I’ll warn you now, this will be a bit longer of a post than you may be accustomed to on this blog, but I encourage you to take some time and read through it. This information was extremely insightful in helping me understand where America is as a nation and a society right now, and I thought it might be helpful to you as well.
With everything that is happening in the country right now, I can’t help but touch on this topic. It’s been on my mind a lot over the last year or so, and has really taken on a whole new light over the last 6 months.
A Brief Background
Evangelicalism has been around since the 18th Century. Though Evangelicalism looked different in the early days, where it simply described churches who broke away from past tradition and orthodoxy through revivals and leaders such as Martin Luther, today we can recognize evangelicals based on the belief that you have to be “born again” through a specific conversion experience where you pray a prayer to “ask Jesus into your heart”, whereby one was then “saved” from the wrath of God and condemnation to hell for eternity (which isn’t Biblical, by the way).
The more specific traits would be evidenced in their inherent need to spread the Gospel by word of mouth to the masses. This “gospel” was usually constructed in such a way that it guilted you into repenting and accepting salvation through a conversion experience. This form of Gospel preaching became known as “Fire and Brimstone” for its message being centered on hell and “scaring you into salvation”.
As time went on, Evangelicalism represented less and less of the greater Christian population doctrinally, but more of the conservative American population. By the 19th century, there was a new word to label this breed of Christian: Fundamentalist.
The Rise Of Fundamentalism
Fundamentalists are a peculiar and confusing group of people. But make no mistake, they are also dangerous. Especially in large numbers! In the formidable years, Fundamentalists were known as the group that held to (what they would call) traditional values. They argued for literal interpretation of the Bible, supported the prohibition, helped pass the “blue laws” for no alcohol on Sundays, and harshly opposed the teaching of evolution in public schools. Their basic belief system hinged on separatist doctrine, meaning anyone who disagreed with, or didn’t practice their strict doctrinal views were considered condemned, lost, unsaved, and apart from God.
Today, Fundamentalists have progressed over the years, and are stereotypically known for their hatred of all minorities and people groups who are different from them. But there has always been an intense level of distain reserved for progressives. To them, there is a special place in hell for progressives of all types. Fundamentalism, by definition, should be the more conservative side of Christianity. But Fundamentalists in reality are very much the opposite. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have become synonymous in today’s American culture. This group of people is the furthest thing from accurately depicted followers of Jesus historically, scripturally, theologically, and culturally, yet they are convinced whole-heartedly that they are the ones who truly have it right. Ultimately, they are nothing more than a dangerous form of radicalism, unbiblical theology, and should be regarded as their own breed of psychological and emotional terrorism.
The Rise Of Authoritarianism
When we look at the current state of this country culturally, its easy to be perplexed. It literally feels like everyone has lost their damn mind. But recently I read an article that was the most in depth explanation for our current political events that I had read. I will be referencing this article throughout the rest of this post. All quotes were taken from this post as well. So please refer back to the link above.
In this article, Amanda Taub explains that a group of political scientists actually predicted the rise of a person like Donald J. Trump years ago. Naturally this intrigued me. So I started reading into Authoritarianism and it’s impact on history over the years.
Now, I strongly encourage you to read the article at the link in the previous paragraph, but I will warn you it is quite lengthy and thorough. So I will try to sum up some of the highlights here.
So what is authoritarianism?
Dictionary.com defines authoritarianism as follows:
- favoring complete obedience or subjection to authority as opposed to individual freedom: authoritarian principles; authoritarian attitudes.
- of or relating to a governmental or political system, principle, or practice in which individual freedom is held as completely subordinate to the power or authority of the state, centered either in one person or a small group that is not constitutionally accountable to the people.
- exercising complete or almost complete control over the will of another or of others.
Clearly we can see authoritarian leaders and structures in all types of contexts. The Church, for example, is often very authoritarian in structure and leadership. One man running the show, held accountable to a group of people who are often biased towards the man in charge. It happens all the time. It’s why pastors often get away with so much before being publicly confronted about a major issue or illegal activity.
But for this conversation, we should look at American authoritarianism.
“For years now, before anyone thought a person like Donald Trump could possibly lead a presidential primary, a small but respected niche of academic research has been laboring over a question, part political science and part psychology, that had captivated political scientists since the rise of the Nazis.
How do people come to adopt, in such large numbers and so rapidly, extreme political views that seem to coincide with fear of minorities and with the desire for a strongman leader?
To answer that question, these theorists study what they call authoritarianism: not the dictators themselves, but rather the psychological profile of people who, under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongman leaders to implement them.”
– Amanda Taub
So what do we do with that information? I think it’s interesting to to dig deeper and explore what types of people tend to fall into this political category. It’s predominantly people with a strong religious background. This is why I wanted to briefly explore fundamentalists. From what I can tell, this authoritarian movement is being propelled forward by radical Christian Fundamentalists.
This is dangerous for a few reasons:
- Christian Fundamentalists are being thrust into the spotlight on a stage with a worldwide audience where they are giving the name of God and Christianity a very bad reputation.
- People generally have a hard time separating fundamentalists from Christianity in their mind, causing non-religious people to attack Christianity for the acts and thoughts of the many radical fundamentalists who yell the loudest.
- We are seeing a very large and passionate group of people lift up men for office that exemplify all of the 7 deadly sins, and instead of recognizing and calling out the ungodly behavior, they praise the character of such men.
I’d like to elaborate on that third point for a moment.
I was recently listening to an episode of The Liturgists Podcast where they have a conversation with Richard Rohr. In this conversation, Rohr touches on the current state of politics in America and says something somewhat profound. He explains that theologically and historically, “Jesus” and “Christ” were always two separate things. To put them together says something that is very specific, and also vast. He talks about the “Cosmic Christ” and how many people who call themselves Christians in America have been thoroughly and intimately introduced to “Jesus”, but have never actually ever known The Christ. From this conversation, Rohr used politics as an example and said that the very reality that Christians can elevate a person who so clearly and vividly has all deadly sins depicted in their character, and no one seems to recognize them, is actually good evidence that they don’t know the cosmic Christ.
I found this both devastating personally, and disturbing overall. But it also helps explain how so many people can be led astray from such a deep truth that should be paramount to their whole belief system.
The Tip Of The Iceberg
So many people look at the “Trump Movement” and try to explain how someone like Donald Trump can rise to such staggeringly overwhelming favor among a greater population. But the issue is that people are asking the wrong questions. People have wrongly assumed Trump is the sickness, but Donald Trump is just the symptom.
According to these political scientists, if you were to read through all the data on American authoritarianism and compile a list of qualifying character traits and views for a leader, you would get Donald Trump. Therefore, the issue is not Trump, but what culture has been pushing people towards for decades.
Donald Trump is the tip of a huuuuuge iceberg. (see what I did there)
Political scientists began studying authoritarianism just after World War II. They wanted to understand how a group such as the Nazis could influence a nation of people to support such devastating political stances and such dangerous leadership. Their work was largely unsuccessful for many years. But as science progressed, so did there methods. Over the last 20 years or so, political science has made some leaps forward in their study of authoritarianism, and by the 90s, this group of scientists had predicted the rise of someone fitting Trump’s description.
Let’s get back to American authoritarians themselves. In what I believe is the major highlight of the article, Amanda Taub writes:
“In the early 2000s, as researchers began to make use of the NES data to understand how authoritarianism affected US politics, their work revealed three insights that help explain not just the rise of Trump, but seemingly a half-century of American political dynamics.
The first was Hetherington and Weiler’s insight into partisan polarization. In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians. Over the decades that followed, authoritarians increasingly gravitated toward the GOP, where their concentration gave them more and more influence over time.
The second was Stenner’s theory of “activation.” In an influential 2005 book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argued that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been “activated.”
The social threat theory helps explain why authoritarians seem so prone to reject not just one specific kind of outsider or social change, such as Muslims or same-sex couples or Hispanic migrants, but rather to reject all of them.
This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque.
Other researchers, like Hetherington, take a slightly different view. They believe that authoritarians aren’t “activated” — they’ve always held their authoritarian preferences — but that they only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders.
But both schools of thought agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.
The third insight came from Hetherington and American University professor Elizabeth Suhay, who found that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.
But Hetherington and Suhay found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. That distinction would turn out to be important, but it also meant that in times when many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.
Together, those three insights added up to one terrifying theory: that if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats. (emphasis added)
This theory would seem to predict the rise of an American political constituency that looks an awful lot like the support base that has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to propel Donald Trump from sideshow loser of the 2012 GOP primary to runaway frontrunner in 2016.
Beyond being almost alarmingly prescient, this theory speaks to an oft-stated concern about Trump: that what’s scariest is not the candidate, but rather the extent and fervor of his support.
And it raises a question: If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump’s ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics? And what effect could it have even after the 2016 race has ended?”
The reality, then, is that authoritarians won’t go away after Trump. Authoritarianism is based on circumstances where a perceived immanent physical threat (9/11, ISIS) and rapidly increasing social and cultural change (legalization of same-sex marriage, the increasing focus on black rights, refugee crises, cultural acceptance of the gender role shifts) come together to create a perfect storm of authoritarians rising up to defend themselves against anything they deem a threat to their way of life, and even non-authoritarians being manipulated by media, speakers, and presidential candidates to act like authoritarians.
Wolves Among Us
The scariest part of this whole thing is that *brace yourself* politicians are liars. I know. Shocker, right? Yet people seem to forget this constantly. They treat someone like Donald Trump, (who couldn’t name his favorite Bible verse for months of people asking, and when He did reference the Bible, painfully misquoted the REFERENCE, and also has said he’s never felt the need to ask for forgiveness in his life) as an authentic follower of Christ. I’ve always known politicians are liars, but Trump is quite possibly the worst liar I have ever seen, and people are still taking him at his word. But I digress…
The reality is there are wolves posing as sheep. There always has been, and there always will be. It’s not racial minorities, or homosexuals, or Syrian refugees. It’s the people telling us to hate all of those people in hopes of distracting us from the real truth: Their agenda is far more sinister than we know.
I honestly don’t believe the state of this country will get any better any time soon. I think it will have to get much worse before everyone can start to land on the same page with each other. Right now, everyone has a different opinion of who’s rights are more important, who’s life has more value, or what “version” of the American Dream we should believe in. It will most likely take a major abuse of power that takes the rights of many away, reminds everyone that no one is valued above the rest, and that we are all in this together or there is no american dream before everyone will wake up and start taking this whole voting for a leader thing more seriously (if we still have the right to vote by then.)
In conclusion, I believe the studies in authoritarianism explains our current political predicament in a way that is both fascinating and alarming. We should all be concerned. In a perfect world, I would hope everyone truly examines themselves to discover if they are inhabiting such authoritarian beliefs, but I know that is unlikely.
Nonetheless, I hope this post was educational and enlightening to you. This information very much wrecked my thought process on the whole state of affairs in this country, as well as significant key moments throughout the history of the world. It was a long post, but its not as thorough as it could’ve been, because I was coming at it from a laymen’s standpoint, speaking from my own perspective the way that I understand it.
For a more in depth look, check out the original article HERE.