Cultural Authoritarianism Breeds Political Authoritarianism

Libertarians sometimes tend to focus on political freedom in isolation, and to view cultural authoritarianism (at least as long as the state isn’t directly involved) as something libertarianism as such has nothing to say about.

I believe this is a mistake.  Cultural authoritarianism — such as occurs in the family, church and workplace — tends to exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship with political authoritarianism.  Authoritarianism isn’t easily compartmentalized.  People who are in the habit of unquestioning obedience to authority in a major part of their lives, and have their freedom of judgment subordinated to the will of others, are unlikely to fight very vigorously for their personal liberties against the claimed authority of the state.

And people who are used to unquestioning obedience from others are unlikely to scruple at using the state to get things their way.  When such people do become libertarians, they generally view libertarianism as a doctrine promoting the equal liberty of masters, owners, and patriarchs to dominate those in their petty kingdoms without outside interference.

And in most cases, we see that those with the most authoritarian cultural attitudes are often among the most energetic advocates of using government to meddle in other people’s private business.

Cultural authoritarianism begets political authoritarianism. And frankly, some of the cultural authoritarianism out there is pretty extreme.

Take, for example, the cultural authoritarianism prevalent in much of fundamentalist Christianity.  Bob Jones University is probably the most over-the-top form of it.  Every aspect of life is monitored and regulated, in the most intrusive ways imaginable.  And the standard response to any conflict with an authority figure of any kind is “No doubt the fault lies with you.”

But the same cultural authoritarianism runs quite strong through much of fundamentalism.  A typical (if horrifying) example is “Check Your Attitude,” by Dr. Dale Robbins (1994),  in which he states that “persons who have a bad attitude toward authority figures always have a bad attitude toward God.”

In the idealized fundamentalist vision of society (based on the principles stated in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, the fifth and sixth chapters of Ephesians, and First Peter chapter two), the twin pillars of society are authority and submission.  Children obey their parents, wives obey their husbands, Church members have a “humble, submissive attitude toward the loving correction of sin” they receive from their pastors, slaves obey their masters, employees obey their employers, citizens obey the state, and so on.  Of course the superiors in all these relationships have a duty to promote the welfare of their subordinates in a loving manner.  But this latter duty isn’t actually enforceable against the superior by the subordinate.  It’s enforced through their accountability to still higher authority figures, going all the way up to God.

Robbins provides a very informative list of the proper Christian attitudes in a number of areas of life.  Among other things:  The proper attitude toward authority is ” respectful, cooperative, accountable, humble, helpful, encouraging, loyal. Not resentful, defiant or disrespectful.”  Our attitude toward unfairness should be “patience, humility, confident in God’s justice.”  And our attitude toward sin should be “uncompromising, unaccepting, intolerant, unsympathetic, yet compassionate and reconciliatory for the repentant.”

Putting it all together, our attitude sin apparently should be “uncompromising, unaccepting, intolerant, unsympathetic” — unless, that is,  it’s a sin of unfairness committed by someone in a position of authority.  So what the authority-submission paradigm translates to in practice is that we should be intolerant and uncompromising toward sin committed by people who are under our thumbs, while showing patience and humility toward those in authority who screw us over.  Sounds like the dog’s rule for successful living:  “Know when to bark and when to lick.”

Needless to say, such pathological attitudes aren’t exactly conducive to the kind of society that can maintain freedom on a stable basis.

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