The Bonhoeffer Effect, “Unpleasant Parallels,” and the 2016 Election

Thanks to conservative intellectual Eric Metaxas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become a member of this crazy election’s extended cast of characters. At multiple points this year (most recently in Wall Street Journal op-ed and then a series of tweets), Metaxas has hearkened back to his Bonhoeffer biography in order to make the case for supporting Donald Trump.

Not surprisingly, Trump opponents have strongly rejected Metaxas’ arguments. If anything, they say, the proper analogy recognizes Trump as a Hitler-like figure who must be opposed with the same moral clarity that sustained Bonhoeffer’s unflinching resistance to National Socialism.

But in my Anxious Bench post this morning, I consider whether all such appeals risk exacerbating what’s been called the “Bonhoeffer effect,” in which Christians focus so much on that one heroic story that they obscure the more problematic history of Christian complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich.

I tried to avoid pointing directly to what Metaxas has called “unpleasant parallels”; historical analogies tend to confuse more than clarify. But for the post, I did draw on some recent research in order to hint at the complexity of this history. For example, I quoted historian Richard Evans’ description of the Deutsche Christen in The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939:

The “German Christian” movement — which treated Hitler as a messianic figure, rejected the Old Testament, and denied the Jewishness of Christ — never claimed more than 1% of the German population. But it garnered strong support from

young pastors from lower-middle-class backgrounds or non-academic families, men for whom war service had often been a life-defining experience, and racially conscious pastors from areas near Germany’s eastern borders for whom Protestantism represented German culture against the Catholicism of the Poles or the Orthodox faith of the Russians.

The notion of borderlands breeding racial consciousness is especially noteworthy, since Evans earlier noted that German Protestants tended to see WWI “as a religious crusade against the Catholic French and Belgians and the Orthodox Russians.” But even more intriguingly, he continues the passage by turning to masculinity:

SA men holding German Christian propaganda during church elections in Berlin, 1933
SA men holding German Christian propaganda during church elections in Berlin, 1933 — Creative Commons (Bundesarchiv)

Such men desired a Church militant based on the aggressive propagation of the Gospel, a crusading Church whose members were soldiers for Jesus and the Fatherland, tough, hard and uncompromising. Muscular Christianity of this kind appealed particularly to young men who despised the feminization of religion through its involvement in charity, welfare and acts of compassion. The traditional Pietist emphasis on sin and repentance, which dwelt on images of Christ’s suffering and transfiguration, was anathema to such men. They demanded instead an image of Christ that would set a heroic example for German men in the world of the here and now. For them, Hitler took on the mantle of a national redeemer who would bring about the rechristianization of society along with its national awakening. (p. 224)

Click here to read the full post. (And look for my article on “Christians and National Socialism” in a 2017 issue of Christian History magazine.)


One thought on “The Bonhoeffer Effect, “Unpleasant Parallels,” and the 2016 Election

  1. The only remotely valid comparison to the defining feature of Hitlerism, the Holocaust, is the Democratic Party’s embrace of abortion rights. Hillary Clinton even supports the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which would put our government in the business of actively financing abortions.

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