Who Is Most Likely to Oppose Totalitarianism?

I have devoted much of my scholarship over the years to studies of the state—its nature, its growth, and its relationships with other aspects of social life. I have been struck repeatedly by a certain fact about episodes of sudden or extraordinary expansion of the state: when push came to shove, those who resisted—often to the death—tended to be people of faith. In U.S. history they included primarily Anabaptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other marginalized Protestant sects. In Nazi Germany, many of the regime’s opponents were Roman Catholics, as were the opponents in Poland under Communist rule. Atheists as a class did not distinguish themselves as resisters of tyranny or totalitarianism, although some individual atheists did resist. Of course, some of the most horrible regimes—the USSR, Communist China, Kampuchea, North Korea—rested on atheism as an integral part of the regime’s official line, and in Germany the Nazis virtually nationalized many of the Protestant churches.

My studies have left me pessimistic about the prospects for the survival of free societies, in part because of the relationship just described. When the tyrants take over—usually in a national emergency—and whip everyone into line, only certain people of faith are, as a group, likely to resist, rather than making the best of a bad situation. Modern culture in most parts of the world is now overwhelmingly secular and even anti-religious. Without a foundation of belief strong enough to sustain resisters unto death, effective resistance is not likely to be mounted. The worst will get on top, as F. A. Hayek warned, and I do not expect these top dogs to be anything but devout atheists (although in a few societies, such as the USA, the tyrants may feign religious faith). I hope that my analysis here is flawed, because its implications are not encouraging for those who love liberty and hope for its survival.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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