In a few weeks, we will mark the 60th anniversary of the demise of Nazi Germany. But the Third Reich still casts its shadow over life today, in surprising ways.
The Roman Catholic Church now has a Pope who grew up in Nazi Germany. Though he was briefly forced into the Hitler Youth, his biographer, John L. Allen, says the Pope was strongly anti-Nazi. "Having seen fascism in action," Allen wrote, "Ratzinger believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism." If the Pope really does believe that, then the memory of the German fuehrer is still influencing history, helping to bring a new Roman Catholic fuehrer to power this week.
But there is a big difference between political and religious totalitarianism, the Popeís biographer says. The Pope "believes the Catholic Church serves the cause of human freedom by restricting freedom in its internal life, thereby remaining clear about what it teaches and believes."
Thatís an argument you often hear from the religious right. If you donít believe in Godís eternal rules, they say, you can easily be sucked in by any human group that comes along making rules of its own Ė especially if it tells you that your kind of people are superior to everyone else. If you do believe in Godís eternal rules, you have a strong foundation to resist the siren song of nationalism or racism or any other ism.
Itís a neat argument, in theory. Sometimes it can work that way in the real world. No doubt the Pope did see devout Christians resisting the Nazis because of their faith. Perhaps, though, he didnít want to notice all the equally devout Christians who were happily giving the Sieg Heil salute. Today, devout believers are still just as likely as anyone else to support political totalitarians.
"Even more likely," you might say. But donít jump to that conclusion. In the U.S., in the Catholic Church, and all over the world, many people of strong faith resist totalitarian political trends, just as some did in the Nazi era.
However, there is one big difference between the 1930s and the 21st century. Now, the faithful who stand up for political freedom are less likely to buy the new Popeís argument. They are more likely to stand up for religious freedom, too, because they realize one simple truth: You canít expect people to cherish freedom of conscience in the political arena if you make them check their free conscience at the church door.
The silver lining around the cloud of a totalitarian Pope is the strong resistance he will engender within his own church. Roman Catholics who value freedom will be demanding church reform more loudly than ever. People of other faiths will support them.
That may even include some evangelical Protestants. A recent news report says that conservative evangelicals in the U.S., who voted overwhelmingly for Bush, are growing skeptical about his plan to dismantle Social Security. It seems they are thinking for themselves. Perhaps some of them will discover that a free mind feels pretty good. Perhaps they will learn independent thought in the political arena and then dare to take it right through the church door and on up to the altar. Perhaps the long shadow of the Nazi era is beginning to pass at last.
This unexpected link between Social Security and the Nazis of 60 years ago turns out to be more than a random coincidence. The recent commemoration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the 60th anniversary of his death, brought praise for the social safety net that his New Deal created. Defenders of Social Security ask: Would we truly destroy the linchpin of FDRís legacy?
For most Americans, though, FDRís greatest legacy was not Social Security. It was Americaís unconditional victory in World War II. To achieve that, Roosevelt said very bluntly, he would willingly compromise his domestic liberalism. He had to persuade the corporate elite to do whatever it took to beat the Nazis. In his famous words, Dr. New Deal turned into Dr. Win the War.
Roosevelt assumed that, after the war, he would steer the nation back to the path of New Deal reform. As columnist Bob Herbert recently reminded us, Rooseveltís 1944 State of the Union address set out a vision that is truly radical by todayís standards. In fact, Herbert forgot to mention FDRís most radical proposal: All income over $25,000 (thatís maybe a quarter of a million in todayís money) should be taxed 100%. The government should take it all and use it for the social good. Imagine even a Kucinich or Nader trying to get away with that today.
But for FDR, it was too late. The Republicans had taken control of Congress during World War II. The president could talk all the pie in the sky he wanted. The GOP was turning the nation over to business executives. Since Roosevelt needed them so badly for victory, he had no way to stop their assault on the New Deal. While Dr. Win the War was busy defeating Hitler, the conservatives set the nation on the path that has led us to Bushís assault on Social Security. So you might say it was Hitlerís challenge that set us on that path.
To all the good reasons for saving Social Security, you can add this one: Itís another way to say that we can turn back the clock and recapture Franklin Rooseveltís social vision. We wonít let the Nazi shadow rise up from the depths of their hellish past to darken our lives any more.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org