politics and religion

tsipras-wahlen-eu-540x304All of us have been watching the Greek crisis over the past few days. I have been giving it more attention than some as I have a special interest, having lived in the country for ten months in the 60s and witnessed some of the tumultuous times of the Greek dictatorship. I have always known that Greek politics is a bit like a cult in the sense that some Greeks indulge in the extremes of irrationalism when presented with an attractive idea. The current Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has, because of his youth and practiced rhetoric, been able to persuade a large slice of the population to support him. They will be voting in a so-called referendum on the highly detailed issues of the European offer to the Greek government. If they vote ‘no’ to the offer it is likely that the country will leave the euro and descend into social and economic chaos lasting two years or more. The complexity of the arguments has been reduced to a simple yes or no. The people in fact will be voting as to whether they trust their young charismatic leader or not, rather than trying to engage with the complex arguments of the economic proposals. To be fair it takes some education and economic understanding to master what these economic proposals are, but that is why people elect governments to make responsible decisions on their behalf. The referendum is thus not about economics and the euro but about trust in their leader.

In thinking about the Greek situation, I see a number of parallels with the leadership of conservative churches. A typical worshipper, faced with a highly complex and difficult book, the Bible, decides that they want to allow someone else to read it for them and decide what it means. That relieves them of having to think for themselves about it. The important issue then becomes their ability, or not, to trust the leader. If he is perceived as totally trustworthy, then the problem of understanding Scripture and making decisions about it is solved. The whole dynamic of the group depends on this total trust between leader and led being sustained. One word that was being used at the conference last week was the word guru. It is a word that implies an abundance of trust in an individual in religious leadership. The disciple in effect hands over to the guru the decision making part of the personality in the belief that he is ‘enlightened’ and that that enlightenment will also shared with the follower. The attenders at the conference who had followed gurus were generally disillusioned people, because they discovered over a period that the guru was human like the rest of us, subject to vanity and power games, not to mention addiction to wealth. The act of having large numbers of people adulating you will give a religious leader the idea that he actually is wise, does understand the spiritual needs of his followers, does have special insights into the Scriptures. Whatever problems may arise for the follower in the guru-disciple relationship, there are also going to be problems for the leader himself. These will often not be visible at the beginning of the relationship but greed, lust and other human foibles will gradually become more and more apparent over a period of time.

At the Greek general elections in January it seems that what was being voted on was the wisdom and appeal of the Prime minister himself. People have wanted to trust him on the basis of his rhetoric and charisma. He is, by contrast, being judged by those outside Greece on his economic competence which does, from a distance, appear extremely shaky. I have to conclude that whatever domestic support he enjoys, is in fact based on the fantasy of what people would like to be true rather than what is true. The guru figure, the one trusted for his pleasing words will always be one that appeals to large numbers of people. This thrall of the guru figure is always going to be somewhat cult-like, whether it happens the context of religion or politics. There is nothing unusual about people wanting to hand over decision making. It makes life less complicated after all.

The consequence of the arrival of a charismatic figure on the scene in either politics or religion is that overall less serious thinking is being done by followers. This does ultimately bring people into the irrationality of propaganda and anti-intellectual behaviour. This is not blame-worthy behaviour but the sad result of the cultic aspects of both religion and politics the world over. It just happens but it is the task of newspapers and perhaps bloggers to protest when it occurs. Once the patterns of this sort of behaviour are discerned, then at least some people can be rescued from the result of the exuberance of charisma. At its best charisma in leaders moves people to feel and even do great things. At its worst it binds them to irrationality with a heady dose of fantasy and unrealistic promises.

Greece heads off into the unknown as I write these words. The country has been blinded by the promises of its cult-like politicians. The dynamics of trust in their political leaders have not served the country well. As I write these words I am reminded of words from Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no health in them”. Many will, rightfully, conclude that we are better off putting our trust directly in God. The problem is how to do this in practice, while not being misled or even deceived by one of his representatives!

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “politics and religion

  1. Yes indeed. Since we’re supposed to worship in a community, and it’s inevitable that that community will have a leader . . .

  2. I like your paragraph two very much. In effect, such people are choosing to make a charismatic leader their Messiah. Not a good idea! Those whose search for God is earnest and heart-felt can take encouragement from Jeremiah 29:13 and John 7:17 to my mind.

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