We Are The Cult of Personality
Updated: Feb 4
Civilization begins with distillation, or so we are told by one William Faulkner. There is a hint of truth in that statement, though. True civilization starts with action, and we have seen many nations rise through ashes with great ideology and passion only to be toppled down eventually by a powerful foe: themselves.
Time and time again throughout history, we have seen the idolization of figures that overthrow governments and turn the people away from the ideologies they initially stood on, and many times it is not through dictatorship, totalitarianism, or authoritarianism. We have seen this culture of worshiping individuals seep its way into democratic countries, and it has never been worse than it is today.
We are, unfortunately, the cult of personality.
What is a cult of personality?
Initially coined in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev used it in a secret speech, On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences, that he delivered on the final day of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In his speech, Khrushchev, who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party, criticized the lionization and idealization of Joseph Stalin and his Communist contemporary Mao Zedong as being contrary to Marxist doctrine. The speech was later made available to the public and was part of the "de-Stalinization" process in the Soviet Union.
To put it simply, a cult of personality rises up when leaders use manipulative techniques through mass media and social media, propaganda, and patriotism, among other things, to create a false image of heroism to elicit praise and even a sense of worship from constituents and followers.
The sad reality about it is that we do not recognize it well enough until it is too late. Great countries were seemingly brainwashed overnight and became figments of their former selves. Countries like Brazil, China, Germany, India, and Italy have seen this transition happen within their borders more than enough times, and it is a scary thought to know that democratic nations lie among the authoritarian governments in this problem area.
How did we get here?
For many years now, western civilization, especially democratic societies, have become victims of this cult. The idolization of religious figures, politicians, athletes, and celebrities over the past few decades has slowly risen and steadily exposed how susceptible free nations are to character worship. We have seen it time and time again, including figures like John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, and Stalin, and the sudden rise of Trump followers in recent years has shown that it honestly doesn't take much to get there.
But why? Why are we so prone to idolizing?
The psychology of religion would strongly suggest that human beings are attracted to religion because of the 16 basic desires that humans share. Steven Reiss, a professor emeritus of psychology at The Ohio State University and author of The 16 Strivings for God, once said, "It’s not just about fear of death. Religion couldn’t achieve mass acceptance if it only fulfilled one or two basic desires. People are attracted to religion because it provides believers the opportunity to satisfy all their basic desires over and over again. You can’t boil religion down to one essence.”
Another recent psychological explanation is the idea that our evolution has created a “god-shaped hole” or has given us a metaphorical “god engine” which can drive us to believe in a deity or view someone as god-like.
Essentially, this hypothesis is that religion and idol worship are by-products of a number of cognitive and social adaptations, which have been extremely important in human development.
This psychology, when applied to the growing cult of personality infecting the world, makes a lot of sense, and when strong, charismatic leaders step into the spotlight, it is no wonder how quickly people can attach to the individual, especially when ideologies match up.
Some scary examples of the past 50 years include cults like NXIVM, Angel’s Landing, and Children of God, which amassed unbelievable followings that led to some devastating conclusions, but these are the worst case scenarios. Other cults like Soka Gakkai in Japan have gained lots of international attention and currently boast a member number of roughly 12 million people, but it is still considered dangerous because of the grand manipulation happening at the top and the amount of money that is being siphoned from the brain-washed members.
Major religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are honestly some of the worst offenders of idol worship and participating in the cult of personality.
Although a religion like Christianity claims to worship Jesus, we often see the Son of God regulated to the bench while the superstars of Christianity take center stage. Someone like Billy Graham, whose message mostly stayed focused on Jesus and the Bible, became a pillar of Christianity, and a lot of modern ideology and church rules came from Billy Graham, not Jesus or the Bible, including The Billy Graham Rule.
Another couple of groups in Christianity that often seek personal worship are televangelists and mega-church pastors. People like Joel Osteen, Jim Bakker, and Kenneth Copeland have their own followers, have raked in millions and millions of dollars, have massive viewing numbers and/or attendance, and have created their own ideologies that step a little away from their core religion to create dependency on them.
Sadly, this is nothing new, and the constant growth of character worship continues to poison the waters of society as it injects its false doctrines and beliefs.
The Rise of Political Cults
One of the more alarming cults of personality as of recent is the worshiping of politicians. Since the days of John F. Kennedy in the United States, political affiliations and leanings have only become more cemented in Americans. When Ronald Reagan ran for president, he used his charm and charisma to appear more religious and conservative than his opponent, Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian man who started Habitat for Humanity, and it was only a matter of time for Republicans to see Reagan as the great savior of their party moving forward, despite his history.
Since then, both Republicans and Democrats have leaned too heavily on certain approaches. For Republicans, it is the dependency on candidates to appear as Reagan-like as possible, while Democrats have tried to appear as hip and relevant as they can.
We didn't see so much blatant character worship until Barack Obama was thrust into the spotlight of the 2008 presidential campaign. Prior to Obama, the level of idolization was relatively low, but during his candidacy, we saw a fire within the Democratic base that magnetized to the charm and charisma of the 44th president.
However, the cult of personality that enveloped Obama pales in comparison to Donald Trump. The response the Republican base has given Trump has been one for the history books. Initially, the leaders of the party were resistant to the brash and uncouth candidate, but as Trump garnered more and more popularity and support, so too did the party abandon its Reagan worship and traded it for Trumpism.
How Do You Combat a Cult of Personality?
One of the sad realities about cults of personality is that the followers cannot even see that they are doing it. Ask an Obama supporter how they feel about the 542 drone strikes that Obama authorized that killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians. Ask them what they think about his quote to senior aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” Chances are they will defend him to the grave and find no fault despite the fault being presented right in front of them.
The same can be said about Donald Trump followers. They do not see him as a man but as a savior, so when you point out any of the numerous problems caused by Trump, they will fight you tooth and nail and claim "fake news" as part of their ironclad cult defense.
So how do you stop or slow down a cult of personality? Unfortunately, there is no easy road, but there are a lot of tell-tale signs to know if cult-like behavior is seeping in. Since reason and logic are usually not applicable, the start of a conversation with someone in the midst of character worship needs to be handled with extreme care.
No matter the outcome, though, humanity will persevere. United, we are stronger than the idols we tend to worship, and those idols are well aware of this reality. So let's recognize out status as a cult of personality and do something about it, because, like any addiction, the first step is recognizing that we have a problem.
And a cult of personality is absolutely a problem.