chapter  3
10 Pages

The charismatic principle in an American and democratic context

WithDAVID J . O ’ BRIEN

US history is marked by a remarkable array of charismatic leaders, many associated with movements for social reform. Indeed historians of movements to abolish slavery, win equal rights for women, strengthen the role of labor in industrial organization and end racial segregation almost always concentrate attention on charismatic leaders, on whom such movements were often dependent. It seems clear that many of these movements, and the ideas associated with their charismatic leaders, have had great influence on American culture and society. Yet there was always resistance, and considerable conflict, with the result that the degree and quality of cultural change and institutional accommodation is in dispute. In this chapter I will examine three charismatic leaders: Eugene Debs; Martin Luther King, Jr; and Dorothy Day. We will consider the charismatic message, charismatic leadership, the social movement inspired by this charismatic message and leader, the cultural impact of message and movement, the response of institutions, and, briefly, the history of principles and associations after the departure of the leader. The chapter may assist the general discussion by calling attention to the importance of voluntary associations and the social movements built around such associations in receiving, spreading and implementing the charismatic message. In almost every case in American history the charismatic leader began by addressing people gathered in voluntary associations, including churches. In each case message and movement led to conflicts. In the case of Debs, he grew impatient with trade union leaders who affirmed his vision but had to respond amid immediate, practical responsibilities to union members. Dorothy Day’s witness to Christian social responsibility inspired many bishops, priests and religious leaders but also stirred conflicts when she and her followers took the side of labor unions, the poor and the marginalized. And one recalls Dr King’s difficulties in leading the civil rights movement, which was often divided along the lines of religion, class, region and generation. And in all three cases problems arose when the leader applied the foundational charismatic principle to the problem of war.