Authority, Trump, and Me

Donald Trump officially accepted the Republican nomination tonight, proclaiming as usual that he alone is the solution to America’s ills. For those who have been paying attention to his campaign (and who hasn’t?), that can be a lot to take in, even if we’ve known it would happen for months. How did we get here again?

Back in the early days of the Republican presidential primary, after the primaries had started but before it was all clearly decided, journalists struggled to make sense of what Donald Trump’s “consituency” consisted of. The strongest correlate they were able to find was how these voters responded to authority. Basically, voters with a psychological predisposition to authoritarianism — measured (perhaps surprisingly) by attitudes on children’s obedience to parents — were much more likely to express support for Trump in the primary, beating out other correlates like a high school education level.

I too struggled for months to understand the appeal of Trump when no one I knew, even back in conservative parts of Colorado, supported him. But reflecting recently, I’ve been surprised to discover that when it comes to authoritarianism, I personally share that same disposition. I seem to naturally want to follow a strong man who seems to have all of the answers. But I’ve also been blessed with a range of experiences with this sort of authority that has taught me several important lessons that I’d like to share.

Just to be clear, I can’t really imagine myself supporting Trump. I also probably wouldn’t qualify as an authoritarian based on the four standard questions about parenting: I’d have noticed the connection and modulated my answers accordingly. But I do seem to have followed some leaders who seemed to have all of the answers, like many have concluded Trump does.

In early high school, as I began to understand and become excited about my Christian faith, I discovered a prominent speaker at the time in creationist circles named Kent Hovind. A polished presenter, this self-styled “Dr. Dino” promoted the common creationist line of thought that the evidence from nature firmly established a special creation around 6000 BC, and mainstream evolutionary science was in a state of denial about it. Along with this picture of natural history, Hovind also promoted a few ideosyncratic personal values, such as avoiding health insurance and taking good personal care of his body with vitamins to save money.

I recall responding pretty strongly to this message, wanting to watch more and more videos. In his presentations, Hovind would blitz through topic after topic, stringing together a barrage of observations to make reinforce his message. In one debate with skeptic Michael Shermer, I remember Shermer commenting that he hadn’t seen anyone who could give a better a PowerPoint presentation in 15 minutes.

Occasionally, I would learn that individual arguments that Hovind had brought up would be refuted, such as the admission by other creationists that the “canopy theory” of the pre-Flood earth probably wouldn’t work thermodynamically, as the greenhouse-induced temperatures would be too high to sustain life. Still, Hovind had such a wide variety of arguments that the sheer volume persuaded me to trust his assessment of the facts. That trust started to extend to his other arguments about health insurance, although I was still too young to make those decisions for myself.

I know, many of you are rolling your eyes at my naivety, believing what a polished creationist would say. But let me ask you this: Who is the authority in your life? Who do you look to for to explain everything, whose words you find spot on no matter what they’re talking about? Whether it’s a politician, talk radio host, late night comedian, pastor or blogger, many of us flock to follow speakers who seem to strike all of the right notes for us.

Fortunately, my mom noticed that I had begin swallowing everything Hovind said unthinkingly, and encouraged me to be a bit more skeptical. As I stepped away and started to listen to a variety of sources, and most importantly, began digging in depth on individual issues that I could understand, I began to see more and more flaws with his understanding, and realize how much my response had hinged on his impressive presentation style.

Eventually, Hovind’s pride and certainty in his own interpretations would catch up with him in the end. In short, he became convinced that because he saw his ministry as owned by God, not by him, that he shouldn’t be paying taxes to the US government on it. The government saw otherwise, and he ended up in jail for ten years, effectively ending his ministry.

Whatever you think of Young Earth Creationism (that will be the topic of a post or series of posts another time), I learned through that experience that I was susceptible to the authoritarian trap of believing everything that comes out of the mouth of a single flawed human teacher. No one individual has all of the answers. I’m thankful that my mom stopped me there, that I had the curiosity and time of a high school student to study these issues in detail, and that the domain where I first experienced this was in science, rather than politics, where the issues are a bit clearer to sort out.

I also learned an important general message for fighting this authoritarian tendency: Hone in on one specific question and look at it in full. Does this apparently infallable teacher have the most correct perspective on it? Odds are, you’ll find some flaws, especially if they sounded utterly convincing on a first listen.

As I left high school, one of my pastors recommended that I look into a couple prominent megachurch pastors in the evangelical community: Matt Chandler in Dallas and Mark Driscoll in Seattle. The summer after my freshman year, while living without a car far from a church, I listened to Driscoll’s sermons every week from his megachurch called Mars Hill, and continued listening to nearly all of them for the next five years or so.

One reason that Driscoll is so popular, and which I liked about him, is that he speaks with authority, directly rebuking (frequently) the “boys who can shave” that twenty-something guys tend to be today. Counterintuitively, his message caught fire in Seattle, one of the least-churched areas in the entire country, and his church grew to 15 campuses across five states.

Listening to his sermons nearly every week for five years definitely shaped me into who I am today. Here’s just one example to give you the flavor of his preaching:

People tend to have a variety of reactions to listening to sermon points like this one, but I was convicted. I had already decided to give up video games upon entering college, but this furthered my conviction and drive to change the world rather than just the leaderboard. I can’t say I’ve been perfect, but Driscoll exhorting me to take my drive for excellence and apply it to something that matters was and is inspiring.

I share this example because it taught me the value of good authority in shaping one’s life. At its best, good authority can step into our lives, correct what is wrong and inspire us to live a better life, as Mark Driscoll’s preaching has done for me. The solution to authoritarian tendencies is not to avoid all authority, but to turn it for good purposes.

Does it really make a difference, though? It can be tempting to believe, especially if you think like an economist, in a sort of conservation of moral fortitude: People will react according to their moral convictions a roughly constant percentage of the time, and our best hopes for change in the world are to better align incentive structures with good rather than simply exhorting people to choose the good. This is probably somewhat true in some public policy contexts: For instance, if you believe more people should be organ donors, it’s quite likely more effective to simply make organ donation opt-out rather than opt-in in your area than to try to lead a campaign to get more people to sign up to be organ donors.

But it’s dangerous, and thankfully blatantly false, to try to apply this thinking in your own life. It’s dangerous because it leads to personal moral complacency, believing that “I’m just as likely to procrastinate, be late, overeat, break promises, and so on, as I’ll ever be, and nothing will ever change that,” condemning yourself to the same level of maturity and sanctification that you currently are at while also absolving yourself of all moral responsibility for said behavior. Here’s a diagnostic: If your best idea for getting yourself to do something is to turn it into a game, then you probably also fall for this trap of moral complacency. Why can’t we strive to be better human beings week after week, year after year?

I’ve realized that I need someone to whom I’ve given authority to step in and whip me into shape. I am infrequently my own harshest critic, and I need an external source of conviction to recenter me. Driscoll’s sermons played that role in my life for years, and I’ve felt their absence as I’ve slowly slid towards apathy and moral complacency. Fortunately, I’ve had others in my life, like my best man Peng Shi, to challenge me to grow and mature in my personal disciplines. Wherever I go, I also know that praying and meditatively reflecting has allowed me to hand God the same authority. In all cases, this is a positive use of authority that undeniably has made me a better person.

At the same time, I’m grateful that I had learned the first lesson as well and kept a little bit of a distance, treating Driscoll’s teaching as a secondary resource to my own spiritual development. Mark Driscoll is also fallible, and while he was an excellent Bible teacher, his leadership style in his church had major flaws. The worries escalated as former leaders in the church began speaking out, and in October 2014, he resigned as pastor of Mars Hill, leading the multisite church to disband into individual congregations, also effectively ending his ministry.

I’m obviously saddened by those events, and as an active follower at the time have a lot of opinions about whether this was the right course of action for him or the church and what role the media played in all of this. But to focus on the topic of authority, I learned through Driscoll the importance of humility in leadership. Positively, I recall Driscoll frequently admitting that sometimes the critics (and he had many) were completely right, an admission we see all too rarely from our leaders today. And negatively, it seems that when it came to his leadership style within the church, he didn’t listen to his fellow leaders enough.

Humility is really what separates the side of Driscoll that I still value from Trump and Hovind today, and I think forms the key lesson to combating the worst excesses of authoritarian tendencies. Even Jesus, who was perfect and completely legitimately had authority, was humble, coming to earth in a meek human form, praying desperately to God and submitting himself to be tortured and executed on the cross. If the authorities we follow think they’re better than that, they’re very likely just plain wrong.

One response to “Authority, Trump, and Me

  1. Pingback: Disillusionment with Authority is the Coming of Age Story of Our Time | The Christian Rationalist

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