In considering the varieties of “Christian Politics” lately, I’ve been looking at the question of which of the outspoken voices in this field are genuinely committed to a pluralistic democratic form of government and which believe that their priority should be to enforce God’s will on their fellow citizens, using the democratic process as one imperfect means of doing so until “God’s kingdom” can be more properly realized. This is actually a particularly hard line to draw, as many of the most conspicuous characters in the field work very hard on trying to have it both ways. The question is, when someone like the Southern Baptists’ lead lobbyist Richard Land says that his goal is to establish “an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority,” how seriously do we need to take that, either as a promise of stability or a threat to religious freedom? When Chris Hedges labels this sort of political action as “American Fascism” is he exaggerating, or does he have a legitimate point? This goes back to a question of the essence of American identity, the minimum requirements for freedom of religion, and the practical limits we are willing to place on freedom of expression.
If we start with the fourth point from Wolterstorff that I quoted last week –– “There is to be no differentiation among citizens with regard to religion [or lack thereof] in their right to hold office and in their right to political voice” –– the key question becomes, what constitutes a significant threat to the right to political voice for various players within the political process?
Since the term “fascist” is already on the table here, let’s go ahead and consider the negative examples of the Axis Powers leading up to World War 2. The Germans, due to a fair amount of frustration with the loss of their previous cultural stability based on “Christian tradition,” and the consequent economic turmoil that their country was going through, became increasingly polarized between Communists and right wing nationalists, both of which claimed to represent the interests of the common working people. As their country became more polarized and as it became more and more difficult to pass basic legislation due to ideologues’ unwillingness to compromise, basic legislation started to be passed more and more by executive decree –– using Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. The practical matter of getting stuff done –– keeping the power turned on and keeping the trains running –– became more important to people than the principle matter of everyone continuing to have a voice in government. Into this situation stepped a brash young Austrian-born leader by the name of Hitler, taking power as something of a minority compromise candidate and insisting on overcoming the problems of divisive fragmentation in German political culture through ruling by decree. The idea was to silence everyone who didn’t agree with him by calling their patriotism into question, especially those of the political left. Within two months citizens’ constitutional right to elect representatives to theoretically speak on their behalf became a thing of the past. Hitler’s speech of February 1, 1933 was a classic in terms of religiously justifying his party’s process of seizing power and silencing the opposition:
Since that day of treachery [the surrender at the end of World War 1] the Almighty has withheld his blessing from our people. Dissension and hatred descended upon us. With profound distress millions of the best German men and women from all walks of life have seen the unity of the nation vanishing away, dissolving in a confusion of political and personal opinions, economic interests, and ideological differences…
Communism with its method of madness is making a powerful and insidious attack upon our dismayed and shattered nation. It seeks to poison and disrupt in order to hurl us into an epoch of chaos…. This negative, destroying spirit spared nothing of all that is highest and most valuable. Beginning with the family, it has undermined the very foundations of morality and faith and scoffs at culture and business, nation and Fatherland, justice and honor.
… as leaders of the nation and the national Government we vow to God, to our conscience, and to our people that we will faithfully and resolutely fulfill the task conferred upon us.
The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and co-operation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life….
Turbulent instincts must be replaced by a national discipline as the guiding principle of our national life. All those institutions which are the strongholds of the energy and vitality of our nation will be taken under the special care of the Government.
It is not hard to see how a frustrated and impoverished people who are prone to see trusting God as the answer to their problems would readily go along with this sort of program, and how they would gladly participate in the process of silencing anyone who would dare to disagree. With Communists and Jews as scapegoats for all that had gone wrong, and with no one daring to publicly challenge his “mission from God,” Hitler did indeed bring about a major economic turnaround in Germany, instilling people with a great sense of pride in their national destiny and their right to attack all who opposed the value system they represented.
Where did they go wrong strategically? Perhaps just in terms of over extending themselves militarily. Where did they go wrong morally? In too many places for me to try to detail here. Suffice to say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the best solution that the best minds of the time could come up with to reduce the risk of the same sort of tragedy happening again. This document brings together, in rather diversified form, the best of religious and secular thinking of that age about what people should be entitled to for no other reason than that they happen to be human beings. This in turn defines what the task of government is: insuring that the rights of all of its citizens are defended as thoroughly as possible. I believe it would be fair to say that the primary risk of fascism in the current generation comes from those who have never bothered to acquaint themselves with this document, and/or those who consider their particular religious or nationalist agendas to have a higher priority than the principles of human dignity it lays out.
Some of the most broadly recognized general principles contained in this document are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from slavery, the right to citizenship, the right to family life, and the right to just and fair legal protection for all. These rights spill down into other things that may be more controversial: the right to travel internationally, the right to regular paid vacations, the right to a basic education, the right to change religions, the right to adequate health care… But perhaps the most challenging bit is the practical application of the rather broadly accepted Article 30: Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein. In other words, I can’t use my rights as a means of trying to take away your rights, and visa-versa. That is especially difficult when it comes to speech and religion. How do you allow someone to be free to practice a religion that contains the teaching that it must attempt to dominate all other religions? How do you allow everyone to have their own say when the purpose of speaking for many is to shout the next guy down?
It’s quite fair to say that both the US ideal of freedom of religion and the international ideal of the UDHR remain works in progress. We have never had a state of affairs where perfect respect for all members of society has been realized in an ideal fashion. There have always been some who have been unfairly discriminated against, abused as a labor force, stolen from and/or scapegoated. Since I have become an expatriate from the US the level of social protection and recognition has gradually improved for some, such as Hindus and homosexuals, while it has gradually fallen apart for others, such as inner city school students and minimum wage laborers. This was one of the main points of Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech, which was probably one of the key moments that ended up getting him elected as president. We need to avoid nostalgia for the days when some folks rights were better recognized, and we need to work towards the idea of having all people’s dignity protected more than it has been thus far.
So the question with regard to religious interests in politics is one of how far we can allow particular groups to dominate in the interest of unity, order and prosperity, at the expense of others rights to participate in the democratic process and have their other rights properly recognized? This leads us to consider which groups which are now dogmatically promoting their own agendas at the expense of constructive dialog between interest groups might be genuinely dangerous in the future. Who might we allow into power as a minority compromise group, assuming we can somehow keep them in check with the strength of the system, only to discover as the Germans did in the early 1930s that we have unleashed a monster? But just as critical a question: If we suspect that a particular group could rise up to become the new Nazis, how far can we go in working to preemptively silence them or shout them down without the cure (or immunization) becoming worse than the potential disease?
There are particular groups out there these days that I consider particularly dangerous in terms of having a stronger commitment to their set ideas of right and wrong than they have to constructive dialog and mutual recognition of each other’s basic rights. This, however, is a matter of human temperament for many, which cannot be fixed through eliminating particular political alternatives for them. I believe that the best we can do is to try to educate people in the processes of constructive dialog and in awareness of the rights of others. If we can, both from religious and secular perspectives, avoid tribal mentalities of praying to our various sorts of gods to “bless us, burn them,” we’ll stand a much better chance of not inadvertently wiping ourselves out in the next few generations.
Meanwhile, when we see political groups of various sorts doing hatemongering and attempting to silence the political opposition in the name of doing God’s work, remember where that sort of rhetoric has been used before.