Based on what I know of our present circumstances, coupled with what I have studied about past regimes, the outlook does not look good. Already Christians and other religious individuals are finding themselves jailed and fined for holding Bible studies and church meetings in their homes and backyards. Others are being prosecuted for daring to help those less fortunate by feeding the poor and housing the homeless. Still others are being criticized for daring to stick to their religious principles and resist government attempts to track their whereabouts by way of surveillance and tracking devices. All the while individual Christians are being prosecuted for standing up for their religious beliefs, few are finding themselves supported by their churches or larger religious institutions.
Sadly, those hoping that religious liberty will survive in the midst of a police state may find themselves in for a shock when they learn that in past regimes, save for a few renegades, the established church has colluded with authoritarian regimes. One need look no further than Jesus Christ Himself, an itinerant preacher who was betrayed by the Sanhedrin—the established Jewish hierarchy—and given over to the governing body for execution. Yes, Jesus lived in a police state.
I have long warned that all freedoms hang together. If free speech goes; if due process goes; if the rights to bear arms and assemble and be secure in your homes and free from unreasonable searches and seizures go—then religious freedom will be extinguished alongside them. Even so, the question is not what will happen to religious freedom if America becomes a police state, but will religious institutions actually stand and fight for freedom or will they be complicit in our downfall?
Before we can look to the past for clues about the future, however, we would do well to truly understand the state of affairs today in the emerging police state that is America. Let us begin, then, with a brief overview of our present circumstances, wherein with each passing day, as I document in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, America inches further down the slippery slope toward a police state. While police clashes with protesters, small farmers, and other “lawbreakers” vividly illustrate the limits on our freedoms, the boundaries of a police state extend far beyond the actions of law enforcement. In fact, a police state is characterized by bureaucracy, secrecy, perpetual wars, a nation of suspects, militarization, surveillance, widespread police presence, and a citizenry with little recourse against police actions. In this regard the signs of an emerging police state are all around us. In true Orwellian fashion, it has infiltrated most aspects of our lives.
We were once a society that valued individual liberty and privacy above all else. Increasingly, however, we have morphed into a culture that has quietly accepted surveillance in virtually every area of our lives—police and drug-sniffing dogs in our children’s schools, national databases that track our finances and activities, sneak-and-peek searches of our homes by government agents without our knowledge or consent, and antiterrorism laws that turn average Americans into suspected criminals. All the while police officers dressed in black Darth Vader-like costumes have more and more assumed the persona of armed militias, instead of the civilian peacekeepers they were intended to be.
This is not to say that the police are inherently “bad” or “evil.” However, in enforcing policies that both injure citizens and undermine freedom, the police have become part of the bureaucratic machine that respects neither citizen dignity nor freedom. Operating relatively autonomously, this machine simply moves forward in conveyor-belt fashion, utilizing the police and other government agents to establish control and dominance over the citizenry.
Gradually, but with increasing momentum, a police/surveillance state has been erected around us. This is reflected in the government’s single-minded quest to acquire ever-greater powers along with the fusion of the police and the courts and the extent to which our elected representatives have sold us out to the highest bidders—namely, the corporate state and the military-industrial complex, which was warned about long ago by President Eisenhower but is all too real today. Even a casual glance at the daily news headlines provides a chilling glimpse of how much the snare enclosing us has tightened and how little recourse everyday citizens really have.
As anyone who has studied history knows, police states assume control with the mantra of “freedom, equality, and fraternity”—and maybe more apropos for us, “security and safety.” The world, it must be remembered, has not often been terrorized by despots up-front enough to advertise themselves as devils. As former presidential adviser Bertram Gross, who worked in both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, explains in his book Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America.
“I am afraid of those who proclaim that it can’t happen here. In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote a popular novel in which a racist, anti-Semitic, flag-waving, army-backed demagogue wins the 1936 presidential election and proceeds to establish an Americanized version of Nazi Germany. The title, It Can’t Happen Here, was a tongue-in-cheek warning that it might. But . . . anyone looking for black shirts, mass parties, or men on horseback will miss the telltale clues of creeping fascism. . . . In America, it would be supermodern and multiethnic—as American as Madison Avenue, executive luncheons, credit cards, and apple pie. It would be fascism with a smile. As a warning against its cosmetic façade, subtle manipulation, and velvet gloves, I call it friendly fascism. What scares me most is its subtle appeal.”1
An emerging American police state can already be seen in subtle trends introduced by those in leadership—government, media, education—toward greater control and manipulation of the individual, helped along in no small part by religious institutions lacking any true awareness of the world around them.
Years ago William L. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, observed that America might be the first country in which fascism comes to power through democratic elections.2 When and if fascism takes hold in America, the basic forms of government will remain. That, as Bertram Gross notes, is its “subtle appeal.” It will appear friendly. The legislators will be in session. There will be elections, and the news media will cover all the political trivia. Moreover, churches—at least, the established ones—will still be open for business. “But the ‘consent of the governed’ will no longer apply,” writes journalist Chris Floyd, because “actual control of the state will have passed to a small group of nobles who rule largely for the benefit of their wealthy peers and corporate patrons.”
Fear as Control
“It is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. . . . Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”3
This was the testimony of Nazi field marshal Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials. Goering, an expert on the propaganda of fear, knew very well how to cow and control a populace. In like fashion the very real transformation of our society is based on fear. In fact, one of the major forces currently shaping the psyche of the American people is fear. People are afraid of Communists and socialists. People are afraid of crime. People are afraid of their neighbors. People are afraid of terrorism, and so on, ad infinitum.
Thus, as the rationale goes, to save our democracy (or republic as it used to be called), we have to be secure and free of the onslaught of terrorism and the infiltration of immigrants, protesters, and other misfits (that is, other American citizens with whom we might disagree). That’s why, we are told, we need a war on terrorism, a war on crime, a war on drugs, and other military euphemisms.
Fear, and its perpetuation by the government, is the greatest weapon against freedom; and propaganda is the most effective tool for keeping the populace in check.
Religious Freedom and Submission
Regardless of the specifics of one’s faith, submission to God is a given, but what about submission to the state? This is a problem that has plagued Christians since Christ walked the earth. From the persecution of early Christians under the government of Rome to the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire, Christians in the first millennium lived under a variety of regimes, with radically varying accommodations to their religious beliefs. This tension between faith in God and obedience to the state continued through the next millennium. From the various warring kingdoms in Europe taking up the cross during their attempts to conquer the world, to the resistance to empire practiced by such Christians as Leo Tolstoy—whatever the time period, one can find a Christian on either side of the submission-versus-resistance debate.
Perhaps the greatest failures and victories of Christian resistance to state power were seen during World War II, when the Nazi regime in Germany was able to convince the vast majority of Christians in that country not to wholly abandon their faith, but to translate their passion for God into passion for the state. Through a mixture of lies, propaganda, and careful politics, the National Socialists were able to persuade most of the Christian churches to support the Nazi regime.4 This was largely owing to Adolf Hitler, an astute politician who flattered the Christian churches at every turn, while slowly amassing all political power in the country.5 The conflation of patriotism and religion was a major aspect of Hitler’s rise to power.
There were, of course, some Christian churches, Protestant and otherwise, that refused to go along with the dictates of the Third Reich. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, paid a high price for their rejection of state authority. As Peter Matheson notes in his compendium The Third Reich and The Christian Churches, “Virtually every single member suffered, and many were executed or died in a concentration camp.”6 One of the most vocal and dogged opponents of the Nazi regime was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and member of the Confessing Church, who eventually paid for his resistance with his life.
Nazi Germany might seem an extreme example, but its relevance to any discussion about the role of religious institutions in a police state cannot be understated. Based on the German model, it seems likely that most religious institutions would be willing participants in enforcing police-state regimes, so long as the state provided basic assurances to the churches that their autonomy in matters of religious faith would be respected.
America, which has been steeped in religion since its foundation, is unique in the developed world for its embrace of religion alongside liberal democracy. It is indeed one of the most religious of the developed nations in the world. However, as we have seen in recent years, the American governmental system has become increasingly authoritarian. Yet apart from politically charged discourse, religious institutions have exhibited little opposition to government power grabs. To the contrary, examples of Christian leaders supporting various politicians and cozying up to the seats of power are numerous, especially when “their” party is in power. This can take the relatively benign form of Christian pastors encouraging congregants to sign up for Obamacare,7 or various political rallies for favored candidates, as in the case of Rick Perry’s rally during his run for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2012.8
However, this comfort with cozying up to power and taking orders from politicians has more insidious manifestations as well. During Hurricane Katrina, when martial law was established in New Orleans, “Clergy Response Teams” were dispatched to encourage the public to conform to all orders by government officials responding to the disaster.9 While federal agents confiscated guns and ushered people into makeshift relief centers, members of the clergy were encouraging the public to cooperate with any and all orders. As Durell Tuberville, a chaplain of one of the clergy response teams, noted: “The primary thing we say to anybody is let’s [cooperate] and get this thing over with, and then we’ll settle the differences once the crisis is over.”10 Tuberville went on to say that “the government is established by the Lord, … and that’s what we believe in the Christian faith, that’s what’s stated in the Scripture.”11 Tuberville’s claim that Scripture justifies governmental authority comes from an oft-quoted biblical passage that states: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1).12
Yet this call to submit is not a plea to actively support the state, but rather to understand that God is the ultimate authority, regardless of who is in power. As Mennonite John Howard Yoder explains: “The imperative . . . is not literally one of obedience. . . . Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, . . . is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.”13
Christ’s life was one of profound resistance to not only police state regimes but also to the authority of religious leaders as well. Christ was put to death by the representative of the Roman state, Pontius Pilate. But Pilate did not execute Christ out of a feeling of malice. Rather, he deferred to the desires of Christ’s interlocutors, the religious elite who were threatened by His call for a radical departure from business as usual; which included embracing the dregs of society and rejecting authorities other than God.
Christians are called to do the right thing while operating under the sovereignty of the state. Many Christian activists, including the Berrigan brothers, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr., did just that. They disobeyed laws that compelled them to perform immoral actions, but fully accepted the ramifications of their disobeying, usually resulting in arrest and time in prison. Unfortunately they were the exceptions. More often those who professed love for God were inclined toward conformity rather than engaging in acts of civil disobedience.
The state’s penchant for creating morally gray situations forces Christians to abandon their commitment to live in Christ’s example. Leo Tolstoy, a committed Christian and lifelong critic of the state and the church, understood this. Tolstoy wrote: “The organization of our society rests, not as people interested in maintaining the present order of things like to imagine, on certain principles of jurisprudence, but on simple brute force, on the murder and torture of men.”14
While Tolstoy wrote primarily about the czarist government of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, his criticisms ring true for the American government and churches in America today. He understood that the reason that society, even a society full of self-professed Christians, was able to commit crimes on a daily basis was because people are alienated from their moral choices. He wrote: “This conviction that the existing order is the necessary and therefore immutable order, which it is a sacred duty for every man to support, enables good men, of high principles in private life, to take part with conscience more or less untroubled in crimes.”15
Christians are not uniquely tempted by power, but they have undertaken a unique commitment to eschew formal systems of power in favor of following in Christ’s footsteps. In truth, the toughest aspect of being a Christian is fully acting out in the radical manner that Christ demanded. As Chris Hedges has noted: “The fundamental lesson of the resurrection, which is the crucifixion, is that if you don’t love, you die. And if you do love, they kill you. . . . The cost of the moral life or the religious life is a high cost.”16
Despite the high cost, the task must still be attempted. Anything less is unacceptable. As Tolstoy says: “A man of the modern world who profits by the order of things based on violence, and at the same time protests that he loves his neighbor and does not observe what he is doing in his daily life to his neighbor, is like a brigand who has spent his life in robbing men, and who, caught at last, knife in hand, in the very act of striking his shrieking victim, should declare that he had no idea that what he was doing was disagreeable to the man he had robbed and was prepared to murder.”17
In police states the religious institutions that praise, embolden, and fund the state are elevated. Those that resist, that reject the supremacy of the state and follow in the footsteps of Christ, are punished and driven underground. Despite the high personal costs, Americans, Christian or otherwise, must resist the temptation to celebrate and exercise state power, regardless of their good intentions. The moral life cannot be truly expressed through ballot boxes and pulpits, but rather requires individual, daily actions that bring about a more just and equitable society.
Christ’s message was a radical one, but He did not require a stage, a ballot box, or even a pulpit in order to make it clear that He was advocating for a complete departure from business as usual. And unlike politicians who claim they will change our country and set things right, Christ knew that exercising political power was not the solution, but rather part of the problem. When we react to polling numbers and stump speeches rather than moral imperatives we compromise that which makes us human. No amount of politicking can bring about a society dedicated to freedom, religious or otherwise.
- Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1980), p. 3.
- Referred to in Gross, p. 6.
- Hermann Goering, quoted in Gustave Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1995), pp. 278, 279.
- Peter Matheson, The Third Reich and the Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- Ibid., p. 47.
- Billy Hallowell, “‘Health Care From the Pulpit’: Here’s How Some Churches Are Spreading the Word About Obamacare,” The Blaze, Oct. 28, 2013, www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/10/28/health-care-from-the-pulpit-heres-how-some-churches-are-spreading-the-word-about-obamacare/.
- Manny Fernandez, “Perry Leads Prayer Rally for ‘Nation in Crisis,’” New York Times, Aug. 6, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/us/politics/07prayer.html?_r=0.
- Jeff Ferrell, “Homeland Security Enlists Clergy to Quell Public Unrest if Martial Law Ever Declared,” Aug. 23, 2007, www.ksla.com/Global/story.asp?S=6937987.
- “Clergy Response Teams,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRIDNQNsUss.
- See John Blake, “Torture Prompts Soul Searching Among Some Christians,” May 22, 2009, http://articles.cnn.com/2009-05-22/us/torture. christian_1_support-torture-god-and-country-new-testament?_s=PM:US.
- Duane Heffelbower, “The Christian and Civil Disobedience,” Direction, Spring 1986; www.directionjournal.org/article/?534.
- Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, trans. by Constance Garnett, p. 147.
- Ibid., p. 151.
- John W. Whitehead, “I Don’t Believe in Atheists: An Interview With Chris Hedges,” The Rutherford Institute, June 2, 2008, www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/oldspeak/i_dont_believe_in_atheists_an_interview_with_chris_hedges.
- Tolstoy, p. 171.
Author: John W. Whitehead
John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Foundation, writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.