“We are better than this,” declares Marian Wright Edelman, the president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. “Bonhoeffer, the great German Protestant theologian who died opposing Hitler’s holocaust, believed that the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. We flunk Bonhoeffer’s test every hour of every day in America as we let the violence of guns and the violence of poverty relentlessly stalk and sap countless child lives.”
Over the course of this tumultuous political season, the legacy of the German pastor and theologian, who was executed by the Gestapo in 1945 for his participation in a plot to kill Hitler, has frequently been invoked by commentators and operatives across the political spectrum as a means of punctuating the historical significance of the presidential election. “The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strongman’s will,” observed former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in The Washington Post.
At times, Bonhoeffer’s story, and more broadly that of the anti-Nazi church movement called the Confessing Church, has been used to the frame the 2016 U.S. presidential election in a global and in some cases even metaphysical narrative. Conservative commentator David Brooks calls the Zeitgeist “a Dietrich Bonhoeffer against Hitler moment,” while adding the cautionary words, “I don’t want to compare [Trump] to Hitler. That’s a little over the top. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer-type heroism is required.”
In fact, some who “claim that American Christians are facing a ‘Bonhoeffer moment’ would have us believe that we are facing threats to freedom analogous to those Bonhoeffer faced and that we should react in analogous ways. But they need to be clearer on both counts,” writes the theologian and Holocaust scholar Stephen Haynes at the Huffington Post.
Enter the flamboyant Eric Metaxas, the conservative evangelical writer, radio host, and founder of Socrates in the City, a New York based forum on faith and culture. In an editorial last week in The Wall Street Journal, Metaxas could not have been more clear, if by clarity we mean the exceedingly bold claim that it’s 1933 Berlin in America. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by. He most infamously joined a plot to kill the head of his government. He was horrified by it, but he did it nonetheless because he knew that to stay ‘morally pure’ would allow the murder of millions to continue.”
Likening the Third Reich to a Democratic administration would not be surprising from the obstreperous right-wing crusader Ann Coulter, who appears regularly on “The Eric Metaxas Show.” But Metaxas, who purports to be a winsome, irenic apologist for the Christian faith, in the fashion of his friends Tim Keller and Os Guinness, blindsided some evangelicals in proclaiming that a Hillary Clinton victory in November portends the vanquishing of the Republic—and that taking Bonhoeffer seriously in our time means voting for Donald Trump.
At the same time, Metaxas emboldened and excited many other evangelicals with his supreme confidence that the 2016 presidential election confronts America with a world historical decision: salvation by Trump, or damnation through “Hitlerly,” as Metaxas has called Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate and lifelong Methodist, on social media. With Hillary, America will not get a second chance. A certain sector of white American evangelicals labors beneath the unrelenting anxiety that the Democratic Party and its leaders actively seek to destroy the Christian way of life.
Recently Metaxas has begun reciting, in language resonant in the evangelical subculture, a litany of right-wing radio talking points as widely accepted truths: Hillary Clinton “champions the abomination of partial-birth abortion” and a “statist view of America.” She is the enemy of religious freedom. She would have Bible-believing men and women “bow to the secular authority of the state.” If elected, the “liberty and self-government for which millions have died” will be gone, forever.
“Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump,” Metaxas told the National Review in June, his first public statement in support of the thrice-married “values” candidate, “because with all of his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history.” Metaxas may have preferred to cast his vote for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio—in the past he’s been a loyal supporter of Rick Santorum—but you can’t pick your messiah.
When it comes to using Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more broadly the Confessing Church, to carry the weight of your ideological preferences, Metaxas is in a league of his own.
WRITTEN WITH BUT the slightest familiarity with German theology and history, Metaxas’s best-selling Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy was published by Thomas Nelson in the spring of 2010 and launched at the Young Republicans Club of New York City. Christians in the United States needed to learn some very important lessons from Bonhoeffer’s story, and Eric Metaxas, who some followers call “the American Bonhoeffer,” had been called by God to deliver these lessons in our own hour of decision: It is not the role of the state to take care of people. America is the greatest nation in the world. People can take care of themselves; small government is the best government. Germans turned to Hitler to do the things that other people ought to be doing, and we in America are in danger of the same mistake. People who like big government don’t believe in God; they’re secularists and can be compared to the Nazis. We need Bonhoeffer’s voice today—Metaxas told an interviewer—“especially in view of the big government ethos of the Obama administration.”
With a literary background that includes a popular biography of the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the VeggieTales children’s series, Metaxas said that his purpose in writing the book was to save Bonhoeffer from the liberals, from the globalists, the humanists, and the pacifists. His Bonhoeffer was a born-again Christian who espoused traditional family values.
This is complete nonsense.
Bonhoeffer’s relationship to the tradition of Christian pacifism demands careful consideration. In praying for the defeat of Germany, and conferring pastoral blessings on those who sought to kill the Führer, Bonhoeffer could not be called a pacifist in the manner of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. But Metaxas’s claims that Bonhoeffer never called himself a pacifist reveals only a lack of familiarity with volumes 11 and 12 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, which had been published in English translations after Metaxas had finished writing his biography, which is free of German sources.
“The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons,” Bonhoeffer told an ecumenical gathering in 1934 on the southern coast of Denmark. “The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. Who knows if we shall see each other again in another year? What are we waiting for? Peace must be dared. Peace is the great venture.” Refusing the Christian tradition of just war first expounded by Augustine, Bonhoeffer would, not long after, declare that for “Christians, any military service except in the ambulance corps, and any preparation for war, is forbidden.”
Scholars of modern German theology and history excoriated Metaxas casting Bonhoeffer in the role of a white evangelical family values Republican. Reviewers were aghast to see Metaxas likening the difference between the liberal Protestant nationalist Adolf von Harnack and the neo-orthodox socialist Karl Barth to contemporary debates “between strict Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of so-called Intelligent Design.”
Little mistakes cast light on vast tracts of incomprehension; most objectionable is perhaps his dangerously simplistic portrayal of Nazis as godless liberals and German dissidents as Bible-believing Christians. Had Metaxas done the most casual background reading on the so-called Church Struggle, he would have learned, one would hope, that Bonhoeffer eventually despaired of the Confessing Church movement because it refused to speak forthrightly against the Nazi government. The failure of even dissident Christians to mount a meaningful opposition to Hitler was the context within which Bonhoeffer agreed to take part in the conspiracy alongside a cadre of humanists, atheists, and the disillusioned “children of the church.”
Another point worth mentioning: In portraying Bonhoeffer as a conservative Christian who forcibly denounces humanism, Metaxas blithely ignores Bonhoeffer’s abiding loyalty to the Western humanistic tradition and to the liberal ideals of toleration, justice, humanity, and reconciliation. Late in his life, with the nation in ruins, Bonhoeffer spoke of his great joy in finding once again nourishment in that great scholarly tradition of the nineteenth century, and he affirmed the “polyphony of life” and “religionless Christianity.” But Metaxas dismisses these fragmentary and luminous meditations from prison as little more than fodder for the death of God movement of the late 1960s, explaining lamely that Bonhoeffer never intended the writings to be taken seriously.
It must be terribly embarrassing to Metaxas, fearful as he remains of same-sex marriage and other recent LGBT political achievements, to realize that Bonhoeffer’s letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge—especially those written from the Benedictine monastery in Ettal, Germany, published in 2006 in volume 16 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works—reveal Bonhoeffer’s homoerotic desires, however suppressed by the voluntary vow of celibacy, which Bonhoeffer took seriously as a Protestant monastic of sorts.
Portraying Bonhoeffer according to our own ideological preferences does a grave disservice to his legacy. Bonhoeffer’s life and thought exhibit above all an uncommon generosity and openness to the world. His more popular works make biblical faith intelligible to believers and nonbelievers alike—The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together are books written amidst the chaos and fury of the Kirchenkampf, the church struggle to remain independent against the intrusions of Nazi rule—and do so without reducing complex ideas to clichés or pious talking points.
WHAT MIGHT BONHOEFFER make of his “Moment” in American politics? Born in 1906 into a prodigiously humanist family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had rarely discussed politics in his university years; when he had, it was mostly in response to his brothers, who, radicalized by the Great War, never missed an opportunity to butt heads concerning the finer points of the Weimar government or the morality of its democratic reforms. A university friend complained of Bonhoeffer’s inclination to escape into ethereal regions of “comprehensive” ideas and thus “avoid the murk and mists of boiling-hot politics.” Indeed, during Bonhoeffer’s postdoctoral year at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, there is not even mention in his notes or letters of what was the lead item in the Times on the day of his arrival: “Fascists Make Big Gains in Germany.”
This changed during that transformative year in America. Between August 1930 and May 1931, Bonhoeffer would journey into new regions of experience: into the tenement buildings of New York, into the Harlem Renaissance, into the Deep South weeks after the Scottsboro Boys went to trial, into a six-month immersion in the black church in Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem. He spent time with the National Women’s Trade Union League and the Workers Education Bureau of America; he wrote notes on the labor movement, poverty, homelessness, crime, and the social mission of the churches. He met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation’s premier defender of civil liberties, which after its founding in 1920 had focused heavily on the rights of conscientious objectors and on the protection of resident aliens from deportation. After returning to Berlin, he told his older brother that Germany needed an ACLU of its own. And in the spring of 1931, Bonhoeffer took a road trip through the heart of the Jim Crow South, after which he wrote that he had heard the Gospel preached in “the church of the outcasts of America.” In these unfamiliar regions, among a nearly forgotten generation of American radicals and reformers, Bonhoeffer found the courage to reexamine every aspect of his vocation as theologian and pastor and to embark upon what he would call “the turning from the phraseological to the real.” No other thinker in the modern era crosses quite so many boundaries while yet remaining exuberantly—and one must always add—generously Christian. This is why his story has attracted both liberals and evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, church-goers and secularists alike, people of all faiths. What all admire is Bonhoeffer’s indisputably authentic witness to the dignity of life.
In the end, Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer resembles no one so much as Metaxas.
“What is Christianity, or who is Christ for us today?” Bonhoeffer asked Eberhard Bethge in a letter from prison. In light of all that had happened, “we are approaching a completely religionless age,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” Religion as it had been lived before was obsolete.
Bonhoeffer’s faith had been chastened by history, its failures and misuses. His was a sober assessment of the gospel’s political captivity—and how to escape it. The Christian witness would be limited to prayer and righteous action. “All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action.” Until the time when people will once again be able to speak the word of God “with power” and “ultimate honesty,” the “Christian cause will be a quiet and hidden one.”
If we are in a Bonhoeffer Moment, it is a moment that confronts us with a different demand: learning to participate in God’s created order, to trust in God’s promises to bless, linking arms with all those who care about the human condition, asking ourselves how the coming generation shall live. It is learning to struggle along with everyone else, speaking with “the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision” and our chastened ambitions, taking part in shared human struggle, and bearing witness to the peace that passes all understanding.
For in the social compulsions of Christian discipleship, Bonhoeffer said, “Christ takes everyone who really encounters him by the shoulder, turning them around to face their fellow human beings and the world.” The political implications of all this may remain forever strange to us, but there is no doubt that honest engagement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and thought moves us a long way from the harrowing worldview of Donald J. Trump. It moves us to behold the world anew in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. And that’s really good news.
Charles Marsh is the author of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was awarded the 2015 Christianity Today Book Award for Biography and History. He teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia, where he also directs the Project on Lived Theology. He is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal.