It happens. A few days ago I was unfriended on Facebook by a fellow who fears I have ceased being a theologian and am now a political agitator. Actually, I don’t mind agitating a bit but I am still very much a theologian…..
If they are true to their calling, theologians must critique social movements and political positions, when they are unethical and promote false belief. It happened in the past and is happening today. And not just in the U.S.A……
This week I continue a theological reflection connected with last week’s post on Christian America. We are certainly living in a time of major socio-cultural shifts and unsettlingly cruel and evil developments, as the recent killings and violence in El Paso and Dayton have so painfully demonstrated. This time a new political twist was added; and an August 6th editorial in the National Catholic Reporter expressed it pointedly: “Never have we experienced political leadership where mass murderers could quote the very rhetoric emanating from the White House to justify their evil.”
My thoughts today are about what happens when people – without questions or critique — begin to use religion to sacralize politics; and authoritarian leaders misuse religion to promote their distorted political agendas. When belief is twisted out of shape and paves the way for authoritarian movements and regimes – what we call today neofascism.
I remember being in a taxi along Interstate 170 near St. Louis, Missouri last autumn, when I saw a large billboard with a picture of the 45th U.S. president. With the picture was this caption “And the Word was made flesh.” I asked the cab driver what he thought about that. “Well,” he said “I don’t think our president is Jesus Christ but, like Jesus, he was sent by God. He is a man of God and we need him to save us.” The sacralization of politics. Perverted religion. Perverted politics.
“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain supposedly said, “but it rhymes.”
In 1932 Mussolini declared that the fascist state had not created its own god but recognized the God of traditional saints and Christian heroes. He was playing a phony political game. Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI both had come to power in 1922. Thanks to their shared distrust of democracy and anti-communist zeal, the two leaders clicked immediately. Evil often comes dressed up as something Good. In 1929, Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, ending decades of struggle between the Italian state and the Papacy, and recognized the independence of Vatican City. A grateful Pope Pius XI acclaimed Mussolini as “the Man of Providence.” Mussolini needed Catholic support but in fact he resonated strongly with Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti-Christian ideas and the negation of God’s existence. He did the talk and played the game. And who was really listening?
It is a perennial problem. Who is really observing what’s happening? Who is seriously considering the implications? And who is willing to speak out and take action?
Catholics in Germany, by way of another historical example, were basically opposed to Hitler. In 1933, however, Hitler signed a concordat with the Vatican. It was signed by the Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII. Catholic rights in Germany were theoretically put on a new basis, while the Hitler regime was strengthened. The Vatican had a sense that Hitler, was an indispensable bulwark against Bolshevism. The concordat gave moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime; and Hitler acquired dictatorial powers through the Enabling Act of 1933, which was facilitated through the support of the Catholic Center Party. In the years after the concordat was signed, however, the Nazis regularly ignored it. Hitler in fact was hostile to the Catholic Church, but for his political strategy played the public image game. There were of course Catholic protestors. Some of the most courageous demonstrations of opposition to Hitler were the 1941 sermons of the Catholic Bishop August von Galen of Münster.
In general, Protestants in Germany found a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism. A few –- like Dietrich Bonhoeffer — openly opposed the Nazis, while others saw themselves as neutral. Still others actively supported Nazism, calling themselves “storm troopers of Jesus Christ.” Nazism was not just an alternative political party. It was, in Hitler’s own words, “a form of conversion, a new faith.” In responding to one of his co-conspirators in his 1923 coup attempt, Hitler had said “I need for the building up of a great political movement, the Catholics of Bavaria and the Protestants of Prussia.”
While the Second World War did bring an end to Nazism in Germany, the evil dictatorships of Franco and Salazar persisted well into the mid-1970s.
Societies in transition, as we experience today, are always vulnerable to strong forces for political change. The link between Franco’s fascism and the Catholic Church was at that time a marriage of convenience. When Franco’s government defeated the Spanish socialist party that had taken control from 1931 to 1936, it aligned itself with Spain’s Catholic Church and the Spanish bishops overwhelmingly endorsed Franco’s Spain. Under the guise of religion, the Franco government used the Catholic educational system as a means of socialization and connecting nationalism and religion to promote their fascist agenda. To achieve his economic goals, Franco relied as well on the wealthy and ultra-right Catholic group Opus Dei. Franco’s dictatorial style did introduce social and economic reform – as well as the slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children. The consistent elements in his long rule (1939 to 1975) were above all authoritarianism, extreme Spanish nationalism, conservative Catholicism, anti-Communism, imprisonments, torture, and mass executions.
Today’s authoritarian (neofascist) leaders display all the old historic characteristics: exaggerated nationalism, invoking the blessings of conservative religious leaders, disdain for the human rights of foreigners, racist and incendiary rhetoric, fabricating “the truth,” glamorizing the military with big parades, misogyny promoted by a kind of toxic masculinity, and protecting corporate power.
Returning to the historic Jesus, one sees a very different perspective.
In Matthew 25: 37-40, we read: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The Lord will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Here ends today’s theological reflection. Followers of Jesus must be willing to speak truth to power.
Kind regards to all. Please don’t unfriend me…..
Published first in Jack A. Dicks blog Another Voice, August 9, 2019.