I know that Godwin’s law pertains to Internet discussions, but perhaps it’s also true that the closer we get to a vote on a contentious issue in the culture wars, “the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
Take, for example, the state of Minnesota, whose voters will be asked to answer this question on November 6th:
Shall the Minnesota constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?
The chief pro-amendment group, Minnesotans for Marriage, employs as its church outreach director Brad Brandon, pastor of Berean Bible Baptist Church in Hastings, MN and host of a conservative talk radio show that airs daily on a local Christian station. Already known for having endorsed Republican candidates from the pulpit in a deliberate challenge to federal law (here’s a 2011 debate on the subject between Brandon and former Bethel professor-turned-megachurch pastor Greg Boyd), Brandon was caught on video making the following comments as part of a presentation last week to a group in Brainerd, MN: (quotations from reports by, respectively, KARE-TV and the Minneapolis Star Tribune)
We see that Adolph [sic] Hitler used a specific group of tactics…. We see he removed fundamental rights from a group of people in Nazi Germany. He stopped Jewish people from speaking out in public. He silenced them….
We’re not saying that one side or the other is equal to Adolf Hitler and the atrocities that were committed in Nazi Germany…. What we are simply saying is that when a totalitarian dictator takes place and wants to suppress the voice of a group…. they use certain tactics.
The KARE report noted that Brandon’s analogy did not go unchallenged by the audience:
On the Brainerd tape several audience members openly object to Brandon’s use of Hitler’s image, and his explanation that the Nazi regime suppressed the civil rights of Jews.
“Suppressed?” one unidentified woman is heard saying.
“He murdered them. That was no suppression. He murdered them!”
Brandon replied, “Correct, he did murder them. But in order to murder them he suppressed their rights.”
While Minnesotans for Marriage officials quickly distanced themselves from the comments and disavowed knowledge that Brandon was making them, journalists reported that, two weeks before, Brandon had made another Hitler analogy at a meeting in Woodbury, MN that was attended by the communications director for the group: (from the Star Tribune article of Oct. 22)
Adolf Hitler stepped in and said, “You know what this is a socialist country and what we need to do here now is have the government be in the control and make decisions for those businesses…. Now remember, he did all of this in the name of equality.
“We’re losing our religious liberties very quickly in this country,” Brandon said. He cited a case in which a photographer was sued for declining to shoot a same-sex marriage due to religious beliefs, and other instances in which he claimed gay rights were trumping religious liberties.
Brandon compared the silence of others when Jews were stripped of their rights in Nazi Germany to some churches’ reluctance to get involved in the marriage amendment debate.
“The church is largely silent when it comes to standing up for our religious freedom, when it comes to this issue of marriage,” he said. He encouraged people to get involved, adding that “Voting ‘Yes’ is not enough.”
A somewhat similar example of this happened earlier this month in Britain, which is going through its own contentious debate on same-sex marriage. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was asked about a press release from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg describing opponents of gay marriage as “bigots.” Carey replied, “Let us remember the Jews in Nazi Germany. What started against them was when they started to be called names…. And that was the first stage towards that totalitarian state. We have to resist them. We treasure democracy. We treasure our Christian inheritance and we want to debate this in a fair way.”
Yesterday Brandon issued an apology, of sorts:
My recent public comments that religious liberty is frequently the first casualty of those who seek to impose a political agenda are being taken out of context and used by opponents of marriage to make me, and our campaign to preserve marriage, seem to be extreme.
I never stated or meant to imply that those who oppose Amendment 1, the marriage protection amendment, are somehow equivalent to the Nazis who targeted communities of faith to suppress their voice, often through murder. In fact, I specifically made clear that nobody on either side of this debate was acting like Nazis.
Still, it was a terrible mistake to even mention Nazism in an attempt to illustrate my point, and I fully understand why many found it to be offensive. I sincerely apologize for making this very inapt reference. In no way was I attempting to equate the marriage debate with Nazism and I profoundly apologize to anyone who felt that was my objective.
Yes, even a mention of Nazism in this context (however much or little it was “taken out of context”) is a terrible mistake. And I tend to sympathize with the commenter on the Star Trib story about Brandon’s statement who proclaimed Brandon’s words “a strong contender for the most ambivalent ‘Non-apologetic apology’ for the month of October!”
But, entirely predictably, another commenter on that post replied with an even more direct analogy to Nazism, from the opposite side of the debate:
…when examining the values and objectives of German Nazism, far more parallels can be seen between contemporary American Christianity and Nazism…. American Christianity is no longer a religion; it is a fully-formed fascist political party. What makes this situation so sad is that American Christians are so ignorant of human history they actually believe that what they are about to do is the first time that this has occurred, and just like the Nazis, they think they are performing the divine Will of God.
I don’t want to engage in false equivalence here: a foolish Nazi analogy made by a pastor who speaks on behalf of a group advocating for a constitutional amendment is a vastly more serious problem than an anonymous comment on a newspaper blog. But conservative blowhards aren’t the only blowhards prone to this kind of foolishness, as John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, demonstrated last month.
As one anti-amendment rabbi lamented about Brandon’s statements, “Comparing our deeply held religious beliefs to the genocide committed to our people by Adolf Hitler in Germany and the Nazis is not only hurtful, but it stops any civil discourse engaged in our state.”
Amen. Statements like Brandon’s (or Burton’s reckless invocation of Josef Goebbels in a rant about Paul Ryan) make civil discourse impossible, and so underscore the wisdom that John Fea shared the same day that Brandon was semi-apologizing:
A democracy needs citizens, individuals who understand that their own pursuits of happiness must operate in tension with obligations and responsibilities to a larger community. Citizens realize that their own success, fate, and ability to flourish as human beings are bound up with the lives of others. Such a commitment to the common good requires citizens who are able to respect, as fellow human beings and members of the same community, those with whom they might disagree on some of life’s most important issues. It requires empathy, or the willingness to imaginatively walk in the shoes of our neighbor. As Mary Ann Glendon puts it, “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.”
Whichever side you’re on in the marriage debate, I highly encourage reading John’s whole piece from The Anxious Bench, which fleshes out the argument that “civil society requires conversation,” not demonization.
And for a good discussion of Godwin’s law, see this episode of The Christian Humanist Podcast.