A Christian Response to Fascism, Part 1 of 16
People who lived through (or escaped from) fascist regimes, whose families were exiled or killed by fascists, and those who study fascism, are trying to get our attention. They — Madeleine Albright, Timothy Snyder, Jason Stanley, Umair Haque, Adele Stan, Sarah Kendzior, Sarah Churchwell, Carl Boggs, among others — beg us to pay attention to the early warning signs of authoritarian rule. Trump may not become a full-blown fascist à la Mussolini, but enough of his behavior and inclinations mirror that of other authoritarian leaders that we should be (and many are) alert and resisting.
As a pastor, I want to offer a clear Christian response to fascism. Historically, churches and their leaders often align with authoritarian governments, lending them legitimacy and easing the consciences of the faithful who either support the regime, or who are too scared to speak out against it. Along with my co-pastor and friend, Ken Wilson, I wrote Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance. The subtitle, “a theology of resistance,” is crucial, and my coming reflections strike me as timely given the upcoming midterm elections.
I’ll create my response in sixteen parts, addressing various symptoms of authoritarianism through a lens shaped by forty years of practicing the Christian disciplines. The spirituality of following Jesus should form us in such a way that we to lean away from authoritarian leaders, not toward them.
To begin, the admixture of American identity with Christianity (particularly evangelicalism, and most particularly white evangelicalism) has made it difficult for many Christian Americans to separate the two. Add in the rigorous patriarchal hierarchy present in all church traditions and we have a recipe for producing congregants at ease with patriarchal, authoritarian, white-centered Americanism. It’s my job, and the job of my pastoral colleagues, to cut through such nonsense and help point us back to Jesus and what he asks of his followers.
As an example of Christianity imbibed with patriotism and patriarchy: I once attended an out-of-state megachurch on Father’s Day while visiting friends. I observed 1) only men on the stage, including for the music portion of worship — women could not lead in any unambiguous way 2) an American flag waving in the background of the TVs displaying music lyrics (worship music included the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers”) 3) gift card prizes given out to the most virile men — men with the greatest numbers of kids and grandkids 4) motorcycles on stage, and )5 a muscle car extravaganza to round out the after-church Father’s Day experience. Not coming from that kind of church tradition, I didn’t know how to process the overt blend of “Murica” with a masculinity so narrowly defined I could only feel … depressed? … for all the men who don’t care about muscle cars and motorcycles, or who don’t want or can’t have children.
This blending of Christianity with hyper-masculinity and patriotism happens in churches across our country. Fascism thrives on machismo — on the idea of a strong, virile male dominating his foes. The same evangelicals worshiping in the white Bible Belt megachurch I visited voted for Trump in droves. And it’s no wonder they venerate a strongman. I’ll revisit the concept of patriarchy and machismo in coming posts, but think it’s worth noting the parallel between American Christian culture and the behavior on display in many white machismo politicians today.
The last thing I’ll note in this opening post is that shame pervades the American psyche (see anything by Brené Brown). We don’t like to look or feel dumb, and we certainly don’t want to admit we could’ve been duped by a con man. My intention in writing a spiritually-informed resistance to fascism isn’t to dehumanize or shame people attracted to Trump and his policies. On the contrary, it’s to remind us of Jesus-shaped values and connect us with the Holy Spirit to help us better see and discern our environment. There’s no shame in changing our mind (repenting is the Christian term for just such a thing, and it’s encouraged!). Ultimately I hope that, instead of mirroring the desires and priorities of the people around us, we can better imitate and reflect the desires of that humble prophet from Bethlehem — who came to save us from ourselves.