Authoritarian Followers: What’s Feminism and Religion Got to Do with It? by Carol P. Christ

carol-p-christ-photo-michael-bakasThere are two types of authoritarians: those who jump out in front and say “follow me, only I can solve the problem”; the far greater number of authoritarian personalities are those who want to be told how to think, what to do, “this is daddy, I’ll take care of you.” Those are the people who are the followers and while some of those would like to be leaders themselves, most of them are just happy to follow, and they don’t want to ask questions, and they want to be told what to do and how to think. And that’s a very scary lot. —John Dean

On her Saturday  program on MSNBC, Joy Reid asked former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean why those who support Trump seem so uninterested in facts that show a deeply troubled and compromised presidency. Dean’s response was that the authoritarian personality does not want to think.

In recent months a number of political analysts, most of them male, have been telling us that the Democratic Party has ignored the economic concerns of the white working class, especially white working class males. These men, they opine, turned to Trump because they lost jobs that once paid a middle class wage. The solution, these writers say, is for Democrats to foreground economic issues that affect the working class. While there is something to be said for this analysis, it does not explain why Trump voters have found racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant views appealing or at least tolerable. Don’t you see, I want to say to the writers, that Trump’s white male voters are reacting against challenges to long-standing assumptions of white male privilege by people of color, women, and immigrants?

It is obvious to many that Trump is—among other things—an authoritarian personality. But it is yet to be widely recognized that his followers are too. I have recently felt annoyed by essays, blogs, and Facebook posts asking why Trump’s evangelical voters ignore Jesus’s concern for the poor and the downtrodden; how they can support American values while allowing Trump to take away freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution; or how they can be against immigrants when their own ancestors were immigrants too. What is missed by those who ask these reasonable questions is that Trump’s followers have authoritarian personalities: they do not want to think.


Dean described “authoritarian followers” in a blog published in 2015:

Specifically, as I noted in Conservatives Without Conscience, the authoritarian followers are both men and women, who tend to be highly conventional, always and easily submissive to authority, while willing to work aggressively on behalf of such an authority. They tend to be very religious, with moderate to little education, trusting of untrustworthy authorities, prejudiced (e.g., with respect to gay marriage [and I would add, the rights of non-whites, women, and immigrants]); they are typically mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical of their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarian, severely punitive; they also demand loyalty and return it, have little self-awareness, and are typically politically and economically conservative Republicans.

Returning to the questions of why Trump Christians don’t care for the poor, why Trump Americans don’t care about freedom, and why Trump voters who are descended from immigrants don’t care about immigrants, the answers begins to emerge. Trump’s followers who have authoritarian personalities filter their understandings of Christianity, America, and their own histories through their authoritarian mindsets.

  • For them, Christianity is about submission to an Almighty Father who is a judgmental and punishing lawgiver. They view themselves as abiding by and requiring others to abide by His laws.
  • For them, being American is about submission, about pledging allegiance to a flag, obeying the laws and respecting the police, and being willing to give your life for your country.
  • They do not view themselves as intolerant of others; they view others as insufficiently respectful of the laws they follow and the sacrifices they have made.
  • They do not view themselves as immigrants with specific histories of fleeing oppression in the Old Country and discrimination in the United States, but as among those who have melted into the pot, becoming above all and only Americans (assumed to be white).

As Dean says, authoritarian followers are a “scary lot.” They are scary because they are not interested in thinking for themselves. They are not interested in rational discussion. They are not interested in facts or the opinions of others. Rather they are interested in finding a leader who reflects their own incoherent views and asks of them simply to follow him. In 2015 Dean concluded that Trump could not be elected because authoritarians are a minority in America. He was partly right: only 26% of Americans voted for Trump, and we can hope that not all of them are authoritarian followers. Dean forgot that the electoral college may favor the minority and that almost half of Americans do not vote at all.

In the title of this blog I asked: “what’s feminism and religion got to do with it?” The answer is that feminists are highly unlikely to be authoritarian followers. Why? Because there would be no feminism at all if we had not questioned conventional authorities telling us that women must submit to their fathers and husbands and that women’s place is in the home. For feminists in religion, this question is even more highly charged. We have not only questioned authorities: we have questioned scriptures and traditions said to have been ordained by God Himself.

In Goddess and God in the World, Judith Plaskow and I concluded that our dialogue about theological questions across difference was made possible by our shared assumption that all texts and traditions are interpreted by human beings who, as individuals and as communities, must decide which aspects of their traditions they wish to make central and which they will not. Is Jesus Lord and King or Jesus’ concern for the poor the central message of Christianity? The American experiment is similarly subject to interpretation. Are we going to affirm white male landed supremacy as our founding fathers did? Or extend the principles of liberty and justice to all?

The principle of interpretation is not understood or is rejected by authoritarian personalities who want to be told what is true, what is right, what is wrong, and what to do. They do not recognize that there is more than one interpretation of the meaning of Christianity, and more than one interpretation of the meaning of the American dream.

This is why our work as teachers and as feminists in religion is important. We need to keep insisting that we are the ones who must think through and take responsibility for our views and opinions and that we should never offer blind faith or submission to any authority—not that of a father or husband, not that of the police or an elected official, not even that alleged to have come from God Himself!

Also see: And God Said it Was So: Trump Is the Spittin’ Image of Bad Theology


a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover designBe among the first to order A Serpentine Path, Carol’s moving memoir. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

Carol wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow co-edited the path-breaking Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Join the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete by Feb 28. Save $200.


Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, authority, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

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22 replies

  1. Exactly. As you say, we must keep teaching the importance of questioning authority. And this must go down to the most elementary levels of education. I have met very few, if any, pre-schoolers who are instinctively authoritarian followers. In fact, anyone who has been with a toddler who constantly asks “Why? Why? Why?” has heard what is, to me, an instinctive human trait to question. This is what makes the DeVos confirmation so terrifying. Besides formal education and religious work, I also think that informal education through daily interaction can also be a way of making real change so that we aren’t fighting the same battles generation after generation. What helped to turn the ride of opinion on marriage equality was the millions of people who saw with their own eyes that LGBT people were not who they had been told when their family and beloved friends came out. Perhaps this kind of one-to-one, real life education on other issues, if we can find ways to make it happen, can also help us through the quagmire we find ourselves in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes and we also need to teach how to evaluate facts and evidence. Evaluating evidence is not the same as dismissing evidence (for example evidence for evolution and global climate change). Siggghhhh

    And we need always to remember the role authoritarian forms of religion play in inculcating or reinforcing authoritarian mindsets. Sigh againnnnnn


  3. Excellent post, Carol. It seemed obvious to me that many authoritarian people voted for Trump, because he espouses all the qualities that non- thinking people find attractive including the hatred, Trump embodies. Hatred is addictive and people are easily drawn into that “field”. But I think it’s particularly important that we understand the other reasons why so many voted for a misogynist…

    “Don’t you see, I want to say to the writers, that Trump’s white male voters are reacting against challenges to long-standing assumptions of white male privilege by people of color, women, and immigrants?”

    You hit the nail on the head. Thank you.


  4. Excellent indeed. Thanks for telling us about John Dean. I’ve been thinking about Nixon and Watergate and “What did the President know and when did he know it?” for several months. I posted an excellent article by David Frum in the Atlantic a month or so ago on my Facebook page. This is a good time to read it again.


  5. Great essay, Carol. I found this to be especially true: “… authoritarian followers are a “scary lot.” They are scary because they are not interested in thinking for themselves. They are not interested in rational discussion. They are not interested in facts or the opinions of others.” In my experience, one cannot engage with authoritarian people. They are essentially bullies. One cannot use rational thought with a bully. The only recourse is standing up to a bully and saying “no.” That’s one reason I think it’s so important to keep on with the protest marches. Marching is resistance. Marching is disruption. Marching is saying “no.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree and particularly appreciate your 4 bullet points. I cannot speak to the “group” of people who voted for Trump, but I can consider the Trump-voters I know, have talked with, and who live here in the Bible Belt of our country, and, in reference to them, beyond “thinking” it goes deeper…it’s about not having any interest in self-reflection or inner contemplation. The Trump-voters (some of them fanatics about it) that I know do meet your bullet points, but I see those points as “mind” or “thinking” points — what the people I know are lacking is any interest whatsoever in going deeper and *feeling* and then seeking to understand those feelings. Anyway, that’s my perception.


  7. Thanks Carol. This cleared up a few things for me and helped me understand others who I love, but ….


  8. Bowing to a society rooted in any sort of patriarchal oppression is in no way the image of a democracy, which is supposedly our modern means of government. In answer to the problem of “why Trump voters have found racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant views appealing,” I would say it has to do with the need for some sort of superiority. But why the need for superiority? What is democracy if it is not equality?


  9. Great post, Carol! I agree that we don’t want to waste our time trying to talk to authoritarian personalities. But since there are many thinking conservatives who are beginning to freak out at what they have unleashed on our country, I believe that it’s not a waste of time to begin to translate our values into their language, so we can begin the process of getting rid of him. The book that has helped me most in this regard is _The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree about Religion and Politics_ by Jonathan Haidt. I’m hoping to get involved with some sort of bridging conversations between liberals and conservatives to do just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nancy, I loved that book by Haidt as well — was grateful that I read it right after moving back here to where mindsets are SO different from my own, even though I was raised here. Surely, many of us can find ways to enjoin conversations.

      P.S. The book _Healing the Heart of Democracy_ by Parker Palmer has also been pivotal to me regarding engaging in civil conversation. Between these two books (and some others), I’ve been able to participate in calm, respectful dialogue with *some* family members and friends, those who are a bit less radical.


  10. Given the violence I’ve witnessed, the marches, the constant sniping, I would have said that it’s the anti-Trump Americans who don’t care about freedom. Trump is President. Those who don’t want him there are free to vote him out.


  11. Thank you. now i have to do some research on Dean…but I must say, the link between the description of people who are in favor of Authoritarian approach and the description of how this applies to trump supporters was enlightening.
    I was struggling to link the beliefs with the application in today’s political climate. This makes it very clear.


  12. Steven Pinker pointed out in ‘ The Blank Slate ‘ we carry a huge evolutionary baggage that has not been eliminated by the veneer of civilisation. Our success is because natural selection taught us to look after ourselves.
    1) We guard our tribe.
    2) We blame others for all that we do not succeed in.
    3) We always want more.
    Our politics follows.


    • Well, I have not read the book, but there are different views about what evolutionary baggage we carry, Others argue that cooperation is what has enabled us to survive. And it is clear that not all societies or people always want more. Native American tribes had the principle of “take only what you need” and were not conspicuous consumers like we are!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Carol this is very enlightening. I had never heard of authoritarian followers before reading your post, but that certainly describes many of Trump’s followers. I wonder about the others, though. What about the minorities who like Trump? I find that hard to fathom. Any ideas?


    • Thank you for sharing this related post. The author certainly doesn’t pull and punches, but, sadly, I agree with a lot of the points made.

      One comment I have is that many people truly believe they are *not* racist — what they fail to understand (because, as that writer points out, they refuse to self-reflect etc) is that they retain implicit bias that is directly much of their views. This easily happens in many parts of the mid-west and southern mid-west; I grew up in a “sundown town” (and have done a lot of research on that phenomenon in the past 18 months since moving back to this area) which is distinctly different than “the South”. It seems particularly easy for people here to convince themselves that they are not racist (which, to them, means *blatant* racism) but ignore the 100 years of negative bias that kept “the other” from even living in their towns until very recently.



  1. In lumina

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