Timothy Snyder and Jennifer Burton denounce nationalism

November 9, 2018

Religious Left Thinkers: “No Middle Ground” with Nationalists

“There is no middle ground” with nationalists, said Jennifer Burton, a religious left activist and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA). She recently interviewed a Quaker historian from Yale, Timothy Snyder, who published two books in the past two years linking authoritarianism in Russia and the United States.

Snyder agreed, “I don’t see how you can compromise with that. It’s like: that’s one position, and the idea that Christianity actually requires you to act in principled ways is another position, and I don’t see how there’s any kind of middle ground.”

Snyder and Burton condemned a form of nationalism that Snyder in his book labelled “Christian Fascism.” Advocates claim their nation is part of Christendom, and then assert, “We just are a Christian country no matter what we do,” said Snyder. He said this ideology is used to justify attitudes and actions that are anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, and anti-immigrant. Snyder warned that these ideas have become ascendant in Russia, Poland, and Hungary, but now, “there’s an awful lot of that going on in the U.S.”

Snyder’s latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, presents a stark glimpse of the future. The title echoes the 1943 manifesto of libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, which condemned the totalitarianism of the Nazis and Soviets. Snyder clearly believes that our present political moment is not so far removed from a repeat of this alarming episode in human history, as reiterated in the title of his 2017 book, On Tyranny. “On Tyranny” was also the title of the Facebook Live interview with Ms. Burton.

While Snyder and Burton never precisely identified the agents of Christian Fascism in America, they referred to them variously as the Christian right, Christian nationalists, white nationalists, people who listen to Fox News, and “people like Mr. Trump.” They spent less time discussing the opponents of this group, but usually referred to them with the labels “we” and “us.”

Snyder emphasized the importance of thinking historically because “history helps us to see that we’re not always the good guys” (in this context, he was speaking of “us” as Americans). He explained, “When we’re stuck in the present, and when the politicians are telling us the ‘others’ are coming for us—the migrants, or whoever it might be—then we’re always the good guys.” He said we think we’re the good guys for no other reason than that the other side is the bad guys. Thinking historically helps us to remember, “okay, we’re people; we make mistakes.” For example, he pointed to the Civil War and Jim Crow as two evidences of America’s corruption.

Snyder said that nationalists try to gain control by using the internet to spread their message—particularly via social media. He said social media is especially dangerous because “anything that’s coming through a screen is being mediated.” He likely had in mind how social media allows the user to carefully craft their interactions and thereby isolate themselves in an echo chamber, where they only hear opinions with which they already agree. To this point, he recommended a book titled 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now—in a Facebook Live interview.

Burton referenced Synder’s argument from On Tyranny that “religion is being manipulated in the United States and globally”—particularly by Russia and Religious Right organizations like the World Congress of Families—and asked him how to combat the new Christian Fascism. Synder responded that the key was in remembering that Christian Fascism operates as an ideology that manipulates religion to serve its political ends.

Presumably, Synder believed it was best to fight fire with fire, because, in answer to another question, he suggested that religion be manipulated for political ends. Burton asked him how to respond to pastors who complained, “I only get my people one hour a week on Sundays, but Fox News has them 24/7.” Snyder suggested that pastors might restrict their congregants’ access to the toxic news media by encouraging them to take a Sabbath “fast” from screen time. As he put it, “was Jesus on Instagram?” Such a Fox News fast might be discussed in terms of “spiritual disciplines,” said Snyder. “I think there are some moments where you could use verses from the Bible to talk about attention and attentiveness, and then see where that takes you.”

Meanwhile, critical reviews of The Road to Unfreedom have been mixed. A progressive journal, The Nation, described the book as exemplifying “a certain paranoid style that has emerged among liberals in Trump’s wake.” The conservative Kirk Center called it an “unscholarly polemic” which “explains nothing, says nothing that we have not already heard, and should not be taken too seriously.”

Still, The New York Times gushed that Snyder “forcefully and eloquently” delivered “a good wake-up call.” And according to The Guardian, Synder’s “unignorable book… offers both a disturbing and persuasive insight.” Ultimately, I leave the reader’s judgment to determine which analysis is more compelling.

4 Responses to Religious Left Thinkers: “No Middle Ground” with Nationalists

  1. Dan says:

    What, no sabbath fast from the toxicity of MSNBC, NBC, CNN, CBS, and ABC? I’m shocked, shocked to find that this learned scholar only finds Fox News toxic!

  2. betsy says:

    How about a fast from all news outlets–especially social media–and research the history of Christianity across the ages. Maybe they would learn that Christianity is not about a government legislating the kingdom of God into existence and that it is OK for governments to protect their borders and their people.

    The thought occurs to me that if we are truly becoming fascist then he would not have had the freedom to say what he did without incurring severe consequences.

  3. Timothy Fountain says:

    We might argue that there is no middle ground with Caesar/statism, which is what the progressives put forward as their solution.

  4. David Taylor says:

    It’s difficult to see someone as a scholar who makes such facile comparisons between American Christians and Russia and actually asks us to take his notions of “Christian Fascism” seriously. As for his trenchant observation that “we’re [not] always the good guys”, I think I figured this out by the ninth grade.

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