Passions that war within us
Understanding the appeal of tyranny in our communities and churches.
As the U.S. House of Representatives’ January 6 committee wound down its hearings last month, the role of religion and church could not be forgotten in the events leading up to that day. One experience that stuck with me was witnessing the tell-all interview of Leo Christopher Kelly, an Iowan Christian who entered the Capitol and bowed his head in the Senate chamber as his compatriot prayed in flawless Sunday School diction, “Thank you heavenly Father for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants.”
As his now-removed interview went viral, I was astonished to catch a glimpse of Kelly in the riot footage and then to learn that he had been taken into custody. What struck me the most about his words, however, was his heartfelt sincerity. Had he not been talking about standing up against unjust elections but rather the need to smuggle Bibles to spread the gospel, his tone and earnestness would have been the same. Yet when masses of passionate devotees overlook the fact that their leader is predatory, untruthful and greedy, and even internalize his aggressive urges, we still fail to explain why – unless we believe that somehow they had higher, or even moral, reasons for doing so.
THE ALLURE OF TYRANNY
It is with these types of questions that our team of researchers – project lead Agata Mirowska, Rick Hackett, and I – had started almost a decade ago at McMaster University to study the roots of tyranny from the viewpoint of psychology and morality. More than being authoritarian, tyrannical leadership is defined by previous researchers as the prototypical appearance of being not only domineering and overbearing, but also manipulative and conceited in a self-centred kind of way.
As we progressed through numerous student and adult samples, we discovered that the elements of our model were playing out in real life: fear of a chaotic and degenerate world acting as a precursor to embracing “strong man” power and protectionist attitudes; moral traditions supporting aggressive forms of religious and political conservatism; and snap judgments about the leader’s true abilities based on superficial impressions, worsened by social media’s insatiable appetite for sensational soundbites, tweets and video clips.
Based on surveys of 1,147 North American adults, we discovered a close connection between psychological variables representing the above elements, and this effect was amplified among males. As we reported in the Journal of Business Ethics, our sense of being threatened by a perilous world is linked to a moral perspective that is based on protecting the hierarchy, integrity and purity of our group, and this in turn is associated with thinking that a leader is effective if he appears commanding, insolent and devious.
WHY CHURCHES ARE VULNERABLE
This is where I take a deep breath as I wrap my mind around what this means for the church. Although the research was not originally focused on people of faith, it is well established that all the above elements have religious implications, especially the traditional morality referred to by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt as “the binding moral foundation.” Churches have always had an agenda of preservation against the evils, contaminations and disorders of the world, such as wrongdoers, deviants or agitators. In addition to their confessions of faith, religious institutions have a well-developed set of moral codes that reinforce a structure of authority and loyalty to the community, at times raising them to the level of the sacred to heighten their effect.
Most importantly, the puritanical and disciplinary aspects of religion transfer easily to brash leaders who seem like they are best able to enforce such interests. Leaders who preach in a forceful, exacting and vindictive manner will deceptively appear to be best suited to “deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13), obscuring the reality that “passions that war within us” (James 4:1) are in fact conditioning us to give a pass to tyrannical, and stereotypically male, traits that have nothing to do with the individual’s real ability to mentor, guide, encourage, counsel or organize his flock.
In short, religious communities mimic the ideal conditions for tyranny. It is no wonder, then, that across the world, unholy alliances have been wrought between religious institutions and authoritarian regimes. Aside from the sanctification of American politics and the church under Nazi Germany, the deadliest example playing out now in Ukraine is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s public piety and unholy alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. North Americans may also be similarly disturbed by the unending turmoil among multi-site and celebrity-driven mega-church organizations in which leaders have been accused of sexual and autocratic misdeeds.
Although my assessment seems gloomy, I take a more hopeful view. I will leave the finer details, biblical references and practical solutions for another time, but let’s end with five important reasons that tyranny does not need to triumph.
BRINGING LIGHT TO THE DARKNESS
First, we can cut the umbilical cord between our innate fears, moral minds and pre-conceptions about leadership. While the practice of religion does have protective value when it comes to our individual and collective well-being, vesting leadership in prominent and dominant individuals is not the right means to safeguard and build a healthy church.
Second, a Reformed view will lead us to respect the reality that we are all created as limited beings. Any form of allegiance to a leader will be affected by a partial view of the leader’s character and ability. Fundamentally, the gospel message tells us that the threat of demise and decay is addressed through the transformation of hearts through Christ to help address our faults and biases together in a community of renewed relationships, not through the elevation of flawlessly inspired individuals.
Third, we can recognize that disturbing exposure of bullying, sexual misconduct and cover-up in churches across North America is really a symptom of an over-reliance on organizational and charismatic influence to do the work of Christ. The hierarchical, commercializing and self-preserving tendencies of imperfect church structures will always stifle the purifying work that the Holy Spirit needs to do at all levels.
Fourth, we only need to look to Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith. During his ministry, our Lord shunned any type of revolutionary, populist or institutionalized movement. Moreover, he ran counter to the ubiquitous leadership habit of building an image through pageantry and spectacle, choosing instead to live in intimate relationship with his disciples.
Fifth, it is not too late for Christians to speak openly about biblical manhood before it gets co-opted even more by tyrants who seem to be the only politically incorrect voices daring to present a bold model of masculinity. As mentioned, endorsing the binding moral foundations has an even stronger effect on the preference for tyranny among males, as demonstrated through the excesses of groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.
We can reverse the tyrannical seduction of the Christian church by talking candidly about both the dark and light sides of leadership and our biblical calling to return to Christ’s model of truthfulness and servanthood.
- A Christian Insurrection
- Interview with Christian news outlet leads investigators to arrest Iowa man in US Capitol riot
- What we know about Leo Kelly, the Iowa man who said he prayed on the Senate floor during the US Capitol riot
- Cedar Rapids man Leo Kelly faces five more charges related to Jan. 6 riot at U.S. Capitol
- Iowa man arraigned on 7 charges for Jan. 6 US Capitol attack
Thank you for this analysis. It may have struck me especially forcefully because–in our Sunday worship–the lectionary readings (esp. Jer., Sirach, and the Holy Gospel) spoke directly to the same topic.