Authoritarian?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve increasingly seen Christians complaining about Government measures relating to coronavirus as “authoritarian”.  Now, I want to be clear at this stage that I’m not a big fan of the Boris Johnson administration, I didn’t vote for them and I, like many have serious reservations about the characters, policies and underlying philosophy involved.

However, one thing that you are unlikely to see as a serious, sustained criticism of those involved and their political philosophy is that they and it are authoritarian. First of all, the particular wing of Conservatism they associate with tends towards the socially liberal. There are those from the right who tend towards authoritarian, Theresa May for example and perhaps the current Home Secretary but generally speaking these are not your old-fashioned law and order Tories.  It’s not just the philosophy but also the personalities involved. Boris is known as someone who wants to be liked -and in fact one of the most sustained charges is that this leads to him procrastinating over tough decisions.

More than that, the actual evidence around Johnson’s approach to the pandemic suggests anything but authoritarianism. If you don’t believe me, think about what an authoritarian regime would have done to beat a virus. It would have ensured that people report their every movement via a compulsory tracking app. It would have completely shut down the borders immediately. It would have ensured that people were confined to their homes or curfewed from the off. It would have put the police or even the army on the streets to control order and crack down at the first sign of dissent. At that stage, you would have been able to say that the Prime Minister was ruthless, authoritarian whatsoever but probably not criticised him for some of the other things that the Prime Minister is being attacked for from the other end of the spectrum.

So, what is happening at the moment is that measures have been kept in place longer than we liked and other measures that we are struggling to get our heads around have been introduced or re-introduced. We have also heard warnings about more stringent measures coming into place. The argument is that the PM talks a lot about authoritarian measures for someone who isn’t authoritarian.

But do you see the problem here?  If someone in a uniform comes into your room in the middle of the night and orders you to leave immediately, perhaps removing you by force then are they authoritarian.  “Well it depends” you would say. “On what?” I would reply. Then you would explain that it depends on whether or not there is a reason why I need to leave and who exactly the man in uniform is. If he happens to be a fireman with good reason to believe my building is on fire, then there is nothing sinister about the instruction.

In the same way, the debate about authoritarianism is a bit of a distraction. It risks descending into a bit of a grumble that plays on some particular fears amongst us evangelicals. We have been concerned about creeping secularism.  So, if we are honest, we are prone to a narrative that plays into that fear of an authoritarian regime that cracks down on religious freedoms . The danger is threefold here. First of all, it risks us failing to see the actual threats and attacks to the Gospel.  This has to be the most important concern for Christians.  There are spiritual dangers that we face, often in our context these still come from comfort, lethargy and apathy. Most of us are free to share the Gospel but how often do we take the opportunities presented to us? Its far easier to sit and believe that it would be dangerous and excuse our lack of Gospel courage through perceived persecution. 

Secondly, it turns our eyes inward. We become so concerned about defending our rights and freedoms against perceived persecution that as well as failing to see the need around us, we fail to see the situation that our brothers and sisters around the world are in.

Thirdly, it means that we miss what is actually happening and a genuine critique.  As I said before, if there is a fire, then the fireman is not being authoritarian. However, this does not mean that the fireman is right to order us out of our rooms. First of all, he may be mistaken, there may be no danger. Secondly, he may be giving the wrong advise and his orders may be putting us at greater risk.

Now, there is a legitimate debate about whether or not there is a new and deadly second wave that threatens lives on the same scale as the first wave.  I suspect that we would do well to veer on the side of pessimism here. Better to discover that the second wave didn’t hit in that way but to have been prepared than the other way round.  Secondly, there are questions about whether or not the proposed measures are right or not.  I will put my hand up and say that I have concerns about that.  I do so recognising that I am not an epidemiologist. However, even still, I think us lay people can still listen to a debate and reach informed conclusions.

The other problem is this.  We go around grumbling about the Government being authoritiarian and what happens is that we start to give an impression of our views about order and authority.  Pastors, guess what. If you teach God’s Word faithfully, if you oppose heresy, if you spot and seek to act against the risks arising from the latest spiritual fads, then you too at some point will be accused of being authoritarian, legalistic, judgemental, a control freak. 

So, let’s be thoughtful and careful about the language we throw out when critiquing others in authority because we are likely to die by the same sword that we live by.

3 thoughts on “Authoritarian?

  1. “So, if we are honest, we are prone to a narrative that plays into that fear of an authoritarian regime that cracks down on religious freedoms . The danger is threefold here. First of all, it risks us failing to see the actual threats and attacks to the Gospel. This has to be the most important concern for Christians. There are spiritual dangers that we face, often in our context these still come from comfort, lethargy and apathy. Most of us are free to share the Gospel but how often do we take the opportunities presented to us. It is far easier to sit and believe that it would be dangerous and excuse are lack of Gospel courage through perceived persecution. ”

    Absolutely spot on. Keep up the great work of hitting nails on the head repeatedly!

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  2. Thank you for your thoughtful article Dave.
    As someone who has been ‘free’ with my language about modern Conservatism, I hear your argument and find myself rebuked by much of it. From the church perspective, I do not agree with those who say this government has been harsh or over-bearing with Christian congregations; if anything the opposite.
    Yes, we need to be careful of how we characterise UK political leadership, but I suggest that there are two strands of thought behind the “Authoritarian” name-calling.
    One is from those for whom any government control, taxation or restriction is a step too far. They revolt against any authority in the name of some libertarian ideal. This is perhaps most noticeable in hard core Trump supporters. I suspect none realise that what they espouse leads ultimately, but logically, to chaotic anarchy, and not the utopia they imagine. These groups feed off endless FB and Twitter posts that drip-feed this antisocial immorality into their brains. Perversely, these groups also espouse brutal, unforgiving summary justice against anyone who they dislike, be that criminals, LGBT, lefties, woke etc.
    We see his phenomenon is many UK groups too these days and let us be plain, most if not all will inevitably vote Conservative, UKIP, or BNP. Alas, our government cannot just ignore these core supporters. As they appease this group by pushing a harsher form of ‘law and order’ at the expense of pragmatic or reformatory justice they will inevitably been seen as heavy-handed at best and creeping into autocratic behaviour at worst. Our current home secretary has been consistently committed to the tough, heavy-handed approach, and too bad if we deliver miscarriages of justice, as long as we appease the ‘hang ’em high brigade. But when it gets to government itself, then it is exactly the opposite. Whatever way you look at it, that is the beginning of an authoritarian form of governance – protect the elite and attack everyone else. The Libertarians see this as a small price to pay for their ideal of a strong ‘land of the free’ fantasy.
    The second group is the binary opposite of the above group – those who espouse the importance and centrality of government involvement and leadership in public life, but who insist on a strict moral code within government: openness and honestly, scrutiny and accountability, and an absolute embargo on cronyism and nepotism, and a ready willingness to resign for breaches and indiscretions. Any breach of this code of conduct in public office is going to be viewed by this group as authoritarian in nature. Whether is it conscious autocracy on the government’s side is always a value judgement. But what cannot be disputed is that all these features of ‘fair and decent’ government have been consistently trampled on by this current cabinet and it is well documented. They are not open and honest, they have avoided public scrutiny and accountability in ways that would have been utterly unthinkable even three years ago, they have indulged in brazen nepotism, and they never ever accept fault. Again this behaviour is seen in all truly autocratic regimes the world over in history. That we have crept there at all and so noticeably is bound to have liberals like me shouting “foul! you nasty authoritarians!” Certainly it’s hyperbole, and I agree we should be careful not to suggest they are authoritarian in any sense of fullness at the moment, their direction of travel is inevitably but surely in that direction. Therefore I see this authoritarian name-calling, not as a fully-fledged position, but more as a warning call of our current destination given the direction of travel.
    One last thought. Johnson used the libertarians, nationalists and nepotists to get himself into power. Whatever his own centrist, one-nation instincts, or his delicious stealing of Labour policies, he is in the grip of these dubious forces and has a quid-pro-quo to pay.
    Sorry this is so long Dave but this article of yours has been rummaging around my brain for days now. Whilst it has made me think a little harder about the name-calling, I am still very worried not to call out the birth of the reality of that name.

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    1. Thanks Nick … I think you are right to highlight the use of nationalists to gain power. Similarly there are two long standing strands of euroscepticism one on the left and one on the right who had issues with the EU re constitutional and democratic deficit but they never gained ground until they allowed themselves to be wedded to anti immigration nationalism. I think your use of the phrase heavy handed is appropriate. The reason I think authoritarian is unhelpful is because I think it leads to a misdiagnosis of the issue at stake. Boris is not authoritarian but his brand of politics and personality leads to a laziness which allows unchecked bureaucratic answers through without scrutiny. He is happy for the machine to get on with things unchallenged but that is in fact part of the job. I think he gets given a free pass on this because of his articles on the EU and red tape. There is a greater risk of this creeping unintended approach than full frontal attack.

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