Why are Certain Christians Democratic and Others Authoritarian?

The baptism of Jesus depicted by Almeida Júnior (1895) – Public Domain

Why are certain Christians democratic and other Christians authoritarian, yet both profess belief in the same Bible and God? Why do some Christians emphasize personal authenticity and others biblical authority? Why do certain Christians want to empower people, and other Christians want to gain power over people? Why do some Christians believe that the goal of faith is human solidarity with people in this life, while others preach that the goal is individual salvation in an afterlife? Not that Christians are either democratic or authoritarian; but one of these two personality tendencies often dominates and determines which passages of the Bible will be underlined and which will be sidelined.

Helpful here are definitions of democratic and authoritarian. People who are democratic believe that everyone is equal and that this principle should determine how people are governed and guide their behavior toward all others. Their emphasis is not on “law and order,” but on “everyone is equal under the law.” They have developed the capacity to put themselves in other persons’ shoes. i.e., their relationship with others is characterized by empathy, not apathy. They experience, not interpret, other people’s reality. One might say that “doing to others what you would have them do to you” is the Golden Rule of democracy.

The person with authoritarian tendencies is the antithesis of the democratic person. Here the individual engages in unquestioning submission to idealized authority figures – and in the case of such Christians, unquestioning belief in the Bible and its inerrant interpretations by their presumed authoritative faith leaders. With authoritarian-disposed Christians, relationships are hierarchically power-oriented, not equalitarian. Obedience is the cardinal virtue, disobedience the cardinal sin. There is also the stereotyping of those who are different as an out-group, to be converted or legislated against and subdued, or vanquished. The punitive orientation of authoritarian Christians is also seen in their demand for right belief and eternal punishment in hell for “unbelievers”. For such Christians, It is not about “Love your neighbor as yourself” as Jesus taught, but make your neighbor like yourself.

Whether one develops democratic or authoritarian tendencies begins early in life. The seeds of either disposition are sown in childhood: in how parents relate to their children – and to each other. Most children who are loved for themselves and provided with understanding will become emotionally secure, and that security will become the basis for their growing perception of and respect for other persons and their reality. When you treat the whole child as worthy of respect and love and complete acceptance, you will have a child who treats the rest of the world that way. The way we are treated foundationally as children translates into how we see and treat other people. Similarly, parents who behave respectfully toward each other model democratic relationships for their children.

Conversely, many children who become extensions of their parents’ needs and frustrations, who are required to live up to judgmental expectations, who are not encouraged to wonder or experiment or speak their mind, and whose parents themselves act out superior/inferior attitudes toward each other and others are more likely to develop similar authoritarian tendencies. When we treat children as incomplete human beings, rushing them to overcome developmental limitations, mistakenly viewed as liabilities, we are planting the seeds of authoritarianism. When certain parts of children are seen as inherently bad and sinful, they are more likely to see others as inherently bad.

Tragically many evangelical Christians believe that everyone is born in sin, throwing every child’s developmental realities out their theological window. Belief in the innate sinfulness of children is used to explain away their natural developmental behavior. Experiencing forgiveness is basic in developing healthy human relationships; but forgiveness doesn’t have to come wrapped in a theology of innate self-hatred.

The origin of this fundamentalist dogma? Evangelical and conservative Christians believe that Adam and Eve were, like, real people, the first human beings created by God and living in a blissful Garden of Eden. Their one prohibition was not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; for if they did, they would be wise like God, which was taboo. And when Adam disobeyed God and, at Eve’s enticement, joined her in taking a bite of the apple, their eyes were opened, and God found out, and they were banished from the Garden and punished. (See Genesis 3) Here virtue is about being obedient, not morally wise.

Because of Adam’s disobedience, all human beings thereafter are born in sin. Their only salvation is to believe that God sent his only son Jesus Christ into the world to offer himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. So everyone thereafter is branded by Adam’s disobedience and only those who confess their sins and accept Jesus as their Savior will be saved from eternal damnation. It is about obedience, not independence, about fleeing from guilt and judgment, not seeking self-knowledge that could provide enlightenment and personal integration. Belief that everyone is born in sin covers a multitude of sins, and covers up a multitude of developmentally normal issues every child experiences – like fitting in, feeling secure, exploring one’s own body, questioning authority, becoming authentically oneself.

For Christians with authoritarian tendencies, faith is about having the right belief, more than knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Here obedience to correct belief trumps the pursuit of truth. Conformity is expected. Curiosity is suspected.

Enter President Donald Trump, who looked upward and said. “I am the chosen one.” Evidently “the chosen one” can do whatever he wants because, for many in his white evangelical Christian base, the bottom line of faith is belief, not behavior. Trump knew that with such an obedient base he could run for president, saying, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and wouldn’t lose any voters. He could also say about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville (where self-avowed white supremacist, 22-year old James Fields, Jr. rammed his car into peaceful counter-protesters killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others): “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides” – knowing he would maintain, not lose, his supporters.

President Trump repeatedly plays to his white evangelical Christian base. In the case of national protests in response to the murder of black George Floyd by white Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, Trump associated peaceful protesters with “looters” and “lowlifes.” As he prepared for a controversial rally in Tulsa, he stereotyped peaceful protesters with, “ ‘Any protesters, anarchists, agitators looters, lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!’ Trump wrote on Twitter.” (“Trump Warns Protesters to Face ‘Different Scene’ at His Oklahoma Rally,” By Reuters, June 19, 2020)

It was “a much different scene.” Only some 6,000 people showed up for his speech in Tulsa’s 19,000-seats indoor stadium. And no “anarchists, agitators, looters and lowlifes” were to be found – only peaceful protesters!

Speaking of “looters and lowlifes.” In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump is seeking to do away with Obamacare, which provides medical coverage for some 22 million Americans, a majority of whom are persons of color, and a significant number of white persons – not members of his base. Notably, the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting black and Hispanic persons.

The current racial justice movement, triggered by the brutal murder of black persons by police, includes the efforts to remove the statues of Confederate leaders and slave traders and owners and other racist symbols of America’s history. A just struggle that is long overdue.

The struggle to come to grips with our past should also include removing passages of the Bible that have been used by Christians to this day to oppress people of color, women and LGBTQ persons. Like Paul the Apostle’s treatise: “Slaves, obey your masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6: 5) To be eliminated also is Paul’s teaching that has encouraged the submission and exploitation of women throughout Christendom, such as: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the law says.” (I Corinthians 14: 34)

And Paul’s dehumanizing attitude toward same sex relationships and love also should be removed from the Bible. Like his statement: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1: 26-27)

The Bible, written by men, should be seen as a reflection of its times, not as the divine revelation of truth for all times.

Sadly, certain passages of the Bible encourage in-group versus outgroup tendencies, which fits right in with President’s Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies. “The chosen one” is building a wall to keep “undesirable” and “criminal” immigrants out, has instituted a ban to prevent assumed “terrorist”-motivated Muslims from entering the United States and is also accommodating evangelical Christians by appointing pro-life judges and promising them that they will be able to use their “religious freedom” to discriminate against LGBTQ persons.

At a recent rally in an Arizona megachurch, to the thunderous cheers of young Republicans, President Trump called the coronavirus “Kung flu,” a racist term that dismisses scientific reality regarding understanding the virus, which encourages vilification of Chinese Americans and discourages international cooperation in fighting it. He is undercutting a critical message of the coronavirus: if we are going to survive, we have to recognize the impact of our actions on others and resolve this pandemic — and all crises — through cooperation.

“The chosen one” calls mainstream media “the enemy of the American people.” Such anti-scrutinizing of his behavior encourages his obedient base to discredit the more than 19,000 lies and misstatements The Washington Post has catalogued him as making. (“President Trump has made 19127 false or misleading claims in 1226 days,” By Glenn Kessler and Salvador Rizzo, June 1, 2020)

The negligence of “the chosen one” in response to the coronavirus has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Never mind reality. “A few days before heading to what he confidently predicted would be a packed indoor rally in Tulsa, Okla.,” a reported “President Trump reassured his fans on Fox News that the coronavirus was ‘fading away’ even without a vaccine.” Nevertheless, those wanting to attend the rally “were required to sign a waiver freeing the campaign from any liability if they were to contract the still fast-spreading virus, which has killed more than 120,000 Americans.” (“’You can’t tell people that happy days are here again when it’s 1932:’ Trump’s COVID disconnect threatens his reelection,” By Liz Goodwin and Jazmine Ulloa, The Boston Globe, June 22, 2020) Tellingly, a few members of his Tulsa advance team tested positive for the virus.

The coronavirus is “fading away.” So also says Vice President Mike Pence. When members of the White House task force held their first “public briefing” in two months, a reported “ever loyal to Mr. Trump’s desire for good news, Mr. Pence tried to tiptoe around the statistics that Dr. Deborah L. Birz, the task force coordinator, pointed to, showing surging cases and hospitalizations in Florida, Texas, Arizona and other states.” Pence’s response: “We have made a truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward. . . . We’ve all seen encouraging news as we open up.” He “dismiss[ed] any suggestion that the outbreaks across the South should prompt a return to the shutdowns that Mr. Trump so badly wants to be over.” Pence added, “The reality is we’re in a much better place.” (“Virus’s New Vigor Intrudes on Administration in Denial,” By Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, June 27, 2020)

In the face of the surging virus and the warning of public health officials, President Trump has been hell-bent on re-opening the economy and resuming his re-election campaign rallies, most recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Arizona. He will become known as the Pied Piper of death.

A primary challenge of Christians is that of pursuing truth, not political partisanship. That is quite a challenge for Christian faith leaders and their constituents, who are also Democrats and Republicans and Independents. The political affiliation of countless faith leaders negates their taking a stand on certain controversial political issues. Their hesitancy is often reinforced by religious superiors, many of whom are guardians of the status quo, and ready to punish a faith leader who steps out of line and takes stands on sensitive issues that cause political dissension in the church and community. Ironically, often it is the politics of religion that keeps religion out of politics – out of risky political issues.

A common saying of preachers and politicians alike is “keep religion out of politics.” That’s not how the prophets saw it. As the prophet Isaiah is recorded as declaring, “Learn to do right, seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead for the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 17) Also, Jesus is recorded as framing his mission in very political terms: at a time when his Jewish people were ruled and oppressed by the Roman Empire. He entered a synagogue and read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” He then said to the Jewish worshippers present: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Like 4: 16-21) The political structures greatly determine who shall be rich and who shall be poor, who shall be oppressed and who shall be free.

Being democratic is a challenge for Christians. Here there is the realization that, rather than one true way, various pathways lead to truth and fulfillment and salvation. There is the recognition that everyone shares a common humanity, and aspirations and rights. If one were to underline a sacred writing with such universal meaning, it would include Jesus’ teaching, “All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Bible, St. Matthew) It also would include this teaching of the Islamic faith: “No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” (Traditions) And in the Hindu faith: “This is the sum of duty: do naught to others which if done to thee, would cause thee pain.” (Mahabharata) (“The Golden Rule is Common to All Religions,” www.nrm.org)

Why are some Christians democratic and others authoritarian? When we treat children as we would wish to be treated early in life — at any point in life — i.e. with patience, respect and love — they will grow to be embrace the same democratic attitudes toward others


Amy Eva Alberts Warren, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University. She was project director of the John Templeton Foundation (JTF)-funded study, The Role of Spiritual Development in Growth of Purpose, Generosity, and Psychological Health in Adolescence, 2009, and has examined spirituality in the context of humanitarian aid (Feinstein International Center). She is co-author of Thriving and Spirituality Among Youth, Wiley, 2012, and Current Directions in Developmental Psychology, Prentice Hall, 2004, and co-author of the textbook, Visualizing The Life Span, Wiley, 2015. Her e-mail address is amy.warren@alumni.tufts.edu) Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. A diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling.  His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.