In the course of my life, I have realized that I have quite a few ferocious sensitivities, and I have spent a fair amount of time trying to examine and understand them for what they are. One thing that tends to make me feel deeply uncomfortable is the cult of personality. I do not use the world cult lightly. The word ‘cult of personality,’ which became an excellent rock song by the band Living Colour, came originally from the Russian, where it described the official cult glorifying Soviet leaders, and punishing those who did not show sufficient reverence for the leader and his greatness.
I do not speak as a neutral party with regards to such matters. I myself have suffered in my life because of my steadfast questioning of leaders, my open and honest and searching examinations of their actions and motives, and the fact that I am at least willing to hear out, if not quick to believe, fairly negative accounts of leaders often viewed very highly by others involved in such cults of personality, whether they be religious or political in nature. Especially as I invariably have not known such leaders at all in person, being an obscure person myself, I recognize that as all of us are flesh and blood human beings with our own strengths and weaknesses, our own virtues and flaws, I hold no one up as a demigod but recognize all giants as at least potentially having feet of clay.
I am immediately suspicious of the motives of people who want to set up a cult of personality about themselves, who want their pictures and books in every home or in public in every city, whose statues and posters and paintings look over every public square, as if they were watching all, or when people seek to take credit as the benefactors of nations or organizations. Perhaps this springs from my particularly strong Jewish roots in this matter, but I consider any cult of personality, or any attempt by a person to view themselves as the father of a nation to be idolatrous, and I react against it with horror and severe opposition. The matter makes me feel gravely uncomfortable even under the best of circumstances, as it makes me think that such leaders, wherever they may be found, view themselves as the source of law and blessings in a society rather than the servants of God under the law and subject to it. Such presumptuous arrogance merits a strong prophetic rebuke, and like a moth drawn to the flame I cannot help but rebuke it and deal with the repercussions accordingly.
I recognize that not all cults of personality are assiduously courted by the objects of the misguided and misplaced devotion. Gideon set up an ephod and it became a snare to all Israel, but not all leaders place themselves in the position of being viewed idolatrously. Sometimes it is those people who surround a leader, who draw their own power and influence from being close to the throne, as it were, who seek to create or maintain a cult of personality to increase their own prestige by being around such a leader worthy of such devotion, because of the power and prestige that they gain by being the powers behind and around such a leader. At any rate, the motives of anyone who seeks to create an idolatrous cult of personality (and they are all idolatrous) are automatically suspect.
The ultimate results of cults of personality are nearly uniformly evil. After all, human beings were not meant to receive the adulation and veneration of others. We are fellow servants of God, not objects worthy of devotion and worship. When the creation is worshiped instead of the creator, there will be evil as a result. For one, human beings are falsely led on concerning their popularity, their importance, and their worthy. Leaders who demand and receive the unquestioned reverence of others do not receive worthwhile advice that can keep them from folly, because they only have yes-men or corrupt advisors around them. In addition, their demands for adulation prevent them from seeing what the people really think of them when the people give lip service. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell the true believers apart from those who give lip service to avoid trouble and who really use the cult of personality for their own selfish benefit and corrupt behavior, which in turn makes the object of that cult even more hated and disliked among the general population even as elites mistrust the veneration among others and disrespect those outside of their own narrow circle.
We ought to remember what happened when the Soviet regime and their Eastern European puppets fell. Some of the dictators lost their lives, as in Romania. Cities named after evil rulers like Leningrad or Stalingrad were renamed. Statues of hateful and wicked leaders who had been worshiped for decades were toppled, walls were torn down, and crowds of people cheered on a freedom they may have scarcely hoped or dreamed of possessing. If you set up a cult of personality, something like that will happen to you. We are all flawed human beings, we all make mistakes, and the ones leaders make are the most serious. If you are lucky as a leader, you’ll get the rantings of a moron like DiLorenzo attempting to write a hit-job on you over a century after you are dead . That’s a best case scenario, though. More likely is that someone will competently and devastatingly write about your flaws and turn you into a historical villain, and an egomaniac to boot. The only way to avoid that is humility now, the very thing that is eradicated by those who seek to set up and preserve cults of personality.
It is always sad to look at the arrogant posturing and repression that goes on when a cult of personality starts to crumble. It is sad because those who gain the most out of a cult of personality in terms of their own power or prestige are the ones who are the least able to let go, and when a cult of personality starts becoming fragile, then they respond by seeking to eradicate all those they consider potential threats, by their repression forcing more people into hostility, creating more victims and more hard feelings and ultimately stronger hostility to the cult of personality that such people are trying to protect. In this life we are often the threats to what we hold most dear because of our own actions and our own insecurities.
And it is ironic, I suppose, that someone who is extremely sensitive to cults of personality should be faced with them time and time again.
Perhaps there is a point to all of that. Those who are not sensitive to such matters may not even notice them, but those who are sensitive to them can draw parallels and conclusions, and reflect upon the connections between some cults of personality and others, and to gain some sort of insights on how they all work. All of that is highly useful as an intellectual exercise, or perhaps for the benefit of understanding, but the risks and costs are heavy, and they are ones that have to be paid here and now in concerns and anxious moments, in exile and imprisonment and martyrdom, and in the uncertain hope that it will serve to benefit others later on in the future. But that is not for us to decide. At some point all of us must leave the work to be continued by others, and all of us stand before God and future generations in judgment where we can offer up no defense on our own behalf, but must rely on others to defend us. That is true whether we are leaders or followers, and no cults of personality can provide us any merit in that regard either to those giving or receiving idolatrous regard.