so. i know this post is going to come off as way-inflamatory. really, that’s not my intention. i’m extremly hesitant to post these thoughts because i fear they will:
a. incite a vicious plethora of responses to me and about me, which i really don’t feel like wading through, and/or
b. be quickly and easily misunderstood as the liberal rantings of one of “those emergent types”.
but i visited the united states holocaust museum recently in washington, dc. i’d not been before, and had heard so much about it. it was really great, though my feet were dog-tired by the end and i was a bit whiney.
here’s the thought that kept jumping in front of me, even when i tried, repeatedly, to dodge it: there are so many awkward similarities between the nazi party’s tactics and the christian religious right’s tactics in current-day america.
now, let me stop right there and make some important disclaimers:
1. i’m not saying the religious right ARE nazis.
2. i’m not equating all conservative christians with the religious right. frankly, until very, very recently, i still considered myself a conservative christian (and i’m darn close to it still, in many areas — i’d now likely consider myself a moderate evangelical); but i’ve never seen myself as a part of the religious right. there are tens or hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of conservative christians who should not be unfairly labled as part of the religious right.
3. i’m not referring to racial cleansing or hatred. the only comparisons i’m going to refer to are tactical.
4. i’m was not intending to post this in such close proximity to the discussion about isreal and lebanon. i’d been planning this post for a week and a half, since having these thoughts in the holocaust museum. while there may be some connections, that’s not my intent.
the holocaust museum is divided into five levels — the basement being a cafe and such, and the main floor being a lobby, special exhibit and bookstore. visitors begin the actual tour on the top floor, and work their way back down. the top floor is the rise of the nazi party, the 3rd floor is mostly about the concentration camps and “the final solution”, and the 2nd floor moves into the final days and liberation from the camps. i’m bothering to explain this because this nagging comparison kept coming to my mind ONLY in the top floor — the rise to power.
here are a handful of things i noticed:
1. fear is a tool.
i was intrigued, learning about the rise of the nazi party in germany — while they were still considered the minority, the fringe wackos — how they used fear to both mobilize people and win people over to their agenda. they systematized the cultivation of fear, rather brilliantly, if one can use a word like that. as i was reading and experiencing this in the museum, i was bowled over by the similarities to much of what is happening in the american church right now. the constant use of war imagery (“we’re in a battle for a generation” or “we are on the brink of being the last christian generation in america”) and fear-based tactics are the dominant themes in much of the fundraising and publishing released into the (american) christian world these days. it’s not helpful. it seems to me, the only time jesus really talked about being fearful of the influence of “those people” was when he talked about religious leaders.
2. “popular culture is bad, and threatening our way of life.”
this is a varient on #1, really. but it was a massive message of the nazi party prior to their rise to power. they condemned other germans at this point (which became something of a moot point, and a message they stopped using, once they rose to power). the early nazi party spent much of their communication coin on pointing out (from their perspective) how their own country had become infiltrated with abborhant behavior and thinking, and that popular expressions in culture were threatening to extinguish the only things that were truly good about germans (and other aryans). this oppositional approach to culture is being consistently laid out by the marketers and fundraisers of the religious right in american also. what struck me (when thinking about this in the museum) was how selfish it is. even if ‘our way of life’ is being threatened (which i don’t believe), the jesus-approach would be to be missional into culture, not to spend all our effort drawing lines of demarcation, and retreating from culture. some might say that the religious right’s “engagement” in politics is missional, or at least, an effort to engage culture. but i don’t buy this when the effort is fueled by a desire that is ultimately self-serving.
3. “people who don’t believe like us are ruining our country, and threatening our way of life”
again, this is a variant on #1 and #2. but it moves beyond culture as an amorphous disembodied “thing” and toward a personal level. this was the primary message of the nazi party to other germans in their early years. hitler’s speaches were peppered with this language, as were the collateral materials printed by the nazi party. in our own setting, this connects with the (wrong-headed) notion that american is a christian country, and should be preserved as such — in order to protect our way of life (which, at the end of the day, means “my way of life”). i realize it’s a bit cliche to mention this, but real christianity (real, passionate, following of jesus christ) has never flourished in a christian country. jesus never encourages us to become the dominant thought-power or political leader, and certainly doesn’t encourage us to expunge those we don’t agree with from our midst.
4. shows of strength provide courage where courage is lacking.
when the then-young nazi party realized that the majority of germans thought they were an odd fringe group, they were proactive in showing their growing strength, though marches and rallies. this show of strength brought a sense of movement, and brought ‘courage’ to those who were waffling. the nazi ranks grew exponentially during this period. there was almost a sense that “if that many people are part of this, it can’t be competely wrong — in fact, maybe it’s right.” our rallies on the steps of governmental steps and our million-man marches may have the same apparently-positive affect of fostering courage. but it’s not the route to courage given to us by the bible, or by jesus. those approaches are more acts of zeolotry than acts of passion for jesus (see scot mcknight’s fascinating multi-part posting on zeolotry). courage — biblical courage — is not something we drum up in ourselves. gaining courage — to have a full heart (from the french and latin roots of the word) — is a contrite and humble process of asking god to fill our hearts, asking god to be our source of courage.
5. the primary task becomes about defining who’s “in” and who’s “out” by whether or not they exist in our boundaried set of beliefs.
the early nazi party (again, this became somewhat of a moot point after their rise to power) were brilliant at systematizing detailed descriptions of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. they developed detailed charts of family trees and partial acceptability, based on heredity. they developed photographic charts that ‘proved’ the undesireable ‘outs’ based on size of nose and forehead, among other things. of course, there’s nothing quite so blatant in our context. we’re much more subtle about it – more sophisticated. we write books about why we can’t have fellowship with other christians because they don’t believe exactly as we do. we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort refining and clarifying and arguing our propositional statements of belief, and communicate that it would be wrong to associate with others until you completely know and completely agree with their statement of belief. we spend more of our time and effort (in the american religious right) explaining who and what we are not, clarifying why we’re more right and pure then ‘them’. and we’ve become obsessed with boundary marking, rather than stacking hands on core essentials.
and a parallel in government’s response to both groups:
6. keep them close, give them some power, in order to control them.
this was so interesting to me. i hadn’t been aware of the final steps in hitler’s rise to power, and had never quite understood how he (and the nazi party) got to complete power. for the few who, like i was, are unaware of these final steps: the moderate president of germany thought hitler was a nut, and thought the nazi platform was misguided. but his advisors encouraged him along the lines of the old adage “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”. the president decided it would be easier to control hitler by giving him a position of partial-power. so he appointed him chancellor of germany, a somewhat ill-defined role that was a bit more ceremonial than not. but this was a huge miscalculation of how much power hitler and the nazi party had already garnered. within months (weeks?) of hitler’s appointment as chancellor, those in parliament (or whatever it was called) from the nazi party had taken over power of the real government. they quickly moved to outlaw all other policital parties. and in a shockingly short span of time moved germany to a totalitarian state. parallels to our context? well, there are certainly many christians in america (myself included) who are surprised by the clout of the religious right. much of their ‘power’ in controlling the republican party is based on an assumption (right or wrong — i’d like to think it’s wrong, but i’m not sure) that they have the ability to control a significant-enough segment of the american voters to control those who are elected. so one of our only two feasible political parties has been co-opted by “keep them close” thinking. i think this is highly dangerous for all of us — including for the religious right. there is no example in history (that i’m aware of) where a religiously uniform group dominating the political scene of a country has been a good thing for the country, or for the very people who aspouse the views of the religiously uniform group.
so. this ‘observational rant’ has gone on long enough. i haven’t been very helpful in suggesting alternatives, i admit. these are merely thoughts that came to me when touring a museum.