Tag Archives: Nationalism

Church As State

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.

“But I’m Not Racist!”

Many of you probably saw the news reports–or the video–of the man on a Ryanair flight who engaged in a rant during which he called a black woman seated next to him an “ugly black bastard.”

You may have missed reports of his subsequent apology, which included his assertion that he “is not a racist.”

A man who subjected a fellow passenger on a Ryanair flight to a racist tirade has apologised publicly for the first time a week after the incident, claiming that he is not a racist and lost his temper “a bit”.

Then there was the fine fellow who tried to enter a black church in Kentucky, was unable to gain access, and settled for shooting two African-Americans he’d never met who were shopping in a nearby Kroger store. 

A white man with a history of violence fatally shot two African American customers at a grocery store in Kentucky and was swiftly arrested as he tried to flee, police said Thursday. They said it was too soon to say what prompted Wednesday’s shooting, responding to an earlier account from a witness that when confronted with another white man during the incident, the suspect said: “Whites don’t shoot whites.”

It’s always comforting to attribute these senseless, horrific acts to “disturbed” individuals, and obviously, these are people with significant mental/emotional problems. But if we ignore the impetus for these acts, we risk even more civil disorder and tragedy. In the wake of the recent rash of pipe-bomb deliveries to people that Trump has identified as “enemies,”and the horrific shooting attack on Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, we need to heed the recent warning by a columnist for the Guardian:

Political violence in the United States has tended to come in two forms. The first consists of simply unhinged acts, like John Hinckley Jr shooting Ronald Reagan in the hope of impressing the actress Jodie Foster, or Timothy McVeigh hoping to bring down the government with a bomb. The second is more systematic and sinister: the violence used to keep down groups who threaten the social and political order. This is the violence of strike breakers and the KKK. It is the violence that killed Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman.

A key feature of the second type of violence is that it has often been perpetrated by private individuals while serving the interests of public authorities. This is why the authorities encourage it. Till’s killers walked free because Mississippi’s court system would not convict them, understanding that their act reinforced white supremacy at a time when it was under threat from desegregation. This was violence of the people, by the people, for the government.

As the writer noted, America currently has a president who “frequently and vividly” talks to enthusiastic supporters about the desirability of a violent response to those who oppose him.

As Paul Krugman recently reminded us, this use of invective and demonization didn’t start with Trump. It’s a strategy the right has been using for decades. By promoting culture war issues, and religious and (especially) racial antagonisms, they’ve been able to distract working-class voters from policies that hurt them. Trump is simply the blunt instrument of a strategy that has been cynically pursued for many years.

That doesn’t make him any less dangerous, however. Nor does it excuse the shameful efforts currently being made to excuse his proud embrace of Nationalism–to pretend that the omission of the word “White” somehow modified the clear meaning of that embrace.

Former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt cut through the lame efforts to soften and dismiss Trump’s message: 

While discussing the racial politics of the Florida gubernatorial election, ex-Republican strategist Steve Schmidt argued Thursday that the whole party has been dragged down into a dangerous association with racists because of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

Schmidt asserted during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Deadline: White House” that Trump’s recent declaration of himself as a “nationalist” was a direct message to some of the most pernicious parts of the far right.

“When Donald Trump declares himself a ‘nationalist,’ the nationalists understand exactly what he means,” said Schmidt. “By the way, let’s stop calling them ‘white nationalists’ and call them by their names, which are ‘neo-Nazis’ and ‘Klansmen.'”

Whatever the motives of people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I agree with my youngest son that there are two, and only two, categories of people who continue to support him: those in full agreement with his overt and virulent racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism, and those for whom his bigotry–and his incitement of violence against the targets of that bigotry –doesn’t matter.

Those in the second category may deny being racist. Those denials are about as persuasive as the protestations of the bigot who demeaned his seat mate on Ryanair.