If Republicans Don’t Want to be Compared to Nazis, They Should Stop Acting Like Nazis

We have witnessed a great deal of conservative madness over the past five years, since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Some of us during the intervening years have wondered where it would end. I was one of those who early on began to compare the Religious Right and the Tea Party to the Nazis. It was not a careless or spiteful comparison, but one based on the evidence of their rhetoric and avowed goals. There is a reason I made the above map resemble the Nazi flag.

It is no accident that the Nazi cry of Germany for the Germans is echoed by the Republican cry of America for Americans. Once upon a time there were “real” Germans and our own time brought us “real” Americans – the obvious consequence of such claims being that everybody else was an interloper, inferior – the “other.” With a single utterance, people like Sarah Palin, like Hitler before her, was able to delegitimize half of the population. The “other” become parasites attacking the health of the country. This is a claim made by both Nazis and the Religious Right.

Of course, that horrified progressives, to say such horrible things. Godwin’s Law was, of course, invoked (we need a law about the invocation of Godwin’s Law – seriously). But a comparison should not be shied away from because it seems extreme. As I have argued repeatedly both here and elsewhere, the comparison holds water. If somebody acts like a Nazi, we should certainly be able to point out that they are acting like a Nazi.

Which brings us to first Kansas, a state which was driven to the brink of Nazification by Republicans, and then, perhaps in horror of what it had almost done, backed away, and then to Arizona, which is now our first state to embrace Nazism. Sure, S.B. 1062 is not a law until Gov. Jan Brewer signs it, and she says she needs more time, but who, really, needs more time to decide whether or not to oppose Nazism? Other than Ted Nugent, that is.

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Many of us saw this coming. We were laughed at. We warned people what the Religious Right wanted, what it intended. As with the Nazi Party in its early days, far too many people did not take the forces of oppression seriously. This tendency to deny unpleasant realities, even while they are occurring, is frustrating to say the least. It is dangerous at the worst: People will not fight back against something they cannot bring themselves to believe.

Believe it. People used to talk about Nazi Germany in disbelief even after the fact. How could it happen? It could happen very easily. It had happened before in human history and there was no reason to believe it would not happen again. And again. It could happen here, too, if we are not vigilant. In state after Republican state, we are seeing what amounts to state-sanctioned violence against the other, from Stand Your Ground laws to Arizona’s S.B. 1062.

The one constant is intolerant conservative Christianity, the driving force of oppression dating all the way back to the dawn of the movement. When conservative Christianity achieved a dominant position in the Roman Empire, the first thing it did was produce the Theodosian Code, which I have warned of here on previous occasions. The Theodosian Code was, like S.B. 1062, a tool of oppression, a collection of laws passed by the emperor Constantine and his successors, “was presented to the empire as a Christmas present in 438.”[1]

The attitude of conservative Christians toward the “Other,” one of, if you can’t convince them, force them, is embraced today by Republican lawmakers. Bishop Caesarius of Arles told his sixth century flock to admonish unbelievers “harshly,” to chide them “severely,” and if this failed, to strike them, to pull their hair, even to forcibly restrain them. In this he was following the advice of John Chrysostom, a Saint, who advised “rebuke” by way of punching the unbeliever: “Smite him on the face; strike his mouth; sanctify thy hand with the blow.”[2]

As Sabine MacCormack observes of the infamous Book 16, “In the Theodosian Code…we can document the incorporation of sins into the purview of the criminal code; and as a result, the range of actions surveyed by the law and changed and expanded.”[3] In other words, Book 16 “articulates for the first time in a Roman law code, what religion and what religious practices ‘are to be done and what are to be avoided’; and what was ‘the True Religion.'”[4]

By the 450s, a generation after the publication of the Code, MacMullen argues that the “legal system became wholly an instrument of persecution.”[5] Look at the violence we see today and argue that we are not far from the Theodosian, or in more modern terms, Nazi precipice. As MacMullen makes clear, witnessing did not end with harsh words, or even with fists:

Government too, at the urging of the bishops weighed in with threats, and more than threats, of fines, confiscation, exile, imprisonment, flogging, torture, beheading, and crucifixion. What more could be imagined? Nothing. The extremes of conceivable pressure were brought to bear. Thus, over the course of many centuries, compliance was eventually secured and the empire made Christian in truth.[6]

Substitute America for empire, and you have the dominionist dream for our country and our time. From the top down, the deck was stacked against the other, whoever they might be, from Jews to Pagans and even to other Christians. There are good reasons you don’t see Gnostic churches today on your street corner. Nor more than Christians and then Nazis would abide a synagogue, will conservative Christians abide temples and mosques. Jews and gays were targets of Theodosian Christianity before they were targets of Nazism and finally, of the Religious Right.

The antecedents of the Religious Right’s war on tolerance are ancient. Nazism is ultimately but a way stop on that road, a product itself of all that came before, and the most recent example we have of what happens when intolerance is legislated into law – as is in danger of happening in America today.

[1] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 20.
[2] Michael Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ (University of California Press, 2005), 175, 258 n. 21, citing Caesarius, Sermon 53.1 and Chrystostom, Homilies on the Statues 1.32 (trans. NPNF).
[3] Sabine MacCormack, “Sin, Citizenship, and the Salvation of Souls: The Impact of Christian Priorities on Late-Roman and Post-Roman Society,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39 (1997), 362.
[4] Michele Renee Salzman, “The Evidence for the Conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in Book 16 of the ‘Theodosian Code’,” Historia: Zeitscrift für die Geschichte 42 (1993), 362.
[5] MacMullen (1997), 30.
[6] MacMullen (1997), 72

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