Back in June last year, Russell Moore did an oopsie. Not long after he quit his job at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), he accidentally-on-purpose leaked a pair of letters he’d written earlier. These letters detailed corruption, hypocrisy, cronyism, and intense racism and sexism at the highest ranks of SBC leadership. Then, a few days ago, I caught this essay on Religion News about a Catholic dissenter who’d been similarly hounded out of his own ‘professional Christian’ gig. Authoritarian Christian leaders really do not like dissenters, do they? Today, let’s check out why.

Hello, folks! Welcome back to Roll to Disbelieve! It is February 24, 2022. This is Captain Cassidy coming at you on this lovely early-spring day with a look at why authoritarian leaders hate and attack dissenters in their ranks.

Authoritarian leaders and followers

When we talk about authoritarians, generally we focus on the leaders in this category. However, they wouldn’t be leading much of anything without authoritarian followers.

According to this therapist, leaders and followers share many characteristics. They’re all hateful, belligerent, control-hungry, and aggressive. They all tend toward extremist thinking and paranoia. You can see more of these traits starting here. However, followers add a few things to the mix: marked submission to firm authority and cowardice when they face repercussions for their behavior.

It’s worth noting that most authoritarian followers are leaders themselves in certain contexts. This rule holds doubly true in Christianity. Only a very few lucky men occupy the very top spots in most authoritarian flavors of the religion. The sub-leaders beneath them might be kings in their own castles back home, but when they enter that ultimate leader’s castle they code switch to stay safe. So a parent who rules the family with an iron fist becomes a simpering lackey at church whenever the pastor is within earshot.

One of the reasons followers act this way is that authoritarian leaders tend to select sub-leaders based on how well they kiss ass, rather than whatever good qualities for leadership they might have. So simpering not only keeps followers safe from their leader’s wrath and the tribe’s retaliation, but also potentially grows their own power in other spheres.

The high price of dissent

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a David Brooks opinion post. It’s titled “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself.” It was big news in the skept-o-sphere, as you can guess. It describes a number of high-profile dissenters. These include Russell Moore, mentioned earlier, Tim Dalrymple (the president of Christianity Today, who got completely attacked for publicly supporting Donald Trump’s impeachment), and Kristin Kobes Du Mez (who wrote Jesus and John Wayne, a most excellent book).

Basically, these dissenters are trying to persuade their ultra-authoritarian brethren to make some big changes to how they Jesus. But they’re making this attempt as evangelicalism continues to grow more and more polarized by the day–and more toxic by the hour.

Brooks tried to put an optimistic spin on things, but even he recognized the core issue dissenters face in evangelicalism. Evangelical groups concentrate power in the hands of populist leaders who entirely lack real accountability. And those leaders tend to seek power in the temporal and political spheres, all to further their own ambitions.

And there’s no denying that the dissenters named in Brooks’ post that I know about have already paid a high price for their actions. The SBC’s leaders hounded Moore out of their entire denomination. Dalrymple has faced years of harassment and abuse. Du Mez writes all the time on her Twitter about the creepy, controlling behavior she encounters from outraged evangelical men.

Ronnie Floyd and Al Mohler definitely won’t be asking any of these dissenters to their next dinner party.

How authoritarian Christian leaders try to control dissenters

But the control-grabs start happening long, long before the dissenter actually makes any big moves, usually.

In the case of a dissenter who annoyed Pope Benedict, it began years earlier when he was still Joseph Ratzinger. A couple of days ago, Religion News ran a post from Thomas Reese. It’s called “I forgive Pope Benedict. I hope others can too.”

Way back in 1998, Reese became the editor of America Magazine, which is run by the U.S. Jesuits.

He writes this in his post:

I wanted to make America a journal of discussion and debate on the important issues facing the church. I knew there were limits to what we could publish. There would be no editorials in favor of married priests, women priests or changing the church teaching on birth control. But I thought we could have discussion and debate in articles that did not necessarily represent the views of the magazine.

Thomas Reese

And well, he was flat-out wrong there.

Ratzinger was getting angrier and more annoyed by the month, it seems, thanks to Reese’s desire to explore all sides of thorny issues in Catholicism. What’s worse, for Reese at least, was that Ratzinger vastly outranked him.

At first, Ratzinger limited himself to what Reese characterizes as “signaling his unhappiness with the magazine.” When Reese didn’t get that ever-so-subtle hint, Ratzinger had to get more explicit.

The price of dissent for Thomas Reese

At the time, of course, Joseph Ratzinger wasn’t Pope Benedict yet. That wouldn’t happen until 2005, when Pope John Paul II died. But he was an extremely high-ranking churchman who was very close to the pope. And since 1981, he’d served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This group, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “responsible for safeguarding the doctrine on faith and morals.” More to the point, it keeps heretical ideas out of Catholicism and defends Catholic ideals from change and dilution. If you ever hear Catholics talk about “the Holy Office,” this is the subgroup they usually mean.

If you ask me, this Holy Office thing sounds like the Catholic version of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. That’s where Russell Moore worked before, well, all that fighting last summer.

And Ratzinger really was not liking this cheeky young magazine editor. No, not at all. Neither did conservative American Catholics, for that matter. They loved Ratzinger (and now hate Francis, his successor). So they also criticized what Reese was doing with America Magazine.

Once Ratzinger became Benedict, Reese finally got told directly that he needed to scoot from the magazine. And Reese did so with what sounds like relief, though he says he was still angry about it all.

Dude’s still steeped in authoritarianism, though

Oh, and I just have to segue here. Remember the name of Thomas Reese’s post? About him forgiving Benedict and hoping others will too? Yiiiikes. In light of the Catholic child-rape scandal, that’s quite a big ask. Here’s how he puts it in his post:

I cannot insist that others forgive him, especially those who were abused by priests. In the early days of the crisis, he was like every other prelate, but he got better over time and faster than did many of his peers. He ultimately helped the church improve its response to the abuse crisis. But my experience is in no way comparable to the pain they suffered. 

In short, I see Benedict as a holy but flawed individual who did the best he was capable of. For all of us, that is the best we can say, so we should forgive as we would want to be forgiven. In the end, as he said, “finally, only our Lord can judge.”

Ai yi yi yi yi. That is painful to read. He’s trying so hard to tell everyone, even abuse victims, that they really ought to forgive this kindly, sweet, oh so holy old man for his “flawed” handling of the biggest crisis to hit Catholicism in possibly its entire history. And he’s comparing Benedict’s mishandling of the child-rape scandal to his extremely theocratic handling of Reese himself at a magazine.

Self-awareness, thy name is most definitely not authoritarian Christianity.

Both of these grievous mistakes in judgment could only come from someone who ultimately bends neck and knee to power. So I kind of wonder what he’s hoping to gain by publicly forgiving Ratzinger like this.

It was just such a weird post that it’s what got me thinking about this whole topic today.

The price of dissent for SBC dissenters

In the SBC, of course, numerous dissenters have fucked around and found out, as the saying goes. When Russell Moore left the SBC and accidentally-on-purpose leaked his letters, he definitely had the correct order of operations there. The SBC couldn’t really do much more to him.

Well, they could fling insults and accusations at his retreating back. And that’s what they did, yes. But insults and accusations represented the limits of their retaliatory powers.

The letters, though, continued the fight in his new absence. In them, Moore wrote very poignantly and movingly of his brave and righteous struggles to do what was right and proper and Jesus-y in a world that more resembles North Korea than Saint Augustine’s City of God.

Thankfully, it was much easier for Moore to escape his situation than it ever is for North Koreans.

Faction warfare in authoritarian trenches

As I wrote at the time, I definitely don’t consider Russell Moore to be any kind of Big Damn Hero. In his letters, he definitely curates a pious and sympathetic image. But we can read between the lines to get a better picture of what might really have been going down in the SBC’s halls of leadership. And when we do that, the picture that emerges is one of basic corporate-style faction warfare.

Moore belonged to one of the two factions active in the SBC right now. His tormentors almost exclusively belonged to the other. They saw his resignation as a victory for their faction. And then his leaked letters stole that victory right from their jaws. They’ve largely been losing ever since.

Other dissenters, like Beth Moore (no relation to Russell), got driven out under similar circumstances. She allied herself with women and sex-abuse survivors, and she sought real reforms in the SBC. Same for a couple of Black pastors, Charlie Dates of Chicago and Ralph D. West of Houston, who left the SBC in 2020 over the SBC’s opposition to Critical Race Theory.

There is really only one way for dissent to go in authoritarian groups. The dissenter must leave or be driven out. There’s no other way dissent ends.

How power flows from leaders to followers

As I mentioned earlier, authoritarian Christian leaders tend to hold a great deal of accountability-free personal power over their flocks. That kind of power gives them the ability to eject dissenters without ever having to entertain anything being suggested or offered as criticism.

And if those leaders tell their more obedient followers to reject and attack the dissenter, then that’s exactly what will happen.

Heck, they might not even have to explicitly order the flocks to do it, either. I’ve seen plenty of these kinds of groups. Often, a number of authoritarian followers will consider themselves like enforcers for the boss. So they’ll take it upon themselves to maintain the peace and unity of the group at all costs. They’ll then expect the leader to praise them–and maybe consider them for leadership roles later on down the line.

Remember that old line attributed to Henry II back in 1170, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” That’s exactly what was happening there.

Power is the real currency of authoritarian groups. Leaders hold almost all of it. Followers cozy up to them to get more of it. And luckily for power-hungry followers, their leaders tend to make their desires, likes, and dislikes clear.

Why authoritarian leaders refuse to entertain dissent: the sudden ambiguity of power

Ideological purity is very important to authoritarian groups–far more so than in other kinds. I’m not sure members of those other kinds even understand how important it is. And when really controlling variants of Christianity enter the mix, that desire for ideological purity just gets worse and more intense.

In the case of Catholic Thomas Reese, even presenting competing opinions in his magazine was enough for Ratzinger to start seeing him as an enemy. When Reese made the huge mistake of printing opinions that actually openly criticized Ratzinger’s decisions, I’m sure it made the situation even more tense around the office.

The simple truth of the matter is this: authoritarian flocks get easily frustrated and flustered when they’re presented with shades of gray and numerous potential opinions they could have. The flocks need to be told in black and white terms what to think and what they should be doing, even if they disobey in private. They can’t be given free rein to just do and believe whatever.

A dissenter introduces way too much ambiguity of power into these sorts of groups.

Dissenters equal fraying power

Now, it does benefit these leaders for there to be ambiguity in some places, like with exactly what clothes are immodest on women. That kind of ambiguity keeps potentially-restive groups busy trying to meet constantly-shifting goalposts. But when it comes to the leader’s complete hold over the flock, there can’t be ambiguity there.

Power must rest with the leader. If there’s the slightest hint that the leader’s power is fraying, then it’s entirely possible there’ll be a shark-like frenzy in the church’s waters as followers start trying to gnaw off whatever bits of power they can from their leader.

So ultimately, I don’t think there’s a single more precarious situation for an authoritarian leader to be in than for them to have a dissenter in their ranks that openly disobeys or criticizes them. That person must be dealt with very quickly and definitively, before the smaller sharks in the congregation start getting ideas.

And that may well be what Thomas Reese was trying to do. Forgiveness is a supreme example of power dynamic flow in authoritarian groups, after all. Who forgives whom for what, the public vs. private nature of the forgiveness itself, how it’s spun into superior Jesus-ing by the forgiver, and more — it all plays into power struggles that outsiders don’t usually ever notice.

But we have, just as Ratzinger — if he ever notices that post — will without a doubt.

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Thank you so much for listening, reading, and being a part of Roll to Disbelieve! Have a great night, or morning, or whatever it is when you get to this post! See you soon!

Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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