Why Do Authoritarians Show Up In Authority Positions?

21 April, 2009

When I was in high school, I had some odd friends.  Actually, considering how odd I was (and still am), maybe they were pretty normal compared to me.  One of my friends was a kid with whom I carpooled my senior year while taking calculus (the class started an hour before regular classes).

His family belonged to an independent Bible church (which, I guess, differentiates it from those independent “Gone With the Wind” churches).  I picked him up early one morning, and I remember walking into the kitchen (I had been there enough that I was no longer company and, according to his mother, I no longer needed to knock) and being quite surprised. A group of a half-dozen adults sat in a semi-circle around his sister; his little sister sat, exhausted, in the middle.  Around her, scattered on the floor, were her clothing — trousers, dresses, skirts, underwear, bras — books, albums, her life.  Two of the men continued to talk at her as I stood, speechless, in the doorway.  My buddy ran through the kitchen, grabbed me, and said, “Let’s go.”

As we settled into VW Microbus, I turned to him and asked, “What the hell was that all about?”

“Mom found a Michael Jackson album in her room.  She told the church and I guess they’re trying to save her,” he answered.

“Why didn’t you stop it?” I asked.

“Are you kidding?  My room is full of D&D books, Pink Floyd albums.  Do you think I want that happening to me?” 

They had arrived the previous day, after church.  They had been churching her the entire night.

A few days later, as we drove up to town, I asked him about it again.  He told me about their church.  When they joined it, the preacher was relaxed.  The sermons were about being good people, helping others.  Touchy-feely stuff.

Then, after a church election, the preacher was replaced with a hell-fire-and-damnation asshat.  Every member of the church went through successive weekends of fierce indoctrination (my buddy told me he had problems keeping a straight face during most of it, but his mom and dad ate it up).   According to him, it had become cult-like.  Anyone who objected was vilified, embarrassed and accused of either hating god and Jesus, or being possessed.  If they did not, at least publicly, submit, they were asked to leave.  Many parishoners had enough invested in the church that they were unwilling to leave.

The new leaders were not a large group; certainly not a majority.  But, they knew that they, and only they, were right (message from god, perhaps?).  Compromise was a sign of weakness.  They were able to take over the leadership of this independent church through dedication and lots of free time.

I have watched the same process happen in other places.  A friend’s UCC congregation up in New York was taken over by born-agains who knew that god had chosen them to save the church.  The Republican Party has been taken over by the extreme political and religious right who know that god has, again, chosen them to save America.  Again and again, once conservatives have a toe in the door, they, usually, succeed.  Few organizations go the other way, become more liberal.  Some get fed up and go found another group more to their liking (at least, until a small, dedicated group decides to take over). 

So how do the most conservative members of a group move to the leadership positions?  The way I see it (and feel free to correct me (not that ya’ll need any encouragement on that count)), there are three reasons:  authoritarianism.

First:  Authoritarian personalities tend to feel fulfilled in two situations:  either someone (with whom they agree) is telling them what to do, or the authoritarian person is telling others what to do.  They like to be in charge.  They like to have clear directions from above about what they can, and cannot, do.  Most people do not like to be in charge, nor do they like taking orders.  So those who like it tend to seek out the positions of authority.

Second:  Authoritarian personalities tend to see the world in absolutes:  you are with us, or you are against us; America, love it or leave it; the Bible is 100% absolute literal truth.  Any organization is based, at least loosely, on rules.  If there are vague areas within the rules, authoritarian personalities feel uncomfortable and, frequently, it becomes his or her mission to eliminate that vague area in rule XI, 23, B, iii.  And, once the vagueness is cleared up, they will defend the new interpretation.  Since rules are made, and enforced, by those in leadership positions, authoritarians tend to seek the leadership and power.

Third:  Authoritarian personalities, in addition to giving and taking orders really well, also tend to see a moral component in rules.  In a religious context, authoritarians often see their views as coming from god.  They have been appointed (or annointed, or elected) by the will of god to enforce his will (if it is not god’s, they would not seek out power in a religious heirarchy because that would not be god’s will (nice circular reasoning there)).  They know that they, and only they, have the correct view of how things should be.  Since they know that they are right (and those other bozos are wrong), they they should be in charge, right?

This combination of blind obedience, a black-and-white worldview, and knowing that they are correct is a tough combination to fight.  As we have seen for the past 8 years, taking an organization back from authoritarian personalities (some of whom were (and still are) psychopathic personalities to boot) ain’t easy.  It takes constant vigilance and a willingness to stand up and be counted. 

I sometimes wonder if my friend from high school ever stood up to be counted.  Or did he become a sheep in the church?  Or did he just leave?  I still don’t know.



  1. Authoritarian people are the usual, expected angry, agressive, me-firsters expected, but there’s that little hitch.

    They love rules…for other people. The big thing about them is, they see that the higher you go then YOU get to interpret and eventually make the rules that others must follow.

    Plus, the rules don’t apply to YOU.

  2. Over the years I’ve sought leadership roles mostly to cock block authoritarians. 😉

  3. I wonder if that is the reason that there are so very many differant sects of fundie denominations.A line from a Who song comes to mind,” meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

  4. Sarge: Thanks, once again, for pointing out the obvious missing piece of my post. Damnit, how do you (and Philly, and others) do this?

    I would add a caveat, though: if the rule comes from their superior, it is important. If it comes from the individual to the persons below, it becomes optional for the rule-giver.

    Philly: The only time I thrust myself into a leadership role is if the group is floundering. Well, I do lead tours where I am, by definition, in charge. And when I am at a fire as a security manager, but that has more to do with increasing the probability of being sent to a forest fire.

    Tau: I think you are correct: a group gets too authoritarian, so a splinter group forms. Then they get too authoritarian, so a splinter group forms. Etcetera.

  5. Hmmm. When I was in the Army, I didn’t mind taking charge at all, but I did have a problem with taking orders.

  6. Postman: The military is a special case. The chain of command is much more rigid than in most civilian situations, and for good reason.

    In basic, our First Sergeant was explaining just why discipline, both external and internal, are integral to the Army. As an example, he asked, “Have any of you ever been shot or shot at?”

    I raised my hand. “Private Clark. Have you been shot? Or just shot at?”

    “First Sergeant, when I was a whitewater raft guide I cut a trot line which was too close to the surface of the river. The next day, I hear ‘bloop’, ‘bang’, ‘bloop’, ‘bang.’ A voice came from the shore: ‘Cut another line and my aim gets better.’ We asked our passengers to paddle harder.

    “I got shot working the same job. A drunk, one Sunday morning, used one barrel of a double-barrel shotgun to blow a raft away ’cause he was unhappy with where we dumped it on railroad property. I turned and ran, and when he let the second barrel go, I got hit in the butt with rock salt.”

    The First Sergeant laughed (laughing sergeants is always a sign of trouble for a PFC) and said, “That’s why discipline is important. In the Army, we don’t run away from gunfire.”

    In the back of my mind (I did not verbalize this) I thought, ‘So the Army will make me stupid?’

    I think the biggest difference in the Army is that there are very specific rules about what can and cannot be done, and all are expected to be under the same rules. Also, those in leadership positions in the military have a shitload of training in how to be a leader. I suspect that the authoritarian asshats who take over church councils don’t.

  7. It’s been some years, but the “laughing sergeants” observation brought back a flood of memories. The only thing worse, in my personal experience, was when my Top Sergeant clicked on a flashlight and said, “Do you recognize my face,” after I’d just said, “Bang I’m dead?! Fuck you.”

  8. Well, leadership is very different from being “in charge” or a boss.

    I retired from the army as a sergeant first class (E7)and am at present an officer in civil air patrol and hold the post of sergeant major in our civil war reenactment group.

    I learned a lot about people from dealing with horses, too.

    Leadership is hard, constant work, and entails being an example. I saw that a majority of people in ‘leadership’ positions thought it meant that there were more people you could yell at who couldn’t yell back, more people to blame when things went wrong, and more got done with threats than positive methods. It was just easier and more personally satisfying for a lot of people.

    And my 33 years associated with the army showed me that for all its regs, orders, and rules, it was the most lawless organisiation I’ve ever come in contact with, and the higher up the tree, the more lawless.

    And I was a combat grunt, too.

    I churches, I wonder if it might be an identification with this ‘most high’ concept.

    In the southern baptists there was a phenomenon known as the “inner church”. This was, literally, the “in crowd”, and they did as they damned well pleased no matter what.

    When I play in churches I can see them, they seem to run to types. You get the ones who walk around like Dick Cheney, sneer and all, you get the sort of off in their own world doesn’t even notice anyone around him, then there’s the Falwell type, the insipid, condescending smile, inappropriate address to others, gormless rudeness.

    A friend of mine had asked me to play at her church a while back ( a baptist one) and I did so, and afterward she and the secretary treasurer were talking with my wife and I, and the sec/treas was handing me a check and one of the latter type came up, took the check out of her hand, and turned to me. He said in this tone like you’d talk to a child, “Now, we don’t EVER pay people to play here, and she should know that”. Well, I didn’t see if my cane was harder than his testicles, simply took the check from him, told him that unless his name was on one of the two spaces for such things it was theft and I’d call the cops. He just smiled and walked on.

    I gave it back to the treasurer, we both knew there’d be a stop payment on it before the banks openned Monday.

  9. Oof. That’s an ugly story, Sarge. I can’t play a musical instrument to save my life, but I am an actor and my rule is – “No pay, no play.” Except for those damned “Equity Showcase Contracts” that my union came up with.

    I wasn’t in the Army nearly as long as you, but I don’t recall it being especially lawless. Except… once I’d transferred to the National Guard the supply sergeant in my unit did steal a number of rifles, bought a motorcycle on credit, left his wife and kids and was on the run from the feds the last I heard.

  10. Sarge: I didn’t mean to imply that authoritarianism in the military is not a problem, just that the military does actually think about authority and train people in its uses. Not always successfully, of course.

    The church: did they agree to pay you and then unilaterally cancel that part of the contract? Sounds like even more of, “The rules are for us, not you.”

    Postman: I had no idea you are an actor. You seem sane enough.

  11. People who grow with strict rules and authoritarian parents need the structure of an authoritarian-pastor led church.

    When I was choosing churches, I always went for places where the preaching was strong and direct. I now speculate that I was trying to reproduce my home life.

    People, also, tend to follow those sort of leader. It gives them that know-it-all care taker to look up to, like to a parental figure.

  12. Lorena: Sounds like a scary upbringing. I agree with your last, definately. Authoritarian personalities like telling others what to do and being told what to do. These are the people who, if an authority figure tells them to do it, will willingly shock people. Or torture them.

  13. Postman & (((Billy))): I was going to do this as a freebee for my friend (she is a really wonderful lady, has given the world far more than she’ll ever take, and I like to see genorosity and kindness repaid), but she insisted that I be paid, and it was approved by the appropriate body, the check was cut.

    Poor woman was horrified by what happened. She’d been telling me that her church and brand of christians was ‘different’, just see, and since I was a harpist and had expenses of time and effort I should be compensated. So said they all. Well, apparently not all…

    But in my early teen years I got to know the type(s) well.

    Last month we went to visit my mother, and she talked me (my wife helped her, saying It Was The Right Thing To Do, my mother is in her late eighties, what can it hurt…)to go to her church which was celebrating its 50th anniversary. We’d started there the second year it had been formed, right after we got back from Ethiopia, it was a while until I could skive out of it, but I saw some things.

    I knew very few people there last month, hadn’t seen most of them since 1965 with a brief contact when my father died in 1998. Had about as much to say to them now as I did then. Bill Moyers was a member there for a while.

    (When we got there the preacher at that time had three daughters, and I got to be good friends with one of them. I played guitar and dulcimer, she had a fine voice, and we had a lot in common. No chemistry other than for friendship. We wrote after they left for a couple of years.)

    My mother took us to to eat after the service, and her current preacher, one of the previous ones (neither of whom I knew)plus their wives came in and asked if they could sit with us as the place was crowded.

    Actually, dinner was quite nice, the ladies were gracious, I found that I miss the Virginia accent more than I care to admit, and they were pointing with pride to the accomplishments of that body of people, were surprised I hadn’t been, and still wasn’t impressed and wanting to be a part of it.

    I pointed to a breakfast on the menu, told them it looked nice, smelled nice, was probably satisfying to those who wanted it, like their church, but I’d seen what happened to many of the eggs that made the omelet, and had seen what got ground into the sausage.

    The first preacher (daughter was my friend) had had a heart attack which ‘concerned’ the ‘inner church’. He recovered from that and in just a couple of months more wound up having surgery for a brain tumor. The day after his operation a bunch of them showed up at his bedside and told him he was fired. See yuh, good luck…

    This was just them, and he knew it would stick no matter what. Nothing done in accordance with the constitution and rules of the body, just go and do what ‘had to be’ done.

    I related this memory, and what I’d been told the family went through, but they just smiled.

    Doubtless these men were ‘inspired’ by prayer to do what had to be done, they even trotted out some scripture about cutting loose people who were a drag
    on The Good Work.

    I asked why there seemed to be a dearth of ‘inspiration’ to help the sick, not make a family destitue, things like that…?

    But they just gave me “that” smile.

  14. Thanks for the explanation, Sarge. It almost makes sense (not what you wrote, what the church pulled). And your description of religion and the sausage and eggs? Wonderful.

  15. Usually just lurk, but as the subject came up you might want to check the following:


    Don’t know that I agree with everything he has to say but the work seems generally pretty good. NB: I am not a social scientist nor looking to become one. The book does a pretty good job of categorizing authority and authoritian personalities, as distinct from leadership as discussed above. Very different things.

  16. Edit: …authoritarian… (damnit)

  17. Gareth: Thanks for stopping by. Please continue to add to and further the debate and conversation.

    That looks like an interesting book. If I can get some fire money, it’ll be on my list to buy.

  18. Sarge,

    I understand the “favor for a friend” thing and agree with it. I’m just sorry it went pear-shaped on you. My mother once suggested that I help her (mega)church with one of their lavish xmas productions, since I was in town. Luckily, that was much easier to say “no” to than a friend asking a favor.


    Yep; I’ve been a professional actor for about 15 years now. You’ll notice that I seem to have a lot of free time to blog. And I have to work an office job to pay the rent.

  19. Postie: I was trying to avoid asking if your most common line was, “Do you want fries with that?” That would be cruel, though, so I won’t go there.

  20. You won’t go there? But you… oh, never-frickin’-mind.

    And for the record, my most common line is probably “Mankind should have been your business,”, as I seem to have played Jacob Marley about a hundred times.

  21. The authoritaritan book is free, pdf version. I read it during my last deployment. Apparently I do not fit the profile. Go figure.

    Wanted to let you know that I enjoy your website. If my comment timing is off it is because I am stationed in Germany right now, central European time and all…

  22. (((Billy))) “….a group gets too authoritarian, so a splinter group forms. Then they get too authoritarian, so a splinter group forms. Etcetera.”
    I see it less as “too authoritarian” and more as “wrong”. You can see it repeatedly in the history of Protestantism, where new splinters in turn splintered because whoever in charge wasn’t interpreting a passage correctly, particularly in America, with a combination of sola scriptura and the mild inconvenience of starting a new church by moving ten miles down the road and putting up a shingle (in Europe they mostly just killed each other, because everyone is someone else’s heretic). Things like “skepticism” and “relativism” are just words meaning “I’m not sure”. “Higher criticism” means “hates God”. True story. One thing that absolutism can’t stand is other peoples’ absolutism, whether it’s Stalin or Jesus.

  23. Postie: I said (wrote) I wouldn’t go there. But I had to provide an example of where ‘there’ was, right? Marley? You got dreadlocks?

    Gareth: Cool. Reading it.

    MO: One persons orthodoxy is another persons unacceptable authoritarianism. The interpretation of passages is one of the perks of being in charge. If you know that you have the correct interpretation, you will (presumably) attempt to position yourself to enforce that interpretation — whether at a new church or by coopting the existing church.

    In other words, yeah, I agree.

  24. Bob Altemeyer has written a free online book on the psychology of authoritarianism ‘The Authoritarians’ that answers a lot of the questions on this thread http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/
    60 years of pondering about why the holocaust happened and we are no where near protecting society against such things happening again. There is a Facebook group Authoritarian Watch http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=120180491799

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: