Why is Trump appealing? Religious authoritarians and democracy don’t mix

Print More
Caricature of Donald Trump by DonkeyHotey via Flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/25485978382/

Caricature of Donald Trump by DonkeyHotey via Flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/25485978382/

Guest post by Ryan Burge

Why are so many religious conservatives backing Donald Trump? Trump may not be the model of religious faithfulness and virtue, but he may appeal to those who value leadership and authority.

Political scientists and psychologists are finding that Trump seems to be tapping into an authoritarian personality trait that exists in a large subset of the population. Authoritarians seek strong, powerful leadership and fear many so-called “out groups” (such as racial minorities).

My research finds that people who value strong religious authority also tend to be those who show other signs of being authoritarian. Religious authoritarians are often political authoritarians.

Along with my colleagues Paul Djupe (Dennison University) and Brian Calfano (Missouri State University), I conducted a survey of clergy. To tap into religious authoritarian values, we asked them how much they agreed with a number of statements regarding how religious congregations should be structured and led.

  • The more clergy can step out of the way of the congregation the better
  • It is important for the congregation to construct their own salvation
  • The Gospel is what the congregation makes of it
  • I believe there are many valid interpretations of the Bible
  • The church must adapt to a postmodern culture in order to spread the Gospel.

Based on responses to these questions, we are able to measure how much clergy value religious authority. In an earlier post I describe how clergy who are more religiously conservative also indicate a stronger belief in religious authority. How does this belief in religious authority shape other types of authoritarianism?

One of the most commonly used authoritarianism is based on how people viewed the goal of child rearing. Do they think it is more important for children to be raised to be obedient or to think for themselves? We gave clergy three pairs of goals and asked them to tell us which one is more important:

  • independence or respect for elders,
  • curiosity or good manners,
  • being considerate or well-behaved

Together, these items give us a scale to see how important authority is compared to independence.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

I crunched the numbers and found that clergy who believe in religious authority also prioritize raising children to be obedient and respectful as opposed to independent and curious.

(For details on interpreting the figures, see the geek note at the end of the post)

An additional battery of questions was posed that assessed how committed clergy were to deliberation in their congregation. Clergy either had to agree or disagree with five statements.

  • We explicitly encourage participants to think seriously about the views of others
  • It would be essential that all those present participate
  • It is essential that a range of viewpoints be presented
  • It would be essential for participants to learn how our values apply to issues
  • It would be essential for participants to learn how to talk through their differences

An interesting result emerges: religious authority matters but religious conservatism doesn’t. In individual models, religious authority and religious conservatism both predict lower levels of deliberative values. However, when both variables are included in a single model religious conservatism no longer is predictive but religious authority makes pastors much less supportive of open debate in their congregations.

A similar set of questions were asked that tried to understand how much clergy support foundational democratic principles. The four statements were:

  • It’s very important that politicians air their differences of opinion publicly
  • You can’t have democracy without political opposition
  • You can’t be sure an opinion is correct unless people are free to argue against it
  • Unless many views are presented, there is little chance that the truth can ever be known.
This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

The model for democratic norms looks almost exactly like the one for deliberative values. Taken individually, both religious conservatism and religious authority predict lower levels of support for democratic norms, but modeled together the only variable that remains viable is religious authority. Consider it this way: clergy with the highest level of religious authority are a third less supportive of both democratic norms and deliberative values than clergy with the lowest scores on religious authority.

Many observers have noted that the Trump voters are authoritarians. They seek a strong leader who punishes opposition and speaks with impunity. It seems that this same phenomenon may exist in Christian churches. Clergy who have a strong view of religious authority seem to be less willing to allow for true discussion to occur in their congregations, possibly because it could undermine their authority as spiritual leaders.

Religious authoritarians seemed to be less convinced that democracy functions best when many views can be presented. It’s impossible to know if religion accelerates authoritarianism or has no effect on it, but it seems that a certain subset of Christians seem to believe in and seek out strong leaders like Trump.

Geek Note

The survey was drawn from the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and clergy from the Greek Orthodox Church.

I am displaying the results of regression in visual form. The dot is the average difference between those with the characteristic and those without it.This difference takes into account other factors listed (e.g., education and religious conservatism).So, if the dot for religious authority is to the right of the line, then a person with a strong belief in religious authority has a higher value even after considering all of the factors listed.  If both the dot and line don’t intersect with zero there is a statistically valid effect. If the dot is to the right of the vertical line it means that the variable predicts an increase, if it’s below it decreases the effect. I ran a model with just religious authority, one with just religious conservatism and then a combined model while including some control variables.

Ryan Burge @ryanburge researches religion and politics. He is currently studying the politics of the emerging church movement.

Don’t miss any more posts from the Corner of Church & State. Click the red subscribe button in the right hand column. Follow @TobinGrant on Twitter and on the Corner of Church & State Facebook page.

  • yoh

    Its fairly simple. For years conservatives have kept racism latent and made overt expressions of it socially unacceptable. Implied racism and support for racist policies was still there.

    To satisfy the need to express overt bigotry, they went towards anti gay, anti woman, and sectarian causes. But these are really wildly unpopular with most people and only connected with a small but vocal group.

    Here comes Trump going about showing that racism is OK again, and it appeals to them in a broader fashion. Trump is showing the anti gay, Dominionists, and fetus worship positions pale in popularity to good old fashioned racist appeal. Why accept measly substitutes when you can have the real thing.

  • John McGrath

    Two points: …1. Mind Magazine this month has an excellent article about how Americans choose presidents. Comments on given from evolutionary biology and historians specializing in the US presidency. The basic idea: Voters of all persuasions want (to more or lesser degrees) a dominant/confident/bold President. Trump’s supporters, of course, are all for the know-it-all dominant leader. But conducting the presidency requires judgmEnt, of ten lacing to the boldest candidate. … 2. What has happened to “soul freedom” among thE Baptists. I think of the Southern Baptist denomination as the religion of a thousand popes.”

  • John McGrath

    Lol, too true.It is so unsafe for black males in the USA. And if “all lives matter,” then how come so may black lives do not matter, especially to the police, but also in general?

  • Jack

    It’s good the author’s research was competent enough to realize the obvious distinction between religious authoritarianism and religious conservatism. While most (though not all) religious authoritarians are religious conservatives, plenty of religious conservatives are not religious authoritarians.

    I’m not convinced that there still aren’t some other variables that better explain why some evangelicals are for Trump while others are just as strongly opposed to him, but this is something to think about.

  • Jack

    I don’t think that racism concentrates the minds of the Trump supporters as strongly as it did with prior generations. I do think that a broader fear of the “other” plays a much bigger role than racism. Scapegoating is also a factor. Trump backers are more likely than other GOP voters to be struggling financially, and it’s convenient and oddly comforting to blame immigration, legal or illegal, for it.

  • Jack

    It is unsafe for black males in the US, but overwhelmingly because of other black males. And that, in turn, is the direct consequence of more than a seven decades of failed policies foisted on black America by initially well-meaning white liberals — policies that effectively torched the black family and black civil society in inner cities. We know this is the case because since the 1970s, similar policies have torn apart white working-class communities as well. Over the decades, black illegitimacy rates rose from 11% to 75%, while white illegitimacy rates rose even more precipitously, from 3% to nearly 40%.

    If black lives — and white working class lives — truly matter, we need to revisit these failed policies and change them.

  • yoh

    1. How the hell would you know the situation of black males?
    2. The police officers who are habitually killing off black youth as of late are overwhelmingly white
    3. You are implying the Conservative solutions to poverty such as promoting mass starvation and widespread health hazards is better than illegitimacy.
    4. The “war on drugs” has done far more damage to black communities than anything you can pin on “liberals” mass incarceration, diversion of resources away from necessary areas, creating incentive to a criminal class…
    5. You managed to demonstrate the implied racism of Pre-Trump conservatisms as opposed to Trump’s out and out racism.

  • Steve A.

    How the hell would you know the situation of black males?

  • yoh

    I don’t. Nor do I claim to know what is good for them, unlike the patronizing poster I was responding to.

    But I do know what is prompting “Black Lives Matter”. I am familiar with the implied racism of the “Liberal Plantation” argument being applied here and the destructive wake left by the War on Drugs.

    “All lives matter” is a tone deaf argument made to ignore the corrosive effects of police brutality. In Ferguson the law enforcement which was literally predatory.

  • yoh

    The fact that unlike yourself, I am not a middle aged white guy. 🙂

  • Jack

    1. I read, Einstein.
    2. The police officers who are killing whites are also overwhelmingly white and you want us to assume that officers are deliberately targeting blacks, which no normal or intellectually honest person believes.
    3. Asserting that “mass starvation is a “conservative solution” is so batsh*t crazy, let alone false, it’s not even worth commenting on.
    4. War on drugs is a whole other topic and I suspect we will agree on a lot of its problems.
    5. Yoh, don’t even try to call others racist when every one of your prior points makes assumptions that are inescapably racist.

  • Jack

    Yoh, you definitely are a “middle-aged white guy.” Maybe you’re a bit older than that, but you’re as white as can be. Every one of your posts shouts “white lefty” in all directions.