Christopher Dawson — Religion & The Totalitarian State  

Christopher Dawson pursues some questions for the Christian in light of living under a totalitarian state.

1.) What then is the position of the religious man and the religious society under these new political circumstances?

2.) How far does this new political development threaten the spiritual liberty which is essential to religion?

3.) Ought the Church condemn the totalitarian state in itself and prepare itself for resistance to the secular power and for persecution?

4.)Should the Church ally itself with the political and social forces that are hostile to the new state?

5.) Should the Church limit its resistance to cases of state interference in ecclesiastical matters on in theological questions?

6.) Are the new forms of authority and political organization reconcilable in principle with Christian ideas and are the issues that divide Church and State accidental and temporary ones which are extraneous to the essential nature of the new political development?

Dawson offers a few principles to answers these questions.

1.) We must distinguish between Spiritual freedom and political and economic freedom.

Dawson insists that it is possible to be spiritually free but politically and economically enslaved while at the same time he insists that it is also possible to be politically and economically free but spiritually free.

We must agree with this. There are many Christians around the world who live in political and economic oppression but who are free because they are in Christ. Similarly there are countries which were shaped by the categories of a fading Christendom who still know something of political and economic freedom though a large segment of their population is spiritually dead.

We would qualify our agreement with Dawson by insisting that whenever a large minority in any given social order really knows what it means to be spiritually free there soon will follow a movement for political and economic freedom. Similarly we would add that wherever a social order knows economic and political freedom without a substantial minority of citizens knowing spiritual freedom that social order’s freedoms as in peril of collapsing.

So, while we concede that spiritual freedom and economic freedom do not always exist together we would insist that there is a relationship between these freedoms.

Dawson finishes this section by citing how aspects of parliamentary democracy and economic individualism were opposed to Christian principles yet managed to survive together.

2.) Distinctions must be made between different types of totalitarianism.

Communistic totalitarianism has an obvious and apparently irreducible opposition to Christianity. This is due to the philosophy that lies behind communism which amounts to a religion that is in competition to Christianity. Dawson cites a communist poster that read,

“Jesus promised the people Paradise after death, but Lenin promised them Paradise on earth.”

Analysis – Dawson begins well with this observation but he fails by not applying this observation all across the line. All totalitarian governments offer the people its totalitarian arrangement as a religion and all totalitarian governments offer the Kingdom of man in lieu of the Kingdom of God. Dawson suggests that Fascism, unlike Communism, has not always been overtly hostile to religion. Dawson seems to realize though that while Communism sought to crush Christianity through overt opposition, Fascism has sought to crush Christianity through co-opting it through a process whereby the Fascist State re-defines Christianity in the Fascist totalitarian direction.

In a paragraph worthy of being proclaimed a spot on analysis in 2021 in America, Dawson commented on what he saw of the future in 1934 saying,

“What attitude will such a (Fascist) state adopt towards Christianity and the Christian churches? I do not believe that it will be anti-Christian in the Russian sense, or that it will be inspired by any conscious hostility to religion…. The new (Fascist) state will will be universal and omni-competent. It will mold the mind and guide the life of its citizens from the cradle to the grave. It will not tolerate any interference with its education functions by any sectarian organization, even though the latter is based on religious convictions. And this is the more serious, since the introduction of psychology into education has made the schoolmaster a spiritual guide as well as a trainer of the mind. In fact it seems to as though the school of the future must increasingly usurp the functions that the Church exercised in the past, and that the teaching profession will take the place of the clergy as the spiritual power of the future.”

Dawson goes on to say,

“Nor will the state confine its education activities to the training of the young. It will more and more tend to control public opinion in general by its organs of instruction and propaganda in this country….It is obvious that a Totalitarian State … cannot afford to leave so great a power of influencing public opinion in the private hands, and the fact that the control of the popular press and of the film industry is often in unworthy hands gives the state a legitimate excuse to intervene. The whole tendency of modern civilization is to concentrate the control of opinion in a few hands.”

Dawson goes on to say that here is where the danger to Christianity lies. The danger to Christianity lies not in the possibility of violent persecution but rather the danger to Christianity lies in the possibility of such a pervasive and subtle control of the state crushing historic Christianity from modern life by the sheer weight of state inspired and controlled public opinion and by the mass organization of society on a basis that is not in the least Christian.

Dawson quotes Julian Huxley who noted that the coming conflict is not one between religion and secular civilization but rather ‘between the God religious and the social religious’ – in other words between the worship of God and the cult of the state or of the race or of humanity.

Analysis – Dawson writing in 1934 has described where we have come to today. The church has been subtly put off her game and has, for the most part, become a pale reflection of the culture created by the Fascist state. Christian who now rail against the state are now in the position of having to rail against the church as well.

Dawson insists that Christians cannot combat this reality through politics. Dawson insists that Christians must combat this via a spiritual strength. Dawson suggests that the totalitarian state will only be brought down as Christians realize that their attack on the social order created by the totalitarian state must be indirect. Christians must understand the problems created by the totalitarian state can only be solved by reorienting men religiously. The Church’s essential duty towards the State and the world is to bear witness to the truth that is in her.

Analysis – The totalitarian state can only be brought to its end by introducing a King who has superior claims over men then the state does and who is sovereign over the state. One ripple effect of the Gospel successfully going forward is when men give all their allegiance to Christ as they understand that Christ has provided a full salvation that the state can only promise. Preaching the Gospel is what it means to indirectly attack the totalitarian state. If the Holy Spirit frees men from their spiritual bondage and slavery men will desire the physical shackles and slavery to the state come to an end.

A biblical evangelism then is the answer to the totalitarian state. However, it must be an evangelism that identifies the false gods and calls people to give up the false gods for the one true God. The largest idol (false god) in our age is the totalitarian state. The totalitarian state is a reified, magnified, and idealized version of the individual and when as such when people comply with the totalitarian state they are in essence worshiping themselves. Only Christ can cause the idols to fall.

Dawson ends by saying,

“A secularist culture can only exist, so to speak, in the dark. It is a prison in which the human spirit confines itself when it is shut out of the wider world of reality. But as soon as the light comes, all the elaborate mechanism that has been constructed for living in the dark becomes useless. The recovery of spiritual vision gives man back his spiritual freedom. And hence the freedom of the Church is in the faith of the Church and the freedom of man is in the knowledge of God.”

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

One thought on “Christopher Dawson — Religion & The Totalitarian State  ”

  1. “We must agree with this. There are many Christians around the world who live in political and economic oppression but who are free because they are in Christ.”

    Indeed. But there is a categorical difference that has to be noted. The Christian is free from the power of sin, the fear of death, the curse of the law et. al. I haven’t read Dawson but what seems to be missing, though he does touch on it in his descriptions of fascism and communism’s incompatibility, is the rabid militancy against the Church by any state in any form that does not bow the knee to Christ. Again, I haven’t read Dawson but what I see him doing in the sections provided is, like most of Christendom today, to describe effects and battle symptoms rather than the root cause of apostasy.

    What is always at work is the principle of exclusivity stated in the old Highlander movies, “There can only be one”. Not only our God, but no god will long tolerate a competitor. Any competition must be crushed making peace between the two absolutely impossible. Deuteronomy 28 makes perfectly clear that the God of the Bible will tolerate no compromises whatsoever. Man will serve Him alone or He will use the oppression of the god state to bring His people to repentance. And that oppression is invariably wicked leading to indescribable evil and suffering. We are given only two options. Subdue the earth for Christ or suffer under a state which is the servant of Satan. And he comes only to kill, steal and destroy.

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