Charisma and Irrationality

kids companyToday (Thursday 6th) the papers are full of the sad demise of the charity, Kids Company. It might seem a strange thing for this blog even to mention it, but I detect in this story a fascinating and instructive juxtaposition of issues which we have often looked at in this blog. I have no means of knowing whether the story will show that a massive injustice has been done to the founder and director Camilla Batmanghelidjh. That will, no doubt, emerge in the coming days and weeks. What the paper (The Times) is also reporting this morning is the dynamic of the relationship that appears to have existed between David Cameron and Camilla B. Whatever else can be said about the founder of the charity, she appears to have had considerable ability to charm and cajole prominent people, from film stars to our leading politicians. The newspaper speaks of this as a ‘charisma’ which ‘enthralled’ and ‘mesmerised’ the Prime Minister so that he was ready to bypass his rationality and overrule the civil service accountants who are paid to guard the nation’s funds. They were concerned that financial discipline was not being exercised in the way the charity was being run.

Few people in this country are unaware of Ms Batmanghelidjh and her extravagant and colourful outfits. The ability to wear such clothing is indicative of a very confident personality. It is not hard to see how such an overwhelming outfit on an individual is suggestive of a powerful persuasive character. Describing her as ‘charismatic’ is one way of pointing to the fact that she seems to have had the power to fascinate and attract those she spoke to, among them the rich and famous. This celebrity status, no doubt, enabled her to have little difficulty in raising the considerable sums of money needed for her charity. But the problem for anyone achieving this kind of status and influence is that they may well start to believe that the fascination that they exert over other people is an infallible indication that they really are in some way special. Elsewhere we have called this inflated awareness of one’s importance, ‘Acquired Narcissistic Syndrome’. If Camilla B. indeed is revelling in this kind of charismatic/narcissistic power, she has something in common with the power exercised by celebrity preachers, especially those who adorn our religious broadcasting channels. This celebrity-type culture and its rampant narcissism is nevertheless frequently bad news for many people. It would not be particularly surprising if Ms Batmanghelidjh, the recipient of so-much attention and praise, has succumbed to some of the temptations that befall those in the category of celebrity. Her original undoubted gifts for caring for children might well have started to take second place to the enjoyment and the glamour of mixing with and influencing important people.

Charisma, as we have often described on this blog, is an important part of the dynamic of many churches. At its best, it gives a sense of life and vitality to worship and spiritual growth. But we have noted that charisma also has a dark side which can lead its practitioners into a malign exercise of power over followers. In describing these darker aspects of charisma in a religious setting, we have seen in other posts how followers are fascinated and enthralled by the signs of power that the charismatic leader is able to engender. There is a kind of mutual enhancement process. The followers are raised up by being close to the ‘man of God’ who reveals a vision of power and spiritual and economic plenty. The leader feeds off this adulation so he too is able to feel a psychological boost. To move from talking about charisma to describing what is, effectively, addictive behaviour, is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The music, the emotional intensity and the larger than life personality of the charismatic leader are all extremely stimulating to those followers present. When these things are absent then there is sense of let-down, a craving for the sensations that were part of a charismatic ‘high’. The wrong kind of charisma has, in short, created spiritual junkies both in the leader and his followers. The leader very easily becomes addicted to the high of being at the centre of an adoring fascinated crowd. He comes alive in this situation and when this emotional stimulus is not there, life seems flat and without flavour. When he finally leaves the scene, the ex-charismatic leader may well feel like an alcoholic who has lost the one thing that gave his life meaning.

One possible interpretation of the story of the Kids Company is that it has over the years acquired aspects of a religious cult, creating unhealthy dynamics for all those involved. If this is indeed the case, we must not allow ourselves to judge Camilla Batmanghelidjh too harshly. We may recognise that the people who lavished money and attention on the director were themselves needing to do this in the way that charismatic worshippers need to give and be close to their adored idols. The Prime Minister and Gordon Brown before him needed to feel that they were actively promoting the cause of helping deprived children and, by ‘worshipping’ Camilla, they allowed them to achieve something of this desired end. By using the terms ‘enthralled’ and ‘mesmerised’ to describe David Cameron’s relationship with Camilla, the reporter in today’s Times has well captured the quasi-religious dimension of the story. Camilla herself would need to be superhumanly earthed not to feel flattered and immensely exalted by having so much attention over such a long period of time. Somehow the whole unhappy episode is a sober reminder of what can go wrong when these quasi-religious dynamics are allowed to take root in politics and in the world of charity work. It goes without saying that they are already potentially dangerous in the context of religious organisations.

My analysing today’s story about the Kids Company in terms of the dynamics of charisma may seem impossibly far-fetched to some of my readers. But for me, this deconstruction of the story helps to make it more understandable as well as more human. If these insights about charisma that I have outlined were more widely understood, then perhaps the problems of this kind of episode might not be allowed to develop to such a sorry conclusion. My own take on the story would be to say that if you leave a charismatic personality (not in itself a bad thing) in a situation where he or she is not properly accountable, then you have the recipe for potential disaster. The problem will be compounded when the situation is not addressed for a number of years. When an individual in any walk of life, not least the church, is identified as possessing the gifts of charisma, then there should always be checks and balances to stop that individual becoming too powerful and controlling, no doubt ‘enthralling’ and ‘mesmerising’ many along the way. Charismatic power can be channelled into good ends, but that can only be done by people who have faced up to and understand its potentially dark and destructive side.

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.

4 thoughts on “Charisma and Irrationality

  1. There is a dangerous fault line in many aspects of the modern Christian faith.
    In my opinion it goes right back to age of moving pictures and the advent of stardom?
    So many things have infiltrated what was once a very straightforward teaching. Yes, we must understand that a deeper revelation exists in the New Testament but, to my mind Jesus made it simple; “By your love will all men know that you are my disciples”?

    I have been working with Stephen on this blog for a while now and frankly, I feel that the future of organised ‘Christianity’ is hopeless. Celebrity Christians, fame and the media circus have brought the faith to a terminal place.

    But I want to say this (Possibly for the last time, as I fatigue of this hopeless repetition) where is the self-examination and seeking truth in this chaos? Give me one thing that I have said over the years that is unreasonable or, a better way of putting it, ‘that the average Jo in the street would find unreasonable?

    The abuse and horrors of the star struck charismatic, bloated kipper, mesmerizing toilet of human dross leaders, will continue for as long as “We” the Church let it!

    I have so much more to say, so very much more but, basically its ‘over to you!’
    The lights on Cemetery road are ready and bright for the coffin of the organised Christian faith in this country.
    I fear for all those who will be promised wings by the super Pastors of the future, many suicides will take place, many people will be broken.

    We have to make the Christian faith real. A very different ‘Revival’ needs to take place in the hearts and minds of genuine believers (I’m not one yet!) than in the so-called ‘glory days’ of the past.

    The onset of Religious militancy will increase, together with many other evils unless, what we call the Church starts to think about its credibility?
    I am pig sick of religious leaders on the merry-go-round of people pleasing, pew filling charmers, when will they follow Jesus and not the party line?

    “ I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”


    1. Instead of bemoaning what the church has been and might now be, can we perhaps concentrate on creating something different? We can break rules and we can we can have new visions. The church is not yet dead.
      After all, there were only twelve in the upper room.

  2. I think you’re right, Stephen. Neither of us know all the ins and outs of the Kids Company case, of course. But it does look as though Camilla B. has kind of got used to not being accountable. That’s not healthy. It’s easy in these circumstances for people to come to believe that they don’t need to follow the rules. I had a Team Rector like that. The cry was “People are more important then rules”, but of course, people were those who got hurt when they were broken. Really, it’s just a certain cast of mind in the person who won’t follow the rules, for whatever reason. Sad, too, that there is no way of picking up on the people who were definitely being helped. They are just being abandoned.

  3. Anon

    The twelve in the upper room had Christ there in the flesh. Two thousand years of faith followed that. And by the way if you broke the rules in my day, you were ostracised. What followed that was a generation of victims. Can you explain more please, I think those victims have a perfect right to ‘bemoan’?

    Chris Pitts

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