VILLANOVA, Pa. – What do Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Julia Roberts and Adolf Hitler have in common? The answer is charisma—and a new book by Vincent W. Lloyd, PhD, associate professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, explores how it can be used for both good and evil.
In the current age of instant celebrity, social media and unpredictable politicians and world leaders, sociologists often view charisma as an irrational, unstable source of authority. In his work In Defense of Charisma (Columbia University Press, 2018), Dr. Lloyd weaves insights from politics, ethics and religion together with reflections on contemporary culture. He distinguishes between authoritarian charisma, which furthers the interests of the powerful—naturalizing racism, patriarchy, and elitism—and democratic charisma, which can open minds and fuel social justice movements.
In the most powerful individuals, charisma establishes authority—and society responds by ceding ordinary judgement. “We defer to one who possesses the extraordinary gifts that entail charisma," Dr. Lloyd says. “Authoritarian charisma uses this deference to its own advantage, modeling the desires of followers to advance the self-interest of the charismatic.”
In contrast, democratic charisma reveals the human by juxtaposing the ordinary and extraordinary. In Defense of Charisma challenges readers to turn away from the blinding charisma of celebrities toward the humbler moral charisma of the neighbor, colleague or relative.
“Is charisma a tool of oppression, or can it help the fight against oppression?”
“Is charisma a tool of oppression, or can it help the fight against oppression?” Dr. Lloyd asks. "Can reexamining the concept of charisma teach us anything useful about contemporary movements for social justice?"
Dr. Lloyd is an internationally recognized scholar on current issues and trends related to religion and politics as well as religion and race. He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (2011) and Black Natural Law (2016), and he is coeditor of Race and Secularism in America (Columbia, 2016) and the academic journal Political Theology, among other works.
His latest research focuses on religion and mass incarceration from various perspectives, including religious thought regarding crime and punishment and religious movements in prisons.