It is some of the bleakest times in European and German history. In the 1930’s the Nazis obtained power in Germany and they used their influence in some of the darkest ways in human history and they tested German Christians in the process. Many German Christians embraced Nazism and people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer were in fact a minority. You study periods in history like Nazi, Germany to apply the lessons and learn from them. And yet the reaction and behavior by many white evangelicals who used faith to embrace Trumpism revealed the following lesson. Many white American evangelicals never learned their lessons from their Christian counterpart generations earlier in Nazi, Germany.
“I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB (Son of a Bitch) I can find to protect America. And so that’s why Trump’s tone doesn’t bother me.”
“The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us. … Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.“
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.[a]
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives
2 Peter 3:10-11
In either 2008 or 2009 I was involved in a men’s Bible study at Mark Batterson’s National Community Church. The two people who led the Bible study were Matt Emery and Brad Meyer. We were reading the book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In the book we discussed some of the themes of cheap grace and also explored the cheapening of sin and Martin Luther bringing the Reformation out of the cloister. One night in the study one of the guys asked us, “What do you think of this book being written while the Nazis were controlling Germany? How would you apply what is written to forms of injustice?” It was a question along those lines. There are lessons from the book especially when one considers how many Christians were morally tested by the Nazis and failed. There were about twelve of us in a room in a residence in NE Washington, D.C. sitting on couches and reflecting on the question. One person said that he didn’t know what he would do if he found himself in a position that Bonhoeffer was in. Another person spoke out and said they would challenge the Nazis knowing what he knows. I sat there and listened to the differing sides and stayed mostly quiet. From my point of view it remains easy to play an armchair quarterback from the safety of a residence years after the event took place. However, I was also troubled because my background in college and grad school is in studying 20th century European and German history. My graduation essay for my Masters degree consisted on an era in the Weimar Republic in Germany and I drove down to Northwestern University from Milwaukee to research in the archives for a day to get the primary source material I needed for the project. I spent some time reading about Nazism in Germany and I was troubled by the question being asked in the Men’s Bible study. To myself I hoped we would not have another situation that would be morally challenging. That many people would learn the lessons of Nazi, Germany and the way Christians acted. It was also around this time that Eric Metaxas was releasing his book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” Many Christians made Dietrich Bonhoeffer popular. However years later I would realize that I would be wrong. I didn’t know this at the time, but many evangelical Christians would be ethically tested in 2016 and many would morally fail. But before we look at that moral test let’s spend sometime looking at Christians in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
How Christians Reacted in Germany to Moral Issues and How Many Supported the Nazis
Germany in the 1920’s was in chaos. The country was at its first attempt of democracy and had lost WW I. The monarchy ended with Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicating to the Netherlands. There would be economic challenges to many average Germans. Images of people carrying money in wheelbarrows due to hyper inflation came out of Germany to a stunned world. However against these economic trying times in the Weimar Republic era of German history there was a profound period of freedom in many ways. And some of it was a major shock for Christians at the time, who morally detested it.
Marlene Dietrich The Blue Angel
In the Weimar era along with the political unrest and massive inflation there also was a new openness. Drugs were popular and existed in many forms. While you had cocaine and opium, methamphetamine were also popular. Drugs were easy to obtain and since Germany lost its colonies due to the Treaty of Versailles tea and other cultural habits dried up and into the gap stepped in narcotics. German pharmaceutical companies manufactured most of the narcotics for Berlin alone. Germany also had veterans who soothed their pain from war with opium. Prostitution flourished in the Weimar Republic as well. It was deregulated, as toward the end of the war the German government created legal brothels to protect the health of German soldiers from venereal diseases. Many former German soldiers had accepted prostitution and were okay with it in the Weimar era. But prostitution came in all forms and flourished during this time.
Germany became much more relaxed about homosexuality. And Berlin became the gay capitol of Europe with many traveling there for sex vacations. Sex tourists came from Britain and Scandinavia to dive into the gay lifestyle of Berlin. Gay fraternization, parties, clubs, were popular and tolerated. It was in this environment that one also had cross dressing as well which defied gender norms. Drag shows by some of the gays and also in cabarets became a part of Weimar culture. Weimar even became more open to gender changing surgeries. It was against this that some of the well known in Weimar became celebrities on the world stage. For example Marlene Dietrich starred in moves likes The Blue Angel which showcased the cabaret lifestyle and the problems it posed. Dietrich embraced bisexuality in the Weimar years. The cabaret clubs of Berlin were notorious, with at least 899 on record of having existed. In many of these clubs prostitution, sexual freedom, being gay and more were often celebrated. This was highlighted in the musical which became a movie, called Cabaret with Liza Minnelli in 1972.
Then there was also the pornography which was a part of Weimar culture. Photography studies would make pictures and portraits by day and porn by night. Porn that mocked religion, or even well known personalities in the Weimar culture. Some of the porn impersonated people like Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. The porn sometimes had quality issues depending on who made the films. And all this took place in Weimar, Germany from 1918 until 1933 or 1934 before the Nazis clamped down and crushed all of it.
The Nazis Take Over Germany and the German Christian Movement and Bonhoeffer
During this time many German Christians were appalled by the homosexuality, porn, and the drugs of Weimar. Many Christians had merged their faith with politics and resented the end of the German monarchy as well. They despised democracy and claimed it was harmful to the German family. So in the 1920’s when the National Socialist Party came on the scene the Nazis spoke to Christian fears. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 their anti-drug policy called, “Rauschgiftbekämpfung” would be implemented They vowed to crack down on pornography and the corrupt wicked ways of Weimar. The Nazis platform about “positive Christianity” said the following.
“We demand freedom for all religious denominations in the State, provided they do not threaten its existence nor offend the moral feelings of the German race.
The Party, as such, stands for positive Christianity, but does not commit itself to any particular denomination. It combats the Jewish-materialist spirit within and without us, and is convinced that our nation can achieve permanent health only from within on the basis of the principle: The common interest before self-interest.”
But this blog is getting a little ahead of itself. Let’s look at how many churches responded to the Nazis. In the 1930’s Germany had 45 million Protestants. German Protestantism broke down into Lutheran, Reformed or United Churches. In each German state, which at the end of Weimar there was 17 the members of these denominations joined together to form a regional Protestant church. The Protestants at the time had diverse views of the Nazis. Some disagreed and opposed them while others wanted to remain neutral. Yet many Christians supported the Nazis and liked their policies. In the process they called themselves, “Storm Troopers for Jesus Christ.” The Protestant church struggled with Nazism to the point of fracturing the faith.
After the Nazis obtained power in 1933 they worked to usher in changes to Protestant churches across Germany. The Nazi leadership supported what was called the German Christian movement. It was a movement that aimed to merge Christianity and German National Socialism. This movement would exclude those who were deemed impure and create a faith of the ‘spiritual homeland’ for ‘true Germans’ of the Third Reich. Next all of these regional churches would be united under the leadership of Ludwig Mueller a kind of celebrity pastor/bishop and well known Nazi pastor. Try and imagine him as the Robert Jeffress of the Nazi, Germany era. Ludwig Mueller was so committed to Nazism that when it collapsed in May of 1945, two months later he committed suicide because he couldn’t imagine a Germany without Nazism.
Ludwig Mueller was appointed the Reich Bishop and many German Christians enthusiastically supported these changes. In supporting the German Christian movement they could practice their faith while also supporting the Third Reich simultaneously. This was all put to a vote to affirm this plan by the Nazis in July of 1933. Even though Germany had ecclesiastical elections not long before Hitler retriggered them so he could consolidate his control on religion in Germany. The vote was rigged by the Nazis but despite that Christians in German embraced this movement with enthusiasm. The final results showed two third of German Christians supporting this German Christian national movement. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was so horrified by this proposal that he used all his free time to campaign and support non-Nazis who were running for office. The only bodies which did not go for the German Christian movement were Westphalia and the Lutheran churches of Bavaria, Hanover, and Wurttenberg. These four bodied were viewed as the uncorrupted or intact churches. Those opposed to the German Christian movement referred to all the other churches as the “destroyed churches.”
The German Christian movement changed German Protestantism by bringing it inline with Nazi racial theory. Instead of being classified as Christians by faith, now in these churches people were classified by racial heritage. Those in these churches who had family who converted to Christianity from Judaism were not permitted to serve in church positions. And while evidence suggest that the Nazis did not enforce this law inside churches, those into this warped form of Christian nationalism did. They called them out their heritage, questioned their faith, called them Jewish and drove them from the church. They did this to show their commitment to the Nazi regime. In November of 1933 20,000 German Christians rallied to remove the Old Testament form the Bible because of its ties to Judaism. In 1934 Mueller affirmed this racial ideology in continuing to propose the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible because of its “Jewish influence.” German Christian leaders responded claiming “The eternal God created for our nation a law that is peculiar to its own kind. It took shape in the Leader Adolf Hitler, and in the National Socialist state created by him. This law speaks to us from the history of our people. . . . It is loyalty to this law which demands of us the battle for honor and freedom . . . One Nation! One God! One Reich! One Church!” Furthermore Before the Confessing Church was stood up Martin Niemoller founded the Pastors Emergency League which was designed to support the Biblical basis of faith and baptism during this time. Niemoller was concerned with Nazism affecting Christian doctrine.
Despite this German Christian nationalism era there were other Christians who disagreed with this move. They formed another faction called the “Confessing Church” in May of 1934. They claimed that Jesus would be the head of the church and not the Fuhrer. Its slogan was “Church must remain church” and its members sought to protect its members from Nazi ideology and politics. Anyone who was baptized was looked at as a Christian and they rejected racial claims. It is believed that 20% of the pastors of Germany identified with this Confessing Church movement. However, despite this there were many in the Confessing Church who did not object to the bulk of Nazism. The argument between the two groups was how involved should the Nazis be on the issue of faith? Plus you also had Nazis who became members of these churches and they brought their Christian nationalism with them. Then two Protestant Bishops and Martin Niemoller met with Hitler and his top aides to discuss this issue. While the two Bishops vowed to support Hitler’s domestic and foreign policy aims they asked for the right to disagree on Christian faith issues. Hitler would not budge and in response the Bishops signed a statement of unconditional loyalty to Hitler. In contrast Niemoller refused and he was targeted by the Nazi machine. For disagreeing with the Nazi state he would spend seven years interned in a German concentration camp.
During this period of German history it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was most well known for resisting the Nazis. The appointment of Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor on January 30, 1933 forever changed his life. When he saw what the Nazis were doing he started to speak out. When Bonhoeffer was offered a Berlin parish post in the fall of 1933 he resisted and rejected it because of National Socialism influence. Bonhoeffer found that many Christians in Germany did not share his views, and he was beginning to lose friends as well during this time. He accepted a two year appointment as pastor teaching at two German congregations in London. Theologian Karl Barth accused Bonhoeffer of abandoning his church in Germany in a critical time and said that he was running from the situation. In Britain Bonhoeffer organized support against Nazi influence over theology. Bonhoeffer was warned in Britain not to organize ecumenical activity that was not sanctioned by Berlin. Bonhoeffer ignored the warning and continue his work. In 1935 he returned to Germany and helped set up underground seminaries. While he was doing this the Nazi government intensified its pressure to crack down on the Confessing Church. In 1935 Barth fled to Switzerland while Niemoller was arrested in 1937. Bonhoeffer’s teaching authorization at the University of Berlin was revoked in 1935 as Nazi Bishop Theodor Heckel declared him an enemy of the state. It was during this time that Heinrich Himmler decreed that theological training and examinations for the Confessing Church be illegal. With that action the Gestapo started to raid Confessing Church seminaries and functions starting with Finkenwalde. It was against this turn of events that Bonhoeffer published “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer traveled in Germany and supported underground seminaries, In 1938 the Gestapo banned him from being in Berlin. His sister and her Jewish classified husband fled to Britain by means of Switzerland in 1940. When he learned that war was imminent in Germany with Poland he was troubled by the perspective of being drafted to support Hitler’s activities. In June of 1939 he left Germany at the invitation of the Union Theological Seminary and returned to New York. Bonhoeffer went to New York in 1931 and served at a church in Harlem. However after arriving Bonhoeffer realized he had made a mistake and that he should have stayed in Germany. He wrote a letter to Karl Reinhold Neibhur in which he said the following.
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people … Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
Upon his return to Germany he was harassed by the Nazis and told to report his daily activities to the police. He was banned from speaking publically and publishing any material. In 1943 he was imprisoned and then he had ties to the resistance. After a failed July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler Bonhoeffer was targeted again and eventually transferred to two concentration camps, that of Buchenwald and Flossenburg. He was executed on at dawn of April 9, 1945 when he was hanged at Flossenburg.
The Complicity of German Christians to Nazism
Inside Nazi, Germany many Christians found a way to believe both Christianity and Nazism simultaneously. Many Christians had no problem supporting Hitler. In contrast a sect like the Jehovah’s Witness ran afoul of the Third Reich because their theology prevented them from swearing an oath to the German state or serving in the army. Many Jehovah’s’ Witnesses ended up in concentration camps for their faith. In contrast many Protestants supported Nazism and Hitler in the 1930’s. They wanted to shut down the moral filth of Weimar, get rid of democracy and also some wanted to protect the family. It was almost as if a deal with made, a Faustian bargain among Christians at the time. The marriage of faith and Nazi ideology worked well for some Christians. Evidence shows that the Catholics voted in lower numbers for the Nazis then the Protestants, but Catholics also were complicit in their own way. Bonhoeffer was disillusioned with German Christians following Hitler and embracing Nazism. He could not figure it out. Bonhoeffer believed that Western Christianity had approached its end. He writes, “I am becoming more convinced every day that in the West, Christianity is approaching its end — at least in its present form and its present interpretation.” And the problem was also complicated by the complicity of outside Christians. In 1934 the Baptist World Alliance held their meeting in Berlin. Behind the podium they had pictures of Charles Spurgeon and William Carey. And alongside them they had the Nazi flag hanging. As Baptists spoke one after another found ways to praise Adolf Hitler. They pointed out he did not sin by drinking alcohol. They pointed out he cracked down on immorality like pornography or violent movies. They pointed out that he made women dress more modestly. And in this behavior the Baptists aided and abetted the Nazi regime and failed the church in Germany.
And of course this also begs the question what of the concentration camps in Germany? Did German Christians know about them and what did they think? In German history it was long standing knowledge that the population never knew about the Holocaust. This view comes from historians, sociologists, and political philosophers such as Ralf Dahrendorf, the ex-warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford. In his classic work “Society and Democracy in Germany” (1966) he says – “It is certainly true that most Germans ‘did not know’ about National Socialist crimes of violence; nothing precise, that is, because they did not ask any questions_.” After all when it comes to concentration camps the first one built in Germany is Dachau outside Munich which was established shortly after Hitler became the German Chancellor in January of 1933. But the view of the German’s knowledge about the Holocaust started to shift in the 2000 and 2001 timeframe. Robert Gellately, a Florida State University professor published, “Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.” In that work Gellately shows how Germans knew that concentration camps were operating. He uses Nazi propaganda that talks about them and German press and newspapers which discuss concentration camps and the activities going on. So did ordinary Germans know about concentration camps? Evidence suggests yes, and as a result ordinary German Christians also knew about the concentration camps and still many supported Hitler and the Nazis.
All of this is a lesson about the dangers of Christian nationalism. But the next question to ask is the following. Have white American evangelicals learned from the mistakes of German Christians?
The Trump Era and Christian Nationalism and How White Evangelicals Never Learned From Germany
This post for me has been a deep dive into German history. I spent this past weekend reading up on Bonhoeffer as well as looking at German history and even digging out some of my scholarly history books. That is part of my background in college and grad school. In order to explain myself I felt that it necessary to look at a part of Nazi, Germany in deep detail. That is why you got a history lesson in the first part of this post. I wanted to present you with some historical fact and understanding for what I am about to say next. Here is the context in which I am saying that white American evangelicals never learned from German Christians.
In Germany it was the moral debauchery of Weimar that led many Christians astray. In the United States their rallying cry was the moral debauchery and secularization of the United States in the 1960’s. Evangelicals cling to false facts and view this mythical 1950’s nuclear family concept as the ideal, when that ideal never even existed. Their complaints about the Earl Warren court and the ‘ending’ of school prayer became a rallying cry. Then you add into that picture the issues of abortion, pornography and giving gays civil rights in the course of time. The question must be asked. Have White American evangelicals learned from the German Christian mistakes from the Nazi era?
This blog would say no.
2016 Was a Moral Test for Many White Evangelicals When it Came to Christian Nationalism
Please note for this post I am not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. That is not the goal of this post, plus I am well aware of Godwin’s Law. What I am asking is did white American evangelicals make similar mistakes regarding Christian nationalism that the Germans made in the 1930’s? The rise of Donald Trump and the embrace of him by many white evangelicals has really been unprecedented in the United States. White Evangelicals rallied around Donald Trump at rates that were higher than any other Republican candidate. And the pursuit of power even amidst moral failures was stunning. Below are some of the similarities that I see in behavior.
- Faith and religion is being used as a weapon. In both situations the Christians could not deal with the secular society or even the immoral nature of it. So they weaponized faith and used it as a means to harm people. Its much easier to use government to try and solve a spiritual problem then to personally face your own responsibility for it yourself. For example its easier to want to support the government to ban pornography than to face your personal demons yourself and find a way forward. Supporting a culture war in such a context is theologically lazy and a way of shifting the approach. This blog would argue that many white American evangelicals lack love and are more concerned with power in the end. In the end they put their faith not in God but their desire to change society through secular means instead of spiritual means. Christians in Germany communicated that they didn’t believe in God by rallying support around the Third Reich. Meanwhile in white American evangelicalism they also communicated that they no longer believed in evangelism or trying to change people’s hearts and addressing personal sin. They moved from preaching the Gospel to accepting a secular solution. What does that mean? White American evangelicals abandoned the Gospel by their own choice.
- In the 1930’s there were Christians in Germany who supported the German Christian movement which had the blessing of the Third Reich. As a result Christians in Germany were willing to compromise their faith especially on core tenants like baptism and spiritual regeneration. Likewise white American evangelicals were similar in many ways to their previous German Christian brethren. They were willing to embrace the prosperity gospel at record numbers that were once unthought-of plus they were willing produce to spiritual outsiders of the church a moral reason why one should not be a Christian. Morality was seriously and permanently compromised in a decision to embrace someone who had affairs with porn stars and had a perverse racial ideology system. White evangelicals also compromised the Gospel in that they did this while they were willing to reject their African-American Christian brethren and build a wall between whites and blacks in the process. Faith took a massive and major hit to the point that young people have accelerated their abandonment of faith and are walking away at higher numbers. And doubters like myself who once were willing to try the church have arrived at the conclusion that the church in the United States is too immoral and corrupt to even try.
- There were demagogues in both situations who tried to appease and soothe the powers that be. In Nazi, Germany you had individuals like Ludwig Mueller who sought to use faith to control people and bring them to support a secular leader. In the American evangelicalism system you have spiritual demagogues like Robert Jeffress and Paula White who were willing to do something similar. They spent their time trying to get people to support a secular individual and rejected the historic orthodox faith. Of course you can legitimately ask the question were people like Paula White even orthodox? Well at some point in her life she made a decision to take the path that she is on right now. When and where this happened is up for debate. Ludwig Mueller had to face a similar decision in his faith journey as well.
- During historic and unstable times the Christian faith was historically tested in unique ways. When the Christian faith was tested in the 1930’s in Germany many people failed that moral test. In the United States many white evangelical Christians also were tested. And they also failed. Whether that was due to their lack of knowledge of the Bible or due to being seduced by the aspects of being close to political power can be debated from my perspective.
- There were Christians in the Confessing Church in Germany who also supported the Third Reich by choosing to stay silent. They were more afraid of the consequences of speaking out and of losing friends, and family then of doing the right thing. This same thing happened in the United States. Look at the vitriol that was subjected to people like Peter Wehner and other evangelicals like him who raised their voice. How many people in the pews of American evangelical churches raised their voice and spoke out? By staying silent they enabled and showed many people what they ultimately believed. When it was time to show moral courage they responded with moral cowardice. According to Martin Luther King they physically died when they failed to live by their convictions. They failed to stand up for what is right, what is just and what is true.
- For all the Bible studies and times I heard people talking about reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer its clear to me that it is all in vain. Many people never applied the lessons and learned from his example. Faith for a lot of people is cheap and in the end often means nothing. When called to do the right thing white American evangelicals fold as easily as a house of cards being slammed by a heavy book on a table. White American evangelicals have no spine. They stand for nothing. Whereas Dietrich Bonhoeffer was disillusioned with German Christians who supported Nazism through faith. For people like myself trying to hold on to faith those Christians who supported Trumpism through faith left me, people who tried to divorce faith and politics, equally disillusioned. The lesson which I will get into in the next section is as follows. Faith in God is not worth it, or better yet what is faith? The church has no moral or redeeming aspect in life and therefore should not be taken seriously.
American Evangelical Christianity Has Failed. Don’t Waste Your Time With It
For myself as I consider the issue it leaves me to this conclusion which I keep finding myself going back to when I explore this topic. American evangelicalism has failed as a movement. It is rotten to the core and and is a movement that lacks ethics while being spiritually and morally bankrupt. Many evangelicals don’t have the power or even the right to talk about faith given how they have treated the topic. They don’t have the right to preach to the lost, talk about sin or even mention the name of Jesus. They have made their choice and will have to live with the consequences of their behavior. And when white evangelicals should be asking the world to forgive them, instead their arrogance and pride will keep them where they are at. For this reason God, if he exists, in the view of this blog will show much more grace and compassion to the atheist or the sinner than the Evangelical Christian who proclaims the name of Jesus but who undermines the Gospel message by their action.