Catholic or Fascist Christianity: The State of the Christian Union

I have long presumed that Peter Berger’s three step description of culture gets at (in part) the reality of the manner in which culture is at once a human creation which acts upon us. According to Berger, it is through externalization that society is a human product – humans make it, build it, constitute it. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis – culture and its products take on the appearance of being independent of humans.  Then due to internalization of culture and its products man is himself a product of society. The role of religion in this process is to falsify human consciousness so that the projecting and reification involved in objectivation are mystified – made non-human. The fact that the socio-cultural world is shaped by human activity is obscured by the religion. The sui generis nature of religion, set forth by Mircea Eliade – the father of modern religious studies, cuts religion off from the realities of culture and even the realities of any particular religion. For Eliade, the historical and social conditions play into the interpretation of the religious phenomenon but they cannot ultimately explain it: “All these dreams, myths, and nostalgias…cannot be exhausted by a psychological explanation; there is always a kernel that remains refractory to explanation. . . that, we shall never tire of repeating, is not solely ‘historical.’”  Given the Berger choice that religion is a human creation and the Eliade choice that religion transcends the human, one might think Eliade is on the side of Christianity. Eliade provides a universal experience in which to ground religion and Berger seems to reduce all religion to the relativity of culture.

The problem is that Eliade’s is a cheap universality which ultimately has nothing to say (all articulation falls short) about the transcendent (it is absolutely transcendent). The transcendent object of religion does not intersect with the realities of economics, politics, or culture and at the same time it is presumed the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference. This, of course, is simply not true of any religion of which I am aware. Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, biblical idolatry, and most especially Christianity, are interconnected with economics, politics, and culture. In Japan, the rise of fascism depends directly upon State Shinto, Buddhist nationalism, and Christian accommodation to deification of Hirohito. All of these religions might be said to have maintained their universality – their transcendent orientation – but at the expense of being of no earthly value or influence.  The sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to the sui generis notion of Christianity – that the Church somehow exists apart from society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence by which we are shaped and to which we are subject.

The advantage of Berger’s theory, as opposed to the sui generis notion of religion, is that religion as key to world construction ties religion into every aspect of human society. In Berger’s notion human being cannot be understood as somehow resting within itself, in some closed sphere of interiority, and then setting out to express itself in the surrounding world. Objectivation seems to accurately portray the function of money and idols (intrinsically worthless and yet the most valued object). These man-made entities confront its producers as a fact external to and other than themselves. Internalization re-appropriates this same reality, transforming it from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.

 Berger, as a practicing Christian, has his own problems. In religion as a social construct there is no clear place for sociology and Christian theology to meet – there is no place from which to critique the society or to stand outside of it. On the other hand, if one understands that it is precisely a Berger like world which Christ disrupts– persons are constituted in culture – then salvation must take on an integration with all things human. The resolution to this problem posed by Richard Niebuhr, is to recognize that culture is the shaping force of humankind and Christ, then, is incarnate so as to reshape culture. Niebuhr offers a series of possibilities as to how this might be accomplished: Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in paradox with culture and transforming culture.  The problem is that culture is the essence around which Christ is made to work. What we recognize from Berger is that Niebuhr has also reified culture and presumed Christ is forced to work with this given. Rodney Clapp sums up a more sufficient answer which allows for the primacy of culture without succumbing to Berger’s relativism or Niebuhr’s essentializing of culture: Christ and the Church constitute a culture. “The original Christians, in short, were about creating and sustaining a unique culture – a way of life that would shape character in the image of their God. And they were determined to be a culture, a quite public and political culture, even if it killed them and their children.” Here Berger’s integration of the human and the cultural are accounted for without succumbing to an essentializing of culture while also allowing for a universal through culture. At the same time, the universal is not absolutely transcendent but takes on its properly biblical slant. The incarnation is an interruption of history which re-founds what it means to be human through one who is human and divine. Yet this interruption is itself historical, cultural, and social.  

Where catholic or universal is understood to be concerned not only with all people but with every aspect of life – social, political, sexual, familial, gastronomical, etc., I presume this is not only the true form of the Christian faith but the only form resistant to the manufactured reality, described by Berger, of contemporary culture. The double-sided meaning of universal, all people and all encompassing (concerned with every aspect of life), are interdependent in that universal identity manifests itself in practices inherently (political, cultural, etc.) resistant to the human “sacred canopy” always characterized by its cultural production (local and exclusive).  The politics of Jesus, the culture of Christ, the family of God, or even Christian eating habits (eating with sinners, a communion open to all), are the particular manifestation of universality and are what constitute the Church a force of opposition to the alienating and divisive reified socio-political principalities and powers.

Where the opposition has failed and the dictates of the culture, with its essentializing ethos, nationalism, regimented conformity,exclusivism, and ethnocentrism, succeed then the distinctives of Christian universality are, by definition, absent. And while no particular church (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) can exclusively claim universality (an oxymoron?) the supreme test of whether the faith is, indeed, catholic is whether it succumbs to cultural tyranny – or the reification of culture known in our day as fascism.

 Fascism is the primary and most damaging form this cultural reification has taken in the 20th and, I would claim (along with Noam Chomsky and others) in the beginnings of the 21st century. Fascism presumes there is an essence to the national ethos (the blood and soil of Germany, the unique spirit (ki) of Japan, American exceptionalism) such that individuals, as in Berger’s picture, bear within themselves this essence (e.g. Japanese citizens are depicted as the egos circulating around the super-ego Emperor which together constitute the wholeness of a person).  There may be many markers of the passage from nationalism to fascism – the rise of a cult of personality, the violent suppression of opposition, the demonization of certain ideas, the continual gearing up for war – but one of the clearest markers in Germany and Japan was the manner in which Christianity was co opted by the state. Pictures of Hirohito adorned every official church in Japan and Christians were made to bow to this god man to inaugurate the service. Japanese theologians even attempted to incorporate Hirohito into the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God Hirohito). German Christians were those who accepted the Aryan clause, which excluded Jews from holding public office, inclusive of state church offices and German Christian theology expunged the Bible of its Jewishness. In both Germany and Japan, this Christian fascism is one step beyond the Constantinian fusion of state and church (arguably most complete only with the reformation). Where the Roman emperor fused church and state by acknowledging Christianity, fascist Christianity presumes to overtly absorb Christianity into state ideology (which is not to deny this was implicit with Constantine).

Though there are moments in history where “fascist Christianity” accurately describes the church, in retrospect it would seem that genocide, all-out war, emperor/dictator worship, racism, and anti-Semitism, may not accord (to say less than the least) with the basic tenets of the teaching of Jesus. Fascist theologians, fascist Christians, fascist churches, are a historical reality (not just a pejorative description), which more than simple fascism (or any of the isms of the 20th century – communism, socialism, Marxism, nationalism) may best describe the contemporary anti-Christ (the imitation or displacement of Christ). In other words, the fascist reification of a particular culture and the violence this entails – equated with Christianity – is the most obvious enemy of Christ.

 Is it something like fascist Christianity, a Christianity absorbed by nationalist chauvinism, that threatens the Church universal in the United States?  American exceptionalism premised on America as a Christian Nation may have succeeded, some place and some time (as with the varieties of Constantinian Christianity), in escaping the complete co opting of the church by state purposes. But one wonders if there is not an evident incongruity in Trump Doctrine, summed up by a senior White House official with direct access to the president, as “We are America, bitch.” As Jeffrey Goldberg, who originally reported this in The Atlantic has put it, “the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence” amounts to “a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world.” The exclusivism, isolationism, mistreatment of aliens, chauvinistic hostility, and sympathy for authoritarian strongmen, captured in this posturing may be good for America (though I doubt it) but can it be equated with the teaching of Christ? Could it be that “we are Christian America, bitch” or that we are holding up a Christian middle finger to the world? This is no more unlikely than “Christian fascism” but what it clearly is not is catholic Christianity.[1]


[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch’ The president believes that the United States owes nothing to anyone—especially its allies,” The Atlantic, June 11, 2018.

Why Are the Sickos in Charge?

Growing up we moved about ten times to a variety of states and I never attended any school more than two years. Each move meant a different set of friends, a different school, a different church, and not simply a different natural climate but a different human climate. The lesson I learned in the moves from Arizona, to Texas, to Kansas, to New Mexico, and Oklahoma, is that, though in relatively close proximity, each social setting was unique and worked on who I was very differently (for good and bad).  As I would discover in working in a variety of jobs as a young adult, cultural differences function at a micro-level, so that working in the oil fields, as a radio announcer, or in sales, involved a very different set of values and behaviors. In selling price markers across the State of Kansas and radio advertising in Missouri and Arkansas, I recognized businesses generate an atmosphere. The toxic sort – I especially remember a chicken packing plant in Arkansas and a grocery store in northern Kansas – create a culture of fear. Ushered into the owner’s office at the chicken packing plant, I immediately understood who was generating the poison I had felt entering the plant from everyone I met. “Figured they would send me one of you long haired hippies. Now you sit down there and take note of everything I say,” he said.  I was clearly not fully human in his estimate. When he saw I was not writing down his every word and had no intention of doing so, this Scrooge demanded that his own meek and fearful Bob Cratchit take dictation. (My petty revenge, since I was writing the advertising, was to discard these notes and compose a “Chicken Man” ad.)  I am not sure what traits make for a successful chicken packer – his must have been the largest plant in northern Arkansas – so this seemingly despicable human was a chicken packing success. To thrive in such a culture, however, may not be an indicator of a highly developed human. In moving to Japan, I realized the degree to which my small-scale experience could be extrapolated.

The first-time visitor to Japan, though he will immediately notice the cultural difference, may not understand the human cost required in being Japanese. Maybe the easiest way to gauge this is to recognize those who are made to pay (those who pay through suicide, with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, offer only silent testimony). The phenomenon of hikikomori (those who isolate themselves from society) has become significant enough (estimates are between five hundred thousand to a million or more) that services have sprung up in which parents can rent a big sister to coax the young men (usually men) out of their room. In a National Geographic article and documentary, the men report on the psychological stress from bullying, the pressure to succeed, or simply the cruel and intense nature of living in Japanese society, which has sent them into years and even decades shut up in their room. The group-oriented focus of Japanese society, the emphasis on shame and honor, indulgent Japanese mothers, and the near total absence of fathers in the home, might all be sighted as contributing factors. As they interviewed the young men, it was clear that sensitivity had worked against them in making adjustments to Japanese society, which raises the question as to whether functioning successfully in this particular society makes for a better human being.  Or to reverse the question and perspective (as the group oriented, cooperative, safe, culture of Japan, also exposed the underside of my own culture), what cost is extracted by any particular culture?  

As I was thinking about this, I was also reading the story of the Jamaican writer, Marlon James who, when the other children started bullying him – calling him a sissy, also retreated into reading comics and fiction. At eighteen, he joined a Pentecostal Church and tried exorcism to get rid of homoerotic thoughts. The exorcism, in his description, seemed to have the opposite of the intended effect as he grew comfortable with his sexual orientation and uncomfortable with his church and Jamaican culture. Instead of adjusting to both (Jamaican culture and church), he found success and acceptance as a writer and professor of writing in the United States. Had he “successfully” adjusted to Jamaica, Marlon James would probably be a very different person than the “successful” writer. He expresses no regret in leaving and does not miss Jamaica, as he says he clearly remembers why he left. The resonance he feels in New York – the capacity to thrive – and the stifling nature of Jamaican culture made him aware of what remaining would have cost him.

Until you have crossed the boundaries of a micro or macro culture and felt the dissonance, it may be hard to imagine what price your culture, your circumstance, your “people,” have extracted from your humanity. Those cast off by their culture feel the cost, but may harshly (mis)judge themselves (through the only lens provided), confusing tenderness, sensitivity, or humaneness for weakness. Those counted most successful (the well-adjusted), ironically, may pay the heaviest cost in terms of their humanity with the least awareness (zero?) of the price they have paid. Those shaped by their culture, most unwittingly and least painfully, are necessarily least resistant to the twisting culture induces.

 As a professor at Temple University in Japan, the most “important” Japanese person I ever met – president of the University, Japanese Diet member, Harvard graduate, a man of great wealth, was without question the most degraded. After he accosted a female professor and propositioned her for sex the professors, innocent souls that we were, attempted to form a union. The union president (if that was what she was – as we were never organized) was threatened by Japanese gangsters on a train platform and immediately left the country in fear of her life.  The history of Temple in Japan (started by a con man who ran off with student tuition), the history of the Liberal Democratic Party’s working with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), the history of moneyed elites in Japan, would help explain this micro culture. The macro culture in which inhumanity has its rewards and costs, had clearly shaped the man. The pinnacles of success, the chicken men and women of the world, may be those who, blind to the values they have absorbed, sacrifice sympathy, compassion, and all that make life worth living. While the micro culture of a company, school, or business, can be shaped around a more benevolent or benign personality, I presume that this sort of oasis must be resistant to the macro cultures they inhabit.

I did not realize the ease with which one can be unconsciously absorbed into a corporate identify until I encountered it elsewhere – the corporate “we” in Japan (watashitachi wa). “We Japanese” was a constant refrain which explained every action, every attitude, and captured the ethnocentrism found in nihonjinron (the notion of Japanese uniqueness propagated by cultural elites).  “We Japanese have a unique language, which gives us unique brains, which can be connected to our unique islands. This means that Japanese bodies are unique – longer intestines, refined hearing and affinity with nature, and abhorrence of violence due to a graminivorous diet. Japanese cannot eat Western beef due to their longer intestine and this explains why we are like the peaceful long intestine animals – the deer and sheep.” (A Japanese friend, explained, as I was chomping away at a piece of meat that this was precisely why Americans are so violent.) The tendency of non-Japanese was to take great umbrage at this ethnocentrism, as if this diatribe of uniqueness was the most unique and strange thing ever invented.  Every tenet of nihonjinron, however, is a development of ideas borrowed from Western ethnocentric studies. Japanese nationalism is the mirror image, studied, imitated, and adapted (often with an inverse system of values – Japan at the top), from the West.  

Every culture must create a blindness to its degrading effects, such that the values and ethos of a place, like Japan or the United States, require a transcultural capacity so as to resist. The manufactured consent of “we” – once glimpsed can be seen to be destructively pervasive. One simple example is the office of President of the United States. When Americans (perhaps, half-consciously) identify with the corporate “we,” the mythos of the office of Washington and Lincoln – inclusive of honesty, bravery, and divine providence – must be included in this identity. Isn’t this office a marker of the humanitarian heights of the culture? If thriving in a culture is to be equated with success in being human, we would expect to find a unique humaneness and intelligence in the President.  Isn’t this precisely why some claim, including the man himself, that our President is the most intelligent, the greatest of leaders (biblical in proportion), and the cleverest of deal makers? If not this president, then some president, or perhaps the corporate office, is representative of the light upon a hill.

The problem, at least in Noam Chomsky’s estimate, is that the office holders, without exception in the post-war period, given the criteria of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, are all guilty of capital crimes. All the post war presidents would be hung, according to Chomsky, if tried according to the Nuremberg standard.  Genocide, holocaust, mass murder, of course, all go under a different name and are not even recognizable as such when “we” do it.  Hearing a defense of various U.S. policies in rural churches (in Sunday school no less) under the refrain of “we,” I had to ask which “we” was being referenced. Do “we” Christians want to kill, exclude, segregate and if it is “we” then aren’t at least some of those “we” want to do this to “we” Christians. Where this “we” goes unquestioned I presume Christian identity serves national identity.

The ethos of Christian institutions blind to their cultural surroundings, whether schools, churches, or businesses, may be indistinguishable from the chicken packing plant, though prayer is commonly invoked, the name of Jesus proclaimed, and the name of the place designates it as Christian. The “successful” head of these institutions, may be indistinguishable from any CEO, any president, or any Chicken Man, because a degraded form of humanity – the culturally well-adjusted – are identified with success. On the other hand, it would be clear sacrilege if the president of Temple University or Japanese xenophobes would foist their ideas, justify their crimes, or promote their racism in the name of Jesus.  So maybe the most hopeless degradation of humanity is the Christian leader who would exploit and abuse in the name of success, so as to profane the name of Christ.[1]


[1] My ongoing conversation with Jason as to our consistent discovery of “sickos in charge” led to the title and provoked this meditation.