A National Registry of People of a Certain World Religion?
*Nothing contained in this post should be interpreted as expressing the ideas of anyone other than this blogger’s. This blogger here, as always, speaks only for himself, not for any institution, organization or person(s) with which he may be affiliated.*
According to some news reports (including the New York Times), a leading American (U.S.) presidential candidate has openly suggested the formation of a national registry of all persons in the U.S. who identify as adhering to a certain world religion. Even most of the members of his own party who are also announced candidates have distanced themselves from his proposal. Members of the opposing party and most civil liberties advocates have denounced his proposal as blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional.
My question is why this person is still being taken seriously as a candidate for public office; why he has not been universally denounced as unfit for public office even by those enamored with his persona and rhetoric. Many of the candidate’s supporters, Christian and non-Christian, seem to overlook his suggestion and continue to support him in spite of it.
The candidate has obviously tapped into a reservoir of public concern which is what demagogues always do. They exploit public fears—many of which are unfounded or extreme. They present themselves as persons who “see” what others do not yet see and offer radical solutions to the looming disaster—often using scapegoating rhetoric and proposals. That is, they identify a particular group of people as “the problem” and their marginalization if not eradication as the solution.
Much earlier in my life, beginning way back in high school, I became fascinated with dictators on the world stage—past and then present. I read biographies of: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kwame Nkrumah, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and Juan Peron among others. One thing I noticed then, and have noticed in dictators who have risen to power since then, is that they often came to absolute power on a wave of popular fear of national disaster—usually using some singular terrorist event (often manufactured or blown out of proportion) and a group of internal scapegoats to justify their absolute rule (usually under the guise of “national emergency”).
A fascinating case study is Adolf Hitler. Yes, I’m “playing the Hitler card” because he represents such an interesting case that we all need to remember. There are many myths about him. One is that most Germans did not know about his rabid anti-Semitism. They did. It was “right there” in the best seller Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) for all to see. The book, a quasi-autobiography that was more a political manifesto, was written when Hitler was in prison for attempting to overthrow the Bavarian government. It was published in 1925—long before Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor and then absolute dictator.
The fascinating fact is that most Germans simply did not take Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism seriously. And they continued to be in denial about it even after Hitler came to power and began using blatant hate speech against “German Jewry.” After the burning of the Reichstag, and as a result of extreme fear of “Bolshevism,” even most of Germany’s Catholic and Protestant religious leaders chose to ignore, or at least not speak out against, Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Once some of them did, it was too late.
We Americans, among others, of course, look back on Hitler’s rise to power and ask how it could have happened. The reason I mention Hitler and Germany in particular is that Germany fancied itself, and was widely recognized as, a cradle of modern civilization. In other words, rightly or wrongly, it was and is viewed as different from, say, Ghana or Argentina or even Spain (as these countries were in the 1920s and 1930s and even later). Germany was widely viewed as the “home” of much modern science, philosophy and theology. Virulent, even violent, xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance, was unexpected of Germany. But what many people inside Germany and outside of it discounted was the power of fear and what it can lead to politically when expertly tapped into by a demagogue. Throughout the 1920s Germany was gripped by political chaos much of which was fueled by fear of communism.
I suggest that fear created an atmosphere in which good people caved into political demagoguery including scapegoating and eventual one party rule and the creation of concentration camps—first for alleged “agitators” and then for critics of the regime and then for the various scapegoats.
One thing many people do not know is that Hitler and his fellow thugs (which is what most of the Nazi leaders were) used other countries’ concentration camps as the models and justifications for his own—beginning with Dachau. He specifically referred to Great Britain’s concentration camps in South Africa during and after the Boer War and America’s Indian reservations. Jumping ahead—past Hitler and that era—during the 1960s and beyond many Germans pointed to America’s use of “internment camps” for Japanese citizens during World War 2—at least indirectly, if not directly, saying, in effect, “Ours were not the only ones.” Of course, no one claims that American internment camps of Japanese were extermination camps, but neither were Germany’s at the beginning.
My point is a well-known one; everyone has heard it. It is attributed to many philosophers but probably was coined by Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Most Americans have always assumed about genocide and similar atrocities that they cannot happen here. The truth of the matter is that anything can happen anywhere—given human nature and the right inflaming circumstances.
One lesson we should learn from history is to take very seriously any politician’s stated or even hinted at proposals and, if they include intolerance toward any group of people, even if they are “retracted,” ought to be remembered and used against him or her. To put it more bluntly and blatantly, any candidate for public office, announced or not yet announced, who proposes policies that are clearly unconstitutional and, in the light of history, clearly immoral, ought to be denounced as unfit for public office—even if he or she backs away from them under pressure.
A great irony I see in all this is that many evangelical Christians continue to support the candidate of whom I speak. When I was growing up in the bosom of American evangelical Christianity we often spoke of a coming day when we, “true Christians,” would be persecuted because of our faith in Jesus Christ. That fear was inculcated in us by conservative Christian evangelists. Now many people of that Christian tradition express support for persecution of non-Christians. Do they/we not realize that a “national registry” of all people of any religion is hypocritical and hands to their/our critics the proverbial “rope” with which to hang us (metaphorically speaking, perhaps)—if not here then in other countries where Christians are a minority?
This is a very serious problem many conservative Christians simply are not realizing. If we support persecution of religions here we are implicitly offering justification for Christians to be persecuted elsewhere in the world.
My belief is that the moment a candidate for public office, or an office-holder, utters a plan to establish a public policy that is blatantly unconstitutional or constitutes persecution of an entire group of Americans based on their religious identity or ethnicity, he or she ought to be excluded from holding public office as un-American and dangerous.
What if Christian leaders in Germany had all together denounced Hitler as unworthy of holding public office in, say, 1932 or 1933 (or before)? Yet the fact is that many supported him in spite of his publicly announced rabid anti-Semitism! (Read about it in Christian Faith in Dark Times by Jack Forstman (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.)
Note to potential commenters: Do not name specific living persons or parties in your response. Yes, I know that’s ironic. All I can say is that this is my blog and, for reasons you may not understand (but should be able to guess at), I cannot here or anywhere publicly express specific support for or opposition to any party or candidate by name. Neither can I permit my blog to be used for that by others.