“Authoritarian reactionary Christianity” is the main term I use in a forthcoming book (Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies, 2023, Eerdmans) to name the Christian posture that leads to support for democratic backsliding, which is my greatest concern at this moment, due to my strong ethical commitment to democratic norms.
The term—authoritarian reactionary Christianity—is my own. At this moment, at least in the US setting, “Christian nationalism” (Whitehead and Perry) has become the primary shorthand to critique problematic Christian politics. Marcia Pally, in her essay, uses a very helpful explanatory paradigm focusing on populism. While both frameworks are quite valuable, I propose that authoritarian reactionary Christianity may offer a broader historical-cultural lens reaching outside America, which Pally also provides while focusing on the US.
Political authoritarianism in established democracies involves weakening popular sovereignty, centralizing power, undercutting the rule of law, threatening fair elections, limiting freedom of speech, misusing state power to weaken political opposition, manipulating the criminal justice system, and eroding civil rights protections.
In multiple countries, conservative Christians have demonstrated active support for such political authoritarianism. In my new book, I consider such tendencies in the current or recent politics of Russia, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and the United States. I also consider older examples in late 19th/early 20th century France and Germany.
Why do Christians sometimes support political authoritarianism? It must be acknowledged that many Christians tend toward religio-moral authoritarianism, and this may play a role.
Religious authoritarianism is an understanding and practice of truth and authority in religious institutions in which hierarchical and centralized power prevails throughout the religious system. A monarchical or oligarchical power structure is vested by God with authoritative access to ultimate truth. This sacralized authority proclaims truth, interprets texts, and commands communal obedience.
In the most authoritarian religious environments, there exists no venue for individual or communal participation in the discernment, interpretation, and proclamation process, and no real avenue for protest. Sometimes an environment of intimidation exists. The role of the people is to receive and obey authoritative teaching, not to debate what to believe.
Christianity continues to carry forward religio-moral authoritarianism and top-down governance structures in many of its institutional expressions. The level of authoritarianism exists along a spectrum and can evolve. But still, traditions of authoritarianism are quite visible in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant communities.
My claim is that Christianity continues to sustain anti-democratic tendencies centuries after politics in many historically Christian lands embraced democratic norms. It is politically significant that majorities of Christians participate in authoritarian religious institutions. It may be that where a significant number of Christian groups and individuals have not democratized their understanding of power in their churches and communities, they can unwittingly function as anti-democratic incubators in politics.
Meanwhile, Christian traditions of a more democratic nature, such as in many congregationalist communities, have served as a countervailing pro-democratic force. And the long tradition of explicit Christian defense of political democracy, which began in the early 17th century ahead of the Enlightenment, urgently needs renewal.
The term “reactionary” has been deployed since 1797, when French writer Benjamin Constant used it to denounce the Thermidorian Reaction after the French Revolution. It describes a phenomenon consistently visible in politics – dramatic changes tend to evoke equally dramatic reactions against them. Even if most people in a society consider a change to represent progress, there will always be those who react negatively.
To the extent that “reactionaries” attempt to block changes embraced by the majority as great steps forward for human progress, such persons will be viewed negatively by those around them. The reactionaries, in turn, will often develop an embattled and defiant streak—what Pally calls us-them shift. There could hardly be a better sketch of the spirit of conservative Christian resentment today.
Political authoritarianism among Christians often appears to be activated, or intensified, by a strongly negative reaction to modernity, democracy, and pluralism, to cultural, moral, political, and legal changes in democratic societies which progressive forces treat as great advances for progress, but traditionalist Christians reject.
When a negative reaction to social change hardens into a posture of Christian disdain for modernity and democracy, it can be fairly named reactionary. From the perspective of Christian ethics, a blanket posture of negative reaction is a too simple form of engagement with culture and a too pessimistic response to social change. It also yields bad fruit, as it tempts toward authoritarianism and other toxicities, such as conspiracy theories, gutter politics, and even militia violence.
It is the combination of authoritarianism and reaction that defines much of what has gone wrong with Christian politics. This tendency has been visible since the very origins of the modern world. The rise of reason and science and weakening of religious authority, the rise of democracy and weakening of monarchy, the rise of worldview pluralism and weakening of the hegemony of Christian thought, the enfranchisement of non-majority Christians and non-Christians and end of majoritarian Christian power, the rise of secular institutions and weakening of the (dominant) Church, has routinely evoked strongly negative Christian reaction. What often resulted was reactionary anti-democratic tendencies and susceptibility to authoritarian politics. This was first-wave anti-democratic reaction.
New waves of Christian reaction have been unleashed as social changes considered threatening have accelerated, especially since the 1960s. Even some Christians that over decades or centuries had come to terms with modernity now are showing susceptibility to religiously motivated authoritarian reaction.
Especially when Christians believe themselves to be losing significant cultural influence, facing moral or political threats to their families or institutions, and being offered the opportunity to (re)gain cultural and political power, they can prove susceptible to authoritarian, anti-democratic politics. Here my interpretation dovetails closely with Pally’s account of status-loss duress.
Authoritarianism in Christianity is a feature, not a bug, and it is unlikely to change any time soon. Perhaps on its own, it is a problem mainly to those inside the faith. But when Christian authoritarianism hooks up with fierce cultural reaction, it can become a profound problem for society.