“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!” exulted the cast of the 1967 musical Hair. And what lay ahead for the world? “Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding,” because “peace with guide the planets and love will steer the stars.”
The world didn’t seem to be listening. Within a year, Russian tanks rolled into Prague, Americans slaughtered Vietnamese villagers at My Lai, and assassins’ bullets killed Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. But in the year following, 1969, came some points of light: the Stonewall riots that launched the gay rights movement, “one small step for a man” on the moon, the festival of peace and love (and mud) at Woodstock. Perhaps the age of peace and love was on its way at last.
Two decades later, a leading American political scientist at Stanford University added his voice to the hopeful chorus. By 1989 the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet empire was crumbling. In these events Francis Fukuyama discerned The End of History. Economic and political liberalism had won the war against totalitarian and authoritarian ideologies, he declared. Around the globe, across the continents, liberal democracy and economic freedom would soon prevail.
But this prophecy too was mostly whistling in the dark. Fast forward two more decades to the present, and what is the age that is dawning today? In recent months another chorus, not of hippies on stage but of journalists and human rights organizations in magazines and on websites, joined in an update of the lyrics from Hair: “This is the dawning of the Age of Autocracy.”
“The bad guys are winning,” wrote Anne Appelbaum in the December 2021 issue of The Atlantic, but the new autocrats are not the cigar-smoking villains we imagine, surrounded by fawning toadies.
“Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries.”
She describes in detail a noteworthy example, the regime of Alexandere Lukashenko in Belarus. Although observers say it lost the 2020 presidential election by a substantial margin, the government claimed a huge popular majority and threw the winning candidate into prison. Tightened Western sanctions are offset by China’s eagerness to fund projects, and Lukashenko is held up as a model leader by his counterparts in Russia and Venezuela. Appelbaum observes:
“If the 20th century was the story of slow, uneven progress toward the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse. Freedom House, which has published an annual ‘Freedom in the World’ report for nearly 50 years, called its 2021 edition ‘Freedom Under Siege.’ The Stanford scholar Larry Diamond calls this an era of ‘democratic regression.’”
According to the international organization Reporters Without Borders, 488 journalists are imprisoned around the world for criticizing governments, a 20 percent year-on-year increase and the largest total ever reported. In a press release dated November 22,2021, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, based in Stockholm, declared:
“The world is becoming more authoritarian as autocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression. Many democratic governments are backsliding and are adopting authoritarian tactics by restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, a trend exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. . . . The number of backsliding democracies has doubled in the past decade, now accounting for a quarter of the world’s population. This includes established democracies such as the United States, but also EU Member States such as Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. More than two-thirds of the world’s population now live in backsliding democracies or autocratic regimes.”
The rogues’ gallery cited by these observers is alarmingly large: not just Belarus’s Lukashenko but also, not far from his borders, Victor Orbán in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Erdogan in Turkey. More distant, a list that circles the globe, we can cite Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt,, Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermúdez, carrying forward the legacy of Fidel and Raul Castro, in Cuba. And most international observers also include in the list of democracies slipping backward the regime of former president Donald Trump in the United States. Leading the list of governments that throw journalists in prison are China, Myanmar, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.
Still more discouraging than the number of strongmen at the helm of purported democracies is the broad and often passionate support that they receive from their supporters, who remain faithful through term after term, stolen election after stolen election. Using the tools of censorship, intimidation, social-media trolling, and electoral manipulation, authoritarian leaders neutralize any challengers, ensuring a comfortable margin of victory and renewing their mandate. If these tactics fail – as for a leader I will not name but readers may be able to guess – the would-be autocrat may simply concoct a fantasy world in which he actually won the election, inviting his followers to live in the illusion with him.
Most of the autocrats most skilled at selling their illiberal vision to their nations, and disseminating it in global media, are found on the political right. Nativism, nationalism, and racism – explicit or, more often, artfully draped in coded language – are the hallmarks of many of the world’s most repressive regimes, and also of the illiberal parties now seeking a path to power in Europe and elsewhere. But autocracy abounds today at every point on the political spectrum. For every Orbán or Bolsonaro who is suborning the courts and subverting democratic institutions in pursuit of unfettered capitalism and protection for the wealthy, in Hungary or Brazil, we can cite a Maduro or a Diaz-Canel suppressing dissent and jailing opponents in the one-party Communist states of Venezuela and Cuba. Claiming to have renounced the repression of its Communist past, Russia silences dissent even more effectively today using every means from electronic surveillance to assassination. In the ranks of entrenched strongmen today are Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Autocracy is finding fertile soil in many different political, cultural and religious environments.
Striking bargains with nearly all the other autocracies is China, nominally devoted to equality and dignity for all in a Marxist utopia. It leads the world today in the number of journalists in jail and in its relentless suppression of democratic movements, to say nothing of its genocidal campaign against Muslims in Xinjiang. Is there a Nobel Prize for Shameless Hypocrisy? Let me nominate the Chinese state news service for its encomium to a 20-year-old Uyghur torch-lighter at the Winter Olympics who “showed the world a beautiful and progressive Xinjiang” with her “smiling face and youthful figure.”
Why should this be a concern to Christians in North America and in Europe? Only in a few instances — persecution of pastors in China, destruction of churches in Iraq, Hindu nationalist attacks on Christians in India – are Christians the direct targets of repression or violence. But there is a far larger issue at stake than the welfare of fellow Christians. As hearers and as doers of the Gospel, we are called to bear witness against the tyrants of our age, as did the prophets before us.
Granted, we will find no explicit political program in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. To the disappointment of his Zealot followers, he refused to lead an insurrection against the Roman occupiers of the Promised Land. If there were street demonstrations in Jerusalem, it is not hard to imagine the disciples carrying placards proclaiming, “Samaritan Lives Matter!” But no such events are recorded by the four evangelists.
On the other hand, Jesus never counseled passive submission to authority. Go ahead and give to Caesar what is due to Caesar, he told his disciples – but never waver from your higher duty to God. And what God demands, the Law and the Prophets tell us, is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God. To love God is to love our neighbors as ourselves. To give honor to God is to honor and care for those in our communities who are most vulnerable: widows, orphans, the stranger at the door, the social outcast. The wealthy and the powerful will look after themselves, but it is up to us to keep their boots off the necks of the poor.
Of course we should not suppose that following God’s law is possible only in a liberal democratic state. Christians have lived faithfully under every sort of political order, even the most repressive. Yet we have every reason to stand up against autocrats who claim that all authority belongs to them, not to legislatures and courts, and that truth comes only from their mouths, not from the voices of the oppressed.
It is deeply disturbing, therefore, when Christians rally to the support of a repressive and autocratic leader, embracing him (the gendered pronoun is not out of place here) as a friend of the faith. We saw this tendency all too clearly when paeans of praise were heaped on former president Trump by many American evangelicals. Dismissing his dissolute life, dishonesty in business practices, and contempt for his rivals as minor personal foibles, they lauded his opposition to abortion, immigration, and multiculturalism. And despite their hero’s electoral defeat, many stand by their man long after his resounding defeat.
Late in 2021, the former president drew thousands of followers to a Texas megachurch for a “Reawaken America” rally, where speaker after speaker denounced the stolen election and the coronavirus hoax. That other party promotes godless socialism and treats false religions on a par with the true one, they proclaimed, but Republicans stand for, and with, the God of the Bible. Trump’s former national security advisor proclaimed, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion.” The crowd shouted out a coded obscenity directed at Trump’s successor.
Aside from the bizarre phenomenon of MAGA evangelicals – about which too much has already been written – perhaps the most egregious example of Christian acquiescence to authoritarianism arises from Victor Orbán’s ideal of an “illiberal state” that will enable Hungary to rise above the political, moral and spiritual void that has engulfed Europe. Refusing to protect ethnic and sexual minorities or assist refugees, as European laws require, Orbán proposes “a democracy based on the nation-state, or, better, on Christian values” in which borders are closed, political opposition is silenced, and journalists dare not ask hard questions if they want to stay out of prison. Orban’s version of Christendom, lauded by former President Trump, has drawn praise from some Western cultural and religious conservatives. A writer in an American on-line journal, The Imaginative Conservative, praises Orbán for his denunciation of radical Islamists and liberal secularists and his efforts to “promote the family, Christianity, and authentic Hungarian culture.” The writer concludes, “Hungary’s Christian revival is a small sign of hope in an otherwise bleak European landscape.” (Relevant magazine, Nov. 15, 2021)
In this Age of Autocracy, we who follow the Gospel need to refute nonsense like this whenever we hear it. An authoritarian leader who has subjected universities, news media, courts and regional governments to political control, while stirring up xenophobic nationalist fervor, is hardly a model Christian ruler. With friends like Orbán in Hungary – and Putin in Russia, and Duda in Poland, and, yes, Trump in the US – the church needs no enemies.
But the picture of ascendant authoritarianism is not quite as dark as it seemed just a few months ago. A bright light has shone out into global politics from an unlikely place, the Latin American nation of Chile. In its November election an anti-immigrant, antidemocratic, autocratic candidate for the presidency – a man who declared his admiration for right-wing politicians in Europe and in the United States – eked out a narrow plurality. Many observers expected José Antonio Kast to trounce his opponent, a young activist dedicated to European-style democratic socialism, in the December runoff. Instead he was resoundingly defeated.
For thirty years two major parties have traded the Chilean presidency back and forth. Gabriel Boric is not aligned with either of them. On taking office in March, he will become Chile’s youngest president, at 35. The decisive event that has shaped modern Chilean politics – the ouster of military dictator Augusto Pinochet – took place when he was just two years old. Ten years ago, as president of a student union, he was leading public demonstrations for better public education. Now he has the opportunity, aided by the provisions of a new draft Constitution, to build a more egalitarian and more participatory democracy than Chile has ever known.
A Chilean friend at my Tucson church threw up her arms in delight when I congratulated her on the election results. Her face darkened when she added, “He is not in office yet. Many things can happen.” Entrenched elites know many ways of protecting their power. But the Constitutional reforms, which Kast had promised to scuttle if elected, enjoy broad public support. Chile is not likely to turn back from the path it has chosen.
President-elect Boric does not describe his ideal of a democratic socialist state in religious terms, although the reforms he envisions align with Catholic teachings on economic justice and cultural inclusiveness. The national conference of Catholic bishops, representing about half the population, quickly extended its congratulations and its support in a December 26 press release:
“We pray that God will give you his wisdom and his strength, which you will undoubtedly need. . . The mission is always greater than our possibilities and capabilities, but we trust that—with the collaboration of citizens, the work of various social and political actors, and the spiritual strength that comes from faith and from the deepest human convictions—you can face your task with generosity, commitment and prudence.”
When a young activist is able to win broad support from young and old, urban and rural, conservative and progressive voters, in a country long divided by status and class, we can discern the glimmerings of a new dawn in global politics. Autocrats do not always win, and idealistic challengers do not always lose.
No less encouraging than Boric’s victory was the response of the defeated right-wing candidate. Just hours after the polls closed, Kast phoned his opponent to congratulate him and posted this message on his Twitter account: “From now on, he is the president-elect of Chile and deserves all our respect and constructive collaboration.” There is another would-be autocrat, elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, who would do well to follow in Kast’s footsteps.