More Christian than the Christians

Upon researching the fact that England’s Deputy-Prime Minister Nick Clegg (and University of Minnesota alum) is an avowed Atheist I came across an August 2010 article that explains quite well why Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were not. It begins with a quote by an Anglican Archbishop named Peter Jensen:

“Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating: Nazism, Stalinism, Pol Pot-ery, mass murder, abortion and broken relationships – all promoted by state-imposed atheism…the illusion that we can build a better life without God. … It’s about our determination as human beings to have our own way, to make our own rules, to live our own lives, unfettered by the rule of God and the right of God to rule over us…What we’re really seeing, once more [is] an example of the contest between human beings and God over who rules the world.”

And it is from this point that the author proceeds to dismiss line-by-line why this claim ignores the historical record, intelligent analysis and common sense. Without much work Stalin is shown to have rejuvenated the Russian Orthodox Church and reopened several theological schools and academies. In short, the man took a page from Machiavelli’s book and modified religious ideas to cement his power – he was no more than a “secular minded religious opportunist.” Pol Pot on the other hand came from a Catholic background and was a Theravada Buddhist; he also believed that he was guided by a superstitious hand of destiny that wanted him to do what he believed was best for the country (Sound familiar? Familiar? Familiar?). Hitler on the other hand differs from these two in that he was actually a Christian who was on friendly terms with the pope. [1]

He was baptized as Roman Catholic in Austria, attended a monastery school and was a communicant and an altar boy in the Catholic Church.  He was confirmed as a “soldier of Christ” and his goal was to become a priest.  He was never excommunicated or condemned and the church had stated that he was “Avenging for God” in attacking the Jews for they deemed the Semites the killers of Jesus.  …

Hitler was given veto power over whom the pope could appoint as a bishop in Germany and forged a treaty whereas the National Socialist state was officially recognized by the Catholic Church.  In a letter to the Nazi party, he wrote “…this treaty shows the whole world clearly and unequivocally that the assertion that National Socialism is hostile to religion is a lie.”

He allied with Pope Pius in converting German society and made a deal with the church whereas the church absorbed Nazi ideals and preached them as part of their sermons, and in turn, Hitler placed Catholic teachings in public education.  This lead to Hitler enacting doctrines of the Church as law.  He outlawed all abortion, raged a death war on all homosexuals, and demanded corporal punishment in schools and home [italics mine – it sounds like I have heard this before].

If this is too ambiguous there is always Hitler himself:

The National Socialist State professes its allegiance to positive Christianity.  It will be its honest endeavor to protect both the great Christian Confessions in their rights, to secure them from interference with their doctrines (Lehren), and in their duties to constitute a harmony with the views and the exigencies of the State of today…Providence has caused me to be Catholic, and I know therefore how to handle this Church.”

The article goes on to quote several other instances of the fascist justifying his hatred for minority groups with religious language and scriptural foundation. Who would have thought that even the devil can quote scripture? I understand that there will be those who find this objectionable as they begin to write that “Well, no true Christian (fallacy) would commit such acts,” the substance of which is something I agree with.

It is entirely reasonable to say that these men’s perceptions of Christianity do not conform to a popular, contemporary conception of the faith[2], but it is intellectually dishonest to say that they were atheists. Such claims are only meant to dehumanize and convict by guilt-of-association those who approach the natural world with a different light; it is about as fair as me saying that because there are tyrants in the world the church directly next to my apartment is but one demagogue away from butchering me. The truth is that they probably won’t (probably). This just means that there are varying interpretations of Christianity and how one should conduct their life in the temporal world; this reality alone proves that it is misguided to treat the Bible as a clear, universally-understandable document. And because of this, if every sect (and every individual within these sects) are going to cherry-pick who is and who is not a Christian  then we are but a tour group looking at the Impression, Sunrise defending what we see in Rorschach to the death; only the most reasonable will consider that it is what it is and to argue any further is egotistical pettiness.

But there is one approach that I appreciate and it comes from the Renaissance-era theologian, philosopher and public intellectual Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) who writes in his Handbook of the Christian Soldier (1503). In the context of a soldier’s pious wife seeking an text that would convince her husband to rectify his warring ways, Erasmus comments on the state of the world:

I could see that the common body of Christians was corrupt not only in its affections but in its ideas. I pondered on the fact that those who profess themselves pastors and doctors for the most part misuses these titles, which belong to Christ, for their own advantage; to say nothing for the moment of those whose fiat, yes or no, keeps all human affairs in perpetual flux, and at whose faults however obvious it is scarcely permitted to let fall a sigh. When all is dark, when the world is in tumult and men’s opinions differ so widely, where can we take refuge, if not upon the sheet-anchor of the Gospel teaching? Is there any religious man who does not see with sorrow that this generation is far the most corrupt there has ever been? When did tyranny and greed lord it thus widely or go thus unpunished? When was so much importance ever attached to ceremonies? When did iniquity abound with so little to restrain it? When did charity wax colder? All we appeal to, all we read, all we hear, all our decisions – what do they taste of except of ambition and greed? Our plight would be sorry indeed, had not Christ left us some live coals of his teaching, some living unfailing rivulets from the spring of his mind.

Before one takes this and runs off exclaiming that what the world needs now is more of the religious status quo expounded by some of our nation’s most radical voices, we cannot forget that Erasmus was not a biblical literalist, he was a major proponent of religious tolerance and he had his own concerns about canon. In fact it was his tolerance of differing religious ideas that fueled his approach of “Hey, even if we disagree about the trivialities (like ceremonies) can we at least agree that maybe we need to be nicer to one another?” To Erasmus what the world needs more of is the embodiment and expression of those values and principles Christ supposedly expounded. It is not enough to participate in the rites and rituals; what is most important are the acts.

You were baptized, but do not think that ipso facto you became a Christian. Your whole mentality still smacks exclusively of the world; outwardly you are a Christian, but in private you are more pagan than the pagans.  … What is the use of being sprinkled with a few drops of holy water as long as you do not wipe clean the inner defilement of the soul? You venerate the saints, and you take pleasure in touching their relics. But you disregard their greatest legacy, the example of a blameless life.

So while I completely understand why some may challenge the idea that individuals like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were Christians we know that they weren’t the Darwinian atheists some try to portray them as; but they were religious individuals nonetheless. Sure they were those who in private may have been “more pagan than the pagans” but then again so are many Christians and some of our most “devout” on the religious right like Billy Graham, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and so on. When are we going to admit that a lot of atheists like England’s godless second-in-command Nick Clegg are in fact more Christian than the Christians?

[1] Side Note: only one high-ranking member of the Nazis was ever excommunicated from the Catholic church: Joseph Goebbels. And it was because he married a Protestant.

[2] The “popular, contemporary conception of the faith” is in this case that which is driven by compassionate communalism where Christ is just a populist trying to do what’s right for the downtrodden. Yes, I know there are plenty of “Christ as tyrant” papers and books out there, but I am making no comment on that analysis (yet).

5 thoughts on “More Christian than the Christians

  1. peddiebill says:

    I appreciate the detail in this post because all too often the atheism/christianity discussion degenerates into claim and counter claim about what should be professed. We have forgotten that the orginal label of “Christian” was largely a label given by outsiders and was based on what they observed. Perhaps only those whose life exhibits characteristics associated with Christ’s teachings should be entitled to the label but perhaps we should leave it to others to make the assessment. Anyone can claim the label for themselves and as you rightly point out Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin have done just that.
    PS Would you have any objection to my posting your essay on my site in the invited articles section? I think reading it advances the cause of tolerance.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s