A Messiah Problem

Bettina Krause May/June 2024
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Today there is a national political leader who is deliberately and strategically draping his political aspirations in religious imagery in ways that are, frankly, sacrilegious. He has implied that his quest for power has the stamp of divine approval. His language, at times, is messianic. As national elections approach, he’s exploiting emotionally powerful tropes about the overlap between religious identity and national identity. His acolytes are running political ads that suggest God has raised him up to meet the political—and spiritual—challenges of the hour; that he, and only he, can protect the religious foundations of the country from those seeking to undermine traditional faith.

You know who I’m talking about, of course: Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.

For the past decade, Modi’s pro-Hindu rhetoric and policies have been at odds with India’s identity as the world’s largest secular constitutional democracy. Modi has promoted the idea that to be truly Indian, one must also be Hindu, and so, unsurprisingly, discrimination and violence against Muslim and Christian minorities in India has soared. As this year’s national elections draw closer, Modi’s supporters continue to anoint him on social media as India’s spiritual savior. Political advertisements show images of Modi overshadowing Hindu gods. In one poster Modi leads the child Ram Lalla—one of Hinduism’s major deities—to a temple. And Modi himself helps foster his political deification through public displays of Hindu piety.

Critics say Modi provides a textbook example of a political leader with a messiah complex—a leader who suggests, or accepts the suggestion, that they’ve been divinely chosen and anointed for a spiritual, as well as political, mission.

Obviously, it’s not just India. Politicians everywhere understand that religion and religious identity are potent political tools—tools that become supercharged whenever a faith group feels culturally threatened. Just ask Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, for instance, or Russian president Vladimir Putin, who both understand the political payoff that flows from being a “protector” of Christian faith and morals. Or ask President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who depicts himself as a one-person wall protecting Islam against the tides of secular chaos.

What a Political Messiah Complex Is Not

A few weeks ago I interviewed Australia’s former prime minister Scott Morrison for Liberty (the interview will appear in the next issue of the magazine). As a devout churchgoer, Morrison wore his Christian faith on his sleeve to a degree unknown in Australia’s recent political history. He occasionally talked about God’s calling in his life and his belief that he had been elected “for such a time as this.” Many critics hastened to call out Morrison’s “God complex” without making the effort to understand his comments within the framework of a common Christian belief—that God is personally present and active in the lives of individual believers.

In Morrison’s case this was a handy political slur but a poor description of reality. Politicians who are personally devout, who believe themselves bound by the moral demands of their faith, who hold policy positions shaped by their religious worldview, or who feel led by God don’t necessarily have messianic ambitions.

A political messiah complex is more than any of those things, and it’s far more insidious.

Starting Point: Cult of Personality

One of the best critiques of the modern electoral process I’ve read is in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made president should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

Of course, the president he’s referring to is Zaphod Beeblebrox, the less-than-reputable president of the galaxy. Still, Adams has a valid point. It takes a certain type of person—and personality—to run for high public office. At the very least, it requires self-assurance, bordering on audacity, to spend millions of other people’s dollars on a campaign during which you endlessly tout the superiority of your own vision, judgment, and abilities.

And if you do happen to convince a majority of your fellow citizens to agree with your self-assessment? Well, it’s likely you have a degree of personal charisma that, when combined with power, should immediately set scores of red flags waving.

Yet this is how our system works. The cult of personality has become central to the process and pageantry of elections, not just in America but the world over.

Cult of Personality + Religion

The cult of personality becomes a whole new phenomenon, though, when it finds religion.

History shows us plenty of leaders—whether elected, appointed, or born to the job—who burnished their public persona and authority with the suggestion they were divinely anointed. Starting with Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, Roman emperors promoted the so-called imperial cult, an idea they took from the Greeks. Later, the medieval Christian church legitimized the idea that monarchs had a sacred right to wield power. This basic idea took a Protestant turn in sixteenth-century England when Henry VIII’s parliament passed two Acts of Supremacy, establishing the English monarch as the head of the Church of England. A seventeenth-century successor of Henry, James I, wrote two treatises on “the divine right of kings,” highlighting the unique relationship monarchs have with God.

In more recent times, scholars have chronicled the way authoritarian leaders, from Napoleon to Hitler to Mao Zedong, blended messianic language and religious narratives with a cult of personality, to devastating effect.

Cult of Personality + Religion + National Mythology

In one sense America is constitutionally well fortified against charismatic leaders with messianic pretensions. Our framers’ wisdom in dividing power between legislative, executive, and judicial branches has stood the test of time as a check on authoritarianism.

In another way, though, America is uniquely vulnerable to political leaders who wrap politics in the language and forms of religion. Why? Because since childhood many of us have unconsciously absorbed a deep-rooted, powerful story about what America represents. It’s a story that spans centuries, from Puritan John Winthrop’s evocative description of a godly America, a shining “city on a hill,” to the cold war decades, which positioned America as a Christian bulwark against a godless evil empire. It’s a story made up of a thousand truths, half-truths, and outright fables, woven together to suggest that America is divinely favored among nations, with a God-­ordained role to play in human history.

But America is not a spiritual idea, nor does it have a spiritual mission. Its founders may have been exceptional thinkers and leaders, but they were neither saints nor demigods. America’s founding documents are blueprints for a system of government unprecedented in history, one that has shaped our modern world for the better. But they’re political, not sacred, documents; they don’t belong on the pages of any Bible.

America can demand from us our duty as citizens; it can inspire our love. It does not deserve our worship.

A Test

Politicians with a messiah complex—anywhere in the world—become dangerous when their abuse of religion is tolerated, or even encouraged, by the faithful. For those of us schooled in the myth of America’s sacredness, this abuse can be difficult to recognize, let alone combat. Yet this is the test that American Christians face today.

It comes down to this. When we see the sacred co-opted for profane purposes, will we speak up, regardless of our political sympathies? Or will we become complicit through silence?

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.