Personal Blurtings on Religion and Authority in America

In thinking about the Mars Hill and St. Mark's controversies, and in dealing through my own issues in discernment for ordination to the priesthood, I've been thinking a bit about authority in religion over the last few days.

America's a funny place, particularly when it comes to religion. We're fiercely independent in principle--we don't like the gubment telling us what to do, and we think everybody deserves the opportunity to do what they want. Then, when it comes to religion, we turn over all of our spiritual (and often personal and financial) independence to these figures with nothing more than a shiny suit and a B.A. from Middle Nowhere Holy Spirit Bible University to legitimate their authority. And with predictable results, in many cases.

Why are we so bad at questioning religious leadership, when challenging authority seems to come as such second nature here? I think I'll cook up a few crackpot theories, mostly based on personal experience:

One guess is that most of us need authority ultimately, whether we like it or not, and religious leaders are essentially filling a power vacuum. In the US we don't trust government or other community leaders, but we need to trust someone to lead us. (Otherwise, we'll be the ones who are responsible for our own actions, and no one wants that). Religious leaders are happy to oblige, with claims to ultimate truth, and the handy ability to utilize all of the benefits of power, while transferring the responsibility for their decisions on to God or the Bible. B/C they're effective at meeting some of our social, emotional and spiritual needs, we transfer a deep level of trust to them. In short, we like having someone around to tell us what to do, and our leaders like having people who they can tell what to do. That's not exactly how I have experienced my present situation in the Episcopal Church, b/c it's not exactly how the power structure works, but I would say that it accurately described the way I functioned religiously growing up.

Another (contradictory) guess? We do question religious leadership, but don't let that deter us from our commitment to the church. We tend to think, in general, that we know better than our ministers, but we're happy to keep them around to keep things running. Occasionally they'll say something helpful, and we're happy to pat them on the back for that. If they screw something up seriously, we can get rid of them without too much trouble. We go to church because it's a good show and a good experience, or we have friends there or gain something important from it--not primarily because we agree with the leader. That helps to explain our other inexplicable religious tendency--to sit through long, boring and irrelevant sermons week in and week out. It also, I think, crudely describes the way I think about religious leadership now, in my more callous moments.

In my case, I also tend to spiritualize my submission to authorities--priests, and bishops and the lot: submission teaches you humility, which helps you to be a better person, etc. Ultimately, though, I think a lot of my personal submission is pragmatic: I have to submit to authorities if I want to be a part of this organization--even though I may have serious disagreements with them. That recognition, in itself, is a bit scary to me, because it stinks of a personal willingness to sell out. I'm not sure how deep that tendency is, or how important the issues that I'm "selling out" on are. I'm also not sure that it's such a bad tendency--sometimes it's a good thing to trust leadership who's been there done that. Still, it makes me feel a little dirty to recognize that I'm willing to tow the party line for reasons other than that I agree with the party line.


Anonymous said…
The blog is spot on tonight.
Here in the South, authority is a strange concept. Sure, people generally thumb their noses at big gov, but much trust is still placed in the public figures, local or federal, to 'get the job done'. I dont trust them one ounce, of course.

In terms of religious authority, you'd think there were 50 decendants of Moses or Peter, each running his own denomination within one city. Yet, when it verily comes to pass that a man of the cloth is pocketing the offering plate change or pounding the pretty treasurer on the office desk, well...look yonder, over the horizon comes another Moses fresh out of seminary, and he'll do fine. He'll lead us. Maybe he should run for public office...

Sure, an amount of respect is due to those who work only on Sunday, but it probably shouldnt be any more respect than is due to the rest of deserving humanity. The problem occurs when one is revered merely for a position held, and not for character exhibited. I suspect the character of any individual that cant enjoy a pint now and then. How can you lead another spiritually if you cannot enjoy or recognize one of the simplest blessings from God?