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From Ronald to the Donald: What in God’s Name Happened?

The central term here is “narcissism.” The term comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who was enthralled by his own reflection. Narcissism is the absorption with oneself to the exclusion of the outside world, leading to treating other people badly in pursuit of one’s own desires. These are some traits most narcissists have in common:

 

  • They lack empathy, and feel uncomfortable with their emotional life.

  • They are self-absorbed, always manage to make the conversation about themselves, and frequently interrupt others.

  • They have a grandiose sense of self-importance, and will exaggerate their achievements and talents.
  • They are hyper-competitive, ambitious, and compulsive with fantasies of unlimited success and a history of making important life decisions with little forethought.
  • They believe that they are special or unique, and need to be the center of attention.
  • They are preoccupied with how they are perceived by others, and seek out compliments while reacting to any criticism or contrary viewpoints with condescension and anger.
  • They have a very strong sense of superiority and entitlement, and will make contemptuous remarks about other people behind their backs.
  • They can come across as self-righteous and bulletproof during arguments, as they ridicule, shame, and humiliate their opponents.
  • They cannot express compassion, lack interest in others’ feelings and experiences, and don’t respect boundaries.
  • They are envious of others and think others are envious of them.
  • They regularly display arrogant and abusive attitudes and behaviors.
  • They are easily slighted and will explode with rage and go on the attack when hurt or frustrated with no insight into how their behavior impacts others.
  • They are master manipulators who modify and distort the facts for personal gain, and exploit others’ weaknesses to get what they want.
  • They engage in “splitting” by blaming negative outcomes on others while taking credit for positive and good outcomes.
  • They can be seductive and manipulative, and tend to be overly jealous, controlling, and possessive.
  • They lack self-control through actions such as overeating, drinking too much, spending beyond their means, abusing drugs, or engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships.

Not every story a narcissist tells is one of victory. But in the stories of tragedy or failure, there’s an air of entitlement and victimization.


Most of these traits are exaggerations of ordinary ones. We do need a certain degree of self-esteem in order to cope in the world-but that is not the same thing as the self-absorption, self-importance, and other traits found in the true narcissist. Ambition is another example: if we didn’t think we could achieve the seemingly impossible, then we’d never achieve significant advances in science, the arts, and other disciplines. The display of these traits in ways that are limited and positive in a person’s life is sometimes called “healthy narcissism.” Also, when we get stressed and emotionally depleted, we can behave temporarily in narcissistic ways. Once we stabilize, we’re capable again of displaying empathy and compassion.


However, those at the extreme end of the narcissistic scale are always or nearly always in this mindset, and so they are stuck in beliefs and behaviors that prevent them from truly connecting with others. In addition, many narcissists, especially those who display sociopathic tendencies, appear to lack a conscience. This can make them dangerous for people around them.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one percent of the US population is diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the clinical term given to those deemed malignant narcissists or sociopaths. However, the strict criteria for this diagnosis rules out about another four percent of the population who exhibit many of the signs of extreme narcissism but do not fit the clinical definition of Anti-Social Personality Disorder.


We do not know how many of those who fit the criteria for extreme narcissism are in positions of power and authority in this country. Nor do we know how much of the population wants, or at least expects, to be led by such people. Narcissistic tendencies are however quite prevalent in our leaders, both in politics and in the church as a whole. As we entered the 21st century, books like The Narcissism Epidemic and Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed pointed to the prevalence of narcissistic traits within the US sociopolitical culture.


Narcissists often support each other, as evidenced by some of the most vocal and prominent of the ex-president’s supporters, whose behaviors mirror his. They may at times mouth appropriate words, but do not walk their talk. This is evidenced by ongoing allegations of abuse by pastors who exhibit personal behaviors, including traits of narcissism, very similar to our current crop of politicians. Furthermore, while signs of narcisisstic behavior can be most visibly seen by those who lean right, one can find more covert forms of narcisism present in more liberal and progressive settings. 

My exploration of narcissism is not about recognizing and avoiding the troubles caused by unethical behavior in general. Rather, I am focusing on those who lack the ability to express empathy or compassion towards others, as well as care of the planet as a whole. In too many church settings one finds self-righteousness, bullying, vindictiveness, and grandiosity, forms of behavior that make up malignant narcissism, along with elements of sociopathy like criminality, irresponsibility, and a delight at others’ suffering.

This raises the question: just how crazy is the church, given the overwhelming support Trump still enjoys among white evangelicals along with the formation of progressive clergy showing their support for Biden via groups like the New Moral Majoirty and Evangelicals for Biden? The narcissistic tendencies I witnessed as a journalist over many years while reporting on Christian and other spiritual leaders help me understand why followers support such politicians: they appear to be conditioned to look for narcissistic behavior in their own leaders. Perhaps they genuinely want this behavior. (Note: Yes, narcissism is present in leaders of other world religions. However, given the preponderance of Christianity as the dominant religion informing the US political sphere, I am focusing specifically on those Christian leaders who have a national following in the United States.)


Any academic wants to check their theory by looking at the facts. Unfortunately, statistical evidence is thin in this regard. No survey that assesses the prevalence of narcissism among U.S. Christian leaders exists. In Canada, we have an estimate, which may be useful as a starting point. In 2015, a survey of 420 clergy affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Canada found that 25 percent of respondents exhibited signs of extreme narcissism. Now, Canada doesn’t have the American exceptionalism gene running through their veins. The religious right never really rose to power there. With the exception of a few aberrations like the Toronto Blessing, to date, the faith Canadians possess tends to be of the quieter and more private variety. So, if the number of extreme narcissistic clergy is this high in Canada, how much higher might these statistics be among US clergy?


This all also raises another key question for me. Are those with narcissistic tendencies placed in positions of power simply because they are supported by those of like mind, that is, by other narcissists, by narcissistic collusion and collective narcissism? Or is there more to this story?


While much church conversation is led by those with narcissistic tendencies, I’d also like to address another dynamic in play, which I am calling ‘echo-ism.” In the Greek myth of Narcissus, Echo was one of many who were enraptured by Narcissus. She literally gave her all to Narcissus; only to find herased repeating Narcissus’ words back to him. Over time, her identity disappeared. Similarly, many people who do not possess narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies will follow leaders who possess these traits. I understand these ‘echoes’ to be small number of followers of narcissists, compared to those who are involved in narcissistic collusion. However, a small proportion of people still comes to many, many Americans, who may stay in abusive relationships and toxic congregations without realizing they have a way to change. In the original myth, Echo was cursed by the gods; maybe our modern-day ‘echoes’ can break free.


Can those who have been ‘echoes’ stop supporting narcissists? Time will tell, but we’ll never know if we don’t at least try.