I have written elsewhere  about the way in which human leaders love to develop cults of personality around themselves and bask in the idolatrious regard of others, whether they be kings or dictators or religious leaders. I do not wish to repeat here such comments I have made about them elsewhere. Nonetheless, I would like to tackle the same issue from the opposite side. What motivates and drives people to make idols of others? It is easy to see why people would want to be seen in a semi-divine light, but what drives others to give this idolatrous “respect” and “honor” to them in the first place?
As is the case too often with my writings, this particular post was inspired by a fairly ferocious argument (as are most of my arguments, to be honest) between myself and someone else whom I viewed as holding a certain religious leader in idolatrous regard. Throughout the course of the argument, I noticed the same kind of arguments being used to justify this idolatry that I read or hear from those who are ultraroyalists in Thailand, and it struck me that there seemed to be a deep relationship between the cult of personality of leaders and the idolatrous state of mind of believers, in whatever realm that idolatry took place.
A first aspect of the state of mind (I am taking these in order of the way they were presented to me in the argument) is the inability to distinguish between holding leaders accountable and attitudes of dishonor and disrespect. There are of course statements that “of course he has sins,” or “when did I ever say they were perfect,” but these statements are content-free; in other words, there is no specific offense or specific fault that will be admitted or accepted for the idol. Any such attempt is viewed with horror as dishonor or lese majeste, regardless of the facts of the matter, because the given leader must be held in honor and must be above all (serious) faults that might jeopardize their legitimacy as authorities.
We see in this first problem already the sort of mindset that leads to idolatry. The desire to defend our own belief system often leads us to place the people we judge as most responsible for that belief system, whether we receive any benefits of position or power or wealth from that belief system or not, on a pedastal, above accountability. By doing so we may or may not consider them to be God, or above God, but we consider them to the privileged authorities on defining right and wrong, and thus above any kind of criticism that would bring them down to our level as ordinary human beings, even if it can be conceded that they have vital offices and have perhaps done a lot of good in one way or another.
Combined with this inability to distinguish between mere disrespectful fault-finding and sincere but respectful holding of others to account, there is often an inability to distinguish between proper and unproper levels of judgment. For example, instead of holding leaders to a higher standard than ordinary and obscure people like ourselves are held to, there is a belief that to hold someone accountable for having committed a specific sin, there is the mistaken belief that to judge a revered leader as guilty of a sin is to judge their salvation (to put oneself in the place of God) and to judge their repentance (or lack thereof) or motives or heart. This need not be the case. One can judge a leader for bad fruits of their actions or actions that fall short of a external standard of behavior without making any claims that the person did not repent or was not forgiven of their sins, or any judgments at all about what motivations existed in their hearts. Quite honestly, given that we can barely and incompletely understand our own hearts and mixed motives, we have no business judging anyone else’s heart or motives unless we have good external evidence of such matters. Nonetheless, this does not in any way preclude us from judging the actions or behaviors or results as good or bad because these can be seen and judged from external evidence without mind- or heart-reading. However, this very simple truth is denied by those who hold a leader in high regard, apparently because to such a person good motives would automatically absolve such a revered leader from blame for actions that had bad results.
Additionally, when pressed, such people will then say that it is not our responsibility to hold others (especially revered leaders) accountable, and will find those who do consider themselves to be so responsible as being particularly arrogant or boastful or stepping beyond their proper spheres. In such an idolatrous state of mind it is the job of leaders to lead and followers to follow, and to question leaders as to whether what they believe or practice is right and proper is tanatamount to sedition and rebellion, and even where such motives are absent they are automatically prejudged.
It would therefore appear that a major appeal in holding leaders to be privileged above criticism and being held accountable for their actions is the abdication of personal responsibility. Whether we are talking about religious cult leaders or appeals to the divine right of monarchy or the privileged status of any other elite or leader above ordinary humanity, the issue is the same. Any time we abdicate our responsibility to any leader or any government, we place that person in the role of a god. Because we rely on them for safety or sustenance, we therefore must place them beyond criticism because to threaten the stability of that order (however unjust) is to threaten our own well-being, whether psychological, emotional, or material. If we are not willing to fulfill our own God-given responsibilities, we must make an idol out of whomever is willing to fulfill those unwanted responsibilities for us.
At this point we begin to reach the roots of appeal for idolatry in the orinary believer, even one who is under oppressive rule. The natural slave seeks a natural master, as it were. Those who desire not to be free or responsible for thinking for themselves want someone to tell them the truth ready-made, or to give them bread and circuses because they are unable or unwilling to do it for themselves. This natural laziness (which we all have to struggle against in some fashion in one area or another of our lives) leaves us vulnerable to those who will free us of such unwanted burdens, and such people we will make into gurus or revered leaders in a cult of personality, unable and unwilling to accept that we have behaved wrongly in so doing, because to do so would be to threaten our own world where we are free of the God-given responsibilities we want to avoid. We must always remember that freedom has very different meanings for different people, and that sadly for far too many people the freedom they hold most dearly is the freedom from choice and responsibility in the first place.