about it. Too many people are simply standing on the sidewalk, quietly staring at the authoritarian parade as it marches on.
We need to take courageous leadership to clearly inform and organize others. We need to inform and motivate voters to elect well-informed and critical-thinking political leaders. Ignorance is neither civic nor religious bliss; and prejudice is based on ignorance.
The best way to confront ignorance is through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education teaches the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Authoritarians and fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.
We need to establish channels for dialogue. If people are telling lies or spreading falsehood, on social media, we need to be clear about what is truthful information and help spread that. When I see falsehood on Facebook, for example, I point that out. I am not speaking about opinions but about truthfulness and honesty. Social media can indeed spread falsehood but it can be used to spread truthfulness as well.
Asking “why?” is a virtue. Questioning is healthy and mature. Unquestioned loyalty and obedience force authoritarian followers into servitude. If your religion makes you hate someone, you need a new religion. Empathy and compassion are Christ-like; but authoritarian hatred and denigration are anti-Christ.
[For further reading, I recommend Twilight of Democracy, a book by Anne Applebaum, Polish-American journalist and historian.]
PS “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in an illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” – Walter Brueggemann (Born: March 11, 1933) U.S. Hebrew Scriptures scholar and theologian