by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
This essay points to the well-known aphorism, “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is a result of two insights that caught my attention recently. The first was a comment by an émigré from Europe who compared the current moment in this country to 1930’s Germany. The second was a chilling opinion piece this week in the Washington Post entitled “Too Many People Still Underestimate Trump”.
Subject matter of this sort could be labelled “politically partisan” and therefore inappropriate for this site. However, I believe that the reflections which follow come under the rubric of “social analysis” and deal ultimately with questions of public morality. Also, in reflecting on them, I felt a kind of affirmation from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, where Jesus rebukes the religious leaders of his time for their failure to “read the signs of the times”.
The reference to Germany of course has to do with the rise of Hitler and the horror that resulted. While it would be entirely wrong to draw a parallel between that historical event and today’s U.S. reality, certain similarities come to mind. Hitler it seems was ridiculed as a strange-looking little man from Austria. He had “achieved” the low rank of lance-corporal in the German Army during World War I; an American cardinal wrote him off as a “wallpaper hanger”. Yet he worked his way through legitimate political processes to the pinnacle of power as Chancellor and solidified his hold on power after the parliamentary election in 1938 when 99% of the population voted for Hitler’s Nazi Party.
The Washington Post opinion editorial covers the ridicule and dismissive attitude toward Mr. Trump on the part of those whom the author calls the “bien pensant” (someone who accepts or espouses a fashionable idea after it has been established and maintains it without a great amount of critical thought). Many considered his descent from Trump Tower on the gold escalator in 2015 to announce his candidacy for President of the United States a joke at worst or a publicity stunt at best. As the seriousness of his intentions became clearer, Democrats hoped he would win the Republican nomination so easily it would be to defeat him. The rest as they say is history. The United States and the world reaped a bitter harvest of outlandish xenophobia, mean-spirited racist attitudes against those who “do not look like us”, dangerous withdrawals from serious peace negotiations (Iran Nuclear Agreement; Paris Climate Accords), cozy and submissive relations with some of the world’s despots – the list goes on and on – and a general coarsening of our public life.
Yet 72 million Americans voted in favor of a second Trump term! Trump won 50% of the Catholic vote!
A study of the Lutheran Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Germany at that time, reveals three responses to what was happening there.
The first was approval. Hitler’s first years in power were more than successful after a post-World War I and the vengeful Treaty of Versailles crippled Germany. Hitler turned the economy around, ending unemployment and instituting a flourishing rearmament industry. The handy slogan was, “he made the trains run on time again”.
A second and more generalized reaction was indifference. There was a non-involvement posture as long as the regime allowed them to carry out their religious practices. Years later Hitler’s top ally, Hermann Goering, told the Catholic chaplain at the Nuremberg War trials that he had advised, “give them religion – that will keep them quiet.”
And finally there was the “Confessing Church”. These were men and women of faith who saw clearly what was happening and opposed it vigorously. Many of these exceptionally courageous souls were martyred for their convictions and actions.
In the light of this history where does the Catholic Church, hierarchy and laity, in the United States stand at this moment in our national life?
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.