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Theology and Fascism

Posted on: June 07, 2020

Category: Theology

Theology and Fascism

Theology and Fascism

In a recent blog I wrote for Westar, I referred to White nationalism as a form of theological fascism. I find it hard to use the word “fascism” because it invokes Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini. Our time is a troubled one, and it does involve both overt and structural racism, but I know it’s still not Nazi Germany.

Nevertheless, theologians do use the word “fascism” to speak of White evangelical nationalism and the bizarre way evangelicals have accepted Donald Trump as a Christian saviour. When it comes to racism, sexism, xenophobia, kowtowing to dictators, and the like (the list is a long one), these Trumpian forms of worshipping authority do relay the spirit as well as the character of fascism.

Fascism comes from the Latin word fasces (singular fascis), which means bundle (of wood). It is the same root word as “faggot” in English (appearing as fag for a cigarette and as a derogatory word for a homosexual). In ancient Rome, the “bundle of wood” was wrapped around an axe, and this image (a hand axe sticking out of a bundle of wood) was an image of Roman imperial authority. Though the image meant strength through unity, it symbolized Roman violence in the name of “order.”

A central characteristic of fascism is the use of violence to uphold order. This characteristic is expressed in different ways. One is the hatred of socialism. Fascism sees socialism as a weakness. In the eyes of fascist governments, universal government programs like welfare promote individual weakness. Another expression is in the admiration of the “strong man.” Fascism relates power to authenticity. The highest priority for a fascist government is the military, which also expresses the highest ideal and even highest fantasy. Donald Trump fantasized about deploying full military power against his own citizens. To historians, that fantasy-threat reveals a fascist spirit. A third expression is the apparent hatred of liberals. By liberal, here, I mean progressive, critical thinkers. Fascist governments seek to control education and to eliminate advanced critical thinking. People with advanced skills hold the unfortunate habit of deep questioning. Fascist regimes prefer popular to professional forms of knowledge. In fascism, when popular “knowledge” is central, professional knowledge is “fake news.”

It is very possible to make a long list of characteristics that fascist regimes have held since they arose in the late nineteenth century, but my point does not lie here. My point is that to hold popular appeal, fascism needs an uncritical authority base to stand on. When that authority base is religion, theologians are justified to talk about “fascist theology.”

Fascist theology is the kind of theology that rejects historical-critical thinking because such thinking reveals the relativity of human history. Over time, knowledge transforms, and what was once a standard social truth can become a new form of immorality. Fundamentalism in Christianity expresses fascism because it rejects the very notion that context and relativity apply to the Bible. Fascism prefers absolutes.

Fascist theology also tends toward the fantasy of violence. It is insidious violence that resides in insisting on what is sexist or what is racist. The violence consists of the refusal to admit or even care about social and structural problems. Rex Murphy recently insisted that Canada is not racist. Though Murphy had lots of nice things to say about Canada that any Canadian could be proud of, his words hid legitimate issues behind a fantasy that few other than White Canadians are privileged to live. Murphy is probably a nice guy (so is Trump, some have said), but his words are deceptively violent.

Theologians are right to be concerned about theological fascism. Anti-critical thinking, justified by popularism mixed with authoritarianism, is a problem in society and a problem in the thinking of religion. The normalization of violence in the form of undermining, delegitimizing, and shaming criticism is not only anti-democratic but also anti-divine.

In theology, reference to the “divine” is not meant to be literal. It is not a reference to somebody. It is a reference to a perspective that is larger than, and always too large for, the human imagination. The divine, accordingly, is not an authority but a question. The divine is the question about the size of our minds and the size of our hearts. It is the question that challenges us to be more than we thought we could be while here on earth, in this context, with these uncertainties, and within this community. All these questions and challenges are “weaknesses” in the fascist mind. Yet, all these questions define what it means to be a theologian as much as their denial defines what it means to hold a fascist theology.

©By David Galston

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