There is a mythology being constructed around the country. It asserts that so-called Evangelical churches that support the current executive administration of the United States are the heirs to the Confessing Church movement in Germany which opposed Hitler and the rise of Nazism. This false mythology also attempts to cast any Christians who raise questions about the actions of the current executive branch of our government and the president as allies of fascism.
I have held back on commenting explicitly on the rise of this mythology, in part, because there seemed to be no way of speaking about it that doesn’t appear to engage in partisan politics. But I think I’ve found a way to do that now.
I am an historical theologian. That means that a large part of my scholarship has been purely descriptive. Mostly I try to clarify how beliefs arose and what these beliefs consisted of through the dim mist of history. For example, in one of the many biographical essays I was asked to write for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I clarified the use of the term “puritan,” a term that has been thrown around so much over the past centuries as to lose all meaning. Indeed, I clarified it to the point that readers were able to see that several people labeled as “puritans” weren’t. The term simply wasn’t of use.
In our time, in our country, some of the most commonly used words have become useless. Recently I read a thoughtful Republican politician say that he has no idea what “conservative” means in today’s political rhetoric. His comment was, “I don’t understand what we’re trying to conserve anymore.” The word “liberal” has also become meaningless, at least in our country. In Europe it refers to both the economic system that values individual risk-taking and free enterprise, and the political system that emphasizes some version of democracy over authoritarianism. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” and some others thrown around in our current political climate, clearly denote what is believed by those who are described by the terms.
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed the manner in which such words should be taken out of common usage until they are meaningful again. I agree. Even the word “Christian” is used in such a sloppy manner these days that I gave it up for Lent this year. Better to send it to the cleaners for awhile than to abuse what was originally a derisive term for those folks (“little Christs”) who followed the crucified Jewish prophet and healer.
In our time, and in our country (though by no means are we unique in this) there has also been a rise in casting anyone described by terms like “conservative” or “liberal” (and some other labels) as evil. I really mean evil. I recall the late Jack Stotts, President of Austin Presbyterian Seminary, telling a graduating class that he grieved the change in our country from saying, “I disagree with you. You’re wrong,” to “I disagree with you. You’re evil.” Especially when it comes to the mixture of religion with anything (maybe especially politics), the labeling of someone as evil means you can ignore them, even destroy them, with impunity.
I think we all recognize the way things are today with regard to these lamentable general trends of tossing around words that have become meaningless and using them and others to label people so they can be dismissed. People are complicated, however. Their views and values rarely conform to a single straightforward list of do’s and don’ts or to the platform of a political party. Most people live in grey landscapes not black and white ones. They are accustomed to taking a variety of matters into consideration when trying to decide how to act morally. They also know what it feels like to be wrong, although that’s harder to admit. But more and more this subtle approach which requires genuine individual weighing of alternatives and the burden of personal responsibility is being marginalized by an approach that says, “If you are ‘conservative’ you believe these things,” “If you are ‘liberal’ you believe those things.” It’s tribalism in the guise of good political citizenship.
Again, I think we know the general lay of the land. It’s a mess out there. Those who are too lazy to figure out what they actually mean when they use certain words, and those who toss around largely meaningless labels to avoid having to enter into genuine discussions and conversations seem to hold the field. But, here’s why I believe there’s room for hope. Most regular folks, when it comes to the complicated business of navigating their personal lives and relationships, want to take more care than some politicians, some pundits and some preachers do.
So: back to the false mythology of the hour.
Some fairly well known figures are saying that the churches around the country who vocally and unconditionally support the executive branch and the president are the heirs to the Confessing Church movement in mid-twentieth century Germany, a movement exemplified by the Protestant Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And, correspondingly, they hold that those Christians who do not agree with the policies of the executive branch and the president are fascists.
When I first heard this idea, I thought it so ludicrous that I didn’t even take it seriously. That was a mistake. It is spreading like wildfire. People love to hitch the wagon of their beliefs and efforts to a famous heroic cause, and there are few more heroic causes than the Confessing Church movement, whose leaders included people like Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) officially stands in the tradition of the Confessing Church movement in its adherence to The Theological Declaration of Barmen, a confession written principally by the Reformed theologian Karl Barth and adopted by a synod of churches across Germany in 1934. An underground seminary, led by Bonhoeffer, set about to educate ministers for this movement.
At the heart of the movement was the belief that Jesus Christ as he is attested to in the Bible is the one Word of God whom we must hear and obey in all of life, and that there are no areas of life over which Jesus Christ is not our Lord. This affirmation is in fact a re-affirmation of the oldest confession that Christians hold, tracing its origin to St. Paul himself, “Jesus is Lord.” And it carries the specific rejection that there are aspects of human life over which Christ is not our Lord. The anathema of this confession runs like this: there are no aspects of human life over which someone else other than the God revealed in Christ Jesus is our lord. Martin Niemoller courageously summarized this affirmation in a title of one of many things he wrote at the time: “Jesus Christ is my Fuhrer.”
Obviously, there was an implicit political message in the confession. No government can claim authority over the totality of human life. To do so is to usurp the place of God. In other words, such a move on the part of a government represents a form of idolatry. If policies of any government conflict with the lordship of Christ, the Christian is cast into the dilemma of wrestling with that ancient and enigmatic charge from Jesus (as he flipped a coin bound for the tax man back at his interlocutor) to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but unto God what is God’s.” Caesar, in other words, does not have a free hand over the conscience of the Christian.
This reality into which our faith thrusts us is fraught. It is why Christians and other persons may indeed be persons of goodwill but may disagree deeply over specific social and political policies.
But this history and this confession also clarify our Christian struggle of conscience. You may have seen the fascinating article in the New York Times (June 20, 2020) which told the story of a young Baptist pastor in Alabama who, in 2017, did what Baptist preachers and scores of other preachers have tried to do throughout history; that is, he tried to preach the Bible with integrity in a particular moment. Karl Barth once described the role of the preacher in a way this young pastor would understand well. The preacher comes to the pulpit, Barth famously said, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
Faced with headlines regarding worrying policies of the then new administration, the young pastor preached a sermon based on the Beatitudes (see Matthew chapter five), from that section of the Gospels known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some members of the church were fairly enraged. And they confronted the young pastor. Among the things they said, was this: “Those are nice, but we don’t have to live by them.”
I find this statement, as a historical theologian, fascinating for several reasons, but for one reason in particular: One can say what one wants about the biblicist tradition represented in most Southern Baptist Churches, but when it comes to holding the Bible as the supreme authority over the Christian’s beliefs and behaviors, there’s never been any doubt as to where they stand.
In this case, however, these church members explained to the young pastor that the words of Jesus conflicted with the policies of the current administration, and they refused to consider that it was the policies that needed to be considered critically from the perspective of Christian faith. Instead, from that day on, they began to monitor the young pastor for statements that did not conform to their political agenda.
Speaking as a historical theologian I must say that their actions – and this church is by no means alone in this – have much more in common with the German Christian Church which remodeled Christian scripture and confessions (removing whole sections of the Bible, for example) to reflect the policies of the Nazis than they do with the Confessing Church movement which risked imprisonment and death for opposing the policies of the Nazi government.
Please understand me, I am not plucking out of the air the example of Nazism but reflecting historically and theologically on the mythology many evangelical churches and their leadership themselves are currently constructing to defend their support of actions that others, including other Christians, are questioning and criticizing.
George Orwell once said that those who control the writing of history also control the future. I think we should take that seriously.
In my life I have worn the labels of Christian, Presbyterian, and Evangelical (especially when in the British context), but I have also been called liberal and conservative. These days I would hardly know what any of those terms mean anymore if I just relied on the pejorative uses of them in our society. After a lifetime of studying the Bible, I am more sure than ever that it speaks with authority to our lives, but I am also critical and analytical of the Bible as a document and regard it as a witness written by human beings over many centuries attempting to come to terms with their experience of God. The Word of God speaks through the Bible, but I believe the words themselves are all human.
For me, faith has become simpler even as life has grown more complex. I believe, I truly believe, that at the core of all that is there beats the heart of Love divine. And the surest way to show our kinship with God is by loving others. My way of trying to do this is to try to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I fail far more than I succeed. But I cannot ignore Jesus no matter what any nation or its government says. I am also aware that when my nation acts, it acts in my name, because I am a citizen. And when it acts in a way I believe deeply is at odds with the Lord I try to follow, I cannot ignore the gap between the parting of these ways.
I believe that Christians and other persons of faith in other traditions can be good citizens. And sometimes citizenship is proven not in obsequious consent but in loving one’s country enough to speak against its government’s policies. There’s always more to say, but for today, this is enough.