Should Christians Compare MAGA to the Nazis? | Sojourners

Should Christians Compare MAGA to the Nazis?

Reggie L. Williams. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

If you’re the type of person who discusses politics online, you’re likely to have heard of Godwin’s law. In 1990, Mike Godwin, a First Amendment lawyer, invented this rule to address a common occurrence: The longer online debate drags on, the more likely someone commits the fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerum — i.e., the comparison of someone or something to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

Invoking Nazis, as Godwin suggests, is a lazy way of ending a debate. I also think it’s usually motivated by a shallow understanding of history and an insensitivity toward Holocaust victims.

But there’s gotta be times when referencing the Nazis is warranted, right? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as U.S. politics continues down the path of polarization and a segment of Christians unabashedly preach a message of domination. We need a sharper critique of Christian nationalism and the increasingly authoritarian proposals of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump — critiques that are deeper than simply labeling the former group as “Nazis” and the latter individual “Hitler.” But where do we begin? 

Ethicist, theologian, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer scholar Reggie L. Williams sat down with me to help me work through these questions. In August, Williams will become associate professor of Black theology in the department of theological studies at Saint Louis University. In our conversation, we spoke about the Right co-opting Bonhoeffer, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, and the problems with comparing the U.S. to Nazi Germany.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: One of the things that we’re trying to do with The Reconstruct is talk with experts and have them explain why the things related to their field should matter in practical terms. Why should theological ethics and Black Christian theology matter to regular people?

Reggie L. Williams: The way we think about community, the way we understand the responsibility that we have to each other, building society, even the governmental structure, economics, schools — all of that — has a formative history within European Christendom. To think or be educated theologically, one doesn’t even need to actually have theological commitments or faith commitments. To think theologically is to see some of the foundational structures of Western life and community.

For example, the distinction between the priest and the laity within Christendom that sets up political and sacred hierarchies is present today still within the structures of race, gender, and class where you have a “sacred” demographic and a “common” demographic. That’s theological in its origin in Western Europe. We owe the structures of human hierarchy in the Western world to medieval Christendom. [It’s] the “macro” approach to understand something about theology, something about the problems that persist in human hierarchy.

You wrote a book titled Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. Why do you find Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem to be so interesting?

For one, he comes to New York as a wounded white kid from a wounded country [Germany], post-World War I, and experiences a transformation. There’s something that happens for him at the confessional level of his faith. I think that’s an interesting thing to see, especially during the Harlem Renaissance. He’s a kid who’s learning that he’s white. And the Harlem Renaissance is Black America.

But then when you add in the fact that it’s Nazi Germany, that the Holocaust is just about to happen, [and] the move that’s happening in Harlem is what folks in Black studies say is an “interrogation of the human,” [asking]: “What is the human?” In the Harlem Renaissance, there’s a direct engagement with hierarchies of being that were set in place by the European description of humanity [during Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem].

Now, I would say that Bonhoeffer most certainly does not figure it all out. He gets what he can, what he’s capable of getting as a young white guy from Europe who is reared in imperialism. He gets what he can and it’s enough for him to see racism as a Christian problem.

I’m qualifying quite a bit because in my current work, I’m wanting to show just how troubled he was, how encumbered he remained by white supremacy. You will have people who are working really hard to address the problems of white supremacy, they work really hard against it, but they’re using the tools that caused the problem in the first place, so they can’t find their way out. Bonhoeffer ends up being somebody who’s a representation of that [dynamic] in his most sincere efforts.

You read Bonhoeffer as challenging the white supremacy within Christian theology. But there are other people who read him in a different direction. Specifically, there are factions on the Right who want to co-opt Bonhoeffer’s life and work. Why is the Christian Right so attracted to Bonhoeffer?

I don’t know if I would give right-wing audiences enough credit to know where or how to see the imperialist strains that remain within Bonhoeffer. For example, you’re talking about Eric Metaxas more specifically, right? He’s not a theologian, he’s not somebody who is going to understand what Bonhoeffer is saying in his posthumously published Ethics.

What you will hear is that Bonhoeffer is the prototype of the [“Make America Great Again”] or Tea Party movement — a principled believer who held firmly to his faith, regardless of a non-Christian government. Never mind the fact that Bonhoeffer’s government was Far-Right extremists. And the faith that he was espousing was calling for [a version of the American Civil Liberties Union] in Germany. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, must the faith that began as a radical movement — and you can also insert “progressive movement” — now become conservative forever?

The Christian Right often says that, if Bonhoeffer were alive, he would be aligned with them because of his opposition to Socialism. The right tries to say that Bonhoeffer was resisting socialism, but the Nazis were, in fact, not socialists. The Nazi hope was that by having “socialist” in their party’s name, they’d be able to appeal to working-class resentment and build an alternative to the German Left, which largely resisted the Nazis.

Again, theyre using terms they don’t really understand. And theyre looking at it through a set of loyalties. We all have loyalties. Theyre not talking about democratic socialism. They’re talking about national socialism — that’s fascist; it’s a right-wing movement. They throw [terms like socialism] around and they mean things like Marxism, but the Nazi government was not at all Marxist.

In the February 2018 issue for Sojourners, you and Lori Brandt Hale asked if the United States was in a Bonhoeffer moment. Are we still in that moment?

We wrote that as we were considering the role that Christians must take in the context of a resurgent fascism. We are always in what we might consider “a Bonhoeffer moment,” in which we must consider what the role of the Christian is in the context of ongoing white supremacy. The ideology that brought that moment about in Nazi Germany is an ideology that still animates the whole Western world and our life together today.

It’s hard to not draw comparisons between Germany then and the U.S. now. I’m thinking about the assault on democracy that’s been happening now since 2016 and is only going to be ramping up in 2024. I think about how Christian nationalism has come to the fore. It feels like there are obvious parallels.

Yeah, I would definitely say so.

Let’s think about this historically: Germany has lost World War I. They are a member of a community of imperialist nations; they are a member of a community of empires, Western empires. They’re Western empires with colonial possessions in various parts of the world, specifically Africa. The argument for the colonial possessions is the spread of “civilization” to the primitives, but that’s subterfuge. The practice of colonialism is extraction.

The way that they describe [Africans and other colonized people] is in an effort to prop up the notion of a superior humanity. So, they invent the concept of African religion, they invent subhumanity. This is the language of “apex,” of “superior,” of “civilization.” All of that money, all of that oil, all of those resources — “they” don’t deserve that stuff. [Colonizers] are robbing and killing because they have guns and the people in Africa do not. So, in the wake of World War I, Germany, once a member of the block of these empires arguing for its superiority in the world, is no longer one of the strong empires, no longer one of the civilized peoples. The language that’s used to argue for subjugation in the colonies is now being spoken about them: “barbarian,” “savage,” and so forth.

France takes African troops from their colonies, and places them in and right next to Germany to police them. It’s humiliating and terrifying. Germany has lost the status of “civilized,” and they fear “reverse colonization.” When the Nazis come online, they are not only arguing that they are not savages, but that they are the apex of white. They are at the top of a racial hierarchy; they are “Aryan.” This is in an effort to “make Germany great again.” But to make Germany great again, Hitler went hard after this racial narrative, this racial picture of the nation, [emphasizing it must be] cleansed of its “racial impurities.” The Nazis didn’t invent the wheel and neither did the current MAGA movement.

I want to be really careful professionally, as a journalist, about making a one-to-one comparison between the Nazis and MAGA. And yet I think there is something there, but I’m not always sure how to articulate it exactly.

Hitler and the Nazis are such vivid depictions of the derogatory that they take up all of the oxygen. You may have difficulty defining what you’re actually saying when you’re saying that term.

These people in the MAGA movement are not Nazis. Trump is not Hitler. It’s a historical fact. But when we say Trump is not Hitler, what are we saying? And when we say the MAGA movement is not Nazism, what are we saying?

It’s important to recognize that the moment we live in didn’t come out of a vacuum. The ideologies that are present, the way of seeing society as it is, were imagined before we inhabited [this moment]. Our society is not simply born in the moment that we experience it, it comes to us with its own history that supports it.

To paraphrase what George M. Frederickson said in a book called Racism: A Short History, the language that we know as human difference — race — has developed over centuries and given birth to three overtly racist regimes in the 20th century: Jim Crow South. Nazi Germany, and apartheid South Africa. They are all populated by claims of white supremacy. How is that the case?

It makes perfect “sense” to many people in this country that “Black people are criminals.” When they see something happening in the news and they recognize it as a Black person, they know that those are the usual suspects. It’s logical to them. The fact that something like that is logical doesn’t mean that they’re a part of the Nazi party, but they most certainly are believers in the Nazi cause. Think of that ideology as the message of an evangelist. It’s a word. These people are all believers in that gospel.

What you are talking about is something I am very concerned with as a journalist and an editor: I really want people to be specific when they are talking about these issues. When we’re throwing around some of these terms, I always just want to ask, “What does that actually mean?” But to break it down as you have and say, “We’re talking about human hierarchy and theological justifications for human hierarchy” is much more helpful. This allows us to get into how these ideologies came to exist in the first place.

This is back to what we were saying earlier about why it’s important to understand and learn about theology: Those practices of hierarchy are accompanied by or, actually are the apologetics for extraction and exploitation. These ideas are arranged to give morality to practices of colonial extraction. They are arranged to make sense of passing bodies through doors of no return on the West Coast of Africa and owning and selling people.

So, it’s not that Hitler is a standalone figure in Western Europe who just comes out of nowhere. No. He is a character in a story that’s as old as the practices of colonialism, slave trading, and [missionaries who] show up, kill people in Central America to get the gold, and then give them the sign of the cross as they’re burning them to death. These practices of exploitation and extraction are accompanied by ideologies that legitimate them.

When you see representations of the sacred, it’s never without racial aesthetics. [Philosopher and Black studies scholar] Sylvia Wynter describes aesthetics or representation this way, and I am paraphrasing: Bodily representation is an aesthetic signaling system. The moral code that describes how we are to engage with each other is embedded within a representational aesthetics, a racial aesthetics. So, your body speaks before you say a word and the body has upon it a code that we can expect. We read this code in order to know how to engage one another in a racialized society.

I’ll put it this way: I walk around in basketball sweats and high tops and a hoodie — like the basketball player that I once was when I had cartilage in my knee — and my body is speaking; the racial aesthetic is saying something about what one can expect from me. And it’s often way wrong. But what is this code — this racial aesthetic, this signaling system?

When I say “chair,” something comes to mind for you, and the symbol of a chair is encoded with meaning. What happens when I say “chair” can happen with a table or a rock. The racial aesthetic is like that. And to intervene in the way that code depicts our life together is to intervene in practices of domination and extraction that are killing the planet.

Editor’s note: The introduction to this piece was updated on April 10 to clarify the critique against Donald J. Trump’s politics and correct that he is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, not the candidate.