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Prof. Yme Kuiper: ‘Only use the word charisma in very exceptional circumstances.’

28 April 2009

The concept charisma is being used all over the place and is thus losing its meaning, thinks University of Groningen anthropologist and theologian Prof. Yme Kuiper. And that’s a real shame, because when used well the concept can provide an insight into political culture. The insight that someone like Obama in the Netherlands would have had less chance of becoming great than in the United States, for example.

Barack Obama apparently has it, and even Silvio Berlusconi is said to have it. A whole load of pop stars, sport heroes and businessmen are also credited with it. But what is charisma actually? Too little time is spent pondering that, thinks Prof. Yme Kuiper of the University of Groningen. ‘The concept is used too often and too readily, in my view. It won’t be long before every well-known Dutch person is called charismatic. As a result the word is losing its edge, and that’s a shame.’ When it is used properly, thinks Kuiper, the concept can provide an insight into modern-day political culture. The insight, for example, that there is much less room for charismatic leadership in the Netherlands, and that Obama would never have thrived in the polder.

Hollow words

Personality, X-factor, leadership and charisma – in everyday situations these terms are too often used as synonyms, states Yme Kuiper. ‘Charisma is running the risk of becoming an inflationary concept. It’s being said that Pim Fortuyn was charismatic. I doubt that. He may have had serious rhetorical talent, but I think he was acting the part of a charismatic person.’ If you want to use the concept of charisma properly, you must not only study the style of leadership but also the context within which the leader in question is active, and the interplay between the leader and his followers. Only by drawing historical parallels is insight created into the complexity of the phenomenon of charisma. Kuiper: ‘There’s no way of avoiding it, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, the villains of the political religions of the twentieth century, did have great deal of charisma. They fascinated large groups of people and made them enthusiastic about their delusions.’

Between religion and politics

Charisma is originally a theological concept. It is used extensively in the Old Testament in the sense of a ‘Gift of Grace’, explains Kuiper. In his view if you want to use the concept optimally, you end up with the sacral aspects of leadership – the transition zone between religion and politics. The sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) had a good eye for that, thinks Kuiper. ‘Weber himself used the concept to understand the world around him. In a demystified, secularized world, where authority would become completely based on rationality, there was a need for charismatic leadership, thought Weber. A charismatic person would offer an escape from the iron cage of bureaucracy and offer people the opportunity to participate again in a community.’

Religious symbolism

Founders of religions, prophets, apostles and sect leaders break through traditions using their charisma, based on supernatural qualities, thought Weber. At least, their followers were convinced that they were supernatural qualities. However, according to Weber neither the German Kaisers or Chancellor Von Bismarck had charisma. Kuiper: ‘But Weber greatly admired a president like Theodore Roosevelt and was very impressed by American political culture, that right from the start of the American nation-formation had had religious connotations, and where religious symbolism and references to the founding fathers were very important for the legitimacy and credibility of the political institutions.’

Charisma in the Netherlands

One of the few Dutch statesmen with charisma was Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, the founding father of the socialist movement in the Netherlands, in Kuiper’s view. ‘His way of conducting politics was partly supported by religious dimensions of charismatic leadership. He could identify himself with the suffering Christ. In their turn, Nieuwenhuis’s supporters believed in a loving way in his leadership – they regarded him as a martyr and saviour.’ In the meantime, there appears to be little room in the Netherlands any more for charismatic leadership, says Kuiper. ‘Our ministers and prime ministers have to join in a culture of “gezelligheid”, cosiness. Many people, particularly those in the populist corner, feel that they should not strike poses but nevertheless exude leadership qualities. But keeping a certain distance is also needed for charismatic leadership. A charismatic person is someone who comes from outside and wants things to be different. That is the paradox – charismatic leadership is difficult to democratize into a general will of the people, despite the charismatic person having to rely on his supporters.’

Curriculum vitae

Yme Kuiper is professor by special appointment in Religious and Historical Anthropology at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. He researches the historical and cultural background to changes in the relationship between religion, society and culture. He is currently busy with elites and religion in the Netherlands and Europe in the twentieth century and the research project Religion and Biography. His most recent publication is about debates among anthropologists and sociologists about religion in a recent book he has edited called Religie in Nederland [Religion in the Netherlands].  


prof. Y.B. (Yme) Kuiper

Last modified:12 June 2023 8.15 p.m.
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