Idolizing People Can Cause Us to Betray Our Values

Idolizing People Can Cause Us to Betray Our Values May 23, 2022

I am a student of both theology and psychology. One of the few things that everyone appears to agree on is that human beings are imperfect. It’s such an obvious statement, I know, but frequently overlooked. Being human means being imperfect.

Equipped with that understanding, humans should probably never idolize other humans.

But they (we) do… and there is a real cost.

Believing in Ideologies vs. Idolizing People

In the last election cycle, I attempted to explain the difference between populism and political ideologies to my son. “The populist is willing to say or do anything to get elected,” I said, “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 how many similarities there are between what politicians do and what happens in spiritual circles.

In my thirty 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 central to their tradition if they thought it would help them gain power and put money in their pockets.

Adhering to ideologies and values is different. They do not depend on one individual. For instance, if I choose someone to represent my chosen political ideology in congress and they do not do that, in a democracy, I have 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.

Betraying Ourselves

I remember when the first sex scandal hit in one of my yoga circles. The yogi had preached celibacy and had not only betrayed those values by having sex, which would have been bad enough, but he had been sleeping around with his married students. Then it got worse. He accused the women of lying and cast them from the community. When this became public knowledge, most of his followers rejected him for this behavior. Still, I distinctly remember some who came to his defense using mental contortions that would 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. When people are faced with a choice between values and rejecting the behavior of someone they idolize, they often side with their idol and throw their values out the window. It usually starts with something small and then escalates.

Hard to Explain

I don’t have a clear answer for why people do that. Maybe a part of their identity has become entangled with the person they idolize. Maybe they don’t want to admit they were wrong. Or maybe they are in love, unable to admit or let go of their attachment to the person even if he (yes, it’s usually a he) has hurt them. Whatever the reason, people repeatedly betray themselves in these exact circumstances.

For honesty’s sake, I admit that I’ve even fallen into the trap of idolizing once or twice (briefly)… and I’ve never even considered myself a follower. Merely having an affinity for good work caused me to defend someone’s actions that I would otherwise have deemed unacceptable. I can only imagine how hard it must be when emotions are stronger.

Can People Stop Idolizing?

Look, we know human beings are imperfect. Why can’t we stop idolizing them? Why do so many betray their values when the people they worship do things they would reject altogether under other circumstances? I don’t have clear answers, likely because ‘why’ questions are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to answer.

A better question would be: How can we change this?

Charismatic and populist leaders will continue to arise in all areas of life, from spiritual circles to politics to business and beyond. If we choose to accept it, our mission is to firmly ground ourselves in beliefs and values. At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that people are imperfect.

Keeping both in mind will make it harder to derail our integrity train.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author and Columnist

Picture: CCO License

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