This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Sojourners magazine. To subscribe, click here.
DIETRICH BONHOEFFER was a young pastor and theologian in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer founded an underground seminary, where he helped to lead what became known as the Confessing Church. His fundamental question was always, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
There are never exact analogues in history. But there are questions and challenges from 1930s Germany that we should learn from today.
The Confessing Church and the Barmen Declaration, its statement of theological resistance to Nazism written mostly by theologian Karl Barth, were not simply expressing political opposition to Hitler and Nazism. Their objections were theological, and Hitler’s name was not even mentioned in the declaration. The issue for them was discipleship to Christ, as opposed to the uncritical support that many church leaders were offering to Hitler, creating in effect a “state church.”
In the original German, Bonhoeffer’s classic work The Cost of Discipleship was simply called Disciple. That was the issue for Bonhoeffer, Barth, and the courageous members of the Confessing Church: how they needed to disciple their church members against the ideological religion that the German churches were being infected with by the political regime.
Perhaps the most blatant recent example of a “state church” mentality in relation to Donald Trump was a tweet by Franklin Graham. “Never in my lifetime,” the son of Billy Graham tweeted, “have we had a @POTUS willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like @realDonaldTrump. We need to get behind him with our prayers.” Such an uncritical, unprophetic, and ungodly devotion to such a deeply ethically compromised president does call to mind the complicit church in 1930s Germany.
Fox News is an important actor in the creation of a “state church” in this country. Pastors of more conservative churches often tell me, “It isn’t even fair—I have them for an hour each week on Sunday; Fox News has them the whole rest of the week.” Pastors can’t compete with the 24/7 ideology preached by Fox.
The Barmen Declaration was clear about the separation that must be maintained between the church and the state. “We reject the false doctrine,” the declaration said, that “the church ... should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the state, thus itself becoming an organ of the state.”
THE PRESIDENCY of Donald Trump has raised the question of whether this is a “Bonhoeffer moment.” This goes far beyond partisan politics—many conservatives and Republicans, along with liberals and Democrats, are raising questions about the moral and religious issues at stake in the presidency of Donald Trump. Here are some of them.
First, let’s start with truth, a central Christian concern. Many presidents lied when it served their political interests. In the Trump administration, lying has become persistent and pathological, occurring almost every day from the White House and the daily press briefing. No administration is ever happy with its press coverage, but the Trump administration’s regular attack on the media as “fake news” is a dangerous assault on freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
Second, there is racial bigotry, another central Christian concern. From Trump’s “birtherism” that questioned the identity of the first black president to his attacks on Mexican immigrants, from his Muslim bans to his appeals to the white nationalist base, Trump has used racial fear and hate to his political advantage. The racial divide in the church is creating what I call a “Corinthians crisis,” where one part of the body of Christ—Christians of color—is suffering while the white part of the body of Christ is not feeling their pain. And how we treat the stranger—immigrants and refugees, all the “others” who are put before us—is for us a matter of theological obedience, not political partisanship.
Third, Trump’s strongman style of leadership is a direct contradiction of the Christian ethic of servant leadership, and the civic ethic of public service, and points to the critical need for humility as well as checks and balances to restrain our political leaders.
Fourth, “America First” is a theological heresy. The body of Christ is the most racially and culturally diverse community on Earth—our connection to brothers and sisters all over the world makes our political convictions global, and not just national. And stewardship of the Earth, its resources and its people, is a priority for people of faith over an administration that shows no concern for God’s creation.
Regardless of whether special counsel Robert Mueller indicts Trump, whether Trump fires the special counsel to try to forestall the investigation, or whether Congress impeaches him, theological integrity more than political partisanship must govern the churches’ response.