I was searching old newspapers to see what I could find out about Robert Prager. Prager was a German immigrant lynched in Illinois in 1918 after criticizing President Woodrow Wilson. He was to be the subject of this blog post, but I was distracted by a small item published in the Washington Post on 7 May 1918:
Secularists often accuse religion of being behind most of the wars our species has fought. “Look at the Crusades,” they say. “Look at the Wars of Religion.” And they’re right, as far as that goes.
Religionists respond that religion is not the cause of war — that, in fact, most wars are fought for land and power and other temporal, worldly reasons, and religion is cynically used as an excuse. They’re right, too — as far as that goes.
But let’s go farther.
There are too many instances of overtly religious violence to list them all. Some of them are well known — the Crusades, the witchcraft trials, and the Thirty Years’ War, for instance.
Other times, religion and national identity are so knit together that it’s hard to tell purely religious violence from nationalist violence. The Irish Troubles are one example, in which Catholic and Protestant were ethnic and political identities as well as religious identities.
The Croatian Ustaša movement exemplifies religion’s potential for this kind of brutality. The Ustaše were nationalists and racists, committed to eliminating Serbs, Jews, and Roma from Croatian territory. They were also fanatical Catholics, with a stated of goal of dealing with the Serbs by killing a third of them, expelling a third, and converting a third to Catholicism. As it turned out, they liked killing more than they expected, and killed about half of the Serbs they caught, sometimes in weird, ritualistic ways like stabbing them to death one at a time in their churches. The rest were exiled or forcibly converted, in about equal numbers. The Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that 500,000 Serbs were killed; the figure generally accepted by the Serbs themselves is 700,000 to 750,000. Whatever number you accept, a lot of people were brutally slaughtered, with the Franciscan clergy not only approving, but often carrying out the murders with their own hands. Proportionately, the Jews and Roma fared even worse than the Serbs. 28,500 Jews — 95% of the Jews in Croatia — were murdered by the Ustaše. Sixty-five percent of Croatia’s Roma — about 26,000 — met the same fate.
The Archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac, said later that he didn’t approve of the killing and forced conversions, but at the time he never raised his voice to stop or even moderate the violence. He liked the idea of a solidly Catholic Croatia. So did Pope Pius XII, who granted the Ustaša leader, Ante Pavelić, a private audience and later quietly accepted 200 million Swiss francs looted from the persecuted Serbs. The Church, while denying any complicity in the violence, tacitly approved of the results. Pope John Paul II beatified Alojzije Stepinac in 1998. Pope Pius XII was declared Venerable in 2009.
We could list hundreds of cases in which politics and religion worked together to the detriment of humankind, but for Americans the perfidy of Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, deserves special mention. Spellman enthusiastically supported the brutal Roman Catholic regime of South Vietnam, and urged American intervention beginning in 1954. Once the country was committed to the war, he could hardly contain his glee. In 1965, he sent out Christmas cards bearing a picture of himself and two officers standing in front of a fighter plane. He declared that the Vietnam War was “Christ’s war against the Vietcong and the people of North Vietnam,” and famously urged President Johnson to “Bomb them! Just bomb them!”
Most of us can recognize evil in the deeds of the Ustaše or even of Spellman. But what about the Reverend Doctor John Thompson? An upright man, a patriot and a leader. Surely he had no religious goals in mind when he celebrated World War I. After all, the Germans were his co-religionists, many of them his fellow Protestants. But how eagerly he bent his religion to serve the cause of his President, even promising eternal salvation to American soldiers killed in the service of their government.
What’s important about Thompson is that he wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t even unusual. He was politically minded, but not scandalously so. He was an eminent clergyman, respected enough to be considered a likely candidate for bishop in 1920, though that honor eluded him. As a politically active Democrat in a city where that party was dominated by Catholics, he was pragmatic enough to offer public prayers for the Pope. In 1932 he offered the invocation at the Democratic Convention, where he praised the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and in 1933 he publicly eulogized the late Mayor Anton Cermak, father of Chicago’s Democratic machine. Thompson was a respected man, an important clergyman to whom people listened. When he stood up in Chicago and declared that American soldiers were “truly dying for mankind as did Jesus Christ,” it made the Washington Post. And it provoked no scandal.
That’s the thing that’s really dangerous about religion: its relation to power. Religious leaders tend to empathize with their political counterparts. They may be quite partisan, favoring the Democrats over the Republicans or vice versa, but they tend to feel a common purpose with politicians of one kind or another. Politicians and clergy alike are leaders — leaders who know what’s best for you, and what’s best for humanity. That paternalism, that authoritarianism — that power. It infects the preachers as surely as the politicians, and like is drawn to like in a symbiotic relationship, the politician validating religion, and the clergyman validating politics. By the time either one of them claws his way to a position of real influence, he has abandoned his youthful idealism and settled comfortably into an amoral complacence that celebrates the system and those who, like himself, have the good sense to work within it. He may be a voice for change and what he conceives as principle. He may fight for universal healthcare, or he may fight against abortion and gay marriage. All for the good of humankind, he assures himself. But the one thing he will never do is challenge the institutions of power. He will never speak truth to the system. He has spent his life finding his place in the system, and there’s no perspective from inside.
I’m singling out clergy and politicians, but this behavior isn’t limited to them. The same syndrome affects eminences of all kinds; economists seem particularly susceptible to it.
The eventual failure of politics leads to collapse or revolution, and new leaders arise, then settle into the habits of those who preceded them. George Washington denounced the tyranny of King George and found himself President of the United States. Five years later, he led an army to put down the yeoman farmers of western Pennsylvania. And Washington’s successors, what crimes have they not committed in the name of God and Country, and even in the name of peace? That’s the way of politics; it’s so easily corruptible.
But religion is corruptible, too, and in a more insidious way. The prophetic voice of religion is easily lost, the voice that can speak truth to power, and it’s lost so subtly and quietly that clergy rarely realize they’ve lost it. They hold to the belief that whatever they say is spoken in that prophetic voice. Bernard of Clairvaux preaches down death on tens of thousands, Pope Gregory XIII issues a commemorative medal to celebrate the slaughter of French Protestants, and the Rev. Dr. Thompson promises salvation to those who die in attempting to kill the enemies of the Allied powers — all in the name of God and in the name of truth and goodness. I think they really believe that, most of the time.
It’s not enough to try to use politics to do good. The prophet must stand apart from politics, and look upon the structures of power with a gimlet eye. The prophetic voice must speak the truth without compromise, and without tailoring the message to political strategy. If religion and philosophy are to do us any good at all, they must — paradoxically — be without power, voices of and for outsiders, never forgetting that power clouds the prophetic vision and twists the prophetic message. The best of our species have always been those who stood apart from the institutions of power and spoke truth — the best truth they could find — without compromise, not to dominate or influence or coerce, but just to bear witness to that truth. On the rarest occasions, even politicians and clergy have managed it.