How Idolizing People Causes Us to Betray Our Values

As a student of theology and psychology, I can tell you that there are very few agreements across the board. The one thing I’ve found that everyone agrees on is that human beings are imperfect. Knowing that, we should probably never idolize other people… but we do… and there is a real cost to that.

Recently, I was explaining to my son the difference between populism and political ideologies. “The populist is willing to say or do anything to get elected,” I explained, “while people who believe in certain ideologies will adhere to those and not get caught up in a cult of personality.”

As I spoke those words, I realized that there are many similarities between what politicians do and what happens in spiritual circles.

In my twenty years in this field, I’ve seen more gurus fall from grace than I’d care to recall. All of them were populists in one way or another. They used their considerable charisma to enchant people and were prepared to discard principles that were central to their traditions if they thought it would help them gain followers. Plus, they rarely practiced what they preached.

In contrast, following political, theological, or psychological ideologies is supposed to be different. Adherence is not dependent on any one individual. For example, if I choose someone to represent my chosen political ideology in congress and he or she does not do that, a democracy offers me the chance to choose someone else.

With gurus and populists, however, that is not the case. What they say goes. And when that goes against our beliefs and values… well, that’s when the trouble begins.

I remember when the first sex scandal hit one of my yoga circles. The yogi, who had preached celibacy, had not only betrayed those values but had been sleeping around with his married students and then accused them of lying and cast them from the community when allegations arose. Most of his followers rejected him for this behavior, but I distinctly remember some who came to his defense using mental contortions that would have put their physical yoga practice to shame.

“Why would they do that?” I remember asking myself.

That was in my early twenties. Since then, I’ve seen this same behavior repeat itself over and over again. Faced with a choice between values and rejecting the behavior of their idol, too often, people side with the idol and throw their values out the window. It usually starts with something small and then escalates.

I don’t have a clear answer for why people do that. Maybe a part of their own identity has become entangled with the person they idolize, maybe they don’t want to admit they were wrong, maybe they are in love, unable to let go of their attachment to the person even if he (yes, it’s usually a ‘he’) has hurt them. I don’t know why, but I’ve seen people betray themselves over and over again in these same circumstances.

Admittedly, I’ve fallen into the trap (briefly) once or twice; even if I’ve never considered myself an avid follower of any person. Just having an affinity for their work has caused me to defend actions that I would otherwise have considered unacceptable. After those experiences, I can imagine how hard it must be when emotions are stronger.

The question we are left with is obvious. If we know that human beings are imperfect, why can’t we stop idolizing? Why do so many of us betray our values so easily when the people we idolize do things that we would completely reject under other circumstances?

Well, like I’ve told my kids time and time again, ‘why’ questions are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to answer. A better question would be ‘how’ can we change this. The problem is not going away. The truth is that charismatic leaders will continue to arise in all areas of life, from spiritual circles to politics, business, and beyond.

Therefore, our mission, if we chose to accept it, should be to firmly ground ourselves in our chosen beliefs and values while continually reminding ourselves of the fact that people are imperfect. With both of those in mind, it will be harder to derail our integrity train.

Icelandic-American author, bridge-builder, interfaith minister, and amateur musician. Learn more at www.gudjonbergmann.com

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