By Pr. Eugene Brueggemann
A Bonhoeffer moment is a moment of truth. It is a time of urgent necessity that is calling the church to bear witness to the truth when it is under prolonged and intense attack. Many American Christians, impressed with Bonhoeffer’s role and writings in the Nazi era, see parallels between then and now. The parallels are certainly there, as well as important differences.
The most obvious parallel is the rise to power of two ambitious, aggressive, highly-effective demagogues. Adolf Hitler was a dispirited veteran of the German army, a failure at painting and at staging a coup (the Munich beer hall Putsch) and the successful author of Mein Kampf, a book which inspired the Nazi movement. Donald Trump is a veteran of New York City real estate competition and Hollywood show time and the author of a book, The Art of the Deal¸ which displayed his values and modus operandi. Both candidates lost the majority vote but gained office anyway, Hitler by bullying his way to power against a politically and physically weakened Chancellor Hindenburg, Trump by the vagaries of the electoral college.
The most significant parallel, I believe, is their effective use of the Big Lie to promote the cause of Aryan/white nationalism in a succession of rallies. They had the ability to deliver spell-binding speeches which incited fear and loathing of their enemies. For Hitler, the Big Lie was that the Jews were traitors who had stabbed the German army in the back in the waning days of the Great War. Jewish bankers were disloyal citizens who counseled surrender, and Jews, of course, were behind a militant communism which threatened a weakened Germany. Hitler made centuries-old anti-Semitism not merely respectable, but essential in making Germany great again. The Aryans were the master race, the key to German exceptionalism.
For Trump, the Big Lie was of the same order but more subtle: he vilified immigrants early and often, those already within our borders, both legal and illegal, and those swarming the Southern border looking for jobs and asylum. Immigrants, he asserted, weakened the true American identity and were responsible for a crime wave. To shouts of approval, Trump demanded a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and the exclusion of immigrants (especially Muslims) from entering the country. The easy entrance of these immigrants was a threat to American exceptionalism. Barack Obama, the Kenyan outlier, and Hillary Clinton, the elite insider, were prime examples of Democrats who were responsible for the decline of American greatness into bland multiculturalism.
Trump did not campaign openly as a racist, and he did make gestures of reaching out for support from blacks. But he viewed Barack Obama with contempt, and for years he gained notoriety by vilifying him as an illegitimate president, who was born in Kenya and a secret Muslim. The audiences that he roused most effectively at his rallies were insecure, socially displaced white citizens, many of whom held the common prejudices against blacks as people who stole jobs and committed crimes, while accepting hand-outs from the government. Trump’s rhetoric contained enough “dog whistles” to his audiences to betray the racist streak in his movement. With Steve Bannon as campaign director and adviser, Trump had access to those whom Hillary Clinton had privately identified as “deplorables,” the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.
Trump demeaned whoever stood in his way, beginning with the other Republican presidential candidates. A single word functioned as a Big Lie to define his opponents. This made him a most unconventional and entertaining candidate. Politics as show business never had such a star. He successfully demonized Hillary Clinton as a felon who should be locked up for using an insecure email server while secretary of state. Hillary stood for the enemy within, the globalist elites who had hollowed out middle America with trade policies that shipped American jobs and factories to China, Mexico and Canada, a theme of Bernie Sanders’ campaign as well.
As effective as Trump was and is as an American demagogue wielding the Big Lie, he is not in the same league as Hitler and his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who perfected the Big Lie strategy with Teutonic thoroughness and backed it up with the threat and use of violence by the brown-shirted thugs of the SA. Trump’s attacks on the press, his shout-outs to harass reporters and dissidents and his welcoming the support of the KKK and right-wing militias are pale imitations of the Nazi campaign (but nevertheless frightening reminders of the power of hate and fear in politics).
The relation of religion to the National-Socialist agenda was the occasion for the first Bonhoeffer moment. In Germany, the Nazis entered into a concordat with Rome, which effectively muffled criticism or resistance from the Catholic Church, and they worked hard to make the Protestant state churches over in their image. They promoted a national union of the Evangelical Churches (Lutheran, Reformed, United), which was supported by the so-called Deutsche Christen (those German Christians who welcomed the inroads of Nazi ideology into the churches) and was headed by Nazi-appointed Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller. The churches in the German states voted for or against the proposed agenda of the Deutsche Christen. Bonhoeffer was a member of the United Protestant Church of the Old Prussian Union, the largest state church in Germany at that time, which had been taken over by leaders in the Deutsche Christen movement, who implemented Nazi goals. Other state churches, such as the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Bavaria, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Hanover, and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg, did not.
A strong resistance movement known as the Confessing Church emerged, which was headed by prominent German churchmen like Karl Barth, Martin Niemőller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Their goal was to rally support for the continued independence and confessional integrity of the Protestant churches. One hundred and thirty-nine official delegates from eighteen of the state churches (along with some 200 guests) met and issued the Barmen Declaration in May 1934. In subsequent months, many thousands of additional pastors and church leaders would sign it as well. In this document, they stated that their intention was to stand “in opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the Protestant territorial churches by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices.” They insisted “that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit,” not through the Deutsche Christen, who sought to make the church into an “organ of the state.”
The Barmen confessors also stood in opposition to the enforcement of the Nazis’ racist ideology in the churches. For example, one daring aim of some Deutsche Christen was to remove Jewish elements from all Protestant hymnals and worship services. A few from the Deutsche Christen even sought to remove the Old Testament from the Christian Bible! With the passage of the Aryan Articles—which legalized the purging of Jews from Germany—Nazi church leaders insisted on removing from church offices all pastors who were of Jewish descent. They used the Aryan Paragraph (a law that blocked “non-Aryans” [Jews] from serving in all public offices) to force “non-Aryans” out of the ministry. Against these actions, the Barmen confessors held that Aryan supremacy was a false doctrine which adversely affected the churches’ mission of proclaiming the gospel. The Barmen Declaration thus states against the Deutsche Christen: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions,” that is, to interpret the Bible to support the introduction of the racist agenda of a totalitarian state into the church. The Barmen Declaration also reminded the churches that God has placed limits on all secular government, including the Nazi regime: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special [biblical] commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life.”
Bonhoeffer became very active in the Confessing Church movement which emerged from the Barmen Declaration. He later led and taught at one of its seminaries, the one in Finkenwalde, and continued to do so “underground,” when that seminary was officially closed by the Gestapo. His resistance to the evils of Nazism included his participation in a political-military conspiracy, organized in part by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, which sought “to throw a spoke in the wheel” of the government in a number of ways, including the smuggling of Jews out of Germany. As a member of this conspiracy, Bonhoeffer also supported its attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Arrested for his activities in helping Jews to escape to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for almost two years. He was eventually executed on the orders of Hitler.
The introduction of the Aryan Paragraph into the church was condemned as false doctrine by the Barmen Declaration. The American parallel is the racial denigration of immigrants in America, both past and present. It was consistent with Trump’s leadership of “the birther movement,” which appealed to the widespread prejudice against blacks and immigrants lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. The Big Lie holds that this growing number of (mostly criminal) “others” are responsible for America losing its greatness. Donald Trump was making racism respectable again. The incident at Charlottesville last year exposed this reality–and also the strong resistance to it.
Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church held that Nazi ideology of the Aryan master race was a false doctrine that had no place in the churches’ teaching and public life. Facing the reality of the success of the Big Lie in American politics, this question arises: Are Protestant leaders advocating or resisting the false doctrine associated with the rise of Donald Trump, namely, that a white Christian nationalist America can and should be restored?
The answer is “yes” and “no.” Prominent church leaders from the Evangelical Right entered into an unholy alliance with Donald Trump, hoping he would help them accomplish a number of legislative goals in the culture war between liberalism and conservatism. Trump’s well-known character as a poster boy for the Seven Deadly Sins was glossed over as a “never mind” concern: “God can use godless men to implement God’s agenda” is their mantra, just as it was in 1933 Germany, when not a few theologians and pastors supported Nazism as a remedy for the moral breakdown of German society.
But some American evangelical theologians have disagreed with the uncritical support given to the Trump agenda by prominent leaders of the Religious Right. Two influential Christian leaders, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Roger Olson of Patheos, are among a number of Evangelical Protestants who are leading opposition to that alliance and to the racist and nationalistic ideology supporting it. They have publicly identified their witness with that of Bonhoeffer.
The most ambitious response came from the more liberal wing of American Protestantism: The Boston Declaration, which was issued on November 20, 2017. It positively identifies with the Barmen Declaration and was signed by over one hundred theologians from liberal Protestant seminaries and colleges. It does not appear to have made much of an impact, perhaps because it lacked focus, given that it addressed a very broad range of issues.
What I believe makes this a Bonhoeffer moment is the stunning success of the Big Lie in our public life. Both of our political parties have routinely used lies and deception in election campaigns. What we are experiencing is a shift to a higher level of lying. It is not simply a matter of degree but of kind. The Big Lie’s roots are fear and hate. Among its poisonous fruits are public division and the destruction of the values and social traditions which make democracy work. As it worms its way into everyday life, it encourages people to speak and spread countless little lies, especially when the president himself sets the example. It is not new with Donald Trump. It has been a staple commodity in conservative radio and television networks for years, aided and abetted by the government’s decision to scrap the equal-time provision from its broadcasting regulations.
The 2016 election and the present moment demonstrate the power of the Big Lie and its threat to the freedoms enshrined in our constitution. The Big Lie was not just used in the campaign, it was embodied in the winning presidential candidate, Donald Trump, whose demagoguery is demonstrated in an ongoing series of rallies. Although the number of the president’s lies is counted in the thousands, the recurring Big Lie themes of white racial superiority and American nationalism dominate. The many casual lies are like buckshot; the Big Lies are well-aimed bullets. Proverbs 17:7 is apropos: “Eloquent lips are unsuited to a godless fool – how much worse lying lips to a ruler.”
The American church leaders who agree with this assessment are in a position to make this a Bonhoeffer moment, to organize a movement and speak like the Barmen confessors about the danger to both church and society posed by the officially sanctioned and very effective use of the Big Lie by those who would build a society on the principles of white nationalism. Today’s struggle is but the latest in our history. When basic standards of truth and honesty are abandoned, the fight becomes a melee. If the demagogues win, it is the end of liberal democracy and religious freedom. When words no longer have a common meaning and relationship to factual truth, George Orwell’s nightmare becomes the new reality as in the Arbeit macht frei signs that welcomed Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China are further monuments to the power of the Big Lie.
The Big Lie is a temptation to every political party, and traces of it are found everywhere. A Democrat, Huey Long, was the most famous example of a successful demagogue in the last century, and Donald Trump was a Democrat before he was a Republican. Demagogues subvert democracy by making reasonable and healthy dialogue difficult and dangerous. Demagoguery is a non-partisan technique.
At the heart of today’s crisis is the truth issue, and at the heart of the church’s faith and witness is the Word of truth, the law word of God’s wrath against sin and the gospel word of freedom from the clutches of sin, death, and demonic power. Jesus claimed to be truth incarnate. The birth and ongoing life of the church are totally dependent on the truth of God’s word. If words lose their meaning, our proclamation is compromised. At the heart of the church’s faith is the truth that makes us free. Proclaiming and demonstrating the power of the Word is not incidental to the church’s mission; it is her core mission.
The truth is under attack as never before in our history. This is a Bonhoeffer moment. We pray that Christian leaders and churches might lead a movement with many other partners in exposing the Big Lie as the threat that it is to American democracy and the church’s mission.
Pastor Eugene Brueggemann served 55 years in parish and campus ministry of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.