August 2, 2006

Conservatives Without Conscience: Christians and Earthly Authority

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 7:55 pm

I’ve just finished reading John Dean’s new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, and have found much fuel there for examining conservative Christian worldviews. But before I get into that, a quick explanation of Dean’s main thesis.

Dean is a Goldwater Republican who finds that most beliefs held by Bush conservatives run directly counter to his traditional conservatism (you know, fiscal responsibility, personal freedom, avoiding international adventurism — that conservatism.) When he went looking for an explanation for this tectonic shift, he came across some academic studies trying to understand why so many Germans followed Hitler’s immoral rule during WWII. A lone madman like Hitler is one thing. A large segment of the population willing to follow a Hitler or a Mussolini is another. Where was their conscience?

These psychological studies developed a profile of the type of person likely to participate in immoral actions merely because a strong leader tells them to. These authoritarians tend to be submissive to authority and in favor of punishing the declared enemies of the authorities. Authoritarians conform to conventional behaviors, are hostile to minorities, and view themselves as more moral than others. They also aren’t very self-aware; it’s difficult for them to see their actions from outside the context of the authoritarian structure.

As you might expect, conservative Christians tend to score highly on this scale.

Dean’s explanation of this research reminded me of the theology of Bill McCartney and other founding members of Promise Keepers (it seems that PK has retreated from this view over the past few years):

For God to heal, however, men must take charge. In Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, popular Promise Keepers speaker Tony Evans offers a strategy for accomplishing this : “The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role. I gave up leading the family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.’ Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back. If you simply ask for it back, your wife is likely to simply [refuse]…. Be sensitive. Listen. Treat the lady gently but lovingly. But lead!”

The view expressed here is of a hierarchical power structure: men are to obey God and their church, women are to obey their husbands, and children their parents. Each of us is to accept the authority of those appointed headship over us by God, and to provide headship to those God commands us to lead.

Except that Jesus doesn’t seem too interested in this hierarchical chain of command.

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

What’s important to Jesus is that we follow him, not the headship of our fathers, husbands, pastors or Presidents.

Which brings us back to the genesis of the research Dean cites. The researchers wanted to understand why so many people would be complicit in immoral acts committed by fascist and totalitarian regimes. When these Germans, Italians, Japanese, Russians, Cambodians, Rwandans, Sudanese and, yes, Americans (Japanese internment camps? Indian reservations?) follow authoritarian leaders, they are rejecting the authority of Jesus Christ in favor of a human leader. Christ commands us to “follow me”. We are to reject any human leader, even our spouses, parents or pastors, if they are leading us away from Christ.

The Holocaust showed us that Paul was wrong when he told the Romans that “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed”. Instead, our role models should be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Hitler. Or Martin Luther, who risked his life by defying the Pope. Or better yet, Jesus Christ himself, who defied the authorities by submitting himself to them, thereby redeeming the world.


  1. “Dean is a Goldwater Republican who finds that most beliefs held by Bush conservatives run directly counter to his traditional conservatism (you know, fiscal responsibility, personal freedom, avoiding international adventurism — that conservatism.)”

    This is the party I looked for, years ago, the party my parents used to vote for before Nixon. It no longer exists. I’d like to see this brand of Republican take over the party again. I might even at times to back to crossover voting. It’s a shame where it’s gone, into a kind of control-freak-empowering realm that frankly scares me.

    Interesting, enlightening post.

    Comment by Barbara — August 3, 2006 @ 5:02 pm

  2. Bob summarizes the author:

    “When he went looking for an explanation for this tectonic shift, he came across some academic studies trying to understand why so many Germans followed Hitler’s immoral rule during WWII. A lone madman like Hitler is one thing. A large segment of the population willing to follow a Hitler or a Mussolini is another.”

    …and you lost me right there.

    Still demonizing Conservatives/honoring the writings of those who do so. What is it that causes “Progressives” to feel they must somehow compare or link Conservatism to Nazis, Bob?

    The best example of fascism today is Islamo-fascism. Which of the two political ideologies: Conservatism vs
    Progressives is clamoring to appease these Islamo-fascists?

    Consider that.

    Many Jews in America resent this loose comparison of Conservatives to Nazis, Bob, and many of them are rethinking which party they will support in upcoming elections. It is an insult to them AND to conservatives but that’s what it’s all about, right? Insult Conservatives and in the process elevate yourself? Good luck with that.

    Comment by Jacke — August 9, 2006 @ 10:31 am

  3. I left some further comments at my blog about this ridiculous comparison of Conservative Christians to Nazis. Thank you.

    Comment by Jacke — August 9, 2006 @ 11:58 am

  4. I was with you up until the beginning of the Promise Keepers story. I happen to agree that a man is called to lead his wife, and a wife is called to submit to her husband. Not only that, but the guy didn’t just make that up, it’s Scriptural.

    And your analysis of Mark 10:28-30 is seriously lacking. Jesus statement had nothing to do with a “chain of command”. Peter was freaking out because Jesus had just told him that “For mortals it is impossible [to be saved.” Jesus was reassuring him that everyone who gave up their lives (read “lifestyles”) for Him would receive the blessing.

    Paul wasn’t wrong to tell us to obey authorities. He was right. He didn’t tell us to [i]blindly[/i] follow authority. He said follow the commandments, and obey the law. This statement doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists within the framework of obeying God over all things.

    And I agree with Jackie about liberals just dying to give these radical dictators from Iran, Syria, and N. Korea whatever they want, while at the same time comparing our president to Hitler.

    Comment by Elmo — August 9, 2006 @ 1:13 pm

  5. Actually, John Dean, the author of this book, is a conservative. He describes himself as a “Goldwater Conservative”. He served in the Nixon whitehouse and ultimatelay was called to testify about Watergate.

    The research didn’t set out to connect conservatives and Nazis, but to understand why ordinary people go along with acts that are clearly immoral. The research data speaks for itself.

    If you want to know more, there are plenty of interviews of Dean on the web as part of his book tour.

    Comment by Bob — August 11, 2006 @ 9:12 am

  6. Then you accomplished what Dean did not when you wrote:

    “As you might expect, conservative Christians tend to score highly on this scale.”

    Comment by Jacke — August 11, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

  7. He didn’t set out to connect the two, but the research data ended up doing so. I’m just recounting what he says in his book.

    Jacke, if you want to argue against Dean’s book, then you should read it first, or at least acquaint yourself with his arguments. Take a look:

    If you won’t make the effort to understand his arguments, then we’re just wasting our time here.

    Comment by Bob — August 11, 2006 @ 8:18 pm

  8. Bob writes:

    “Jacke, if you want to argue against Dean’s book, then you should read it first, or at least acquaint yourself with his arguments.”

    Fair enough. Since I haven’t read the book and have no intention of adding to the wealth of John Dean, runs against my “conservative principles,” don’t you know? Here’s a review from someone who has:

    “In his seventh book, Dean, the former Nixon legal counsel whom the FBI has called the ‘master manipulator’ of the Watergate coverup, weighs in with a rebuke to Christian fundamentalists and other right-wing hard-liners. A self-described Goldwater conservative (indeed, Goldwater had planned to collaborate on this book before his death), he rails against the influence of social conservatives and neoconservatives within his party. Suffused with bitterness stemming from the controversies in which he has been embroiled, Dean’s book paints a thin social science veneer over a litany of mostly ad hominem complaints. Purporting to show that social conservatives and neoconservatives are, on the whole, demonstrably authoritarian, bigoted, irrational and amoral, Conservatives Without Conscience offers helpful hints such as ‘Conservatives without conscience do not have horns and tails,’ and evinces a telling fascination with politicians’ shady book deals. Though there is clearly much to condemn in the policies and tactics Dean deplores, assailing everyone from French political theorist Joseph de Maistre to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to the chairman of Yale University’s conservative association as ‘Double High’ social- dominance-oriented authoritarians undermines his journalistic credibility. Dean’s lurid accusations may be entertaining, but they add little to the reasoned debate that Washington so sorely lacks today. (July 11)” Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

    Comment by Jacke — August 12, 2006 @ 6:55 am

  9. Bob–

    I found this book to be absolutely riveting. He has done the world an enormous favor by explaining, in a popular, easily digestable manner, a large of amount to academic research into the political behavior of conservatives about which the geberal public would have likely oteherwise remained unaware.

    Now the next book you need to review is Fiasco;)


    Comment by Public Theologian — August 12, 2006 @ 7:29 am

  10. PT –

    Yeah, I keep hearing about Fiasco…guess I have to add it to my list, although I’m in the middle of Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming right now, which is also good. So many books, so little time…

    Comment by Bob — August 12, 2006 @ 7:48 pm

  11. […] So John Dean may seem to be on thin ice in Conservatives Without Conscience when he refers to research prompted by Nazi Germany to explain the current authoritarian strain in the Republican party. But let’s dig a little deeper. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » Torture and the Authoritarian Personality — August 13, 2006 @ 9:01 am

  12. C’mon Jacke, do your homework! Publisher’s Weekly? That’s the best you can do? I’m sure there are far more insightful and scathing reviews at NRO or Weekly Standard or American Spectator.

    Comment by Bob — August 13, 2006 @ 3:31 pm

  13. It seems to me that the common thread with conservatives w/out conscience is that they tend to
    baptize themselves in “Group-Think” in following a leader. This frees them from individual moral
    responsibility. When this happens – as history has shown – it is not so very far away to
    committing atrocities in the name of freedom, security, national pride, manifest destiny, and
    even in the name of Jesus.

    Conservatives w/out conscience will create a world where “Islamo-fascism” thrives, and then
    condemn Progressives for “clamoring to appease them,” without offering a single example proving
    their point, and not acknowledging and not accepting responsibility that the world is a much more
    dangerous place since the conservatives w/out conscience have been in control of our government.

    Even using the term “Islamo-fascism” is not without a specific intent to be able to act without
    conscience. As Joseph Sobran, syndicated columnist said: “Islamofascism is nothing but an empty
    propaganda term. And wartime propaganda is usually, if not always, crafted to produce hysteria,
    the destruction of any sense of proportion. Such words, undefined and unmeasured, are used by
    people more interested in making us lose our heads than in keeping their own.”

    Dean is correct, this is not the conservative party of Goldwater, nor is it the conservative party
    • Eisenhower: emphasizing a balanced budget and control of the military industrial complex,
    • Nixon: ending American fighting in the un-winnable war in Viet Nam and improving relations
    with the U.S.S.R., and China., and a installing a broad environmental program,
    • Reagan: negotiated bilateral arms reductions with the Soviets,
    • George H. W. Bush: had the foresight to know when choosing not to invade Iraq: “”Whose
    life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond
    the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we’re going to show our
    macho? We’re going into Baghdad. We’re going to be an occupying power — America in an
    Arab land — with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous.”[18]
    • William Buckley: – in an interview on CBS “”I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best
    defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that
    he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses
    by Congress,” Buckley says. “And in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing
    together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge.” Asked
    what President Bush’s foreign policy legacy will be to his successor, Buckley says “There
    will be no legacy for Mr. Bush.”

    The conservative ship has steered off course. The occasional voice in the wilderness has tried to
    bring it back, but any attempt at course correction is often dismissed with attacks on the

    Comment by Gary — August 13, 2006 @ 4:11 pm

  14. If you’re looking for the party with the values espoused in the book, join the Libertarian Party.

    Comment by Rob Eichenlaub — August 14, 2006 @ 11:19 pm

  15. […] For those who have read my past posts on John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience, you’ll understand why the word Authoritarian in the description of the first conception of God jumped out at me. The explanatory power of the psychological model Dean discusses seems to have gotten some validation from a Baptist university. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » Baylor: Is Your God Authoritarian or Benevolent? — September 13, 2006 @ 9:55 pm

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