What causes a people to shift, rapidly and in large numbers, toward extremist political views characterized by fear of minorities and the desire for a strongman leader?
This question has captivated political scientists for decades, and a recently released study of Donald Trump supporters, conducted by Ph.D. student Matthew MacWilliams, found that one common denominator far surpassed the usual suspects of education, income, gender, age, ideology, and religion.
The factor most likely to predict support for Trump was a belief in authoritarianism.
To determine this, MacWilliams employed a set of questions on the seemingly innocuous subject of child rearing: Which one is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders? Self-reliance or obedience? Curiosity or good manners?
Authoritarianism is not so much an ideology as it is a personality profile. While its causes are debated, says MacWilliams, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians gravitate towards strongman leaders, and feel threatened by and respond aggressively to outsiders.
In fact, it is this tendency towards punitive action — a desire to use government power to eliminate threats — that sets authoritarians apart from the political establishment.
And this growing constituency of authoritarianism exists independently of Trump.
A similar divide can be seen within evangelical Christianity, which has likewise seen a rise in authoritarianism gaining influence in its ranks. This has also led to a split within evangelicalism, between authoritarians and those increasingly identifying with the "evangelical left," which is focused on retaining core values such as compassion, grace, and relationship over what they perceive as an angry and reactionary "defending of the fort."
It is not a particular religious or political set of values or ideology that is the heart of the problem here. Authoritarianism goes beyond political or religious affiliation.
Given authoritarianism's penchant for enforcing its will through the means of coercion and force, at the expense of religious and civil liberties, it is vital for those who identify with these groups to recognize this, and the very real danger that this poses.
It is not enough for progressive evangelicals and political liberals or even moderates to speak out. Conservative politicians and religious leaders alike need to recognize the very real danger of authoritarianism, and find the moral courage to speak out against it.
We can see the warning signs of the danger of authoritarian movements throughout history. That history teaches us a lesson, if we have the wisdom to listen. We should not be so naive as to think that we are somehow immune that it "couldn't happen here."
Many conservative politicians have begun to speak out, though they have been too timid and far too few. Conservative religious leaders — conservative evangelical Christians in particular — need to find their moral backbone and unreservedly call out the dangers of authoritarianism in its own ranks. They need to call it out for what it is: As much as it may attempt to present itself as moral righteousness, authoritarianism represents the very worst of human nature. It is, quite simply, sin.
Conservative religious leaders need to wake up to that.
This is a theme that we see Jesus himself address repeatedly throughout the Gospels in his repeated confrontations with the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day. As I stress in my book Disarming Scripture, the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not about pitting one religion against another. Instead it represents an inner-Jewish dispute between two diametrically opposed understandings of what faithfulness to the same Scriptures looks like.
This debate has a long tradition within Judaism, and can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus takes up one side of this debate, characterized by faithful questioning, and focuses on compassion towards those considered outsiders. On the other side there is a way of religion characterized by unquestioning obedience, using religion to justify acts of authoritarian violence.
When I wrote in 2014 about the dangers of religiously justified violence, calling people to move away from the hurtful authoritarian tendencies within evangelicalism, I wish I had been writing something that we are now beyond today. But the moral immaturity that characterizes authoritarianism will always be with us. What we can and must do is learn to call out that moral immaturity for what it is, and help people to grow away from fear and toward thinking socially and empathetically.
Those of us who are followers of Jesus can hear how he warns, over and over again, of how authoritarianism pretends to represent the good, when in fact it promotes the very opposite of what Jesus stood for.
"Ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing," Jesus called them. "But you can recognize them by their fruits (Matt 7:15-16).”
Those fruits of fear, hate, and violence are plain to see. It's time for conservative religious leaders to recognize this, and heed the sober words of pastor Martin Niemöller, speaking now while they are still able to speak:
First they attacked Mexicans, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Mexican;
Then they attacked Muslims, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Muslim;
Then they attacked the disabled, and I did not speak out — because I was not disabled;
Then they attacked women, and I did not speak out — because I was not a woman;
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.