Charisma—Elusive or Explanatory? A Critical Examination of Leadership in New Religious Movements
Keywords:charisma, Church of Almighty God, Kelsang Gyatso, Sun Myung Moon, leadership, new religious movements, Charles Taze Russell, Max Weber
Although Max Weber’s analysis of charisma has been highly influential, it is not altogether clear what it explains. Using four case studies—Charles Taze Russell, Sun Myung Moon, Kelsang Gyatso, and the anonymous founder of the Church of Almighty God—it is argued that these leaders do not share any common set of characteristics by virtue of which they could be described as “charismatic”. To account for their following, one must look to factors extraneous to the leader; Eileen Barker’s notion of “charismatization” is developed here, showing how followers learn to be deferential towards the leader, and how hagiographical accounts are used. In addition, the role of the ambient culture is highly relevant, and the growing lack of religious literacy encourages seekers to accept a leader’s teachings insufficiently critically. The leader also needs to “maintain charisma”, dealing with potential rivals, and asserting the exclusivity of their teachings. Finally, the roles of media publicity and finance are highly relevant to maintaining a new religious organization.
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