Thursday, August 07, 2008

Religious Authoritarianism

In last week's episode of Friday Red Mr. Peanut Bank And Gallito Mescalito Blogging, the Rt. Rev. Hank Boromi de Daguna talked about the importance of punishment for those with whom he disagreed, and, reading posts at Titus 1:9 and the declarations of the FOCAs and GAFCON crowd, not to mention the stuff from the Most Blessed Primates of the Global South, I've noticed this is one of the important themes; the need to punish the heretic and apostate.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I grew up in the Assemblies of God church and my primary school through 10th grade education was by Evangelical Protestants, so I'm very familiar with authoritative Christianity. Plus, during my Wayward Youth, I spent some three years or so in the Divine Light Mission, a psuedo-Hindu meditation cult led by Guru Maharaj-ji, the Balyogeshwar, the Lord of the Universe (at the time; now he's an Inspirational Speaker, Prem Pal Rawat), which was extremely authoritarian, as one expects from a cult. So, I knows all about Religious Authoritarianism.

As a child amongst the Evangelicals and Pentecostal Protestants, I spent a lot of my time feeling spiritually inadequate. I was always messing up and having to ask for forgiveness. But asking God for forgiveness in those churches is not the same as saying the General Confession at the Eucharist or in the Daily Offices; it involved an Altar Call, it involved taking that long walk up the aisle to the altar rail and weeping and crying and confessing. Now, kids really don't have that much to confess, but in those churches that isn't important; what is important is the weeping and the contrition. And one feels pretty good right after the altar call, until the next mess-up. The understanding of God that I received from my parents and teachers and pastors was that I was a sinner, a worthless thing who deserved to be punished by my parents, by my teachers, by the pastor, and, most of all, by God. The eternal fires of hell were there just waiting for the likes of me, the kind of guy who was most probably going to be left behind during the Rapture (you can't imagine the fear I felt if I came home and everyone was gone; I knew it was the Rapture and I'd been left behind, but I never understood why I didn't hear the trumpet and see folks rising towards heaven!). I was always confused by the idea that God, in His Infinite Mercy, was just waiting to put people in hell, but that was what everyone told me.

The fear of hell fire was a great way to control some folks, but didn't seem to work well with me. I eventually couldn't understand why God wanted me crying and feeling miserable all the time, and I abandoned Christianity by the time I was eighteen. I was attracted to Eastern Religions as my best friend all during school on Okinawa came from a Hindu family. His mother had a room called the Guru Baba room which had images and pictures of almost every manifestation of God from almost every religion. I thought that was pretty cool; she seemed to have all angles covered! I read about Ramakrishna and Vivekinanda and Paramahansa Yogananda and I was oh so spiritual! I had read some on Tibetan Buddhism in Jr. High as part of my rebellion against the authoritarian Christians, so I combined that with the psuedo-Hindusim. Then my friend Don came telling me that he had finally found the true Messiah and that he was a sixteen year-old kid from India. I argued with Don about this stuff; especially when I heard about Guru Maharaj-ji's festival named Millennium '73, which would take place at the Houston Astrodome. Some followers were saying that the Astrodome was going to fly into space and 1000 years of peace would be ushered in and all the world would recognize Maharaj-ji as the Lord of the Universe. Even though I spent most of my time stoned, this sounded nuts to me. And when it didn't happen, I gave Don a lot of grief about it all. However, within a year I was bowing and kissing the Lotus Feet in Toronto at the Hans Jayanti Festival. These folks were just as spiritually oppressive and religiously authoritarian as the Christians I had been around, and, even though it took a while, I left them.

I spent a few years as a musician for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San José, California, and I started my return to Christianity. When I came to the Episcopal Church, I was delighted to find a group who were not trying to figure out ways to punish me for my sins and were accepting of me, even though I had spent time in a cult and all. It was a church which encouraged questioning and searching and didn't condemn one for reading Buddhist texts or making connections between Christianity and other faiths. Now, there were a few people in that parish who were almost fundamentalist in their approach to scripture, in fact, we referred to them as Liturgical Baptists, but none of them seemed to want to throw the rest of us out of the Church.

So imagine my surprise over the past ten years, dealing with the Global South types, with the orthodox so-called and the spiritual authoritarians who are trying to take over the Episcopal Church and the World Wide Anglican Communion. After reading Bishop Orombi's article in The Times I was struck by his (and his brother bishops of the Global South's) need for punishing those with whom they disagree, and for making folks toe the line.

I've read an on-line book titled The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and he talks about how those who are "authoritarian followers," those of an authoritarian mind-set who are attracted to authoritarianism in religion and politics. I quote from page 9 of the Introduction: Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the "proper" authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically there followers have personalities featuring: 1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society; 2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and 3) a high level of conventionalism. Recognize anyone in that description? Personally, I think that religious authoritarianism is dangerous; in its most extreme forms we have the likes of Jim Jones or Marshall Applewhite, which leads to death. I'm not calling the orthodox so-called cult leaders, but I won't deny that I have seen cult-like behavior in some of their statements and in the actions of their more extreme followers.

It seems to me that the Anglican Authoritarians are actually on their last legs; in another fifteen years they will have started new splinter groups and will all bear amazing titles and vestments and be in charge of ever-shrinking congregations, but in the mean (and I do mean mean!) time they are going to be threatening those with whom they disagree and demanding that we all be punished. My question is: how do we show them the love of Christ in a way that will change their hearts? How can we free them from their devotion to The Authorities or their desire to be The Authorities?

Our Way or the Highway, TEC!


Ann said...

Why do they all have those sappy smiles? is that part of the syndrome?

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I've come out of that type of background too--Baptist, in my case. And I often wonder some of the same things you ask in your last paragraph.

Authoritarians always seem to me to be operating out of fear. And it's hard to be loving when you're afraid.

Cany said...

It is my opinion that fear rises from feeling out of control, thus the seemingly normative institutions spoken of in the article which do control. These are the "If you do this, then this will happen" mindset people.

Perhaps the way to lead out of this is to be positive, funny and happy. Isn't it the case that we are attracted to the "light" people... those that laugh and smile a lot, that see the world have full, etc.?

When I think of an authoritarian, I think of a grumpy, frowning prune of a human spitting religious invective at me. My instincts say run, run away fast! But I don't feel this way at all with a "light" person and light people can't be authoritarian because if they were, they would reflect darkness.

Maybe leading people away from question 2 and towards the experience of question 1 is the process of how WE reflect God's light(ness)--God's love.

Matty Boy said...

Preach on, padre. I still remember you talking about fearing the Rapture had taken your family and left you behind.

Anonymous said...

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David |Däˈvēd| said...

I believe that these people are the spiritual descendants of the folks who used to put people on the rack, burn them at the stake and all other forms of torture and murder.

I think that we are lucky that they no longer have the power to still do those things.

Whatever possessed Christian leaders to believe that they had the right to do that to other Christians, or non-christians?!?

We have it in our own heritage as Anglicans. I wonder when was the last time that a leader in an Anglican church "legally" murdered someone for their religious beliefs?

Anonymous said...

" during my Wayward Youth, I spent some three years or so in the Divine Light Mission, a psuedo-Hindu meditation cult led by Guru Maharaj-ji, the Lord of the Universe which was extremely authoritarian"

These kinds of portrayals of Mr. Rawat are indeed so very immature and yesterday's news. Can you not inform and enlighten others without trashing good people in the process? Those who sincerely wish to know what's up here may want to visit

Padre Mickey said...

Actually, Anonymous( if that's your real name!) it's an accurate description of Divine Light Mission and the Prem Rawat Foundation or whatever you're calling your mind-numbing cult these days. I was there, I got out, but it's obvious that you're still one of his brain-washed minions.

However, if anyone reading wants to visit that site, you'll be in hysterics reading their vacuous prose.

I See You!

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