When Nazi Comparisons are “Civil”

Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and Sojourners’ Jim Wallis take to the pages of Christianity Today to call for “civility”:

In the aftermath of the horrible and senseless shooting in Arizona and some of the troubling responses to it, we, as leaders in the faith community, affirm with one voice our principled commitment to civil discourse in our nation’s public life. The President rightly said that no act of incivility can be blamed for the profoundly evil shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the tragic killing and wounding of 19 of her constituents. Nonetheless, we should not lose this moment for moral reflection and renewal. We must re-examine the tone and character of our public debate, because solving the enormous problems we face as a nation will require that we work for a more civil public square.

A nice thought, but let’s not forget that back in November 2009, at the height of the bitter battle over health care reform, Colson compared our government to Nazi Germany and fretted about “totalitarianism” and “tyranny.” Not just uncivil, but actually plainly false and absolutely incendiary.

When religious right figures released the Manhattan Declaration in November 2009, Colson, one of the document’s first enthusiastic signers, urged people not only to sign it, but to read Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which he called “prophetic in its application to today.” Indeed the Manhattan Declaration itself, dressed up as a celebration of “life,” hauls out the trope that abortion is like genocide or holocaust, and claims that LGBT rights infringe on (real) Christians’ religious freedom.

In his video released in conjunction with the Manhattan Declaration, Colson called the Declaration “crucially important for religious liberty,” adding that the government has expanded so much that it has caused the breakdown of what he calls “civil society” — “the clubs, the political parties, the grassroots organizations, the local government, particularly the church and the family, those are the two most vital.” When they break down, Colson said, “what you have is tyranny.”

If calling the government “tyrannical” — particularly in the context of the health care debate back then — wasn’t enough, Colson had to claim that Arendt’s writings serve as a warning to America:

Arendt said that when Hitler took power, what he basically did was to eliminate all the intermediate structures of society – the labor unions, the political parties, the church was minimized – and of course it was eventually the individual standing against the state.

The destruction of civil society has always been the prelude to a totalitarian government. Americans today, and Christians in particular, need to fight not just for religious liberty but to preserve the organs of civil society, less we ever fall into the benevolent despotism, de Tocqueville warned of.

How different is that from the tea partiers who carry signs comparing Obama to Hitler or Stalin? Or the anti-choice activists who suggest that reproductive rights advocates are no different from murderous segregationists? Colson shouldn’t get away with it because he’s cloaking it in “civility” and Christian language. The Manhattan Declaration is an ugly and dishonest piece of political demagoguery that insists that freedom is only possible for Christians if all the sinners would just pack up and go home. Yet in the CT piece, Colson writes:

That means that when we disagree, especially when we strongly disagree, we should have robust debate but not resort to personal attack, falsely impugning others’ motives, assaulting their character, questioning their faith, or doubting their patriotism. It also means recognizing in humility that “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12).

In other words, when it comes to policies and politics, we could be wrong. We must be ever mindful of the language we use and the spirit of our communication. Arrogance and boasting are indeed sins, and violent language can create a poisonous and dangerous public atmosphere. We must take care to not paint our political adversaries as our mortal enemies.  (emphasis added)

Like Nazis.