Monday, October 20, 2008

Demonization, Distraction, the Rise of Fascism, and the Shameful Silence of Bishops

Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Friday to address remarks made by Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann earlier on the same program ( Bachmann’s observations got a lot of press this weekend.

As many news sites reported, Bachmann stated her concern that Barack Obama has “anti-American views,” and called on the media to investigate “anti-American liberals” in Congress. Various news commentators have compared Bachmann’s call for a congressional witch hunt with the platform of Joseph McCarthy.

I find Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s critique of Michelle Bachmann illuminating. It intersects with the analysis I have been developing of the proliferation of hate rhetoric in this nation and the implications of such rhetoric for our future, if it goes unchallenged.

The preceding Alternet citation links to a video of Vanden Heuvel talking to Chris Matthews on the "Hardball" program. Here’s a transcript of selected remarks from her response to Michelle Bachmann:

I fear for my country. I think what we just heard was a congresswoman channeling Joe McCarthy, channeling a politics of fear and loathing and demonization and division and distraction. Not a single issue mentioned. This is a politics at a moment of extreme economic pain in this country that is incendiary, that is so debased that I’m kind of almost having a hard time breathing, because I think it’s very scary. . . . .

I think Barack Obama’s going to win, and he’s going to have a lot of work, because there is an extremism unleashed in this nation which you’ve just heard on this program which could lead to violence and hatred and toxicity. And against the backdrop of the great depression we’re living through could lead, and I don’t use this word lightly, to a kind of American fascism which is against the great values of this nation and which people like that are fomenting.

And again—I have to say this, at the risk of beating a drum that others grow tired of hearing—as the politics of division foments hatred that, in the view of sober political analysts, could well lead to violence, the pro-life bishops of the American Catholic church remain silent.

Fear. Loathing. Demonization. Division. Distraction. Extremism. Violence. Hatred. American fascism. Backdrop of extreme economic pain.

Hard words. But the realities to which they point are hard. Just as they were as the Nazis rose to power in Germany and Austria. And the German and Austrian bishops remained silent.

And as these harsh realities begin to cast dark shadows across our national political life, the same bishops who claim to stand for life as the ultimate value not only keep their mouths shut about the spike of hatred and the violence to which it threatens to lead. They not only remain silent.

They actually tell us to side with those fomenting the hatred.

Shame. What shame they are bringing on their heads these days, the U.S. Catholic “pastoral” “leaders.”

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While the U.S. Catholic bishops remain silent—as a body—except when individual bishops choose to speak out on behalf of “the” “pro-life” party whose top leaders are fanning the flames of hate, one of their brother bishops in the Lutheran tradition has chosen to speak out.

Last Thursday, Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, issued a pastoral letter to the ELCA ( This letter calls for the presidential candidates to stop personal attacks and focus on the issues that concern all of us, chief among which is the economic crisis that disproportionatey affects the marginal.

Bishop Hanson encourages Lutheran voters to recall the core values of the ELCA social statement “The Church in Society.” That document focuses on building a humane society held together by a notion of the common good that crosses ethnic, racial, class, and gender lines. It states,

Jesus frees Christians to serve others and to walk with people who are hungry, forgotten, oppressed, and despised. The example of Jesus invites Christians to see people near and far away, people of all races, classes and cultures, friends and strangers, allies and enemies as their "neighbor."

The ELCA encourages church members to “be critical when groups of people are inadequately represented in political processes and decisions that affect their lives.”

One would like to think that Lutheran churches and bishops have learned an important lesson from the silence of Christian pastoral leaders when extremist forces, using hate rhetoric and tactics of demonization, distraction, and division, seized control of Germany in the 1920s at a time of economic crisis. I have no choice except to see Bishop Hanson’s pastoral letter in that historic light.

And, of course, that same historic perspective makes the continued silence of the U.S. bishops—as a body—and the choice of many individual bishops to endorse “the” “pro-life” party yet again, even more shameful. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us how much is at stake, when people of faith keep their mouths shut as forces of hatred, division, and demonization gain control at a moment of economic crisis.

When the need for words that place Christians on the side of love and not hate is so great, silence is even more shameful that it usually is, when love needs to be emphasized, and not hatred.