For Too Many Christians, the Lines between Dominionism, Nationalism and Fascism Are Blurred
An old social experiment sheds light on how easy it is to manipulate people’s moral compasses.
Commentary by Karen Swallow Prior | Religion News Service
Everything I needed to learn about fascism, I learned from an ABC Afterschool Special called “The Wave.”
Before I ever knew what fascism or totalitarianism or demagoguery were, I learned from this kids’ show that vulnerabilities inherent to the human condition can draw people into such systems unaware.
I wonder if those being charged and sentenced for their participation in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot might have saved themselves — and our nation — a lot of trouble if they’d also watched this film when they were young. It may have been cheesy and facile (you can only do so much in an hourlong television show), but the story was profound for me at a vulnerable age, and I never forgot it. Stories are powerful that way.
The film (made in 1981) is based on a real-life classroom exercise conducted in 1967 by Ron Jones, a high school history teacher, to help his students who were struggling to understand how the people of Germany could have supported and participated in the Nazi movement and the systematic murder of millions of people. Students in the experiment were easily enticed — as most of us are — by the benefits that come with authority, efficiency, belonging and power. Within days of the experiment, the fictitious movement drew 200 high school students who agreed to “pledge allegiance to a social movement that promised acceptance and reward to those who obediently followed its rigid rules.”
The movie adaptation depicts a key moment in the experiment as a pep rally that becomes a catalyzing event for what the teacher soon tells the students is not just a classroom activity, but a national youth movement called the Wave. Now even more emboldened, the students grow more authoritarian and violent until finally the teacher — whose experiment has quickly spun out of control — ends the experiment by revealing his ruse. The students abruptly come face-to-face with the fact that the behaviors and values they’ve adopted parallel those of the German citizens who embraced fascism. They have learned the lesson. They finally understand.
The shock and horror of these students — in both the real experiment and in its fictional portrayal — are echoed in the statements of remorse and regret given by some of the hundreds of people who have been convicted and sentenced for their crimes in the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Many of those sentenced have expressed that “they were ‘caught up’ in the heat of the moment.” Some have said they simply “went along with the flow of the mob and gave little thought to what they were doing until it was too late.” One lamented, “I bought into a lie … and it’s embarrassing. I regret everything.” Another admitted, “I’m a complete villain.” (Of course, not all of those sentenced feel regret, and some who stated their remorse in court have turned defiant again.)
Their surprise is what’s surprising. But this only confirms our need for powerful stories that can show us ourselves even before we know ourselves.
As a Christian, I find that the greatest surprise — shock, horror, dismay — is that so many were drawn to the riot and the narrative that led up to it in terms interlaced with Christianity. In fact, as reported by Baptist News Global, four of the six protest permits issued on Jan. 6 were requested by Christian groups. This and similar developments led David French to observe recently in The New York Times:
Years ago, I laughed at claims that Christian conservatives were dominionists in disguise, that we didn’t just want religious freedom, we wanted religious authority. Yet now, such claims are hardly laughable. Arguments for a “Christian nationalism” are increasingly prominent, with factions ranging from Catholic integralists to reformed Protestants to prophetic Pentecostals all seeking a new American social compact, one that explicitly puts Christians in charge.
Among Christians of all stripes, the lines between dominionism, nationalism and fascism are not only increasingly blurred — they are increasingly irrelevant. They all oppose the good news of freedom in Christ and Christ alone.
As for Jones, the teacher who conducted the famous classroom experiment on fascism over 50 years ago: He left teaching a couple of years later after being denied tenure because of his experiment despite enthusiastic support for him within the school community. However, in a follow-up story many years later, Jones offered more insights that — like his experiment and like the various adaptations, retellings and lectures on the event that have been made since then — bring lessons we might learn.
In that interview, Jones was asked if such an experiment would work today. He said it could because we as a society are still asking the same questions about how to effect change and correct the wrongs we see. He added that there was one particular aspect of his experiment that stuck out to him. That was the way in which the students who weren’t the standouts among their peers, neither at the bottom nor the top of the social hierarchy, embraced the Wave. He told the reporter:
Sometimes as a teacher, you miss the middle group, those who just want to be successful at something for once in life. What was interesting during the Wave was that the very bright kids were excluded and martialed out of the classroom by guards early on. That left the middle group, who then felt empowered. That’s probably what’s happening today in the United States. People who felt left out suddenly are in control, and it feels good.
Can it happen again? I say, ‘It’s happening.’
Notably, this interview took place in 2017, several years before the riot that has wreaked so much needless havoc in so many lives.
We still had — and have — lessons to learn. The sooner we learn them, the better.