Who Follows? Everyone, Sometimes
After all these decades of research and inquiry, it can be said fairly that we're starting to get a decent handle on what makes people gravitate toward authoritarianism.
Alice Miller points to abusively authoritarian child-rearing practices, which teach the child anger and fear, and train out compassion or respect. George Lakoff points out the ways in which Strict Father conservatives try to apply this same logic to government. Emmanuel Todd points out that a nation's family structures are almost always mirrored in its political structures, as well as its tendency towards imperial ambition. Several observers, including Kevin Phillips, point to the authoritarianism inherent in certain religions, and in the regions of the country they dominate; other historians have contrasted the relative levels of social hierarchy countries that were colonized by Catholic versus Protestant countries.
Felicia Pratto and Jim Sidanius, who developed social dominance theory and the SDO scale, might tell you that, for some of us, at least, such tendencies appear so early in life that it's hard to credit nurture alone. Milgrim and Zimbardo both found that while most subjects participated more or less eagerly in their experiments, there were a few who were so offended by the scenarios that they outright refused. Nurture plays a huge role; but humans under stress have gravitated toward strong-man dictatorships since the beginning of history; and we've never been too short of would-be high-SDO strong men eager to step up and oblige us.
Taken together, this chorus seems to paraphrase the Bard: some are born authoritarian, some achieve authoritarianism, and some have authoritarianism thrust upon them. Most of us fall somewhere along a wide continuum of willingness to follow authoritarian leadership. Our place on that scale is determined by the culture and religion we grew up in, how our parents treated us, our education and life experiences, and our inherited temperament. These things conspire to make a few of us desperate to follow, and a few others obstinate in their outright refusal of all authority. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in between, open to seduction only in certain circumstances.
We know something about those circumstances, too. We know, for example, that fear can transform the behavior of otherwise rational and not particularly authoritarian people. Fear creates physiological changes that impair the brain's ability to reason, and drives people to fall in behind whatever leader presents himself without asking too many questions. Like all herd animals, we are biologically driven to close ranks tightly behind the alpha in times of trouble. Resisting that impulse sometimes means fighting our own evolutionary imperatives. And, as we are now too well aware, unscrupulous leaders will not hesitate to create, manipulate, and perpetuate fear in order to activate that instinct and keep their followers at heel.
Thus, some people who've never been natural followers sometimes get caught up in authoritarian religion and politics in the wake of deep personal losses: unemployment, divorce, a death in the family, arrest, and so on. Entire populations (or, at least, a good fraction of the whole) can take the same path when faced with large collective losses. Kevin Phillips, in American Theocracy,, points out that the South's authoritarian streak (which always ran deep) grew rigid and hard after their loss in the Civil War. Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, points out that fundamentalist movements commonly begin in communities that perceive themselves under economic, political, or geographic siege. The way America came together under FDR after Pearl Harbor is the stuff of national legend. And the Bush Administration has exploited this tendency shamelessly in the wake of 9/11.
Cut loose from our moorings, in over our heads, we all look for something solid to hold onto. No matter how strong we are, we've all got areas where we are brittle and vulnerable. It's hard for any of us to say for sure that we'd walk away from an authoritarian leader who promised us precisely the right kind of salvation in precisely the wrong moment. This is something to bear in mind whenever we deal with authoritarian followers: they have simply responded to an impulse that exists -- at least to some degree -- in all of us.
Pushed To The Wall
For the past five years, I've been a member of a large and busy online community of former fundamentalists. Through years of discussion, we've learned a lot from each other about how and why people become fundamentalists -- and also how and why they find themselves inspired to leave authoritarian religion behind. We've noticed patterns in the various ways people are seduced into fundamentalism; and also a predictable progression in the steps they go through in the agonizing months and years after enlightenment dawns. We've also discovered that we seem to fall into readily-identifiable subgroups, and that each of these subgroups wanders down somewhat different paths and uses different techniques as they approach the wall, determinedly hoist themselves over it, and then set about coming to terms with life here on the reality-based side.
Two or three times a week, we find new members on our doorstep. Safe in the anonymity of the Internet (and often under cover of night -- these missives are typically time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, usually posted furtively after weeks or months of lurking) we're often the first people they've ever whispered their doubts out loud to. Their introductions are often heartbreakingly miserable: "I can't believe this any more -- but my husband will leave me if he knows." "My whole family is fundie. I can't tell my parents I've stopped going to church -- it will kill them if they ever find out." "I'm a deacon at my church. If I start asking these questions, I'll lose my whole community."
These people know that the tiny flicker of enlightenment kindling in their minds is about to set their entire lives ablaze. And yet -- with a courage that I always find astonishing -- almost all of them forge ahead anyway. Some race for the wall. Others pace back and forth for months, planning their escape. A few disappear for a while, but return again a year later, having put their lives in order and ready to go at last.
We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity. On the scale of relative trauma, it's right up there with a divorce after a long marriage; and it requires about the same amount and kind of grieving.
Over the years, I've talked to scores of former fundies about the moment that the light first sparked. Through their stories, I've discerned a few patterns, most of which map very neatly onto John Dean's list of traits for authoritarian followers. What follows is far from science; it's more akin to clinical experience, or a scouting report from the front on battlefield conditions. The degree to which any of this might apply to non-religious authoritarians is open for discussion -- though my reading of Altemeyer's work is that all forms of authoritarianism come from the same deep character traits, and so it seems sensible that politically-based authoritarian followers might undergo a recognizably similar process. It's a topic for discussion, anyway.
Depending on why they became fundie in the first place, the moment of exodus generally dawns in one of the following ways:
1. Betrayal by Authority
Dean notes that authoritarian followers voluntarily choose their leaders, usually on the basis of how strongly those leaders support the follower's belief system. Cultural or political leaders who don't support the belief system (for example, federal court judges, scientists, progressive celebrities) are seen as illegitimate authorities, and become targets of followers' aggression.
We've all come up against these people, and have been totally confounded with their "my leader can do no wrong" attitude. They believe outrageous lies, and forgive all manner of sins. Democratic strategists keep trying to run campaigns that will reach these people on the basis of evidence and fact -- and are perplexed to find their attempts at education totally rebuffed. George Bush may have lied us into a war, wrecked our economy, saddled our great-grandchildren with debt, savaged the poor, and alienated the entire world; but he is Our Leader, and we will always take his word over anyone else's. We do not accept you as a legitimate authority. We don't care what you have to say, because you have no standing at all in our little world.
Mere political or cultural betrayal, no matter how destructive, does not cut through this piece of the wall. The guilt-evaporation process applies to both followers and leaders: you must forgive all wrongs committed by someone inside the fold. Our leader didn't lie; he was misunderstood, his words distorted by our enemies. Besides, he would never lie to us. Besides, he is just following orders -- or God's will, which is beyond our understanding. Besides, our own forgiveness depends on our ability to forgive, and so we will -- never mind the contradictions.
And yet, even so: There is one -- and only one -- sin so heinous that it cannot be rationalized away by the authoritarian thought process. It is this: the leader's main job is to protect his abused and terrified horde from personal harm (or, for that matter, any sudden negative change to their immediate status quo). A leader who wantonly allows one of his followers to intimately experience such harm breaks that contract. It is in that moment of betrayal that some followers come to their senses, and start looking for a reckoning.
It's important to note: the betrayal must be an intensely personal breach that has a deep, immediate, life-changing impact on the individual follower. Fundies don't think in abstracts. Big national debts, epic political prevarications, and other people's suffering (even on a global scale) do not impress them. But there are plenty of authoritarian parents across the country who proudly sent a son or daughter off to war -- and later received that precious child home under cover of darkness, in a wooden box, with minimal explanation. That's the kind of personal and profound loss I'm talking about. For many of these patriotic parents, it was also the searing moment of deep betrayal that broke the spell and shoved them off in the direction of the Wall.
Among fundies, the most common perpetrators of these betrayals are parents -- particularly fathers -- and pastors. As the most intimate authorities in their followers' lives, they're at close enough range to inflict the kind of high-impact personal damage that's necessary to create the first crack. Many of the ex-fundies I know made their break in the aftermath of sexual abuse, ruinous financial treachery, public humiliation, or power grabs that threatened their marriages or children. They saw, in devastatingly vivid color, what their leaders were capable of. Their endless loyalty was shattered, because they realized it was not being returned in kind.
Such betrayals break through because they offend several of the follower characteristics Dean lists. The betrayed follower is no longer bound to submit to or give loyalty to an unworthy authority. Nor are they bound by the rules, because the authority charged with enforcing them has broken them. (While this was forgiveable in the abstract, in this case the consequences are too personal and acute to ignore.) They are brought face-to-face with the contradictions and hypocrisies in a shocking and unforgiveable way. Having felt the sting of the leader's aggression, they may realize the true cost of aggressively defending that leader -- and thus become more acutely sensitized to intolerance, bullying, and mean-spiritedness.
Perhaps most importantly: having their own boundaries so heinously violated makes them suddenly aware (as most authoritarian followers are not) that they have their own legitimate emotional, physical, and social needs; and that they deserve to have those needs respected and met. Once that self-awareness is awakened, the soon-to-be-ex fundie can be seen making a beeline for the Wall.
2. Permission from Authority
A cute twist on the above scenario is the fundie who gets subtle or overt permission from an established authority to go over to the Wall and push on it.
These authorities aren't easy to come by. Everything in authoritarian society is set up to identify heretics and preachers of false doctrine, and eject them forcefully from the community immediately upon discovery. Still, the occasional and quiet non-authoritarian can be found in positions of leadership within a fundamentalist community -- for example, young pastors from more liberal seminaries, Christian counselors with some secular psychological training, missionaries who have returned from exotic far-away places, or church-affiliated social services people whose sense of compassion has overwhelmed their fear of church leadership.
Because these people are operating under color of Established Authority, if they suggest that it's OK to ask questions, the followers will accept that as valid permission to open their minds. One recovering fundie recalls a fateful meeting with a Christian counselor: "He told me that fundamentalist Christianity was toxic," she said. Her exodus began with that brief comment. Later, she remembers finding still more affirmation: "I told my Christian college professor that I no longer believed that there was one way to spirituality, and was now pro-choice. He applauded me." Since she accepted both these men as valid religious authorities, their encouragement gave her the freedom to approach the Wall with a clearer conscience.
Such authorities are rare birds -- both because fundies don't breed many of them, and also because they quickly banish the ones they discover in their midst. But for the brief season they are allowed to operate, they can plant the seeds of open-mindedness in hundreds of willing followers, facilitate education, bypass zealotry and dogma, promote open examination of hypocrisy and contradiction, and enhance self-awareness.
3. Life Gets Bigger
Fundamentalist parents work overtime to keep their children from "the things of this world." Your average Yuppie helicopter parent is a slacker compared to these people, who obsessively vet all incoming media, homeschool, seek out Christian colleges, chaperone all "courtship" activities, and otherwise ensure that their children receive no information about the world that doesn't support their belief system.
This willful narrow-mindedness continues on into adulthood and right through life. Church members spy on each other with the enthusiasm of Stasi informants; deacons call miscreants in for disciplinary meetings to keep the faithful on the path of righteousness. One wonders if Jesus intended them to take the metaphor of shepherd and sheep quite so literally, but they do.
This anti-intellectualism appears on Dean's list in several guises: Moderate to little education, narrow-minded, intolerant, dogmatic, uncritical, inconsistent and contradictory, prone to panic. They are precisely what you'd expect from people who've had minimal exposure to the world, and hence lack the basic skills -- including flexibility, risk-taking, and spontaneity -- that most of us rely on to deal with it.
Still, the world is big and insistent, and sometimes it comes flooding through that wall of denial despite their best efforts. The most common culprit is education -- either formal, or informal -- that allows the follower to see with clarity that the outside world is not nearly so evil as they've been told. This education can take many forms -- some obvious, some not so obvious.
Many, if not most, fundie youth who end up at secular colleges soon find themselves enjoying the view from the top of the wall. This happens so reliably that most fundie parents regard secular universities as the worst nightmare this side of hell. They know they're not gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen State U.
Travel, especially outside the country, is another major eye-opener for people who have long believed that their way is the only way. We're not talking bus tours and chain hotels here -- it needs to be a style of travel that demands plenty of individual interaction with local people and their language, customs, and culture. Homestays, where the connections can become personal, are particularly potent -- which is why missionaries-gone-native feature largely on the list of permissive authorities discussed above.
Authoritarian upbringing is not designed to foster a sense of personal competence. But any kind of training that builds a creative skill -- especially one that will be valued by the secular world -- will tend to increase the follower's sense of self-worth. Even if s/he gives all the glory to God (an expected modesty among fundies), mastering one's craft imparts a sureness and independence of mind that reduces susceptibility to authoritarian logic. Knowing your stuff cold, even in one limited area, imparts confidence to call people on their bullshit in other areas.
Events that bring fundies together, one-to-one, with people from other groups in common cause can be very effective at lowering defenses. For one woman in our group, the door through the wall was an innocuous Christian women's sewing circle. She writes:
"I got involved in a small community volunteer sewing group and was around some women from different churches…It started to open my eyes to the possibility that other people might have a good thing going too…Basically it was that they were loving, caring women just wanting to reach out and touch someone's life with their sewing ability, and they weren't some evil people on the dark side like my pastor tried to tell us in sermons about those outside our church and belief system.
"When my husband wanted me to stop going because someone had seen me going to this interfaith ministry center which they graciously let us use for the sewing meetings and the pastor thought it would look bad for me to be seen there, I realized how foolish that was. Weren't we just trying to help others regardless of our religious beliefs? I also had a good talk with the woman in charge of the group and she seemed understanding about my concerns and assured me that we weren't there to discuss religious topics so it shouldn't be a problem."
Political action plays a role here, too. On the rare occasions that authoritarians make common cause with more progressive folk -- usually on non-partisan local issues such as land use and utility management (but not schools!) -- there's an opportunity to find common ground and build a foundation of trust on it.
Placing authoritarian followers in relaxing, non-threatening situations where they can safely explore the common ground they share with others can be a liberalizing experience. Most fundies are taught to keep outsiders at a discreet arm's length. They generally won't accept invitations to visit non-believers in their homes, unless they're intending to proslytize. But meetings on neutral ground, based around shared concerns and values, can lead to individual friendships that will in time increase their general trust in outsiders -- and, more importantly, put the lie to their leaders' insistence that reality-based folk are pure evil.
For some in our group, the first glimmer was the stunning realization that "the Jews" included "my friend Rachel, who I met at the gym". "The gays" included "my kids' dance teacher". "The French" included "that darling family we met on the train last summer". And those "frivolous" women who have abortions included "my neighbor, who already had four kids and a husband with no job". Through repeated exposure, these followers' superb sense of loyalty attaches itself to someone outside the circle -- and, in very short order, their awareness of the smallness of that circle becomes too stifling to endure.
4. Resolution of Fear
Once in a while, our little cyber-halfway house takes in a befuddled spouse whose wife or husband -- heretofore a sane, decent, and resolutely secular individual -- has suddenly, without warning and for no apparent reason, pitched themselves headlong off the religious deep end. These partners are usually distraught: there's a familiar body in the house, but the person who once inhabited it has vanished. In their place is someone they have never met; can no longer have a rational conversation with; and can't imagine spending another week with, let alone their entire lives. (Too often, these terrified spouses are also afraid for their children -- and watching their retirement funds disappear into church coffers at an astonishing rate.) They're looking for advice -- anything that will bring back the beloved person they knew.
On further questioning, it almost always comes out that the wayward spouse has recently (usually within the past year) sustained a loss or trauma that simply overwhelmed every resource s/he had. Afraid, alone, and often clinically depressed, this poor soul was a sitting duck for the depredations of an authoritarian religious leader.
This is hardly news, of course: it's also why cult leaders prey on college students, travelers, the inner-city poor, single mothers, prisoners, and other people under stress and cut off from their support systems. What's important to note is that this also works (at least sometimes) in reverse: identifying and addressing the stress and restoring the support system can create the conditions for the broken self to heal, and eventually perhaps usher the return to the reality-based world.
We tell the grieving spouse to identify the initial source of the loss, and do whatever it takes to help their partner address it as directly and concretely as possible. We stress that this is a five-alarm family emergency (though they usually already know that, it helps to have it affirmed) and getting appropriate help for the underlying issue needs to be the first priority -- whether this involves professional counseling, medical treatment, or moving the spouse to another town, far away from the leader and church. We stress the importance of family and social support networks, and of taking steps to protect themselves legally in case the worst should happen.
We give this advice because we've seen it work among ourselves. Most of the adult-onset fundies in our group joined up because they were in a similar place of sheer overwhelm. Leaving was not even possible until this sense of panic and loss subsided, and the sense of personal competence (already higher in people who weren't raised in authoritarian homes) began to reassert itself. When it did, those people found that it got easier to question authority, and eventually to contemplate moving on.
And it's an ongoing battle, at least for a while. That three-to-five year transitional period is full of stress-inducing unknowns; unsurprisingly, recent ex-fundies are strongly tempted to deal with unfamiliar situations by reaching for the old familiar tools. In those cases, too, we need to look for the underlying causes of our distress, and find ways to address the fear directly rather than resort to the old superstitions. Anything that ratchets down the fear factor makes it harder for authoritarianism to get and keep its hold on people's minds.
5. Turning Points
Ironically, though, even though stress is a path into authoritarianism, it can also provide a path out. A number of our members decided to make their break during these same kinds of traumatic stress events -- especially major life transitions. The death of a parent, a move, a job loss, marriage, parenthood, mid-life crises, and widowhood have all come up as key exit points for people who left. Typically, these situations dramatically illuminated the ways in which the predictable authoritarian answers were no longer working for them. They needed more help than their leaders could offer, and decided it was time to look outside the wall for it. Or a natural breaking point occurred -- their old life was past, and they quietly resolved to reach out and see what a new one might hold. In major life transitions, everything is up for grabs -- even for authoritarian followers.
This report from the front is admittedly incomplete: I'm looking forward to hearing from readers about various other conditions that led them (or people they knew) towards daylight. We cannot create truly effective solutions to the problem of authoritarianism until we understand not only the situation that drive followers into that system, but also the situations that open the door for them to leave it.
In my next post, coming Monday or Tuesday, I'll build on the above observations (and any others that crop up in the comments) to draft a rough outline of specific approaches we might use to begin disarming and constructively engaging the authoritarians in our personal and political lives.
Thanks again to everybody who has posted such terrific comments. Keep 'em coming: this is a mutual-education effort, the beginning of a dialogue I hope we'll all keep having until we collectively get this figured out.