Below is a partially compiled list of characteristics of a cult. These characteristics are taken from the list of references provided at the end of this post.
- a given group/person claims to have a monopoly on the truth
- thus, those outside a given group/person can only have a corrupting influence
- thus, a group/person is authoritarian and is not to be questioned or criticized
- the past wrongs of a group/person are not honestly dealt with
- a group/person is too defensive about past wrongs
- a group/person is arrogant and presents themselves as superior to all others
- a group/person encourages followers to be isolated from all others
- a group/person cries victim by describing all criticism as abuse and bullying
- a group/person convinces followers that they will never measure up to standards
Now compare that with the beliefs and practices of a conservative from the website, the Imaginative Conservative. This article was written by Russell Kirk who is focussed on and celebrated by the website.
- "there exists an enduring moral order" which means that all morality is reduced to private morality so that if people are just as individuals, then society will be just regardless of the politics
- "adheres to custom, convention, and continuity" means that we keep the ways of the past because of the benefits it has brought and we have grown accustomed to its curses
- "believe in what may be called the principle of prescription" in that our success can only come from certain people from the past who are our superiors
- "are guided by their principle of prudence" and thus "long-run consequences" determine what is right
- "pay attention to the principle of variety" as opposed to any egalitarian society where the best cannot emerge from the rest
- "are chastened by their principle of imperfectability" and thus any striving for perfection will not just fail, it will be catastrophic and thus we should only strive for a society that is just and where there is a balance between order and freedom
- "uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism"
- "perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passion" whereby those who are superior in their use of property to gain wealth are not limited by either the combination of group rule and collectivism or by political tyranny
- "understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society" and thus wants a balance between keeping what is old with improving with what is new
When we compare the two lists, though there are some points of concern in the principles of conservatism where we could see how it could lend itself to becoming a cult, nobody could justly call it a cult. However, with the way conservatism is practiced, promoted, and celebrated today, it is not difficult to see how conservatism works as a cult among SOME conservative circles. Here, I am referring to loyalty to the conservative label where those who hold to a conservative theology, because of the label, also hold to a conservative politic, economy, and society. As a result, some of the harmful effects that political, economic, and societal conservatism brings to both a society and the world go unchecked and unchallenged.
Let's first take a look at areas of concern regarding conservatism and cults. If we compare the first three bullet points with conservative principles #2, 3, and 6, we see where conservatives can build such a resistance to expressed concerns and questioning, that a certain authoritarianism develops and mistrust of those who are on the outside grows to the point where they are demonized.
Conservative principle #3 asserts that we ourselves not only owe our success to designated people from the past, but that those from the past are our superiors. We are like children who are held up by 'giants.' Certainly, we want to learn from those in the past who, on specific points, can be said to be our superiors. However, to depict such people as being superior to us is to designate such people as authority figures. Once we have given these people such authority by placing them on this pedestal, we find it difficult not just to disagree with these giants, but to disagree with their recognized interpreters.
To assert that those from the past are our superiors is the same sin as to claim that we from the present are better than those from the past. The former practices an unbalanced adherence to tradition and custom while the latter practices narcissism. In either case, those from one age cannot be questioned or challenged by those from another because of the superiority that one group has over the other. If we were to use the words of Martin Luther King here, we might have said that those from one age have everything to teach while those from the other age have everything to learn. And the operative word here is 'everything.' That is because the word everything introduces an undue authority for one group and relegates all others to being either ignorant or demonic.
Now if we have recognized the past as being superior to the present, as Conservatives have with selected people or groups, cults form around those who claim to be the rightful interpreters of these giants. So not only do we end up with a tyranny of the past, we experience a cultism that revolves around certain personalities with the possibility of tribal wars springing up between competing authorized interpreters. In either case, we are hit with a double authoritarian whammy of being pressured to become unduly subject to both the past and to the right people from the present. Those who criticize either authority figure will at least experience some form of marginalization in if not total exclusion from public discussion. Don't believe me? Participate in the blogs of these conservatives. Some, certainly not all, block you from expressing contrary views. On others, you will be attacked. And certainly some do tolerate and even welcome dissenting views. Remember, that this tie between conservatism and cults is to be made with some, not all, conservatives.
We could summarize points #5-9 as saying that though communities are important, individual freedom and the chance for each to emerge above the rest in terms of accomplishment and use of property trumps the need of others. This is what is behind the celebration of variety. Variety, for conservatives, isn't to be sought in diversity in race, expression or character; it is to be found in the diversity in performance. Also, this is what is behind the idea that the only good collectivism is voluntary collectivism.
Any move toward some degree of egalitarianism enforced by the government is seen as an infringement on the liberty and performance of the individual and must thus be condemned. If this summary is correct, then it has perceived another all-or-nothing approach in conservative thinking. We should note that not all of the principles lend themselves to all-or-nothing thinking or that not all conservatives take an all-or-nothing approach to these principles. But whether it is from the principles or the people preaching them, an all-or-nothing approach to these principles carries serious ramifications.
In the first place, to state that all collectivism must be voluntary is to deny both the interdependence and moral obligations put on us. Our interdependence points to the fact that our property does not consist of discrete islands so that our success is totally due to what we have done by ourselves while applying the principles given to us by giants. Rather, not just our success, but our very lives depend on the contributions of many segments of society. And the people from some of these segments that support, if not play a significant role in, our lives and success are not given their due recognition in either status or property compensation. Such people are called the working poor. And while the 'successful' among us, those who are given more than handsomely rewarded with property. Those with more than enough property look upon helping others as a luxury.
In other words, some of the success we see among the wealthy is due to the exploitation of others. But when we add the 'free market' into the mix here, exploitation is factored out of the equation. And with the denial of exploitation comes the abundance of cult characteristics from the preventing of questioning, to the lack of honesty and the denial of wrongdoing, to assumption of privilege based on claims of superiority, to finally the feeling of being scapegoated for the problems of others. Certainly not all apologists for the Free Market show these signs of belonging to a cult, but certainly market fundamentalists lean that way.
Though it is often pejoratively called fundamentalism, what we are seeing in those who apply an all-or-nothing thinking approach to conservatism is a submission to, in varying degrees, a cult mentality. Quite often, the idol being worshipped is wealth and prosperity. The cult leaders to be followed without question are those who teach us how to become wealthy, and those who do not acquire abundant wealth are blamed for not following conservative principles. And finally, success both is the answer to all questions demands that all critics be silenced.
We could say the same of those who in the search for personal wealth by individual performance who deny that property or wealth they pursue is finite and thus there comes a point where their garnering of property automatically means a denial of property to others.
Finally, we will want to address the first conservative principle. To reduce all morality to private morality is to deny that groups with authority and systems can sin. It is to remove such from questioning, criticism, and thus challenges. And to make them authoritative is to obligate us to play by their rules. Such a principle lends itself to cultism. In addition, it says that the atrocities forbidden to be practiced by individuals can, with no qualms, be pursued by groups with authority and systems.
References for cult traits