My wife Patty was reading a book about Chinese history and the rise of the Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. You may remember that the U.S. supported Chiang Kai-Shek during and after World War II. Unfortunately, Chiang was, well, a tyrant. This helped explain why Mao and his communists were able to win the support of the Chinese people.
So Chiang's fascist tyranny was replaced by an even more virulent communist tyranny.
When Patty put the book down, she asked me a great question: Is totalitarianism the same as communism or fascism?
Well, any ideology can lead to totalitarianism. Totalitarianism simply means that the state—the government—exercises complete control of public and even private life.
So Hitler (a right-wing fanatic) and Stalin (a left-wing fanatic) were little different. One promised a master race, the other a worker's paradise. But they both erected totalitarian dictatorships, where the state controlled the media, the economy, everything.
So I answered Patty that communism and fascism were simply economic and political disguises for the totalitarian impulse, which at some level has tempted every human ruler throughout history.
But as I have explained in my books, the West has mostly resisted the totalitarian impulse, thanks to our Christian heritage and the Protestant Reformation.
The Western experiment in liberal democracy, best embodied in the United States, achieved representative government, balance of powers, sphere sovereignty, the rule of law. These are bulwarks against totalitarianism.
But the very astute French observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, warned that even America could descend into soft despotism. That could happen, he warned, when the people expect their elected leaders to take care of them and their needs. Sound familiar?
But I've thought of another way democracy can slide into totalitarianism—the moral foundations of society erode so badly that the people become malleable. They embrace relativism, as we have in America today; they no longer believe in right and wrong. So popular culture, the educational and political elite, teach us that it's wrong to judge other people. Tolerance becomes the supreme public virtue.
When that happens, however, somebody has to enforce the tolerance. So-called cultural arbiters—the media, the academics, political leaders—begin to prescribe which things are in bounds and which things are out of bounds for public discussion.
Look what happened with political commentator Brit Hume. He recommended that Tiger Woods consider Christianity. He was pilloried in the process.
Last week, I talked about Tim Tebow's heartwarming TV ad scheduled for the Super Bowl. It tells how his mother, against medical advice, decided to give birth to him rather than abort. Pro-choice groups hit the roof, demanding that CBS pull the ad.
This is akin to the soft despotism de Tocqueville warned about, the tyranny of tolerance where the cultural elites seek to eliminate the free expression of moral views in American life.
And that, my friends, is totalitarianism of an unexpected kind. It's the kind that can catch you by surprise, where you'll wake up one day to find that you have lost your freedom.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
This article originally appeared February 2, 2010.