American Catholics should look to 1930s Spain when contemplating just what government repression of religion could mean.
For individuals who like to declare how their opponents—particularly those supporting religious or conservative social issues—are “on the wrong side of history,” secularists certainly have a very selective perception of the study. Never mind that history has shown itself to be a dynamic force in which “progress” is hardly measured by the level of sexual licentiousness in a given culture (or, shall we say, quasi-religious fervor), but its study is fraught with examples of what can happen when the Church, and believers, allow themselves to be pushed to the margins.
This is increasingly true as America stumbles forward into another summer of the secular revolution. That is to say, the humid months in which Christians can be blamed for an Islamic terrorist’s actions, the state of California can liquidate religious liberty in the name of “gender identity”, and the Supreme Court can throw away one of the most powerful safeguards for unborn children in the country. All in the name of the “right” side of history.
Predictably, the secular left’s monopoly of claiming some kind of moral high ground in historical precedence extends to its failure to heed actual examples, most likely because those examples can be rewritten. For the left, history takes on the same role as gender; subjective, relativistic, whatever we feel like it should be.
In fairness, we on the right have not been much better at examining the past. Indeed, as conservatives mull about and wonder which amendment we should sacrifice (Trump seems inclined to give up the first), many of us have probably forgotten to observe what happened 80 years ago this July. If we were more attentive to history then we might recognize a chilling example of when a supposedly “democratic” government’s hostility toward religion morphed into active support for a radical ideology’s war against religion.
July 17th marks the anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, which to this day remains one of the most misunderstood conflicts in a century not want of armed struggle. The narrative many Americans have been taught is that it was a war pitting fascism against democracy (If your education was a bit more conservative, a proxy war between Hitler and Stalin.) Oh yes, and something about how the repressive Catholic Church supported a portly little dictator-to-be named Francisco Franco, who led his fascistic ‘Nationalists’ in a rebellion against a peaceful republic that was ultimately undone and betrayed by its communist allies (see: George Orwell.)
The reality is much more complicated; the factors leading to the rebellion much more sobering, especially if considered by today’s American conservative Christians. This is because, at their core, the events of the Spanish Civil War were brought on by a so-called “representative” government’s efforts to restrict and even abolish religious practice—efforts which are not outside the realm of possibility when contemplating the next phases of our own fast-moving cultural conflict.
To understand the potential for comparison, one must look closely at the details. Suffice it to say, Twitter and its 140 characters, the left’s modus operandi for explanations, simply will not do. An actual history lesson is in order.
For practical purposes, the immediate roots of the civil war can be traced to the absolution of the Spanish monarchy in April 1931 and the subsequent proclamation of a “Second Republic.” Now don’t get me wrong—the idea of the Republic has not lost its virtuous status. Montesquieu advocated these kinds of governments for a reason. Yet from the onset of the “Second Republic”, the Spanish left showed an unwillingness to allow the classical conception of the republic to flourish, drawing battle lines and refusing to compromise with the right when it came to matters of faith and public life.
As Stanley G. Payne, a leading scholar on the Spanish Civil War, has pointed out, leftist parties rejected an initial draft of the republic’s constitution—a draft which would have guaranteed “complete religious freedom for all parties” based similar to the American separation of church and state. The left simply couldn’t fathom this idea. For Manual Azaña, leader of the leftist coalition and later president of the doomed republic, religion had to be purged from society for democracy to flourish. Where rightist parties and even the Vatican supported a separation of church and state with respect for the sphere of religion, Azaña and the left expelled the Jesuits, restricted other monastic orders, and instituted a plan to ban religious schools, with the “goal of crippling Catholic education and making instruction a monopoly of the state.” For those looking at such events through a 2016 lens that includes California’s new bill targeting Christian schools that don’t confirm to an anti-rational idea of “gender identity,” the similarities are, needless to say, disquieting.
As for the Spanish government itself, after 1931 it morphed into something hardly pluralistic and only nominally representative. Civil rights were restricted, censorship of right-leaning publications was enforced, and election results that favored conservative parties were voided. According to the leaders of this “republic,” Catholic parties—like Spain’s CEDA—should not be allowed to participate in any democratic process, because, by definition, democracy was reserved only for the “enlightened” parties on the left. More often than not, this meant pandering to the goals of what we’d consider the left’s extreme—anarchosyndicalism, socialists, and communists. Few, if any, liberal democrats existed. To disagree with the extreme left, the aggressively secular left, meant earning a “fascist” label from the government—even though Spain’s fascist-like party, the Falange, was a small non-player in politics.
This dramatic move leftward also meant renewed vigor in prosecuting the state’s plan to supersede and replace religion (sound familiar?) Ironically, it has often been asserted that the Church was “repressive” on the eve of the civil war; detractors liked to speak about the clergy behaving hypocritically or engaging in economically greedy ventures. This is egregiously misleading.
Forgetting for a moment the question of why a secular, atheistic state should care whether or not a religious institution practices what it preaches, the facts just don’t support the idea that the church had that much power. Stanley G. Payne has observed that religious services had already been regularly disrupted, if not forced underground, by June 1936. Additionally, churches were being burned on a daily basis, school’s closed, and the country’s largest Catholic labor union was banned by May. And one need only read the matter-of fact accounts by South African poet Roy Campbell—who had converted to Catholicism and was living in Toledo in 1936—to understand worshipers were threatened for merely going to church. If you’re thinking this hardly sounds like a republic worth living in, well, I completely agree. But then again it should come as no surprise that the state-coaxed revolutionaries continued to play the victim. Such was the mantra for Trotsky, who reminds us in his History of the Russian Revolution that “the attacking side is almost always interested in seeming on the defensive. A revolutionary party is interested in legal covering.” The secular left, even in a position of unprecedented cultural power in 2016, clearly still enjoys playing the disenfranchised victim.
If you’re shocked by the kind of hatred that 1930s Catholics in Spain experienced, don’t be. European history contains another 150 years of examples—the French Revolution serving as the prime case study in which the Christians paid a price for being identified with order, conservatism, and repression. But the goal of the revolutionary elements steering the Second Republic, like the radical French Jacobins before them, was not to correct injustice so much as it was to recreate a society without Truth. God would need to be replaced, and in Christianity’s place, a new secular religion would usher in a utopia of only vaguely defined characteristics.
The individual issue battles fought over land rights, collectivization, and education; these were not the central tenants of what 1930s Spain was to become any more than the battles we fight today over guns rights, immigration, or economic policy will determine who we become as a nation. These will not be the end-all and be-all issues in determining which direction America’s law takes. Rather, Spain’s periphery disagreements were, our political battles are, symptoms of a greater effort to replace one way of life with another. Not only to replace it, but to eradicate it completely. And with violence, if necessary.
Such was Spain in 1936, when the state’s overt attempts to repress religion spilled out of control and led to an all-out assault on Catholics. While the country had seen its share of anticlerical violence since 1931 (data suggests some 101 attacks against churches that year) by 1936 the violence against the Church reflected a “wholesale effort to liquidate the clergy” and constituted a “drastic escalation of civil war.” This is according to Payne, who wrote in his excellent history, The Spanish Civil War, that clergy were not the only victims.
Indeed, “thousands of Catholic laypeople were executed, sometimes because of their religion alone.” In all these matters, the Second Republic was complicit, and in many cases took little action to stop or prosecute the mobs of revolutionaries who were responsible. Following the July 17 uprising, the government even played an active role in the killings, first by handing arms to the death squads called checas, and later by setting up “people’s” tribunals for summary execution—“with the goal not of ending the repression but of regularizing and controlling it.”
In total, nearly 7,000 clergy members were killed, or roughly 10 percent of the nation’s priests, nuns, and religious. Few were spared when given the chance, and those who targeted the clergy made no distinctions when it came to politics. Perhaps one of the more disturbing facets of this trend was that the most persecuted members of the clergy were oftentimes the most progressive; their role in social work and serving the poor making them easy targets for revolutionaries. To this day, the rampage remains the most extensive pogrom carried out against Catholic religious in any one nation’s history.
This put the Church in a difficult position; one which would eventually lead it to endorse the military insurrection on July 17th (“as though the left had given them an alternative,” in Payne’s judgement.) Contrary to popular belief this endorsement did not occur right away—in fact, that the Church did not endorse Franco’s insurrection until a year into the war shows an astounding capacity to love one’s enemy that history has largely forgotten. When Catholic leaders finally did endorse the Nationalists—who had originally begun their rebellion with the hopes of creating a republican government with a church-state separation in mind—they did so with a reminder that the Church had always followed the law of the land.
Laws, ironically, the secular leftist government had never felt inclined to follow.
In aligning with a belligerent, the Church sealed its condemnation in the very partisan and sometimes unsubstantiated myth that history would later record. And its leaders, some with very real Falangist ties, would have to answer to God for not more vigorously protesting the years of reprisal executions that Franco and his Nationalists would soon be carrying out.
All of this is not to say that America, in the wake of another summer of aggressive anti-religious rights promulgations and court decisions, is on a track to become Spain in the wake of the Second Republic. Nor is it to say American religious leaders should inch toward the attitude of Franco’s supporters. The cases do have their differences. As many scholars have noted, the violence in Spain and the brutal repression of religion was part of a greater revolution and counter-revolution cycle which had swept through Europe a decade or more beforehand. Such revolutionary political style violence is extremely rare in America—at least from the secular left—while the American model of governance is less prone to the perils of an infant parliamentary system.
Yet as other fronts in today’s American cultural divide between left and right fissure into violence, it’s not without question that violent repression could occur to those most vocal in support of conservative social issues, including (but in not ways limited to) traditional marriage. A more likely (but no less distressing) scenario is greater exclusion from civic participation and, eventually, public worship. Personal job losses for Catholics, heavy financial burdens for churches, and the de facto end of Catholic schools due to government regulation are all possibilities we could face within the decade. The Spanish example is ripe with examples of how such scenarios could come to pass, making the question not so much if but when and how fast?
The secular left in America has chosen repeatedly to cast its dissenters as aligning “on the wrong side of history.” The right, and by extension the Church and its faithful, must choose to reject the assertion that to draw parallels from history is to “fear monger”. As the example of Spain on the eve of civil war shows us, history is not silent with warnings. And when we open our eyes to its brutal lessons, it paints a frightfully realistic mural of just what can happen if each step in persecution is not met with a dedicated and firm response at both the ballot box and in the public square.