The Quest for Legitimacy


I’ve been reading the book David and Goliath by author Malcom Gladwell which looks into the stories of underdogs that unexpectedly win out over overwhelming odds.

In the middle of the book, however, I suddenly came upon a fantastic quote about authority and what elements go into making authority legitimate. Whatever your feelings on Gladwell, this quote seems so well to highlight what is wrong with the authoritarian structures in fundamentalism that I think it’s worth pondering:

“…legitimacy is based on three things. First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice–that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another.”

― Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

In a place where people have no voice, where the “unwritten” and arbitrary nature of the rules can be expanded to include any behavior, and where the authority often gives a pass to the “good eggs” while dealing harshly with those perceived as “rebellious” is it any wonder that many people eventually come to realize that the authority of such places is illegitimate?

It’s more incredible to me that some people still think that there is legitimacy to this kind of capricious and autocratic method of ruling.

52 thoughts on “The Quest for Legitimacy”

      1. lol, I hereby relinquish any said rights to “first” into the care of Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist.

        I find the entire ritual to be a little ridiculous, so I was humored to find myself staring at the opportunity to make the first comment, and decided to make a scene of it. 😉

        1. But Doc, it’s still like cheating at solitaire. You win, but only because you manipulated the situation. And now EVERYONE knows.

  1. The other side of that warped coinage is folks who anxiously await a leader. They yearn for someone to lead them, to guide them, to set the law before them and hold them to the letter of it. They are so scared of not having someone to tell them “what to do” and “how to do it” that they will blindly follow the first one to come along and relieve them of this burden.
    Then the burden is no longer the individuals to bear, it can now be placed on the shoulders of the M-O-g in the pulpit.

    1. So true. I have seen many people claim to be free of Fundamentalism, and then they give their freedom away to the first Facebook group demagogue who demands their total loyalty. Over the last few years I have become amazed at how many people DON’T want to be free. They want to be taken care of and told that they belong.

      1. When we are ok with not having all the answers, we can be free. Until then, it will be as you say and we’ll continue running around trying to follow the person who demands loudly enough that they have the answers.

      2. I have several female acquaintances as Facebook friends who complain about the guys they date. They date guys who are jerks / physical abusive / cheaters… one after another. At first I kept them around for the entertainment value but now I just hide their posts.

        People may come to realize that a specific individual or institution is abusive, but if they don’t address the underlying psychology that made them chose those individuals or institutions, they will go and find someone exactly like the one they just left.

    2. So true Don. Eric Hoffer made a similar observation in his book “The True Believer” Some people are afraid of being free, of having to make to own choices are being responsible their the outcome of their actions.

    3. Give me a king, give me a pastor!

      Don, nothing has changed since Israel rejected God and demanded a human king, or since believer’s rejected the Holy Spirit and Christ’s headship and demanded human clergy, “pastor,” or moG.

      Now the law of Christ, such as bearing one another’s burdens, has become once again the law written on stone.

    4. You speak the truth. Looking back… I made the decision to join the military (straight out of High School) partly because I knew that, though I wanted to be “on my own”, I sensed the need for authority. Later, when my enlistment was drawing to a close, I became a fundy. (Still looking for someone else to “answer to”, in this case, a manipulative preacher).
      Your comment brought me a little “Eureka” moment regarding those past decisions. Where do I send the check for the therapy session? 😉

      1. Btw, this reply was to Don’s comment. I didn’t realize it would end up way down here after all the other replies. Sheesh.

        1. To continue the introspective assessment, while I willingly placed myself under these authorities, (military, mig) I never sold out to their rules. Always living on the outskirts and secretly doing my own thing. I think I have Eddie Haskell syndrome.

      2. I do believe Dar-El will happily accept your check. Unfortunately, it looks like the “donate” button has been replaced for the holidays, but I’m sure he’d be willing to tell you how to get it to him 😀

  2. Gladwell is fantastic! I’ve read “Blink” and Presbyguy liked “The Tipping Point.” He is a truly gifted author.

    Whenever we are asked to blindly follow rules with no voice and no vote, beware!!

    Good leaders welcome input, suggestions, and advice while still maintaining the authority to lead well.

  3. The last two paragraphs sound like how America has evolved since its founding, although its probably my bias seeing it as an evolution and its just always been that way.

  4. What I find ironic is some fundamentalists I have known have accused the Catholics for blindly following the Pope and not being able to think for themselves. They have accused other religions of arbitrarily following rules, etc.
    And yet not see it in their own culture.

    How is that?

    1. I’ve often said that the Pope is jealous of the authority that the typical fundy MOG wields over his sheeple.

  5. Says so much about the current Queensland premier. For the first time in my life, I don’t want to live here anymore 😥

    1. Todd, please stop spamming your blog in the comments. If you’d like to post links to things you’ve written for discussion feel free to use the forum.

    1. I’d like to believe this, but my experience both with religious & irreligious people is that there are large swaths of people who like to establish a clique/power and defend it regardless of merit or wisdom of doing so. I don’t get that impulse, but I don’t think it’s rare.

      1. Healthy people are loyal to leaders who are fair. Unhealthy/brainwashed/manipulated people are not good judges in this regard.

      2. Agreed…but there is a BIG difference between true leaders and those who are merely in a position of authority. In that, I think you have pin-pointed a basic fundy problem…although it is rife with men trying to acquire/exert authority (i.e. power), fundystan lacks leaders in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt who feels it is his duty to lead the charge into hostile fire. The typical MOG is more than happy to give orders from the safety of the rear base.

      3. This is a good point. I think it has to do with holding on to power, and insecurity in power. All 3 “illegitimate” leadership characteristics – not giving a voice to those you’re supposed to be leading, changing the rules arbitrarily, and applying the rules inconsistently across the group – smack of a person who’s trying to hang on to power by any means necessary. To stifle dissent. Ultimately, someone who is insecure in their own position.

    2. “People are loyal to leaders they think are fair.”

      Big Gary, how would you then explain the huge followings amassed by cruel and tyrannical people?

      In the majority, people are loyal to leaders who appeal to their fears and desires, in my opinion. That’s why this country has so many grasping and odious people in political office right now. It’s why the media worships crass wealthy people.

      1. Great point. I think the issue at play here is the fact that a large portion of the general public (fundies and non-fundies alike) are just looking to follow…and whoever fills that vacuum will command their “loyalties” (think Jim Jones, cult leaders, and any politician who gets by on a cult of personality). The thinking person, however, is the one that is loyal to people they think are fair. Actually, thinking people are loyal to people who espouse ideas they agree with (the message, not the messenger).

      2. Most people are followers. We can condemn them for that or just accept that the human race was created or evolved to have leaders and followers. People lead and follow for different reasons. The appearance of assertiveness and decisiveness is probably the single biggest reason that the herd follows a leader.

        Never underestimate the power of fear, either.

        1. All the more reason to educate conscience and to restore the value of an educated conscience to Christian teaching. To have a conscience is to be born with a responsibility for the choices you make.

  6. So well stated, Darrell.

    To be honest, I never thought of the aspect of having a voice in the context of my former fundy “church.” When my former fundy CEO quoted to me out of Hebrews 13 that I was to obey them that have the rule over me, I was expected to merely obey without question, or I would be lumped in as one of those rebellious and stupid sheep.

    I, long with those outside of the inner circel, did not have a voice. I’m embarrased to have put myself and my family under the imperial rule of such a tyrant.


  7. Excellent points. The only people who will be satisfied under that kind of authority are either those who don’t want to be free (see Bassenco’s comment above), or are so deluded they don’t know any better.

  8. “Don’t teach me about politics and government
    Just tell me who to vote for
    Don’t teach me about truth and beauty
    Just label my music
    Don’t teach me how to live like a free many
    Just give me a new law

    I don’t want to know, if the answers aren’t easy
    Just bring it down from the mountain to me.”

    Derek Webb – “A New Law”

  9. Honestly this definition sounds like one from a Political Science textbook. Legitimacy is a key concept in PS.
    The three things that he wrote are considered to be intrinsic to legitimacy. He did leave out the one element that befuddles observers of politics and fundies alike: perceived legitimacy.
    Legitimacy is self-perpetuating. Once one is in power they are perceived by most to be legitimate. Only truly egregious actions will cause people to question the legitimacy of someone who is perceived to be legitimate. Even then, a sizable portion of the group will still support the leader.
    This is why political leaders and fundies try to dress up their misdeeds with words like “constitutional” and “undershepherd”. It is to preserve their aura of legitimacy. If they were to admit that they are doing things to please themselves, strengthen their power or take revenge then that would puncture their legitimacy.

    This is why tinpot dictators bedazzle themselves with medals and surround themselves with yes men. It enhances their perceived legitimacy. Other tinpot dictators award themselves doctorates and surround themselves with yes men.

    “How dare you question me? 99.99% of the population voted for me!”

    “How dare you question me? The deacon board supports me!”

    If your dictatorship is located in the developing world or in an IFB church it helps your perceived legitimacy to make sure that your people don’t hear dissenting voices. Quash them any way you can.

    I think legitimacy goes a long way toward explaining why so many good people remain in fundy churches. The perceive their pastor as a good man. Any aberration from that perception is explained away or dismissed.
    In the absence or real legitimacy fundy pastors work hard to enhance their perceived legitimacy.

    1. Yes.. the façade of legitimacy is a key concept in political science. However, there is a distinction to be made between power and legitimacy. Leaders can hold power for a long, long time after losing legitimacy. But legitimacy is, perhaps, part of what keeps challengers at bay. The other part is the threat of brute force. All governments use the façade of legitimacy and force to stay in power, but the mix is different. Governments that are low on legitimacy have to substitute force.

  10. Two other aspects of great leaders.

    First, they did not choose to be leaders. They are not born and raised to be leaders. A situation arose where a leader was needed and they stepped up to the plate. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain by being leaders. Some examples include Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, Nelson Mendela and Martin Luther King Jr.

    Second, a good leader knows they are not indispensable and their time as a leader is temporary. Cemeteries are full of indispensable men. Compare this to the US Senate, where the only way some men leave the Senate is in a coffin. (Please John McCain retire soon, you’re an embarrassment)

  11. I’m not sure that I agree with the first point; that it is necessary for people to feel that they have a voice. It seems to me, given the number of absolute dictators, that what people want is not so much to have a voice, but to believe that the leader cares for them, or has their best interests at heart.

    I don’t think followers of Jim Jones had any voice, but they certainly thought that he had their best interests at heart.

  12. One of the features frequently seen in fundamentalist circles is the sole authority vested in the pastor. Loyalty to him becomes the dominant factor and often they invoke the “divine right” to pass their office down to a member of the family. This seems to be a recent tradition in Protestant churches and I would be very reluctant to be associated with any church where so much authority is vested in one person.

Comments are closed.