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A Yankee Franco & The Long Defeat

Lessons for America from Spain's experience -- and Gondor's
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The other day, Sen. Ben Sasse authored a Senate declaration affirming that religious tests should not be imposed for public office. It passed without formal opposition from any senators, but Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, whose questioning whether or not a judicial nominee who had been a member of the “extreme” Knights Of Columbus, was fit for office, prompted the Sasse legislation — unofficially opposed it. She remarked that the Senate has more important things than to deal with such “alt-right” — her words — propaganda.

Mazie Hirono is becoming a leading voice for woke progressivism among Democrats. You might recall that during the Kavanaugh hearings, she said that men ought to “shut up.” She doesn’t seem to be all that clever, so you might find her easy to dismiss. But the important thing to observe here is that she characterizes something as anodyne as saying that there should be no religious tests for public office (and, by extension, that the proposal she and fellow Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris floated about a judicial nominee’s potential disqualification for having been a Knight of Columbus) as an “alt-right” position. I’m seeing this more and more from the left: the demonization of mainstream Christianity (when it conflicts with progressive ideals) as “alt-right,” and beyond the pale of decency.

Consider the point raised by CNN host John King, nobody’s idea of a left-wing propagandist. He’s talking about Karen Pence and her role as a teacher at a conservative Evangelical school:

“Does it matter all taxpayers pay for her housing? All taxpayers pay for her Secret Service protection? It’s not her fault she needs protection, this is the world we live in. But all taxpayers subsidize her life. Does it matter?”

Hey, he’s just asking!

No, it does not matter, and a reporter not be asking questions about whether or not our leaders and their families deserve Secret Service protection if, in the exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed religious liberty, they offend progressives. The fact that this question even occurred to John King (or his producers) is a big tell: it shows how disconnected these media elites are from the lives of ordinary American believers. The kind of policy that employees of Pence’s school had to sign are extremely common in Catholic and Evangelical schools, though obviously not universal.

That it would occur to King that US taxpayers perhaps shouldn’t subsidize security for a conservative Christian leader under these circumstances also shows that the LGBT cause is the absolute telos of American liberalism. Think about it: is there another salient political issue that would cause someone like John King to ask this kind of question?

These are signs of how radical the times are becoming, and how fast. I remember back in the misty forests of 2006 or thereabouts, we all received assurances from liberals that once gay marriage was passed, that would be the end of it. When conservatives talked about the likelihood that Christians would end up facing serious discrimination under a gay-rights regime, we were told that we were paranoid — though let’s be honest here, you haters have it coming. Hence the Law Of Merited Impossibility: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

Now, here we are, with the vice president’s wife excoriated for teaching art to children in an Evangelical private school that has the audacity to expect its employees to pledge to live by orthodox Christian sexual morality. To be clear, it is not necessarily the case that legalized gay marriage requires the expansion of anti-Christian bigotry. The existence of Christian schools that uphold orthodox Christian sexual morality prevents no gays or lesbians from marrying, nor does it prevent them from going about their lives. How many gay or lesbian parents, or parents of a child who identified as the opposite gender, would be interested in sending their children to a conservative Evangelical school anyway?

But that is not the point. Remember Memories Pizza, the small-town Indiana restaurant that became an object of a national Three-Minute Hate after its Evangelical owner, asked by a TV reporter if he would cater a same-sex wedding, said no, he would not. How many couples, gay or otherwise, would have asked a small-town pizza parlor to cater their wedding? That’s not the point. The point is that these heretics exist at all in the public square. Ergo, burn the bigot! 

I am, by now, tired of printing comments in this space from people on the left saying, one way or another, that we need to remember that Christians were once vicious bullies to gays and others unlike themselves (and I’m not going to publish them anymore, by the way). Well, even if true, isn’t it a good thing that we have arrived at a point in our pluralistic society where nearly all of us agree that gay people should not be bullied? I think so! But we see clearly now that many people on the left, gay and straight alike, believe that the sins of Christians entitles them to bully out of vengeance.

Which brings me to the title of this post. As regular readers know, I’ve spent the last eight days in Spain. One of the most remarkable things I’ve observed is the degree to which Spanish society is still badly divided against itself over the legacy of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). I wrote a few blog posts about the Spanish Civil War just before I came to Spain (you can find them in the archives of this blog), and everything I subsequently learned on the ground confirmed and deepened what I had learned from books and film.

I won’t recount that history in this post (you’re welcome), but let it suffice to say that contrary to what most of us Americans know about the Spanish conflict — if we know anything about it at all — is wildly unbalanced. We have the idea that a democratically elected liberal republic was sabotaged by a right-wing nationalist rebellion blessed by the Catholic Church. The outcome of the war was a nearly four-decade right-wing dictatorship led by Gen. Francisco Franco.

Those are the bare facts, but the whole truth is far more complicated. Americans don’t readily understand that 19th century liberalism in continental Europe was a distinctly different phenomenon than it was in Britain and America. European liberalism was fiercely, even violently, anticlerical. When the Second Spanish Republic was declared in 1931, it was indeed a liberal republic — and its lawmakers immediately began attacking the Catholic Church, trying to root it out of all aspects of life.

Shortly after the declaration of the Republic, left-wing mobs burned churches and convents throughout Spain, as police officers of the Republic stood by and watched. Learning this from the history books before coming to Spain was news to me. I knew that there had been anti-Christian atrocities in Spain, but I assumed that they all happened during the 1936-39 war. Previously I had no idea that they had been encouraged and permitted by liberals and left-wing allies both inside and outside the government.

The burning of the churches — the initial burning; it happened many, many more times — was profoundly shocking to Catholic Spain. It started a chain reaction of recriminations, and counter-recriminations, that eventually resulted in a military rebellion against the government. Thus, three years of savage war, with atrocities on both sides. Neither side had clean hands. Despite the mounting violence between 1931 and 1935, the coming of a shooting war caught Spaniards by surprise. A professor told me last night, “If you read the papers from the time right up to the war, you would not have expected what came next.”

What would have happened had the Spanish liberals in 1931 not immediately set about attacking the Church? For that matter, what if Spanish conservatives had been more willing to embrace reforms that would have loosened the grip of the Church and landowning elites on Spanish society (which was, in the main, rather poor)? Would they have avoided war, and dictatorship? Make no mistake: had the Republican side defeated Franco and his nationalists, the result would have been a Communist dictatorship, as the Soviets, who backed the Republican side, and their agents in the Spanish Communist Party were planning. Democracy was never going to survive this war.

The point I want to make is this: the ideologically-driven anti-Christian aggression of the Spanish Republican Left eventually drove Christians into the arms of a military man who turned into a dictator. Over and over on this Spanish trip, I heard Catholics say some version of: Franco may have been bad, but at least he didn’t want to kill us. What choice did we  have?

The Left lost the first war, but from a Catholic point of view, ultimately triumphed. Spain has mostly de-Christianized. The Catholic Church is a shell of its former self — this, according to Spanish Catholics with whom I talked in every city I visited. It was remarkable to me — astonishing, really — to encounter in these ordinary lay Catholics deep anger at Catholic institutions (the bishops, many clergy, Catholic schools). I saw this over and over. In general, the message I received from Catholics who came to hear my talks went like this:

  1. Catholics have little say in the Spanish public square, and their bishops are giving them no leadership, even as both state and institutions of mainstream culture further marginalize and even demonize Catholicism. “Our bishops act like Spain is still a Catholic country,” one man said, denouncing the bishops’ complacency. Others complained that bishops and most of the clergy behave as if they regard their jobs as managing decline. Put bluntly, these lay Spanish Catholics say that the Church in Spain is in an emergency situation, but their leadership refuses to recognize it and act accordingly.
  2. It’s not only the leadership. One priest told me, of his fellow Catholics, “People think that immigration and Islam are our biggest problems. The real problem is that we are spiritually mediocre. We aren’t converted. We aren’t evangelizing.”
  3. The Catholic schools in the country are, by the accounts I heard, a disaster. One woman said, “The best way for your children to lose the Catholic faith is to send them to Catholic schools.” It’s not true for all Catholic schools, but, as another woman put it, “When it comes to schools, the name ‘Catholic’ doesn’t mean anything.”
  4. With institutional Catholicism in an advanced state of decadence, and the left-liberal state ramping up its attacks on religion, a small but determined number of lay Catholics are looking for a self-generated alternative. This is why some of them are looking to The Benedict Option for inspiration as they attempt to figure out what to do on their own, under Spanish conditions (which, for example, forbid homeschooling).
  5. There is no political solution here. There is no Catholic strongman waiting in the wings. There’s a new populist party, Vox, which has been widely denounced in the mainstream media as “far right.” In fact, one well-informed observer of both the US and Spanish political scenes told me that Vox is mostly to the left of the US Republican Party. Vox opposes Spain’s permissive immigration scheme, it opposes attacks on religion, and it opposes the state’s attempt to impose gender ideology. For this, they are attacked by the Spanish media as the vanguard of fascism. Even if Vox were to come to power and stop the state’s oppression of Spanish Catholics, that would not mean the revival of the Spanish church! 

For the entirety of the Franco dictatorship — from 1939, until his death in 1975 — the Catholic Church enjoyed a privileged position in Spanish public life. After Franco, it all collapsed. This is the danger of relying on a political solution. One older man told me that in the 1950s, when he was a boy, the teaching of religion in Spain was by rote. There was no life in it. We didn’t get to talk about it in depth, but it’s not hard to imagine that the Spanish church grew fat and complacent, and came to see its role as more or less managers of the Sacrament Factory, whose monopoly was protected and enforced by the dictatorial state. Those American Catholics who believe integralism is the answer for the problems of liberalism ought to come to Spain and see what Franco’s legacy has been for the faith.

One young Catholic on this trip told me, “I wonder if it might have been better off for us if Franco had lost the war.” My sense is that that is a minority opinion among Spanish Catholics, but nevertheless, this man’s view that a communist persecution might have made the Church more vital, in the end, is worth contemplating. Sadly, looking at the churches of Eastern Europe (Poland the obvious exception), it’s hard to see how Spain-As-Cuba would have resulted in an outcome much different from what Spain is today. Still, it’s stunning to consider that nearly four decades of a right-wing authoritarian Catholic dictatorship has resulted in a collapse of the Catholic faith that’s not a lot better than how the faith fared under a similar period of left-wing totalitarian anti-Christian dictatorship in other European countries.

What are the lessons for us Americans? There are two broad ones. First, let me set limits on the analogy. The divisions in US society are not nearly as deep and as hostile as they were in Spain in the modern era, even long before the Second Republic. We will not see church-burning, for example.

But the historical analogy is still useful. Which brings me to the first lesson:

Progressive persecution of religious, social, and cultural conservatives invites an authoritarian backlash. The Spanish Civil War happened in part because Spanish leftists — including liberals (that is to say: not communists or socialists) — were fanatically committed to demonizing Christians, both using the power of the state, and within civil society. The anti-Christian attacks turned violent. Eventually, Christians pushed back. They sought protection in a right-wing authoritarian leader, not just because Franco was a protector of Christians, but because he also defended their concept of the nation.

We have already seen, in the example of Trump, that conservative Christians will embrace politically a bad man, not because they have any love for him but because unlike left-wing leaders, he doesn’t despise them, and seek to demonize them. Hear me: Donald Trump is no Francisco Franco. But the American left ought to understand that even though they have won the culture war, their insistence on bouncing the rubble is going to radicalize religious and social conservatives even further. It’s not just religious people. This insane talk on the left demonizing “white males,” and men in general, sends a clear and alarming signal to whites and men about what Democrats will do to them when they take full power.

It is incredible that the left can’t see this. In the media constantly we hear this kind of messaging:

“White men are bad. White men are bad. White men are bad. White men are bad. White men are bad. White men are bad. White men are bad. Especially white Christian men — they’re the worst.”

“Hey! We are not bad! Or, if we’re bad, it’s not because we’re white, male, and/or Christian. Stop saying that!”

“Ah ha! See how they react from a place of white male privilege!”

A side note: a case could be made, I think, for the contemporary American right wing to take a lesson from the run-up Spanish Civil War, and pay closer attention to the economic plight of the poor and the working class. In pre-Civil War Spain, the landowners resisted attempts at land reform to give the poor masses some economic stability and stake in the future. Poverty and hopelessness was fuel on the fire of left-wing radicalism. In our own time and place, Tucker Carlson tried to make this point to fellow conservatives: that if we don’t realize that our Reagan-era free market nostrums are insufficient to meet the needs of many Americans in our globalized, technically advanced economy, we are going to end up driving people to vote for socialism.

For now, the Right is fortunate that the Left is so obsessed with racial, sexual, and cultural identity politics that it severely limits the appeal of radical leftist economics. But that may not be the case for ever.

The second lesson: for religious conservatives, a political solution is a chimera.

Franco’s victory was a more thorough from a socially conservative point of view than anything a contemporary American religious conservative could dream up. Conservatives controlled everything, and suppressed the opposition for decades. The Church had carte blanche in Spanish society. And yet, today Spanish Christianity is flat on its back. In fact, many (fairly or not) hate Catholicism precisely because of its close affiliation with Franco.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this is coming for the American church. Many of us embraced Trump enthusiastically. Other believers embraced him reluctantly, purely as self-defense, because as unpleasant as he is, at least he doesn’t want to drive us out of the public square.

I think this was, and remains, probably the right call. The Kavanaugh hysteria, and now the Karen Pence debacle, focus the mind on exactly how far the Left is willing to go to make us conservatives into hate figures. Still — and pay attention to this — there will be a huge price to pay in post-Trump America for believers’ perceived collaboration with Trump. I’m not saying that this is fair (it’s not); I’m saying that it’s going to happen, and we had better be ready for it.

The best that we Christians can hope for politics is that our politicians can hope for is that they can and will protect our freedom to run our own institutions, our businesses, and our lives, as much as is possible. But you cannot legislate against hatred in people’s hearts. Believing orthodox Christians in America will carry a heavy stigma from now on. I’ve explained all this in my book, so I won’t belabor that message here. My point is this: the rote catechesis, the tepid therapeutic deism of parish life, the feeble youth-group emotionalism, the gimmicky messaging of megachurchery — these aspects of popular Christian life in America are failing to prepare us and our children for what is coming.

If you were a faithful Catholic living in Madrid in 1968, you might have thought you and your children, and your grandchildren, were safe. The rest of the world might be convulsing under the strain of cultural revolution, but the Church and the Caudillo kept things well in order in Spain. That world fell apart almost overnight. It is possible that Spanish Catholicism could have done a much better job of formation of its young, so that the faith would be more resilient in the post-Franco years. Possible, though human beings being what they are, improbable.

There’s no turning back the clock for Spain, but what we American Christians can learn from the church’s bitter experience there is to quit being complacent about the present and the future. 

If progressives in America push too hard, and economic conditions are just right, the years ahead may bring about an American Franco — that is to say, a right-wing authoritarian leader who demolishes democracy, and rules by decree. This leader, should he arise, will be popular with half the country — as was Franco during and immediately after the war — and will be despised by the other half. Will he be Christian? I doubt it very much, but like Trump, who is at best a nominal Christian, he may win the allegiance of Christians because the alternative is church burning (which I mean in a metaphorical sense, mostly). It is not unthinkable that the culture war, and a deeply distressed economy — remember, the early 1930s were a time of global economic depression — could produce a Yankee caudillo.

This is not something any of us conservatives should desire! And heaven knows that it would be a nightmare beyond all telling for liberals and leftists. I deeply wish that the mainstream left — the media, Democratic politicians, academics — would get a freaking grip on itself, and understand exactly what kind of demons it is calling forth. Franco didn’t come from nowhere.

But I also deeply wish that American Christians would recognize that our strength in American culture, political and otherwise, is superficial, and politics alone cannot sustain what has decayed from within. Read the statistics in my book, or go find some of sociologist Christian Smith’s writing about American religious belief, especially among the young. The cheap nationalism and spiritual mediocrity of the small-o orthodox American churches are producing a generation whose faith will crumble to dust.

In a speech I gave at a conservative Evangelical college once, I talked about the importance of developing practices and habits in the Christian life. This is called formation. After my speech, a young woman in the audience stood to say she didn’t understand this at all. What’s wrong with loving Jesus with all your heart? I told her that this is of course what we all have to do, but “love” is not an emotion. We have to train ourselves to obey Him (“If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus said), even when it’s difficult, and costs us something. Dying to oneself, and one’s own desires, is hard, and it takes practice. The transforming grace of God is freely given, but if we don’t spiritually discipline ourselves through developing habits and practices, we will remain closed off to it, and will always be spiritual juveniles.

She genuinely didn’t get what I was saying. I don’t think she was a bad person at all. I think this was simply alien talk. After the event, a professor there took me aside and told me that that young woman’s remarks represented the way 99 percent of the students at that college approach the faith. They’re the products of youth group culture — cheerful, enthusiastic, and truly love Jesus. But the moment they go out into the real world, and someone tells them that what Christians believe is mean, they collapse. For them, the faith has only been a matter of emotion and relationships; there is little if any intellectual content, and certainly no real formation in habits that would give them the ability to withstand hatred or any other kind of suffering for the faith.

You’ve heard this from me a thousand million times, so I’ll stop. It’s just that having left Spain, where I met with many deeply devout Christian believers, men and women who are beset by oppression outside the Church, and malaise and demoralization inside the Church, I see our American Christian future, coming at us fast, and it scares me. But it doesn’t paralyze me. It energizes me. Staying involved in politics, if only to protect our religious liberties, is necessary, but it is not remotely sufficient.

For that matter, look at Ireland. It was no dictatorship, but the Catholic Church nevertheless enjoyed a place of overwhelming privilege and power in Irish society, until pretty much the day before yesterday. And now, the faith has to a great degree collapsed. How did it happen? And where to go next for Irish Catholics? That is a story I will be learning about over these next couple of days in Dublin.

I don’t want to leave you on a depressing note. I spent an inspiring evening tonight in Dublin with Brian Kaller, the American expat and former journalist who writes the Restoring Mayberry blog, about resilience, rural life, and traditional culture. I’ve read Brian for years (and he has written a number of columns for TAC), and tonight, we finally met. The impressive thing about Brian, which you know if you read his blog, is that he does not want to sit around only lamenting what we’ve lost, but he wants to do practical things to prepare us for the future — materially, culturally, and spiritually. And he has thought very deeply about it. One day, he’s going to write a great book about all this, I’m sure.

As he drove me from the airport to my hotel in Dublin, Brian and I talked about what I had seen in Spain, and how moved I was by the faith and charity of the Spanish Catholics, and by their sense of siege. It’s a sense of siege that all of us Christians living in the post-Christian West, with a sense of awareness, feel, though it is far more acute for some than others. In response, Brian quoted Galadriel to me, from The Fellowship of the Ring:

“For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

We are fighting the long defeat, Brian said. But fight we must, because it is right. This guy, Brian, is a quiet warrior who, in an earlier era, would have been a mighty abbot. After we said goodnight, and thinking about our conversation — about the church, about politics, about the scouring of our own shire — I thought of this quote from Gandalf, which could have been said by Brian:

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

There is real hope in that moral and spiritual realism. If you come out to hear me speak on Monday night in Dublin (8pm, University Church), be sure to stick around to meet Brian, who will be in the audience. Sometimes, I feel that my purpose in life is to point out people like Brian Kaller, and say, “Listen to them.”

Self, with journalist Brian Kaller




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