Reading Time: 9 minutes (Simon Matzinger.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Today, we begin a new series of posts centering on authoritarian personalities. This concept is absolutely crucial to understanding those worst-of-the-worst Christians: culture warriors. To start us off, I’ll define these terms so we can begin exploring the two subtypes involved here, examine what motivates them, and then start looking at why authoritarians are like that.

(Simon Matzinger.)

NOTE: You will find this free PDF of Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians very useful in navigating authoritarianism in general. If there existed a Roll to Disbelieve Required Reading List, this groundbreaking book would be on it.

Authoritarianism, Defined.

People often define the word authoritarianism as a governing system wherein a very strong, powerful central authority wields power. But it also means a certain personality type (or subsets of it, as we’ll see). That personality type gravitates to relationships wherein a very few people wield a very great, outsized amount of power over the many.

The term itself came into use in the 1950s. At the time, psychologists were studying why some people got caught up in stuff like Nazism and fascism, while others didn’t. They theorized that authoritarian personalities suffered from a susceptibility to prejudices and often held totalitarian beliefs.

Theories for why authoritarians go that route vary. Originally, psychologists went at it from a Freudian angle. Nowadays, theories involving oversized fear and disgust reactions gain increasing traction.

As that last link illustrates so well, a lot of researchers consider the understanding of authoritarians crucial. After all, as time goes on they wreak increasing amounts of damage for the size of their groups. We might not ever be able to “cure” authoritarians, but at least we can try to limit the damage they do.

Leaders and Followers.

An authoritarian personality can be either an authoritarian leader or an authoritarian follower. Though they share a lot in common, their manifestations can look quite different.

Most of us already know and despise authoritarian leaders. They bellow about things being either their way or the highway. They demand absolute obedience and deference from the people they seek to control. If they don’t get their way, they can retaliate in over-the-top and downright vicious ways. Others behave in really passive-aggressive ways, disguising their control-grabs in ways that can disorient their victims.

Authoritarian leaders really only feel safe and comfortable when they have achieved total, complete control over everyone and everything in their environment. To really annoy them, mock them or openly reject their control-grabs.

Authoritarian followers might not be as well-recognized, but they’re much more numerous than their leaders. They focus more on unthinking obedience to those leaders.

Don’t imagine, however, that these distinctions are 100% hard-and-fast. We’ll talk later about how authoritarians shift between roles as context demands.

The Original Sin.

“Fear is the original sin,” wrote John Foster. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something. It is a cold, slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.”

The Blue Castle, L.M. Montgomery

To be authoritarian is to be riddled with fear. That’s simply the cold, hard truth. No matter how weirdly-joyous or arrogant they pretend to be, scratch the veneer of their sales pitches and you will find fear. Sometimes that fear expresses itself in rage or disgust, but there it is: the whispery sweep of a shark’s fin breaking the surface of the water to reveal the danger beneath.

In this case, both leaders and followers suffer from a whole lot of fears, many of which overlap:

  • Pain
  • Chaos
  • Mockery
  • Humiliation
  • Uncertainty
  • The unknown, just like generally
  • Being wrong
  • Change for the worse
  • Inferiority
  • Punishment
  • Conflict/confrontation
  • Getting the short end of the stick somehow
  • Being passed over for something that others get
  • Missing a chance to gain something
  • Coming up short
  • Being ignored and abandoned
  • Insignificance
  • Sudden unpleasant surprises
  • Losing a fight
  • Helplessness
  • Being controlled

Let’s be clear: Nothing’s weird or unusual about these fears. Almost everyone has them. We aren’t talking about the nature of the fears. Authoritarians just dial their response to their fears up to 11–along with the perceived danger they face from those fears.

In The Authoritarians, Bob Altemeyer writes,

Authoritarian followers score highly on the Dangerous World scale, and it’s not just because some of the items have a religious context. High RWAs [Right-Wing Authoritarians] are, in general, more afraid than most people are. They got a “2 for 1 Special Deal” on fear somehow.

He doesn’t know if it’s genetic or something they learn as children from their fearful parents, or something else entirely. Whatever its source, though, that fear informs everything authoritarians do and think. Nobody’s ever gone broke, either, by betting on just how far they can be pushed while in the throes of that fear.

Escaping Fear.

Authoritarians know only one way to escape their fear: power.

They must achieve complete control over everyone and everything they encounter. Only when the whole world is shrink-wrapped and confined and crushed under their heels can they finally breathe easily.

Power represents safety to them. The more control they can exert over those around them, the safer they feel.

Conversely, losing power equates to becoming controlled in turn by their enemies. And that means danger.

What, did anybody wonder how right-wing Christians turned into gun nuts? Why they support torture and condone child abuse? Why their various leaders so easily tricked them into joining these purely manufactured culture wars? It’s ridiculously easy to get frightened people moving in any desired direction. Arouse their terror; get them disgusted with some group of innocent victims. Tell them those victims are dangerous.

They won’t even question why they’re supposed to pick on any of those folks.

Bumps on Logs.

The air seemed to smoulder with Mrs. Brewster’s silence, and [Mr. Brewster] sat, Laura thought, like a bump on a log. She had heard that said, but she had not realized what it meant. A bump on a log does not fight anyone, but it cannot be budged.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Unrelenting fear isn’t good for much of any living creature that can feel it at all. Stress can kill sheep. Rabbits can die of fear-induced heart attacks. Human beings suffer any number of long-term problems if they labor under dread or terror for too long.

In situations where authoritarians don’t feel they hold power, like church meetings with someone who very clearly outranks them, or a job where they’re not totally sure how to complete tasks, authoritarians get downright docile–or sullen–due to their fear. That fear can destroy their initiative.

Years ago, I thought about how weird it was that so many right-wing Christians–including myself for a long time!–seemed so curiously incapable of independent thought or self-management. One night years ago, while out with friends eating Cadillac Fajitas and drinking Shiner Bock at a sports bar, I heard someone complain about a worker like that. The worker needed careful, completely-described, completely-spelled-out steps for every single task done at the job. But this was some kind of craftsperson job (like woodworking). The foreman expected workers to know how to do their work without extensive micro-management, and the other workers had no trouble managing the trick.

In the end, this guy didn’t last very long at the job. He wasn’t incompetent. He just feared messing up so much that he accidentally stopped himself from doing anything at all.

A Weird Inefficiency, Abruptly Shattered.

Extremely authoritarian groups, like individuals, don’t get very much done–and for much the same reasons.

You can see a splendid example of that truth in Michael Stackpole’s (yes, that Michael Stackpole) recent resignation letter from his Emeritus position with the Game Manufacturers’ Association (GAMA). He wrote,

Since June, the board has had more meetings than ever before, and has done less than ever before.

I can tell you this right now. A group like that has somehow gotten stuffed with a whole bunch of authoritarians. They bring progress to an absolute standstill. Anyone who’s ever served on a church committee feels this guy’s complaints 100%.

However, one thing it seems that an authoritarian group can do quickly and efficiently is retaliate against the group’s chosen enemies. A Southern Baptist pastor a few years ago figured that truth out very quickly when he decided that he didn’t want to be a bigot-for-Jesus anymore. As Neil Carter relates the story, this pastor’s denominational overlords dropped all pretenses of member churches having autonomy, hustled into an off-season meeting, and immediately voted to toss his church out on its ear.

And I don’t need to mention Catholics leaders’ hypocritical actions regarding consensual same-sex relationships and their own predatory priests.

I mean, I will.

I just don’t need to.

Circling the Wagons.

The other swift action taken by authoritarian groups: seizing or guarding power. We see that process in real-time as well any time a church faces a serious scandal.

An authoritarian seeks to protect the group above all. If the group suffers a loss, then it will not offer so much safety to members. Authoritarians might even concede that the group possesses some flaws. But no matter how many or how serious those flaws are, authoritarians won’t be able to reject the group–well, unless they can perceive a better option.

Remember, it’s about protection from imagined fears. They feel good when they dominate other people, yes. But they feel good precisely because they soothed their fears for a few minutes. For those brief minutes, they feel completely safe from those fears that wrack them. They are the ones doing the punishing, rather than the ones fearing punishment! They’re on top of the world!

For a few minutes, anyway.

For that feeling, even as brief as it is, they will stoutly support even the most hypocritical and flawed leaders and fellow group members. They don’t do it because they love child abuse or embezzlement or sexual assault or whatever. They do it because protecting the group matters more than protecting the victims of the awful people doing this stuff. If the group falters, then so does their power base–and thus, their self-soothing mechanism in a terrifying world full of dangers.

Examine any of the blathering made by Ken Ham or Ray Comfort. They couldn’t be more obvious in their fear if they sang their messages while playing bagpipes in a naked procession down Main Street during the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Obedience Brings Safety.

Authoritarian groups offer fearful people security and certainty. I can absolutely look back at my own time as an evangelical and identify that motivation in myself.

Routines and restrictions offer great comfort to authoritarians. Follow these rules, and this good thing will result. Obey your superiors, and you’ll enjoy this outcome. Disobey, however, and incredibly terrible things will surely befall you! It’s as close as they ever get to feeling truly safe.

In authoritarian Christian groups like those favored by culture warriors, leaders and members alike stress this fear repeatedly. And in their personal lives, they think obedience is the only way to achieve happiness and security in relationships.

We’ll be talking more soon about this exact idea. For now, I say this: it seems like most parents get into extremist cults like Quiverfull because they fear what the world–the secular world outside the cult’s control–will do to them and their future families. Someone convinces them that adopting a strict, completely authoritarian parenting style will protect their children from danger–real and supernatural ones.

These cultists have no idea in the world if this assertion is true. No credible or objective evidence exists to support it. But because it builds off of their existing authoritarian worldview and plays upon their fears for their children, they plunge right in.

The Ease of Abusing the System.

We’ll also be talking soon about the ease predators have in invading these groups. For now, I’ll simply say that a group that focuses on mechanistic obedience as a means of achieving safety cares a lot more about outward shows of obedience than it does about heartfelt agreement with those rules. (We’ll be exploring why that is, too.)

Up till now, I’ve been talking about sincere authoritarians. But plenty of authoritarians are not sincere at all. And the thing that ought to horrify the sincere ones is how very easy it is for the insincere ones to fool them.

Sincerity functions as a diagnosis of exclusion, to borrow the medical phrasing. Authoritarian group members can’t know if someone’s really sincere; they can only guess at it based on the external cues that person provides. Until authoritarians get caught acting out or saying something really off-limits in their out-loud voices, other authoritarians simply assume that they’re sincere.

Of course, because the protection of the group matters more than anything, even if something like that happens the group’s members can always find a way to forgive someone thus caught out.

But if a group member even hints about disagreement with the group’s worldview, that person can expect no mercy at all.

And really, nobody else should either.


American society stands at the very beginning of a serious change. We move, slowly and haltingly, from a very authoritarian model of civics and cultural engagement to one that is more consent-driven. Of necessity, that move involves peeling power away from people who guard it jealously.

And that means those people are going to act out in ways that might seem ludicrous and completely self-defeating. They don’t know how to handle this change. Nothing in their worldview has prepared them for this loss of power. They always expected that Team Jesus was always going to be the winning team.

Their leaders have always offered them non-solutions that build off of their worldview and play upon their fears. Thus, any proposed solution that sounds sanctimonious enough and includes enough Jesus buzzwords and fearmongering is going to sound divinely-approved–maybe even divinely-suggested. Even when their new strategy patently fails to produce the results they want, their fears of disobedience and of change will prevent them from abandoning it.

Even being fully exposed as the howling theocrats they are doesn’t make them hesitate even a microsecond.

Something far more serious than their credibility or even their future as a dominant power is at stake here. And for that overwhelming need, they will ride their fail train all the way to the bottom.

(So, good news, I reckon?)

NEXT UP: We’ve talked about THE ANGLE before. Now here’s why authoritarians love it so much–along with an examination of a new breed of mobile apps aimed at evangelism-minded Christians! I went down the rabbit hole so you don’t have to. I’ll show you what I found there–next time! <3

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Anybody know how to contact the people who run the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Asking for a friend.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...