Charisma, Cults and Theoretical Traditions

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My recent posts about the recruitment techniques used by new religious movements and their parallels with choral recruitment practices made an implicit connection between the sociology of religion and the sociology of charisma. I thought it might be useful to make this connection a bit more explicit, but didn’t want to get distracted in the midst of all the choral detail, so the subject has a separate post of its own.

Now, both branches of sociology have a common origin in the work of Max Weber.* But they’ve not been as closely interlinked in the literature (as far as I can see) as you might expect from that. Weber was the first to propose the distinction between church and sect that has informed much of the sociology of new religious movements, but he stopped writing about it once Ernst Troeltsch picked it up and developed it.

Weber later went on to write about different forms of authority, including charismatic authority, and it is this body of work that underpins and informs all later studies of charisma as a form of leadership. Much of that later work has involved critiquing elements of Weber’s work, filling in gaps, and attempting to resolve contradictions – but it bears that classic hallmark of a robust theory that, whilst it needs a good deal of refinement and adaptation, it makes a jolly good start on the subject.

One of Weber’s key contributions here was in partly secularising the idea of charisma. The idea of the supernatural or divine remained, in that the extraordinary powers accorded to the charismatic leader are usually attributed to a mystical origin, but this is dissociated from the idea of religious practice or faith groups per se. This is possibly why you don’t see cross-references between the sociologies of charisma and of religion as a matter of course.

(I’m not claiming a comprehensive grasp of the literature here, you understand, but I’ve rummaged through enough of it to have a feel for what counts as standard knowledge that most people take as shared and understood. And this cross-connect does not appear to be standard.)

The other major thing that Weber did, and subsequent sociologists have pursued, is to consider charismatic authority not just in terms of what the charismatic leader does but in terms of the social circumstances in which he or she operates. He promotes an understanding of charisma as a theorisable form of group dynamic, not merely a freak of personality.

And this is where it is useful to cross-reference the ideas that have come out of this part of his work with those that came out of church-sect theory. There are several significant points of contact:

  • Separation from the mainstream. Charismatic authority in its purest form operates outside a society’s established power structures such as traditional (inherited) authority or legal-administrative authority (bureaucratic power as wielded by institutions). Likewise, a sect is set apart from the established churches; it doesn’t have a professionalised clergy, and members join through conversion rather than being born into it.
  • Critique. Separation is not merely an organisational feature of a sect, but is also an ideological one. The identity and beliefs of the sect is predicated on an active protest against or rejection some elements of the dominant traditions of the host society. Likewise, charismatic power gets much of its emotional energy through critique, as a response to a perceived crisis.
  • Proselytising urge. This is related to the sense of critique. Charismatic leaders espouse a cause beyond themselves, usually couched in terms of the abstract or moral good that will accrue to their followers. This also provides the engine for a sect’s recruitment by conversion.
  • Strongly hierarchical power-structures. Much is made in the literature about how cults use thought-reform techniques to retain converts of the requirements for compliance with the prevailing values, language and behaviours. Charismatic authority is likewise very top-down. The leader may seek counsel among their followers, but as the source of their authority purports to rest in their special powers, there is no democratic dimension to their decisions.
  • Communion. Raymond Bradley has identified a particular social structure in charismatic groups whereby there is a mutuality of social bonds throughout the membership. This allows the experience of communion, an elevated state of emotional connection between the members, experienced as intense fraternal love and euphoria. The social practices he describes that groups use to promote this state of lowered ego boundaries and to encourage individuals to merge with the group resonate strongly with the kinds of rituals cults use to inculcate members into their ranks. (And that choirs use to prepare for rehearsal or performance.)

So, when you get commentators on cults saying that one of their hallmarks is that they have a charismatic leader, that seems to me to be something of a tautology. All the social dynamics within the sect and between a sect and the mainstream from which it separates itself are mitigating towards the experience of charismatic encounters. If the basic group dynamic weren’t charismatic, it wouldn’t be a cult.

Whilst one of Weber’s achievements was in theorising charisma in such a way that it can account for social situations that aren’t religious, it seems to me that his formulation and the theories that have developed it still work very well for that corner of religious practice that is radical and evangelistic in tone. And that making this connection helps us to keep the dynamic of the whole group in mind as we think about charisma, rather than getting distracted into focusing exclusively on the colourful leaders – who are fascinating, but only part of the story.

*Every time I type his name, I have to pause to prevent myself from typing Carl Maria von instead of Max. Does anyone else have this problem, or is it a peculiar feature of my academic upbringing?

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