Christianity and authoritarianism

Feb 2017

3,000 words

In its American incarnations, it [Christianity] has come to rule the world. The 20th century saw America shrugging off notions of the Death of God and rising to the position of a Christian empire.  It grows more imperial as it grows more Christian.” (Adam Roberts, “The Atheist Paradox,” Aeon 11/26 2012)

Whether or not the “strongman,” predicted by political philosopher Richard Rorty in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country turns out to be our current president, Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign promises and authoritarian behavior have thrown huge sectors of the nation into turmoil.  Tendencies in the “strongman” direction are unmistakable, and besides strategies of resistance people are search­ing for explanations: how could such a thing happen in the United States of America, the bastion and beacon of democracy in the modern world?

I have already suggested one partial answer: that the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump were amenable to the use of America’s military and economic superiority on the global stage to secure their own well being, much as the wealthy elite have always done, even if it meant the impoverishment of other nations.  It is called “imperialism.”  Trump was perfectly clear.  Many see it as a reprise of an old pattern: the stronger sooner or later will use their strength to enhance themselves even if it means oppressing and suppressing others.

This had an internal component: alarmist rejections of “Muslim terrorists” hardly obscured Trump’s true motivations in curtailing immigration; for the same attitudes were directed at Mexicans many of whom were born here and none are Muslim.  “Make America Great Again,” translated to “the hard-earned wealth of working Americans must not be squandered on “free loaders.”  The fact that it is well known that these immigrants are as “hard-working” as anyone, revealed the racism that was the real source of the rejection.

For now, there are stop-gap resistance strategies, but if you’re looking for a durable solution for this problem you’re going to have to wait until people learn what it means to be human.  We have to identify ourselves as a global community, not some local clan, tribe or nation, or we will destroy ourselves, our species and our planet.  This is not just speculation.

The “Christian” contribution

In this reflection, I hope to present what I believe is another piece of the picture: the role of our Religious institutions — Christian Churches, primarily — in conditioning the American People to accept authoritarian government despite it being directly antithetical to the values embedded in the American Constitution.

This has always been a thorny problem, because included in the guarantee of the Constitution is ideological freedom.  We have to realize: Christianity is not only a religion, it is a social ideology.  It has functioned as the underpinning of theocracy in Western Europe for more than a thousand years and continues to offer itself not only as a way to “God” and eternal life, but as a way to secure a divinely protected harmony and prosperity in our earthly societies.  American freedom was always conditioned by the understanding that among various competing religious and political worldviews, one or another may convince the majority to embrace its beliefs and practices.  Would “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion” still be guaranteed under majority rule?  The door has always been open to self-defeating choices.

For a very long time this fear was focused on the question of religious establishment i.e., declaring one religious denomination official.  Because in the early days of the republic Americans were Protestants they shared a general belief in a moral code as well as a revulsion for Catholic Papal autocracy.  Officializing a protestant denomination was not necessary to achieve agreement on these fundamental issues, and establishment would  introduce a level of conflict that would have torn the new nation apart.  Catholics were few and any dangers that Americans would suddenly declare obedience to the Pope were non-existent.

That all changed as first the Irish immigration of 1845-1852 and then the arrival of foreign workers from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and Italy around the turn of the 20th century brought millions of “papist” Catholics into the country.  Catholic immigrants’ children would all be citizens.  But by the late 19th and early 20th century Americans’ fear of Catholics reached a fever pitch and immigration quotas from majority Catholic countries were suddenly and drastically curtailed.

By the end of the second world war the children and grandchildren of immigrant Catholics — now full fledged citizens — had become so integrated into American society that they posed a threat to the smooth running of the traditional political system.  In the lead-up to John Kennedy’s election in 1960, Catholics were subjected to a decade of scrutiny on their American loyalty.  Challengers like Paul Blanchard asked seriously: what would a Catholic President do in the face of a papal decree contrary to the laws and policies of the United States?  Whom would he obey, the Pope or his country?  These issues were seriously debated and Kennedy found himself forced to issue a declaration of loyalty to the Constitution during the campaign, explicitly stating that he would resign the presidency if there were ever a conflict (notice: he did not say he would stop being Catholic).

But lurking in the background was another religious issue that no one suspected would pose a Constitutional challenge of such magnitude that it might bring an end to democratic government in the United States.  The issue was a belief in absolute objective morality which all Christians, Protestant and Catholic, shared, and which had been essential to theocracies in European countries prior to the establishment of Constitutional republics in the nineteenth century.  Together, Christian conditioning prepared people (1) to accept authoritarian (non-democratic) government-by-ruling-class (this is exclusively Catholic), and (2) to profess an objectively true morality coercively imposed as law.  These two things, in my opinion, contributed to Christians in great numbers swelling the ranks of the 63 million people voting for Donald Trump despite the threat to Constitutional democracy that his campaign rhetoric clearly foretold.

Let’s “unpack” these two aspects of the religious (Catholic, Christian) contribution to the breakdown of American democracy:

(1) Authoritarianism: “God” as the Source of all authority

Catholic authoritarianism is not limited to the autocracy of the Pope.  The Catholic system of ecclesiastical governance is pervaded by a patriarchal authoritarianism from top to bottom, and the dogmatic justifications for authoritarian practice are also matters of revelation — truths originating in another world — to which Catholics are expected to adhere.  A personal entity called “God,” not the human community, is the source of all authority, and “God’s” will in this regard is exclusively communicated by men who are themselves un-elected autocrats — the hierarchy.  How is this spelled out in the life of the Catholic community?

(a) Caste status for Catholics is an ontological reality.  The Catholic Church divides Christians into two separate and unequal classes: those who have received holy orders and those who haven’t.  By the Middle Ages church leadership roles had been compressed into one, the priesthood; all other Christians were laity.  The higher clergy were all priests, and all priests were non-married males.  They were the elites: they were educated, exercised whatever authority there was, and through their magical powers were the exclusive mediators of “salvation” to the illiterate and credulous masses.  Once you were ordained a priest, you were a priest forever.  You may cease to function in the role, and may even be released from your vows, but you always retained your magic powers and your status.

Catholics believe that superior social status — the priesthood — is permanent.  It is conferred as an ontological reality independent of function: the equivalent of a genetic code.  If you were looking for some way to make class distinction an immutable social institution, the Catholic belief in priestly ordination provides what you need.

The influence here may be indirect, but it is not insignificant.  The Catholic people have been conditioned for their entire lives to the idea of there being an inherent quasi-genetic ruling class status conferred for life by “God,” exclusively on males, selected by the autocratic leader of a diocese.  There is no room for election of either priests or bishop by the community, despite the ancient practice, and women are excluded entirely.

(b) Political power in the Catholic Church is a “divine right.”  Closely linked to the above is the belief that the source of the right to exercise political power is not the will of the people but rather the will of “God” who is imagined as some sort of rational person who has decided how and by whom authority is to be exercised in the Church and reveals it to his chosen agents.  This proposition is antithetical to the principles of democratic government and as a matter of historical fact is contrary to the universal practice of the Church for almost the first thousand years, when bishops were elected by their people.  Vox populi, vox Dei “The voice of the people is the voice of ‘God’” was the formula that identified the divine source of the democratic ideal.  This democratic mechanism for choice of leaders was still operational as late as the 15th century until the Papacy, in collusion with other European monarchs, completely destroyed the Conciliar movement which tried to install representative Councils as the highest authority in the Church.  Monarchical authority — the Papacy — exercised as a “divine right” completely independent of the will of the people, was an achievement of the Mediaeval Popes, and it has functioned as the exclusive manner of exercising authority in the Catholic Church ever since.

Once again, the idea that such a justification of autocracy — power invested exclusively in the hands of one person bypassing the participation of the people in the selection of their leaders — is a valid and legitimate basis for governance, by its very existence serves to undermine commitment to the principles of democracy.  Catholic people, at least since the Middle Ages, have been accustomed to being ruled by a “hierarchy.”  The word comes from Greek and means “holy authority.”  This doesn’t mean that all Catholics would automatically accept some strongman’s claim to have a divine mandate to rule civil society, but they have been programmed to accept lifelong patriarchal authority conferred by something other than the consent of the people.

(2) Absolute morality and civil law.

Christianity at the pastoral level, the level of family life and daily labor, whether Catholic or any of its reformed versions, has made moral behavior the principal item in a transactional relationship with a punitive “God” — a quid pro quo  — where “salvation” after death is earned by compliant behavior during life.  This contrasts sharply with the  perspective of the ancient Greeks, for whom morality’s primary significance was individual self-development; by living morally you became fully human, and self-fulfillment made you happy.  Christianity did away with that view and redefined right behavior as the individual’s obedient relationship to “God.”  Compliance with the moral code became obedience, and obedience was a form of worship.

Christianity in its current form is the end product of fifteen hundred years of theocratic governance.  Especially in Western Europe, the Roman Empire’s use of the Christian religion to forge a society of homogeneous values and universal compliance, resulted in the inevitable tailoring of Christian beliefs to the needs of “crowd control.”  One of the instruments developed for that purpose was the welding of Christian morality to Roman Law.   Morality was considered submission to “God,” and the Roman Emperors’ efforts to guarantee divine protection for the Empire drove them to place the entire nation in a state of submission to “God.”  This could only be achieved by making Christian morality enforceable by law.  Thus was theocracy reborn under a Christian banner.

In the Christian view, the “moral code” is imagined as imposed not by community agreement but rather by “God” himself.  “God’s” putative “will” is that humans should comply with an abstract “justice” derived from commandments identified with a deducible “natural law” that may or may not have anything to do with the well being of the human community or its individuals.  This is the essence of an absolute morality — characteristic of theistic religions — as opposed to the conventional agreements by which people form cooperative communities among themselves:  Christian morality is grounded in abstract principles rooted in a world of ideas and made known to humankind by revelation; it is not determined by the discernment of human benefit and a consensus of agreement by the members of the governed community.

A morality believed to be imposed and monitored by a “God” who will punish non-compliance with eternal torment is so dominated by the fear factor that it can hardly be embraced for the purposes of self-development, if one were ever so inclined.  This confluence of law and morality virtually eliminates human authenticity.  Even when behavior conforms to moral norms, the obeisance engendered by the looming judgment of a punitive “God” turns every human choice into a groveling self-interest.  It’s no wonder that the “sacrament” of penance was reconceived in the middle ages as the application of another imagined magic power of the priest “upgrading” what was an unavoidable “imperfect contrition” into something that would be worthy of an eternal reward.  They were honest enough to recognize that fear was the primary motive generated by their “system,” and that a life lived out of fear is hardly “perfect.”

Everything was  obedience; everything was master-slave.  Those that complied out of the “love of ‘God’” were few and far between.  “God” and society’s authorities — the agents of his will — were the masters, and the individual human beings were the slaves.  It is the social paradigm, internally, of authoritarianism, and externally, of empire.   Constantine had chosen wisely.

Christian fascism

Authoritarianism can arise from many different sources.  We are generally accustomed to  military coups where unquestioned authority is imposed by force of arms.  But I believe what put Trump in the presidency is a preference for the kind of authoritarianism that I  call “Christian” fascism.  It is “fascist” because it derives from the will of vast numbers of ordinary people who have chosen an autocrat whom they know will act in their name and “for their best interests” without regard for the rule of law or the interests of others who are not part of his constituency.  I call it “Christian” because I believe a majority of the 52% of Catholics who voted for Trump, and great numbers of others who identify themselves as Christian, were motivated by moral issues that certain strains of Christian fundamentalism, including the Catholic, have identified as Christian: the condemnation of abortion, same sex marriage, contraception.  They believed they were under a divine mandate — communicated to them by their religious leaders — to elect the candidate who would restore “true” morality.  True morality, in their eyes, recapitulates the imperatives of the ancient Roman theocracyEnacting them into law makes the entire nation “right with ‘God’” and therefore supposedly deserving of divine protection and prosperity.  These moral norms are claimed to be equally applicable to all because they reflect the “natural law” which all can discern by reason.  Therefore since they apply to all, they can be legislated for all.  Here’s the way Charles Chaput, the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia put it:

Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, and the purpose of sexuality are clearly unpopular in some quarters. Yet Catholic ideas about the nature of personhood, marriage, and sexuality are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have an inherent nature that is not just the product of accident or culture, but universal and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.  (Dec 8, 2016, Philadelphia Inquirer)

What Chaput takes for granted and I dispute is the proposition that personal morality has a right to be enacted into law, effectively coercing the entire population to obey what some faction of some fundamentalist cult considers divine revelation and the “order of nature.”  There is no such revelation, and behind it all, there is no such “personal” God-entity who wills, or commands or sanctions legal coercion.  This is a Christian myth; and it makes traditional Christianity every bit as mediaeval, archaic and intellectually regressive as the worst forms of Islam.

The fear of Catholic authoritarianism that haunted the early Republic and disturbed Americans as late as the 1950’s, turned out to be well founded, but for reasons that ran deeper than the Popes’ exercise of autocratic power.  The contagion of authoritarianism spread by Catholicism is shared by all fundamentalist versions of Christianity and springs from deeply embedded beliefs that will continue to wreak havoc on the human social experiment.  Christianity in its traditional form, which embodies a divinely mandated morality, the fruit of an absurd belief in a theist humanoid “God”-person, the Creator-craftsman who made the universe and everything in it the way a carpenter builds a house, is utterly false.  It is pure fiction.  It is an incredible belief system, the incoherent vestige of a past era whose view of the world has been completely superseded by the findings of modern science, and whose holy books have been proven to be the religious speculations of an uninformed people as they evolved their understanding of what “worked” in human society.  They projected their discoveries onto “God.”  There was nothing “revealed” about the morality recorded in those books.

From my point of view the election of Donald Trump can be directly attributed in large measure to the completely unreformed state of the Christian religion, despite the ethereal work of theologians whose academic ivory tower elaborations never reach the pastoral level, much less do they challenge the mediaeval authority structures which are the living contradiction of everything theologians claim for a Christianity that exists only in their imaginations.  The state of Christianity today, politically and socially, is the same as it has been for the last 1500 years, since Augustine of Hippo spelled out the theocratic role the Christian Church should play in the ascendeancy of the Roman Empire.  Unreformed traditional Christianity — one version of which is fundamentalist Catholicism — is the DNA of authoritarianism and empire.

Vast numbers of traditional Christians, including a majority of Catholics, were one of the principal sectors who elected Donald Trump.  “By their fruits you will know them.”

3 comments on “Christianity and authoritarianism

  1. Noel McMaster says:

    A 4-square presentation, Tony, not to say monolithic; but eloquent as usual.

    I’m sure, though, you would be open to dialogue in various church settings, the Catholic and others.

    I am grateful that I came across the writings of Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo in the mid-eighties. These writings drew on his experience as a chaplain, away from academia, to various groups in Montevideo. He explained in the foreword to more than one of his books, that what he wrote came from meetings, one night a week for nearly 20 years with individuals suspicious of ‘ideology’, in the pejorative sense that he, Segundo, allowed for, with others.. Thus we have The Liberation of Theology and The Liberation of Dogma, and other articles. And many grateful ‘church’ people in Latin America and around the world.

    As for Donald Trump and his ‘moral appeal to Catholics and others who voted for his authoritarian postures and promises, I wonder about what makes him appealing, or gives him authority morally. He does not have a history of upright virtuous living, in the Aristotelian sense or Kantian, for example. I’d be interested in your take on that.

    Segundo also alerted me to faith as an anthropological ‘given’ – the way we wager on the worthwhile in life, prior to faith as a theological virtue, for example, which would ‘elevate’ revelation inappropriately. I sometimes think of anthropological faith and revelation as in an “arm wrestle” where revelation would gain the ascendency, as you write, I think, but which needs to be put back in place, not to say overcome, by our recognition that our human faith is prior and world view begins with and is sustained by our wagers. Which can be self-validated theologically, as with revelation.



  2. tonyequale says:


    Thanks for your always thoughtful comments.

    I have no problem with “faith” so long as it doesn’t mean denying science, evolution, cosmology, etc., etc. And by precisely the same token I have no problem with theology, whether “liberation” or of any other stripe so long as it does not include taking scripture literally and denying the scholarly consensus about the mythic nature and character of biblical narrative. … and so long as it does not include a “reification” that morphs relational realities into ontological realities, like calling God’s love “grace” and thinking of it like a hydraulic substance that is “in-fused” into the “soul” as into a receptacle … or imagining non-existent realities like “merit” conceived as a cumulative currency that “earns” eternal life … or transposing temporary role like ministry into an imagined “eternal seal” that creates two levels of Christians. I have no problem with prayer or the sacraments so long as they do not include delusions about the “real,” meaning “physical” presence of “God,” or a sacramental efficacy that goes beyond the symbolic to become quasi-medical.

    My list of “conditions” is getting longer so I will stop here. In general, my problem is not with “religion” as the theologians conceive it, it is with the Church. The Catholic Church and “religion” are two different things. The Church is an international corporate entity of immense wealth and real estate holdings, that enjoys a moral prestige that allows it to pontificate on political matters that affect its corporate well-being to the detriment of the well-being of human-kind. My problem is with its entirely erroneous self-serving claim of infallibility, its arrogant declamations about “truth” in moral and political matters. The “Church” as theorized (imagined) by the theologians exists mainly in their heads, and rarely in reality.

    I lived in Nicaragua for the better part of the decade of the ‘80’s and I was familiar with the Catholic Church at all levels: the level of the bishops, the Catholic (Jesuit) University, foreign “missionaries,” the local parishes, popular religiosity (e.g., the massive “via crucis” processions), and also the Christian base communities that espoused liberation theology. While the missionaries and the majority of the professors were “progressive,” the bishops and the diocesan clergy were very conservative, anti-communist, opposed to the development efforts of the Sandinista government and openly supported the contra war waged by the US. The liturgy was in Spanish but few went to communion. There were very few Christian base communities. They were repudiated by the bishops and abandoned to their own devices. To characterize the Church in Central America in those years as espousing “liberation theology” would be completely erroneous.

    Frankly I have seen this phenomenon over and over again. People read these theologians, and the picture of the “Church” that they paint bears almost no resemblance to the reality on the ground. But their readers go to Church with their heads full of wonderful thoughts imagining that the Church (“somewhere”) is a foment of these ideas even though in their own parish virtually nothing is happening besides keeping up the level of income and not alienating the contributing constituency. In the meantime no one is addressing absolute lack of democracy in the Church, the reactionary proclamations of the hierarchy in support of authoritarianism (that elected Donald Trump) justified as “defense of Christian sexuality,” the continuation of untenable dogmas like “Original Sin” that damage individuals and excuse the false claims of Catholic superiority over all other religions not to mention teachings that directly contradict the discoveries of science in all areas.

    The theologians do not address themselves to the reform of the Church where it is most deformed and most damaging to the human experiment: its authority structure and the dogmatic foundations that justify it. So you have theologians talking about the humanity of Jesus, the significance of evolution for our understanding of “God,” the priesthood of the faithful and the sensus fidelium, while at the same time being extremely careful not to challenge the authority of the hierarchy or the de fide dogmas of the Church. They are careful to avoid talking about anything that would threaten the power structure because they themselves depend upon the prestige of the Church for their own career and theological projections. Who would listen to them if suddenly they were excommunicated and no longer recognized by the Church as Roman Catholic theologians? So university professors, among others, who depend upon the Church for their very jobs or their following, are unable to help the Catholic people identify where they should bring their considerable power to bear for the reform of the Church.

    Thought and action have to come together, every human community is a microcosm of the larger society, the Church is no exception. If the Church is to have an impact on larger society it has to begin dealing with its own reform. The struggle for justice is the very dynamic that makes every individual and every community authentic. Reform is not a state, it is a dynamic; it’s not a noun, it’s a verb; its not an possession, it is a constant quest. But the struggle has to be engaged. Words and books are not enough. But without words and books we don’t know where to direct our energies. This is the work of our theologians: to prioritize the work of reform. And I believe it must begin with governance and the dogmas that underpin it. Tertullian reported the reaction of his contemporaries: “Look at these Christians, how they love one another.” Indeed. We have to ask: how exactly do we love one another? Like slaves on a plantation hoping for a benevolent master?


  3. Noel McMaster says:

    I appreciate that response, Tony. Lots of opportunities for dialogue, although I am not competent to take them all on board.

    I recall the image I had typed in my initial comment, but which was lost when I pressed ‘post comment’ and there was no internet connection at my end And then it skipped my mind when I did post.

    Your image of the authoritarian church is suggestive of a physical ‘system’ which has progressed, or descended, to maximum entropy within time and temperature parameters. Culturally then, analogously, authority over time has reduced us (in the church) to maximum indifferentiation, all slaves, lukewarm servants, if we take your image as the all embracing reality of the church.

    But in reality there are unexpected, chanced, insertions or infusions of energy which can reverse the entropy for a time, but over and over. Thaty is, a physical process can begin over again, with opportuniities for negentropy along with the rebooted entropy.

    I think the ‘church’ has some experience of this, here and there, whatever the theologians are doing, from preserving their tenure to attending conferences and publishing proceedings.

    Midst the 7 billion plus people on the planet, and within that the muddle, for example, the Catholic statistic re membership etc., there are energies abroad.

    We might say that nothing has changed since Peter and Paul got going and Constantine took over. There are, though, at any time among the lukewarm, not a few phenomenal ‘little flocks’ here and there which can be party to the survival of the Christian way through their lives of anthropological faith, their wager on the way of Jesus of Nazareth.

    And over against that there must be a lot of invincible ignorance among the 1 billion, a collective of indifferentiation wrought by evil, whether it be authoritarianism, of any of the secular, so called, forces that consume us.

    And so to theodicy.

    Blessings, Tony.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s