Saturday, April 9, 2005

The Pope, the President and politics

I was intrigued to come across the following column, which challenges the common mass-media interpretation of Pope John Paul II's role in undermining the Soviet bloc: We are rewriting the history of Communism's collapse by Jonathan Steele Guardian (UK) 04/08/05.

His main point is that the notion that the Pope was the main inspiration to challenge Communist control of those countries doesn't mesh with the historical facts.

The retrospectives that draw a line between his first visit home as Pope in 1979, the rise of Solidarity a year later and the collapse of the one-party system in 1989 are especially open to question.

They ignore martial law, which stopped Solidarity in its tracks and emasculated it for most of the 1980s. It was a defeat of enormous proportions that John Paul could not reverse until the real power-holders in eastern Europe, the men who ran the Kremlin, changed their line.

Steele gives John Paul II credit for giving the Polish people "a tremendous sense of national revival" by his papal visit in 1979.  He also believes that the Pope's encouragement for the Solidarity union was an important part of its early popularity.

But, he notes, by 1981 things had begun to take a different turn:

All sides agonised over whether and how Moscow would intervene. There were already strong hints that the Polish army would be used rather than Soviet tanks. None of us thought a clamp-down could be avoided. Within weeks we were proved right. The Kremlin got its way with relative ease. Poland's own communist authorities arrested thousands of Solidarity's leaders and drove the rest underground.

John Paul's reaction was soft. Armed resistance was not a serious option, but there were Poles who favoured mass protests, factory occupations and a campaign of civil disobedience. The Pope disappointed them. He criticised martial law but warned of bloodshed and civil war, counselling patience rather than defiance.

After prolonged negotiations with the regime, he made a second visit to Poland in 1983. Although martial law was lifted a month later, many Solidarity activists remained in jail for years. The government sat down to negotiate with Solidarity again only in August 1988, by which time Mikhail Gorbachev had already launched the drive towards pluralistic politics in the USSR itself and publicly promised no more Soviet military interventions in eastern Europe. (my emphasis)

The triumphalism that became common in the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union lent itself to simple-minded explanations of a complicated process.  The more militaristic-minded among Republican triumphalists claimed that it was simply Reagan's military buildup that forced the Soviet Union to collapse.  We've heard occasionally the last few years how the war in Afghanistan (the Soviet one, not the current one) undermined the USSR.  Now we're hearing an equally simple-minded notion that the Pope's moral authority undermined the whole thing.  I suppose if there's any virtue in the latter simplication, it's that it contradicts the more strictly militarized ones. 

Steele writes, "The impetus for Gorbachev's reforms was not external pressure from the west, dissent in eastern Europe or the Pope's calls to respect human rights, but economic stagnation in the Soviet Union and internal discontent within the Soviet elite."  Oh, yeah, there was that, too.

There was also the fact that Gorbachev had decided to liberalize the political system.  At one point, he even proposed that the Soviet Communist Party change to become more like Western social-democratic parties.  (I'm sure Vladimir Lenin was spinning in his grave at that one.)  This was partially due to his extensive knowledge of Western systems from his KGB days.  But Gorbachev also saw himself as a dedicated Communist.  And he saw his liberalization ideas as consistent with that commitment.  It's often forgotten or ignored, but Marxist communism did emerge in the mid-nineteenth century as a radical fringe of the democratic movements in Europe.  Unlike German Nazism or Italian Fascism, Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology still presented itself, in theory at least, as a radical-democratic outlook.  Gobachev apparently took the "democratic" part of that viewpoint very seriously, though he remained a Communist in his ideology.

The same edition of the Guardian also carried a columnby PollyToynbee (Not in my name 04/08/05), who holds forth about the late Pope in a secular, anti-clerical vein.  The democratic movements of the 19th century in Europe found themselves confronting state churches, both Catholic and Protestant, who were supporters of monarchy and aristocratic rule.  Consequently, there was an anticlerical strain in European democratic notions that we don't see to the same degree in America.  This is something that our present-day theocrats might want to consider: the separation of church and state did not produce the kind of hostility to churches and religion itself that the established churchs of Europe did.  In America, by contrast, reform movements like abolitionism and temperance (banning alcohol, which was orginally a liberal cause) were heavily religious.

She heavily criticizes John Paul II over birth control, gays and women's rights.  She even criticizes himself for soft-pedalling his opposition to the Iraq War.  While she seems to be little aware of contrary views even within the Church, she's saying things that need to be said:

Bill Clinton had it right yesterday: "The man knows how to build a crowd." Curiously, the celebrity nature of this event - a must-do for 200 world leaders - signifies the opposite of what it seems. It shows how far people have forgotten what the church really is, how profoundly ignorant and indifferent they have become to history and theology. Hell, he was just a good ol' boy, wore white, blessed folk, prayed for peace - why not?

I wouldn't want to see Democrats here adopt European-style anticlerical rhetoric.  It's becoming an anachronism even there, it seems to me.  But religious believers should be just as concerned as anyone else, perhaps more so, at hearing a President talk like this by Bush: Funeral a 'Reaffirmation' by  Jim VandeHei Washington Post 04/09/05):

"I knew the ceremony today would be majestic, but I didn't realize how moved I would be by the service itself," said Bush, a Protestant who attends a Methodist church. "Today's ceremony, I bet you, for millions of people, was a reaffirmation . . . and a way to make sure doubts don't seepinto your soul."

The president, discussing his faith in greater detail than usual, said: "There is no doubt in my mind there is a living God. And no doubt in my mind that Lord, Christ, was sent by the Almighty. No doubt in my mind about that." ...

The president and John Paul met three times, and Bush has told aides he deeply admired the pontiff's unshakable faith and beliefs, even when their views collided. ...

"My relationship with John Paul II was a very good relationship," Bush said, noting how in their final meeting, on June 4, 2004, the pontiff "made his points to me with his eyes." In that meeting, Bush said the pope spoke mainly through written communications.

...  "Tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him, but he stood strong as a rock," Bush said. ...

"I think a walk in faith constantly confronts doubt, as faith becomes more mature," he said. "And you constantly confront, you know, questions. My faith is strong. The Bible talks about, you've got to constantly stay in touch with the word of God in order to help you on the walk.

I can't help but wonder if Bush's uncharacteristically open talk about his faith and all this emphasis on avoiding doubt, being certain, standing strong as a rock may have had something to do with the fact that he was booed by the large Catholic crowd at the Pope's funeral on Friday.  (Thanks to Duane Tate of Sotto Voce for first pointing out that story to me.) Harold Meyerson talked about this on the PBS Newshour Friday (for once, they got a real liberal who wasn't afraid to take a position to sit in for the absent Mark Shields).  Responding to a question about seemingly positive developments in Iraq, he said in part:

But then I have to look at the other consequences of our intervention, America's standing in the rest of the world, the fact that George W. Bush was booed by people attending the pope's funeral today when they saw him on television.

And this is nota radical crowd. These were people out for the pope's funeral.

Bush actually does not constantly "confront doubt" in his normal political life.  In a move of highly questionable legality, he has been banning anyone but Bush supporters from his Social Security Bamboozlepalooza appearance.  (See Costly Junket at the De Profundis blog.) During his first term, he declined an invitation to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg, because they refused to guarantee him a standing ovation from the members of parliament.  He tries to avoid criticism and protest.  So it was probably an unpleasant shock to him when he was booed in Italy. 

Now, nobody wants the President to be totally wishy-washy.  But a little Christian humility, or just regular old human humility, is also an asset.  When the President is wrong, it's not a good thing when he stands "strong as a rock."  I would be much more comfortable with the kind of faith Abraham Lincoln expressed in his Second Inaugural Address near the end of the Civil War:

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict [i.e., slavery] might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Also in the VandeHei article, Bush used a saying that was a favorite when I was growing up in rural Mississippi: "But the Lord works in mysterious ways."

If the Lord had anything to do with putting Bush in the White House, he is working in mysterious ways indeed.

1 comment:

purcellneil said...

As an atheist, I am not sure that the Lord works in mysterious ways, or any other way for that matter.

As I see it, the role of the Lord in the affairs of the United States of America is the same as his role in Aushwitz, Banda Aceh, Nagasaki, Darfur, etc. etc. etc.

In short, He seems to be otherwise occupied.  I think this is probably what Lincoln thought too, but in his language, Lincoln always respected the assumptions of believers without endorsing them himself. He spoke in moral terms that were enriched by Scripture and Christian compassion, without wrapping himself in faith in the tawdry manner of the current Preacher-in-Chief.

My guess is that Bush's faith in His God is not matched by the approval of Providence for his policies.  But Americans like to assume that a man of faith who claims to consult Scripture and prays for guidance will ply a righteous, wise, and blessed path through life.  That belief holds even when there is some evidence that the man is a bumbling and dishonest fool -- the evidence must be overwhelming before the illusion can be destroyed.

I disagree with your thoughts on the future of anti-clericalism, Bruce.  I see the evil of jihadism in Islam, and the mob politics of the American radical right, as pushing liberal democratic forces into resistance and active opposition.  The reaction to militant religion is likely to be suppression, ridicule, and militant anti-clericalism.

That pendulum is swinging, and the harder the American religious right push the worse it will be for them when it snaps back at them.  I can't wait.