Potential Authoritarian


As most of you have probably noticed, in the last few years there has been an increase of popularity of demagogues. Demagogues are individuals who tend to “speak the language” of the masses with a level of charisma, and do so expressing themes that often emphasize empowerment and national identity, all the while commonly stoking the fires of ethnic, or religious hate. People who appreciate the message of these demagogues often see them as heroes… creating or restoring greatness to their own in-group. Those that do not respond to this message often see these demagogues as “neo-Fascist.”

Perhaps this uptick in demagoguery is the reason that so many Christians have recently expressed interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His stance against the Fascist regime of his country is commonly seen as as inspirational today. Many have, often incorrectly, seen Bonhoeffer as a spiritual father of religio-political groups today.

But more interesting was that the predominant church in his country supported the Fascists, and even the “Confessing Church” of Bonhoeffer was far from a group actively opposing the government. It got me thinking to myself if there are themes in our institutional church that makes Authoritarianism (even if not full-out Fascism) especially appealing.

I am not asking “Are Christians Fascist.” There are a couple of reasons. For one, the term Fascist is way too broad. Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy, noted that it is such a broad and varied ideology (or family of ideologies) that it is hard to pin down. Some of the common threads he noted were: Nationalism, Traditionalism (“cult of Tradition”), Life as Permanent Warfare, and Ethnocentrism (racism/bigotry). Theodor Adorno did research decades ago in his book, “The Authoritarian Personality.” His “F-Scale” (F for a tendency to open to be open to authoritarian or fascist thinking) listed a few things, some or which overlapped with Eco.

  • Conventialism/Conformism. Strong tendency to embrace cultural or societal norms.

  • Authoritarian Submission. The importance of submitting to one’s in-group leaders.

  • Authoritarian Aggression. Failure to conform to societal norms or submit to one’s leaders should be dealt with aggressively.

  • Anti-intraception.  Dislike of “wimpy,” feelings-oriented, subjective thinking. Prefer literal black-white thinking.

  • Stereotypy. Applying black and white categories to people. People are defined by their group rather than by their individuality or their humanity.

  • Power and Toughness. Equality in power is pure fiction… Inbalance of power is innate in society, so it is best if WE have the power and THEY do not.

  • Destructiveness and cynicism.  Generalized hostility to and vilification of humanity. Focus on the Fallenness of Man rather than Man created in God’s image.

  • Projectivity.  “The projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.”  Others are narrow-minded racist selfish bastards, so I need to be the same (to protect what is mine and that of our group).

  • Obsession with sex lives of others

Adorno’s work is interesting, but let’s use Eco’s shorter list to ask the question why MIGHT Christians (and perhaps other religious people) be likely to embrace authoritarianism.  I will deal with them in a different order.

  1.  Traditionalism (Cult of Tradition). Christianity often likes to look backwards for answers. Part of this is natural to religious thinking, where there is an understanding that one’s religion expresses a greater truth, a greater reality, that was revealed at some point in the past. Beyond that, so many denominations of Christianity like to make the argument that THEY express the “real” first century church. This makes no sense— we need to embrace our role as the 21st century church, not 1st century. But this is common even among Christian groups that tend to eschew (at least in theory) traditionalism.
  2. Life as Permanent Warfare. The Bible uses a lot of metaphors. One of the classes of metaphors are war-related. There does seem to be a bit of fascination with war metaphors among many Christian groups. Evangelical groups especially like to throw out the war motifs for the Christian experience. As a missionary, I see this even more where “spiritual warfare” is not simply expressed as a metaphor, but is often expressed as the (only) reality of our work— often ignoring many other metaphors of Christian living in the Bible. Stephen Larsen (author of “The Shaman’s Doorway”) has posited that monotheistic religions are more prone to ethical dualism (good versus evil) than polytheistic religions. I suppose that could be true, but I am not sure that leads necessarily to a war picture of life.
  3. Ethnocentrism (racism and bigotry). It seems pretty reasonable to think that Christians would be LESS prone to ethnocentrism than other groups. Genesis 1-3 (and much of the rest of the Bible) puts us all as equal before God. Yet we certainly find many Christians quite prone to the strangest of bigotries. (I still try to rap my head around American Christians who are the children of immigrants who are bigoted against immigrants.) Adorno may have a suggestion in this area. He noted that people who are “conservative” in their beliefs (whether politically, religiously, or ideologically) tended to be, on average more prone to bigotry than those more on the liberal end of the spectrum. HOWEVER, among the more conservative, there was a strong divide between those who “converted” to their conservative views, and those who had their views essentially inherited from their parents. Those who were converts tended to be much less bigoted than those who were brought up culturally in their beliefs. This may suggest that culturally embedded Christianity is more prone to bigotry than found in “young church” settings.
  4. Nationalism. I don’t see nationalism is an inherently Christian problem. It is, however, a problem through out the world of “state religion.” When a religion becomes a pawn of the state, and justifies the activities of the state, the religion tends to lose its prophetic role. Religion becomes the court prophet supporting the state by echoing back the will of the state.

So are Christians more prone to being pro-Authoritarian or “Potential Facist.” Not necessarily. Of course some groups, like the Shepherding Movement, openly promote authoritarian structures, as do many denominations— young and ancient alike. If, however, one looks at Eco’s list, I think Christians are prone to be attracted to Traditionalism and a Warfare view of life. I also think that places where Christianity has become deeply embedded into the culture where it has a lot of civil power and a lot of members who “inherited their faith” there is a higher tendency to nationalism and ethnocentrism. 

We saw those situations in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the early 20th century. It is possible we will see more of this again.

By the way, Tom Nicholas has an interesting little Youtube on “Potential Fascism.” You can watch it, Clicking Here

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