I had a galvanizing telephone conversation today with an American academic who grew up in the USSR. They (I’ll use a neutral plural pronoun to protect this person’s identity) completely agree with the premise of the book I’m planning — a book about the rise of totalitarianism via identity politics progressivism — and urged me to pay particular attention to the way global corporations are carrying these ideas forward. This, they said, is what is truly innovative about this cultural moment.
They also told me that based on their experience, I should expect fierce emotional resistance to what I write from liberals and progressives. American leftists of all kinds do not want to hear it. They said they have lived through angry progressives in academia telling them to shut up when they talked about things they had actually lived through — things that contradicted what these progressives wanted to believe about socialism.
I tell you this because it is essentially the same story I have heard many times from people like them. In this book I’m planning, I will let these people tell their stories, for those who have ears to hear. We won’t be able to say we weren’t warned.
A reader drew my attention to this blog post by “Clarissa,” a Soviet emigre whose blog title is based on the Law of Merited Impossibility. It’s about religion and totalitarianism. Excerpt:
My father was a closeted Christian in the USSR. There was no way for him to get his hands on a Bible or talk to a priest but he was desperate to learn about the teachings of Christ. So he’d pore over the textbooks in his university courses on Scientific Atheism (yes, that’s the real, official name) that everybody had to take and he would underline every quote from the Bible that the textbooks included to demonstrate the supposed stupidity of Christianity. He didn’t read the Soviet critique of the Bible that filled the space between the quotes. But the quotes were the only way for him to access the text of the Bible. He had no community of believers around him and he didn’t seek one out for the sake of his children. There was a girl from an openly religious family in my school, and nobody who saw the way she was terrorized by the school authorities would want that for their kids.
I will never forget the day when my father finally got his hands on an actual Bible. It was 1985, and perestroika was just beginning. We were visiting friends in Moscow, and they gave my father a Bible to read. He stayed up all night reading it and when I asked him to give it to me, he did. I was nine, and when I started to read the Gospel of John I felt compelled to read it aloud.
“It feels like the kind of book that has to be read aloud. It has the kind of greatness that demands it,” I explained to my Dad. I saw that he was deeply shaken by what I said but I was too young to realize how important it must have been to him to see his child realize the greatness of the teaching of Christ.
My father got baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 57 in Canada.
You really should read the whole thing to see how this experience affected her when she prepared for a job interview in academia here.
Christophobia is real. Writing in the Catholic Herald, Matthew Schmitz quoted none other than Pope Francis saying that “polite persecution” in the West is a thing. Excerpts:
One of the most curious aspects of polite persecution is the refusal of many Christians to acknowledge its reality. If any Christian in the West says that the Church there faces persecution, one of his co-religionists is sure to accuse him of overstating the case. Herein lies the great insidiousness of polite persecution. Rather than being conducted by sword-and-sandals tyrants employing brutal means, it is very often enforced by Christians themselves, in order to flatter and serve their secular betters. Time and again they rush to denounce other Christians as “hateful”, “insensitive” and “bigoted” – in a word, impolite.
Anti-Catholicism now exists to a great degree as Catholic self-loathing. Like the Italians and Irish who have made their way into country clubs and now resent talk of gangsters such as Tony Soprano or Whitey Bulger, polite Catholics dislike the reminder that, despite all, they still profess an unfashionable faith. For these upwardly mobile souls, professing Christian sexual teaching is just shy of running an extortion racket or putting out a hit. They not only seek to dissociate themselves from such Catholics, they do what they can to silence and suppress them.
I did this myself, as a new Catholic convert — but against Evangelicals. Back when I first converted, in my twenties, I was living in Washington, and had enough social awareness about the secular circles I traveled in to know that Evangelicals were thought of as being really outré. Mind you, I was a religious and social conservative, but I was so insecure that I made a point of emphasizing in conversation that I was a Catholic Christian — the strong implication being that I wasn’t one of those simplistic Evangelicals.
I cringe to think about my arrogance back then. This was not something that any Catholic taught me. This was all about my own prejudices, and fear of not fitting in. I don’t know why I thought that secular liberals would respect me any more for opposing abortion and sexual liberalism as a Catholic than they would have had I espoused those beliefs as an Evangelical. It was all about the intellectual snobbery of an ambitious young DC conservative. That same intellectual arrogance I nurtured within myself helped set me up for losing my Catholic faith years later. But I digress. The point is, I know exactly what Schmitz is talking about, because I did a similar thing myself 25 years ago, without understanding what I was doing.
Some churches “weaponize scripture and religion to do very deep damage on the psyche,” he said. Gay, lesbian and trans people are told that God condemns them, unwed mothers that they are living in sin, and many natural human desires are deemed evil.
Scientific research into the consequences of such religious condemnation remains at an early stage. But the potential for harm is clear. Many suffer for decades from post-traumatic stress disorder-type symptoms, including anxiety, self doubt and feelings of social inadequacy.
Another group that works with victims is the Child-Friendly Faith Project, founded by Janet Heimlich, a journalist who has written about religious child maltreatment. The project has worked with those who say they were traumatized by religious groups, including former attendees of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch, a Christian boarding school for at-risk children located outside Amarillo, Tex.
Brett Higbee, a retired land surveyor who attended the ranch during the late 1970s, said that he was routinely beaten for religious infractions like failing to memorize Bible verses. These experiences made him religion-phobic for years, he said, his pain triggered by entering a church or even hearing Christmas music on the radio.
The gap between religious teachings on compassion and the ways that faith sometimes gets misused inspired Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a psychiatrist, and his colleagues at Duke University to develop “religious cognitive therapy” in 2014. The therapy uses “positive scriptures that focus on forgiveness, God’s love and divine mercy to challenge the dysfunctional thoughts that maintain trauma,” says Dr. Koenig.
Now, it is undeniably true that some of the more fundamentalist forms of Christianity — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — can do serious psychological and emotional damage to people. What this story conflates is a strict and merciless application of Christian teachings on sexuality with the teachings themselves. It’s wrong for Christians (or Jews, Muslims, and any other religious believer) to be so defensive about attacks on our faith that we deny that people within the religion can use its teachings to psychologically abuse others. But we should be very wary of attempts to pathologize all orthodox religious belief. The story the Soviet emigre academic Clarissa tells about how her father’s Soviet experience came to mind as she prepared for a job interview in US academia is instructive in this regard.
We Christians should also be aware that we don’t allow our own prejudices and insecurities about our own social capital draw us into failing to defend fellow believers from the scorn of others, even though we may not share all the convictions of those believers.