I'm sure everyone has heard about how Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are urging UK human rights lawyers to have Pope Benedict arrested for "crimes against humanity" when he arrives for an official visit in September.
I remember the first time I saw Christopher Hitchens on TV several years ago. I forget what the topic of the program was but the ex-Marxist made my jaw drop when he drolly remarked that "Mother Teresa is just a mouthpiece for the Vatican."
After 9/11 Hitchens scrubbed away the last residues of his leftist ways and became an ardent neo-con supporter of George Bush's War on Terror, which for Hitchens is really a War on Islam. In fact, as a committed atheist he has extended his own personal battle to a War on Religion in general, with a special virulence in his heart reserved for Catholicism, a virulence he shares with his confrere Dawkins.
He's certainly one of the most visible of the militant "New Atheists" and is often seen on the circuit debating theists and Christian apologists such as Dinesh D'Souza. In the UK last year, Intelligence Squared hosted a debate on the proposition "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world." Hitchens was teamed up with the actor David Fry against Anne Widdecombe MP and Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria. The Catholic side got massacred. When they polled their audience, Intelligence Squared said they had never seen such a lopsided result. If you can bear it, you can watch it here. It was a debacle.
Hitchens is a formidable and polished debater, quite capable of eviscerating his opponents with his enyclopedic knowledge of history and his sharp, keenly poisonous dry wit. My daughter T and I almost went to see him debate Rabbi David Wolpe when he was in Boston a few weeks back, but Anne had to work that night and we needed to stay home.
One thing I've noticed about Hitchens, though. When he debates someone he's not above using cheap tricks and he doesn't always fight fair. This was brought home to me quite clearly when I saw him in a Bloggingheads.TV discussion with the author Robert Wright. Wright is not a theist. He writes about evolutionary psychology and non-zero sum game theory, yet Hitchens argued with him as if he was a theist anyway. It appears to be the only thing he knows how to do. He's like an old record player that can run at only one speed.
Still, I'm amazed by his glibness and his command of the language. Despite the fact that he's clearly got a buzz on, fencing adroitly with Wright while he imbibes from a glass of red wine - his pupils dilated as large as dinner plates - he manages to talk all around Wright, even when he's on the defensive.
I'd like you to see these clips and let me know what you think. In a 2-hour discussion, Wright and Hitchens were discussing Hitchens' book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Wright was pressing him on just what he meant by everything, pointing out that religion often motivates people to do great good; people like Martin Luther King whose religion had motivated him to pursue justice in the Civil Rights struggle. Watch how Hitches responds...
Amazing. Hitchens claims that without having known the man, he has no way of knowing whether MLK was a sincere and committed believer or not. He goes on to suggest that using the pulpit in the South would have had to have been done tactically out of necessity, implying a degree of cynicism on MLK's part. I don't see why that would be so. The churches in the South were just as segregated as everything else was back then. White Southern Baptists proved they were quite capable of bombing black churches if they felt a need to.
He also claims that "Social Democrats" such as Bayard Rustin and Asa Philip Randolph, co-organizers of the 1963 March on Washington along with King, deserved at least as much credit for the success of the Civil Rights movement as MLK. That's an interesting point. It may very well be that they don't get the credit they deserve, but I'm not sure that they were as "non-godly" as Hitchens suggests. After all, Bayard Rustin went on to become the very first African-American member of the Board of Trustees of Notre Dame.
In the clip directly above, well, I'll leave it up to you as impartial observers to decide if you agree with Hitchens that "the American Communist Party's most shining record was in the Civil Rights movement" and that "heroic communists" deserve just as much credit for being willing to lay down their lives for it as Dr. King.
Things really start to get interesting, however, when Wright challenges Hitchens on how some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were sponsored by non-theists, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Hitchens replies cooly "Oh, to the contrary..."
Despite the mountain of sermons written by Martin Luther King, Hitchens has no way of knowing if he was a sincere and committed Christian believer, but since Hitler signed a concordat with the Vatican and because Wehrmacht belt buckles read "Gott Mit Uns," then Hitler must have been. Where Hitchens sees cynicism on MLK's part, he sees nothing but the mark of a true believer on Hitler's part. Wright does his best to call him out on this, and rightly so.
World War I German Army belt buckle with imperial insignia and "Gott Mit Uns" inscription. Yes, World War II German army belt buckles had "Gott Mit Uns" (God is with us) embossed on them. They did in World War I too, and probably well before that. It was merely a continuation of Prussian military tradition. The Wehrmacht was as full of conscripts as any other army. The SS Divisions, however, were full of Nazi Party members. They were covered in pagan-influenced SS runes and deaths-head insignias. All SS troops were required to renounce their church memberships and affiliations. If the Nazis had a theology at all, it hearkened back to ancient Germanic myths and romantic notions of Aryan supermen.
If you look out on the web you will see all sorts of conflicting statements about whether or not Hitler was a believing Christian. You can take all that any way you like but to consider Hitler a Mass-going Catholic, or as someone who took Catholic doctrines seriously at all would be utterly absurd. All I can tell you is that I've looked up every indexed reference to the Catholic Church in Mein Kampf and the only thing Hitler was interested in as far as religion was concerned was subsuming both the Catholic and Protestant churches under an overarching Pan-Germanism. The German Volk was the only ideal that mattered to him.
Hitchens also brings up a reference to the basilica near El Escorial in Spain. He's referring to El Valle de los Caidos, General Franco's massive monument to the Nationalist Civil War dead, built primarily upon the sweat and blood of his defeated Republican prisoners. Hitchens says that if you look up at the ceiling of the basilica you will see a swastika and a steel Nazi helmet embedded in the mosaic.
I have found no independent corroboration of this, but I've never been there. I find it hard to believe that a consecrated basilica, even one as distasteful and dubious as Franco's garish monument, has a swastika on display inside of it, even if there are tapestries celebrating the victory of the Nationalist forces there. About half of the people who read this blog have lived in Spain. Maybe they can let me know, if they've been there themselves. Putting the best-face on it for Hitchens' sake, perhaps he is confused. Spanish army helmets, worn by both the Nationalist and Republican forces during the conflict, did not look entirely unlike German army helmets (see image in poster). Perhaps this is where the confusion lies.
Don't get me wrong. The last thing I'm interested in doing is defending Francisco Franco or the Catholic Church's role during the Spanish Civil War. I'm defending neither. Christopher Hitchens seems to me, however, to be a man very interested in words and in the precise use of words. Just as I'm irritated to see the word "fascist" being used today to describe President Obama, it irritates me somewhat to hear the same word used to describe General Franco (although not anywhere near as much).
Was Franco really a fascist? He certainly wasn't a National Socialist, as Hitchens claims. Despite having received help from Hitler during the Civil War, Franco resisted strong attempts to draw Spain into the Axis Powers and he never rounded up Jews for the Nazis. Yes, Franco was a bad man. Franco was an authoritarian military man, a believer in "law and order," a staunch anti-communist, a believer in traditional Catholicism and of his society's traditional class structures built upon latifundist lines. He was certainly vindictive and cruel towards his defeated adversaries. He was a military strongman much along the lines of what you would see in the recent decades past in Latin America, but I don't know if I'd call the drab, listless and colorless country he ran until the 1970's a true totalitarian state. Jose Antonio Primavera was the leader of the fascist Falange Espanola at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and he was executed by the Republicans. His replacement, the slow-witted and uncharismatic Manuel Hedilla was easily dominated by Franco. Franco co-opted the Falange and all the other right-wing groups that fought on the Nationalist side, such as the Carlists and Monarchists, under one umbrella he could control. The old joke in Spain was that the system could more rightly be called "cunadismo" (brother-in-law-ism) instead of "fascismo" because it was run by Franco's brother-in-law Ramon Serrano Suner (who died in 2003 at the ripe old age of 102) and various Opus Dei technocrats.
Hitchens insinuates that the origin of fascism can be found in Europe's southern Catholic countries, citing Franco, Salazar and Mussolini as examples, perhaps based upon the Catholic teachings on corporatism and solidarism. Now, maybe it's been a tepid defense of the Church on my part in regard to this particular point. I suppose it may be, but I think Hitchens is being a little more than imprecise in his use of terms such as fascism and National Socialism, especially in how they supposedly intersect with Catholicism.
After all, the first real fascist was Benito Mussolini, and he was an avowed atheist. In his Doctrine of Fascism he wrote this about religion:
The Fascist conception of life is a religious one, in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society. Those who perceive nothing beyond opportunistic considerations in the religious policy of the Fascist regime fail to realize that Fascism is not only a system of government but also and above all a system of thought... The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative. Individuals and groups are admissible in so far as they come within the State...The Fascist State is not indifferent to religious phenomena in general nor does it maintain an attitude of indifference to Roman Catholicism, the special, positive religion of Italians. The State has not got a theology but it has a moral code.... The Fascist loves his neighbor, but the word neighbor “does not stand for some vague and unseizable conception. Love of one's neighbor does not exclude necessary educational severity; still less does it exclude differentiation and rank. Fascism will have nothing to do with universal embraces; as a member of the community of nations it looks other peoples straight in the eyes; it is vigilant and on its guard; it follows others in all their manifestations and notes any changes in their interests; and it does not allow itself to be deceived by mutable and fallacious appearances.In that system, religion... Catholicism, in fact, is only useful in the way it serves the State. This is not how Catholicism or any other religion defines itself.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the exchange however, is that Hitchens actually felt personally insulted when Wright suggested that Hitler was a secularist... and presumably, like him. Wright was absolutely dumbstruck and incredulous at this.
Hitchens didn't think Wright meant to insult him, but suppose he had? Suppose Wright had wanted to link him personally to secular atrocities? Could he have done so?
By some estimates, as many as as seven million people were killed in China's Cultural Revolution in the years between 1967 and 1972. What was Hitchens doing during those years? He had recently joined a Marxist group called the Luxemburgists and he started writing for International Socialism magazine. Can we therefore say that Christopher Hitchens has some of the blood of the Cultural Revolution on his hands?
Unfair ad hominem, perhaps, but no more unfair than what he dishes out himself.