A GOOD TELEVISION SERIES can alter the way people view the world. Fifty years from now, people will still be drawing lessons from Game of Thrones. Similarly inspired, I continue to draw lessons from a British television series first screened in 1971, The Guardians.
The “Guardians of the Realm” are a paramilitary force set up to enforce the will an authoritarian British government. Confronted with a rapidly disintegrating United Kingdom, shadowy forces, headed by “The General”, seize power and establish a dictatorial regime. The resistance movement, known simply as Quarmby, respond with a campaign of assassination and terror. Like Game of Thrones, The Guardians is not light viewing.
One episode of The Guardians, in particular, left me forever alert to the cynical use of religion as a political weapon. Not entirely happy with the way things are going in the Guardians’ new UK, the CIA sets up a weird religious movement through which it plans to influence public opinion.
Given what has happened in the years since The Guardians first screened, I have often wondered who the creators of the series, Rex Firkin and Vincent Tilsley, had been talking to. Certainly, radical religious movements were frequently to be found buttressing the authoritarian regimes installed by the CIA throughout the 1970s and 80s – especially those whose primary function had been to forestall, or destroy, left-wing governments attracting dangerous levels of popular support.
This was especially the case in Latin America where the Christian socialism of “Liberation Theology”, espoused by a growing number of Catholic priests and prelates, was attracting a growing following among the rural and urban poor. The ascension of the vehemently anti-communist Polish cardinal, Carol Wojtyla, as Pope John-Paul II, in 1979, served – for a while – to stem the spread of Liberation Theology across the Catholic lands. To those responsible for preserving the global hegemony of the United States, however, Catholic Christianity would always be suspect. Popes come and go, but Christ’s “preferential option for the poor” endures as an unacceptable challenge to American imperialism.
The religious expression weaponised by the CIA was evangelical Protestantism. Both at home and abroad, evangelicalism became an extraordinarily potent rejoinder to the latent socialism embedded in the Christian gospel. Where the Catholic Church preached a theology of atonement and imitation, radical Protestantism promised rebirth and redemption – without the need for good works.
“Born again”, the evangelicals could come before God pre-forgiven and debt-free. In combination with the emotional intensity of its services, evangelicalism’s guarantee of salvation constituted a compelling sales pitch. Catholicism’s insistence on confession and penance put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Only three things could keep an evangelical from God’s eternal company: socialism, abortion, and homosexuality. Providing the believer eschewed these three affronts to the Almighty, his or her salvation was assured.
What’s more, evangelical congregations numbering in the thousands were able to give worshippers extremely powerful emotional experiences. They were also large enough to fund comprehensive welfare services to congregants in need. Who needs socialism when you have your church?
Besides, Jesus wasn’t so much a friend of the poor, as a benefactor of the provident. Nor was he the enemy of the rich. Evangelicals were encouraged to see the accumulation of great personal wealth as a sign of God’s approbation. After all, what sort of incentive to Godliness is poverty?
Having just logged-on (3/10/22) to the Brazilian Electoral Commission’s website, the practical effect of this slow but steady spread of evangelicalism across Latin America is staring me in the face. With 99.9 percent of the votes counted, the Socialist candidate, Lula, has fallen agonisingly short of the 50 percent + 1 of the popular vote he needed to avoid a second round against the far-right (and recently baptised evangelical Christian) Jair Bolsonaro.
Had the religious demographics of the states of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo remained what they had been when Lula first won the Brazilian presidency back in 2003, it is likely they would have delivered him the votes he needed to win. With the help of the much increased and increasingly pivotal evangelical vote, however, both states fell to Bolsonaro by wide margins.
One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to see in the bloody alliance of Latin American dictators, reactionary Catholics and fanatically anti-communist evangelical protestants a political combination of enormous utility to the United States. As New Zealanders, inhabitants of one of the most secular societies on earth, we find it difficult to grasp the centrality of religious belief to the politics of Latin America. Nevertheless, we need to understand that the tactics of the CIA-backed anti-insurgents of the 1970s and 80s were born out of what lay about them. If hands needed to be bloodied, it helped to have a religious faith ready and willing to wash them clean.
Did the creators of The Guardians intuitively grasp the political utility of religious extremism, or did somebody they met in a bar tell them? The early 1970s were a dangerous and dubious time. Shadowy figures gathered in great houses and plotted coups. Assassination and terrorism filled the headlines. Certainly, it was no accident that the network broadcasting The Guardians, ITV, decided that it was all just a little too close to home to be screened in Northern Ireland.
Or, in today’s Brazil.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 4 October 2022.