Should Christians idealize dictatorships or even suggest dictatorship for America? In the current “post-liberal” moment, there’s a new Christian authoritarian chic. Recent examples include a conservative Christian finding virtue with East German communism, and another extolling a “Protestant” Francisco Franco for America.
The first example is American Conservative editor Helen Andrews, who’s Eastern Orthodox, in a book review for Compact, a new post-liberal journal, called “What Soviet Nostalgia Gets Right.” Andrews laments the decline of birthrates in East Germany after communism fell, perhaps due to the “end of universal subsidized daycare and lavish ‘birth-year’ maternity leave, which had been a jewel of the East German welfare state.” There was also the “loss of a sense of purpose.”
And Andrews notes:
Most post-Soviet countries are more prosperous now than in 1990, after experiencing temporary declines during the period of “Shock Therapy.” But drug use and street crime, which had been rare in East Germany, were brought in with reunification, along with pornography and sex shops. Those old-timers who have sensed a rise in overall disorder and degeneracy have a point.
The bargain that East Germany offered is basically the one China offers now: Stay out of politics, and we will leave you alone, and in return, we will deliver rising living standards. Most people are happy to take this deal, and in the case of China, the rest of the world doesn’t condemn them for it. Twenty years ago, the vast majority of Chinese graduate students stayed in America after earning their doctorates. Now the trend is to return to China. They are voting with their feet.
As to East Germany’s infamous police state, Andrews says: “Even pervasive surveillance, excruciating for independent thinkers, was an annoyance at most for the average person.” And regarding complaints about East Germany’s lower standards of living compared to West Germany, Andrews responds:
In fact, by many of the indices of consumer wealth—percentage of households owning a car, a fridge, a washing machine, a TV—East Germany performed very respectably, especially by the end of the 1970s. If its consumer products were fewer and shabbier than the West’s, its leaders said, with some justification, this was made up for in other ways: free health care and daycare, subsidized public transport, excellent schools.
Andrews blames West Germany for isolating East Germany in a virtual “trade embargo” at least until 1970. She does not mention East Germany’s treatment of religion.
Of course, Andrews’s ultimate point is not to glamorize East Germany but to deride liberal democracy and free markets. She writes that “for millions of people who lived under a different system, the superiority of liberalism wasn’t obvious. To take their views seriously is also to consider the possibility that alternatives exist now, too.”
What are those “alternatives” to liberal democracy?
For American Reformer executive director Joshua Abbotoy, it’s possibly an American one-man personal dictatorship. He tweeted: “Basically, America is going to need a Protestant Franco.” American Reformer is an online Calvinist publication at least adjacent to Reformed advocates of a “magisterial” Protestant confessional state. Another postliberal Reformed online polemicist, Nick Solheim of American Moment, supportively tweeted his endorsement, attaching a pro-Franco podcast.
Abbotoy later added: “I don’t personally want Franco or Pinochet. Their regimes were less than ideal in many ways. I want a virtuous citizenry capable of self-governance. But at this point you need to have your head in the sand if you don’t see parallels to 1930s Spain.”
The point behind the Franco endorsement was that at least Franco knew how to manage the Left. His management was defeating Spain’s leftist regime in a brutal civil war, killing tens of thousands of opponents, incarcerating hundreds of thousands, and reigning through a one-man, one-party dictatorship for almost 40 years until he died.
Spain’s choices in the 1930s were indeed grim. The Republican regime, although elected, bolshevized through its reliance on support from Stalin. Factions within the regime waged a “red terror,” killing thousands of priests, lay Catholics and other perceived opponents. Their victory likely meant a communist or at least pro-Soviet Spain.
Franco of course was backed by Mussolini and Hitler, who expected Franco to join them in their eventual war with the world. To his credit, Franco, although sending “volunteers” to fight with the Nazi invasion of the USSR, declined to war against the West. After winning his own civil war, he waged his own “white terror,” which often involved working thousands of adversaries to death in concentration camps. Among other crimes, children of adversaries, often before their imprisonment and ultimate death, were stolen and awarded to Franco supporters.
Across four decades, no opposition to Franco was tolerated. Spain’s Catholic hierarchy supported him against the leftist Republicans but later chaffed under his rule, when it was clear that their privileged status required subservience to him. Among other powers, he claimed authority over appointing bishops. Spain’s Catholic prelates later broke with the dictatorship, especially after Vatican II affirmed religious freedom with other human rights, and supported Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy.
Abbotoy, in his defense of Franco, noted the “Republicans intended to carry out a pogrom against Christian peoples in Spain, and Franco stopped it.” More specifically, Franco defended the Catholic Church, which was the only fully legal religion in Spain. He was not interested in defending other Christians or religionists. Protestants, with Jews and others, were banned from a public presence in Franco’s Spain. As religious groups they could not directly own property or openly publish their religious materials. Typically, Protestants worshipped in private homes or in disguised buildings, which sometimes were still closed by the police. Under Franco’s law, “no other external ceremonies or manifestations than those of the Catholic religion shall be permitted.” Protestants were banned from government and faced obstacles even in private industry. There were no legally recognized Protestant marriages. In 1956 the only Protestant seminary was closed. Catholic religious instruction in schools was mandatory.
American Protestants, both Mainline and Evangelical, commonly complained about Franco’s suppression of Spanish Protestants, for whom they prayed. As Franco was a Cold War ally who hosted a U.S. airbase, the U.S. said little to nothing about Franco’s repressions.
Advocating for a “Protestant” Franco echoes a new generation of Calvinist theocrats like Stephen Wolfe, author of The Case for Christian Nationalism, which advocates for a “theocratic caesarism.” In this vision, a Calvinist ruler would privilege Reformed believers over Catholics and others, which is farcical.
Wolfe’s fantasy aside, there can be no “Protestant” Franco because Protestantism is the direct opposite of dictatorship. Protestantism, with its stress on the individual believer’s direct connection to God, is intrinsically subversive to repressive regimes. Dictators like Franco, no matter their own religion, typically fear and suppress most forms of Protestantism, which they see as uncontrollable.
“Liberalism” and modern democracy are largely the fruit of Protestantism. Most Calvinists and others who stressed humanity’s total depravity ultimately realized that no ruler or small clique can be trusted with arbitrary power. There must be constant safeguards and counterbalances. No hierarchy, ecclesial or political, merits complete trust.
In contrast, dictators, by nature, even when “Christian,” inevitably are tyrants, jailing, torturing, and killing their enemies, stealing from the public treasury, operating on fear and paranoia, and unwilling to surrender power. Some of us are old enough to recall “Franco is still dead” jokes from the mid-1970s. Franco, of course, retained power beyond his cognitive and physical capacities. Late night comedians wondered: “Is Franco still dead?” Thankfully, he is.
Neither of the writers extolling Franco and communist East Germany is old enough to recall much of the 20th century, whose dictators perpetrated epic crimes on hundreds of millions. Some young Christian post-liberals think our own times are uniquely terrible. But contemporary America is superior to a single day under Franco, communist East Germany, or any dictator.