When the State Trumps Religion

Posted on September 16, 2012


A few weeks ago we considered what happens when religion controls the State, or theocracy.

Today let’s consider the opposite: two examples of when the State controls religion.

Neither of them is pretty, but both very much historically true. We pick one example from Fascism and one from Communism, both having produced some of the more monstrous anti-religious dictators in the modern world.

The first is Adolph Hitler’s Germany, or from about the early 1920s to 1945. The second is right in our own strategic “back yard,” Fidel Castro’s Cuba, from 1959 to now.

The common theme for both is how to fit religion into the calculus of political power. And, in each instance, religion was either a competitor for power to be eliminated or reduced to obedience, or religion was co-opted.

Much of Hitler’s barbarity was done in the name of Christianity, or was sold to the Germans as perfectly consistent with Christianity. That gross manipulation of Christianity seems astounding to us today, but millions of Germans bought into Hitler’s decision to exterminate the Jews because of his perverse reading of history. And this was done in the country that gave us Martin Luther, the acknowledged father of the Protestant Reformation.

Christians who protested, such as the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were executed.

Bonhoeffer’s trajectory from pastor to being actively engaged in plots to assassinate and remove Hitler in the middle of the war, 1943, are especially close to us, since he spent time in the U. S. in the 1930s, moving from the Harlem of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. to the rarefied airs of the Union Theological Seminary, a center of modern Protestant thinking.

But he always chose to return to Germany to fight Hitler’s demagoguery and twisted interpretation and manipulation of Christianity in his obsession with destroying the Jews.

Bonhoeffer was jailed in 1943 as the plots unraveled and was hanged, by a thin wire to strangle him more slowly, on April 9, 1945 in a concentration camp prison just two weeks before the liberators of the American 90th and 97th Divisions arrived, and only a few weeks before the final German surrender. He was thirty-nine.

When he was urged to stay in the U. S. in 1939, he made a choice that cost him his life.

He wrote “Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”

Unable to withstand the brutality and determination of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer’s Christian world collapsed around him into chaos and finally death.

But his example to Christians is undeniably powerful. If you compromise your religion to political juggernauts, you lose not only your freedom and often your life, but also your faith as well. Not enough Germans rallied around Bonhoeffer and true Christianity to stop the spiral into madness that marked Nazi Germany.

Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in early 1959 riding an immensely powerful and popular revolution. When it turned into a Marxist-style dictatorship by 1961 and 1962, Cubans fled by the hundreds, then the thousands, and finally by the tens of thousands—mostly to the United States—to escape the political, social and economic revolution that basically put the State in charge of society, and politics, and the economy.

The Roman Catholic Church—the major expression of Christianity in Cuba—objected to the ongoing secularization of Cuban life as Castro moved it into the communist camp. The result was predictable: the exile of priests, closing of schools, direct and indirect attacks on Christians, both Catholics and the few Protestants on the island, and even the unofficial government support of Santeria, or the syncretized religion that had developed in Cuba based on West African religions with a thin veneer of Catholicism, as an alternate religion acceptable to Castro and the State.

Ironically, Castro was educated in one of the best Catholic schools in the country, Colegio Belén, run by the Catholic Jesuit order. He said the discipline and motivation he learned from the Jesuits helped him develop revolutionary Cuba.

Perhaps so. But he did not absorb the most important Jesuit message: the centrality of Jesus Christ in Christianity. It was not just about discipline, order, devotion, sacrifice, and, yes, even martyrdom. It was about the love of God for man expressed by the life and teachings of Jesus, and how that translates into the way people treat each other.

Castro was a megalomaniac, totally devoted to forming Cuba in his image: revolutionary, socialist, idealistic, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” as Karl Marx wrote.

What good has come from the Revolution—some improvements in general medicine and education for all—has come at the sacrifice of a Christian conscience, and political liberty to the all-consuming dictates of Castro.

The freedoms Americans take for granted simply do not exist in communist Cuba.

While Castro has appeared to soften some in his old age—receiving Popes and clearly claiming there is religious freedom in Cuba–the facts argue otherwise.

Other examples where religion is crushed or manipulated are easily taken from China and the old Soviet Union, both of which still restrict the free practice of religion.

When religion–and in the instances of Germany and Cuba and most of the West–is prohibited, restricted, proscribed, or otherwise manipulated, the culture and society of that nation suffers the same way as a man who loses his conscience.

We become captives of the mind of a Hitler, a Castro, a Stalin, a Mao Zedong, a Papa Doc Duvalier. Bereft of a set of morals, rules, and ethics based on Christianity, they do what they want or what they can to further their manmade agendas.

Christianity is the guardian of our conscience. It can be exaggerated or twisted into theocracies that are cruel and pale distortions of the true principles of the faith.

But choosing the alternative—destroying religion—leads to a far worse outcome.

I think our Founding Fathers had it right. Provide for the separation of Church and State, but also protect the religious liberty and expression of all people.

And keep an eye on those people who do otherwise.

This column published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday Oct. 15, 2012