Religion and Authoritarianism: A Match Made in Heaven
The story repeats over a century. A corrupt and violent leader seeks an alliance with religious institutions. He's already won over financial and other elites, and has a devoted core of grassroots followers, but he needs the kind of moral legitimacy that religious arbiters, many with their own large followings, can provide. Rich rewards await religious institutions that answer the strongman's call.
While some may puzzle over why faith leaders back the most profane and cynical individuals --think of Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump in our own day-- the worlds of religious institutions and authoritarians can understand each other well.
Many authoritarian states foster their own political religions. Personality cults present the leader as infallible and placed in power by divine will to save his people. Even regimes that reject religion can appropriate the rituals and conventions of belief systems. In the 1920s, "Lenin corners," adorned with the Bolshevik leader's portrait, replaced banned Orthodox icons in Russian homes, and the Italian Fascists had ceremonies to honor "martyrs" who died for their Fascist faith.
Yet not every faith tradition is suitable for serving strongman purposes. The decline or demise of democracy can be paralleled by a realignment of power in the religious realm. Faith traditions with their own authoritarian cultures prosper, while progressive ones are sidelined or suppressed.
We’re seeing this in our own day as we live through the spread of militantly intolerant brands of Christianity that partner with right-wing authoritarians around the world.
Mussolini created the template. His persecution of the Italian left had gained him the support of political, business, and agricultural elites. Yet he couldn't wield full power without the aid of the Vatican. And both the Fascists and the Catholic Church needed to neutralize another threat: a progressive Christian movement, embodied in the fast-growing Popular Party, which was led by the revered priest Don Luigi Sturzo.
The Popular Party got 20% of the vote in the 1919 and 1921 elections, a situation which alarmed the conservative new Pope, Pius XI (1922-1939), far more than the idea of partnering with a violent thug with a history of anti-clericalism. The start of the Fascist-Vatican alliance meant the end of hopes for an anti-authoritarian Christian political presence in Italy. In 1924, two years after Mussolini became prime minister, Don Sturzo, menaced by Fascist death threats, went into exile, and his party was soon dissolved.
The 1929 Lateran Accords provided a template for the mutual benefits that can accrue when religious institutions partner with repressive governments. The creation of Vatican City as an independent sovereign entity allowed Pius XI to maneuver while surrounded by the physical space of a dictatorship, and Catholicism became the state religion. And Fascism gained an air of morality and respectability, especially when the Pope declared that Providence “had placed Il Duce in our path.”
Going forward, the Catholic Church often propped up right-wing authoritarianism, with the activities of the far-right sect Opus Dei a point of continuity. Opus Dei-linked technocrats oversaw economic policy under Francisco Franco (who only granted Protestants and Jews freedom of worship in 1966). They performed the same functions for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, implementing his neoliberal "shock therapy" measures. In Chile, Catholic business elites viewed wealth creation as a path to salvation --and learned to rationalize repression against leftists as necessary to the health of Christian civilization.
Opus Dei also features in Silvio Berlusconi's authoritarian-style governments. Berlusconi's right-hand man, Marcello Dell’Utri, who ran his advertising conglomerate Publitalia, was also his link to Opus Dei (and, efficiently, also to organized crime: Dell'Utri was convicted of Mafia association in 2004).
Unsurprisingly, we also find individuals close to Opus Dei at the heart of Trump's own right-wing presidency, such as Attorney General William Barr, Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, and White House lawyer Pat Cipollone. Barr and Cipollone were both on the Board of Directors of Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center, as was the Federalist Society's Leonard Leo. A Catholic activist lawyer, Roger Severino, ran the Office for Civil Rights, created by the Trump administration to redefine civil rights as the protection of Christian “freedoms of religion and expression.”
Around the world, an armed Christian faith seeks to marginalize progressive faith traditions, and is rewarded for spiritual warfare in myriad ways by those in power.
In Russia, the Orthodox Church has been Putin’s faithful partner as he persecutes groups and cultures at home and abroad that are "rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization," as he asserted in 2013. The Orthodox Church has benefited from Putin's largesse: thousands of old churches have been restored and new ones built. In return, it supports his view of LGBTQ+ individuals as dangerous to the social body.
In Russia, as in Brazil and around the world, anti-gay and anti-transgender crusades are at the heart of religion-authoritarian alliances. They feature in the Kremlin's outreach to foreign far-right religious figures like the US Evangelical leader Franklin Graham.
In Hungary, which was largely a secular nation, militant Catholicism finds common cause with the government's pro-natalist and anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Viktor Orbán has remade himself into a defender of Christianity against "a godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration and open societies."
There, too, a shared vision of armed Christian faith, broadly defined, underwrites alliances with American Catholic and Evangelical Christian far-right politicians (Mike Pence) and media figures (Tucker Carlson, Rod Dreher). The Hungarian leader's other role as the persecutor of 300 small churches run by non-loyalists naturally goes unmentioned.
Certainly, Christianity has no monopoly on bad faith. One need only look at Orthodox Jewish support for Trump at a time of rising anti-Semitism to isolate the role opportunism and political calculation play in such alliances. Trump delivered on the issues that constituency cared about, like pro-Israel policies. A shared authoritarian culture helped, as did the presence of a messianic belief system that marks his most fervent Christian and conspiracy theorist backers as well.
All too often in history, the supposedly pious strongman has repressed faith leaders (and their followers) who won't submit to his authority. Just ask Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish Muslim cleric in exile targeted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Threatened by his influence, Erdogan blamed Gülen for the 2016 coup attempt. Gülen's faithful have had their assets seized and tens of thousands have been arrested. Many who live in exile have been kidnapped from foreign countries and brought back to Turkey for punishment.
This dramatic global history gives context to events now unfolding in America. Future essays will discuss the United States as the latest frontier of Christian spiritual warfare in service to illiberal politics, and how faith has been a powerful component of anti-authoritarian actions around the globe.
In the meantime, we can reflect on the fate of Don Luigi Sturzo, whose vision of a progressive Christian politics was so threatening that his party had to be dismantled. He spent twenty years in exile, returning to his homeland only in 1945.
What faith traditions and leaders are being silenced today as the next chapter of the alliance of religion and authoritarian unfolds?