Will You Learn From Niemöller, or Learn Like Niemöller?

Jun 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

“This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy.”
U.S. Representative Christopher Shays, R-CT, (New York Times 3/23/05)

Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a contemporary of and a witness to Hitler’s rise to power. Like Hitler and many Germans, he was anti-communist. He was a conservative who like other right wingers opposed the “decadent, leftist” Weimar Republic Hitler spent so much time railing against. And at first he supported Hitler. But the state’s control of religion – literally a state-sponsored religion – caused him to turn away from Hitler. He was arrested in 1937 and charged with “not being enthusiastic enough about the Nazi movement.” He endured the rest of the Third Reich’s existence from a concentration camp.

These words attributed to Niemöller are famous, even if there is no agreement on exactly what he said (and he could not recall it himself – in 1976 he added the Social Democrats to the list after the trade unionists, for example). What is important are not the specifics – the Nazis came for many groups, including homosexuals, academics, neo-Pagans and others – but the message that if we don’t stand together, we will fall separately.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

As you can see, the Republicans have much the same list of enemies as Hitler – communists, trade unionists, social democrats (socialists), homosexuals, academics, pagans, (and substitute Muslims for Jews). Gays and lesbians don’t have rights, they say. Trade unionists don’t have rights. Neither do Muslims. Who will be next? There may not be concentration camps waiting for any of us but the loss of our constitutional rights is, or ought to be, terrifying enough.

The state-sponsored religion imposed by Hitler on Germany went beyond what Germany was used to. Religion had always been a powerful force in Europe – it did not have the strictures of the American Constitution – the First Amendment – placed upon it, after all.  But Hitler did exactly what the Founding Fathers feared someone would do if politics and religion were allowed to mix, and to the detriment of both and to the body politic. A lot of this seems inevitable now, looking back.

Yet even with this example out of recent history, even with the warnings of our Founding Fathers visible before us in the words of the Constitution, many people today scoff at the threat of militant Christianity and of a federal government in its control. Few people realize what a close call America had under the Bush presidency. Our country was very nearly in the control of Christian dominionists – the forces of theocracy.

And like Hitler, Bush did not like people to disagree with him.  He did not like people to ask questions and he did not think he should have to answer them. After all, God had chosen him. Who were we to question? Here are just a few examples from TheocracyWatch.org:

Bush Team Imposes Thick Veil of Secrecy, Chicago Tribune, April 30, 2006

Climate Researchers Feeling Heat From White House, Washington Post, April 6, 2006

Plame Whistleblowers Targeted by Administration, Truthout, February 24, 2006

Spies, Lies and Wiretaps, New York Times, January 29, 2006

Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him, New York Times, January 29, 2006

What Is the I.R.S. Trying to Hide? New York Times, January 17, 2006

Republicans Accused of Witch-Hunt against Climate Change Scientists, UK Guardian, August 30, 2005

James Wagoner, the president of Advocates for Youth was reported in the New York Times, July 11, 2004, as saying, “Never have we experienced a climate of intimidation and censorship as we have today.”

We like to complain that the Obama administration has not rolled back some of these intrusive and oppressive federal controls, like the Patriot Act and FISA and we are right to do so. But we would do well to stop, once in a while, and reflect on how much worse things might be if a Republican had won in 2008. That the religious right demonizes President Obama is encouraging. Their social agenda – right wing theocracy – has been stalled. Public opinion is turning against them with regards to LGBT rights. DADT is gone. DOMA is not being defended by the administration.

You can get an idea of how much worse things might be if you examine the situation in both Wisconsin and Michigan, where Republican extremists have been given free reign. You might examine other states to see what an excess of fundamentalist Christianity has done to the Constitution and to citizens. Everywhere they have the power to do so, the party of theocracy has torn violently at the fabric of the Constitution and at the basic social compact in America.

People, including myself, are always asking, why isn’t anyone saying anything? Why isn’t anyone speaking up? As we know, and as Pastor Niemöller knew, that the failure of opposition groups to stand up to Hitler is what gave the National Socialist control of Germany. Those who belatedly spoke up, like Niemöller, ended up in concentration camps. Others, like playwright Bertold Brecht, fled the country. Doubtless there were many during Hitler’s rise to power who felt the same as many do now about demagogues like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann (just to name a couple), that if we pretend he doesn’t exist, he will go away. He’s so extreme, who will buy into what he’s selling?

But ignoring demagogues doesn’t make them go away. The only way to get rid of demagogues is to defeat them. Defeating them means standing up to them and speaking out. Some people are doing this now – the folks in Wisconsin and Michigan to name some examples. And now there is rising vocal opposition to Governor Rick Perry’s prayer rally even from the long-silent religious middle.

The choice is for us what it was for Niemöller. We can sit by and say nothing, and watch as one group after another loses its rights, thinking it’s none of our business, or we can speak up and oppose these people. Remember this: whether or not you are against them, they are already against you. Unless you are one of them, you have been targeted. You are with them or against them in their eyes. Being a “good Indian” won’t protect you as our Native American population found out.

There is no neutral ground when totalitarianism comes to power and the only chance you’re going to get to voice your disapproval is before that comes to pass. Because once they’re in control, like in Michigan and Wisconsin, democracy will be dismantled and  there will be one political party only, a party endorsed by their god. So think very carefully now, as we move toward 2012. Do you want to learn from Niemöller, or do you want to learn like Niemöller?

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