One of the electronic publications I receive regularly is Sightings, a newsletter founded by Martin Marty and issued by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. (Since it is a newsletter, I don’t have a link.) The publication comments on the role of religion in contemporary society, usually in the form of an essay by one of the Divinity School’s scholars.
A recent commentary began with a reference to a 1940 memorandum by a Dutch Protestant ecumenist named Willem Visser‘t Hooft, titled “The Ecumenical Church and the International Situation.” Visser’t Hooft warned that a “new ideological battle” was unfolding across the western world, “waged by proponents of the ‘new religions’ of ethno-nationalism and fascism.” He worried that when the war ended, “the real difficulty will be to find any basis for collaboration between peoples who no longer share any common standards, and who no longer speak the same spiritual language.”
Visser’t Hooft was on to something: the post-war world continues to grapple with that lack of a common “spiritual” or ideological language, and with the nationalistic “religions” he identified and aptly characterized as politicized distortions of Christianity.
Adherents of these movements claimed to be the true Christians who were defending “traditional” Christianity against the existential threats of liberalism, modernity and internationalism (usually embodied in their fevered imagination by “the Jews.”) One scholar of the era described Nazism as “an ethno-nationalist renewal movement on a Christian, moral foundation.”
It wasn’t only in Europe. As the Sightings essay reminded us, the Nazis and fascists had kindred spirits in the United States.
There was a revival of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s, and the number of Christian right-wing groups surged after 1933. During the 1930s the Nazi regime even sent its Christian supporters on speaking tours to American churches. While Christian nationalism was surging in interwar Europe, American Protestantism was in the throes of the fundamentalism wars, the Scopes trial, and the Temperance movement. And on both sides of the Atlantic, progressive religious movements arose to combat them, including liberal Protestant ecumenism and the emerging interfaith movement.
The author of the essay noted that the United States’ current culture wars are a continuation of that fight.
Religion wasn’t–and isn’t– the only cause of political division, but it was–and is– a significant contributor. The author of the essay says there are two important lessons to be learned from the relevant history: first, “the deadliest failures of Christianity (like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the complicity of Christian churches with National Socialism and the Holocaust) derive from the fatal alliance of faith and political power.”
In addition to the crimes facilitated by such alliances, they inevitably destroy the integrity and witness of the church..
The second lesson is that the foundation for recovering “common standards” and speaking the “same spiritual language” must be a civic process, not a religious one.
As I read this very thought-provoking essay, I thought back to a conclusion I had come to back in the days of the Cold War, when “godless Communism” was a genuine threat both to the West and to human liberty. Belief in that system, I concluded, was a religion, if you define religion as an overarching belief system that delivers both “answers” to the ambiguities of life and prescriptions for human behavior.
Many years later, I read–and was persuaded by–Robert Bellah’s theory of civic religion, a secular allegiance to certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, drawn in the United States from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. That “civic religion” can serve as an umbrella set of beliefs, not displacing but bridging the myriad religions or other “isms” held by individual citizens in our polyglot society, and acting as a common language and set of behavioral/social/political norms.
Of course, allegiance to the ideals of those civic documents requires a common knowledge of their contents and a common understanding of the context within which they were developed. When civic literacy is rare, and especially when citizens are unaware of the compelling reasons for keeping church and state separate, we risk replaying the most horrific chapters of human history.