Bonhoeffer for critiquing American evangelical statecraft

Bonhoeffer for Critiquing American evangelical Statecraft

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Protestantism Without Reformation”(No Rusty Swords, pgs. 88-113, Fount Paperbacks, 1977).

Well, here it is finally, the second part of that “If I had a megaphone” post. I’ve unpacked in an abbreviated way what I regard as an important essay that should be on the reading/thinking list of evangelicals today. Feel free to comment on any points that jump out at you. Sorry there are so many. I could call this post “The toughest thirty-five pages you will (and should) encounter.”

Let me begin by saying that my approach to this paper by Bonhoeffer will need to be completely different than my approach to the Karl Barth essay comparing twentieth century American evangelicalism with nineteenth century European evangelical theology. To treat each one fairly is to set them in their proper context. Karl Barth’s essay was given as a seminar. It was an abbreviated talk on a topic he’d exhaustively covered in 1947 in a 600+ page book, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. Barth’s command of the subject allowed him great liberty to expound on the direction of the church at that time. He was at home in the subject because it was his own history.
Now with Dietrich Bonhoeffer something very different is going on. He is delving into the history and social situation of a people he found strange and peculiar to his own history. He is engaging in cross cultural ecclesial encounter to make, in his words, “a committed observation that takes into account what God said in history and what God is doing now.” Leave it to Bonhoeffer to put himself in a nearly impossible situation!
So what I want to do is watch Bonhoeffer watching America in 1939 inorder to understand himself (in his ecclesial situation) and his own future direction, and then try to learn from that observation what a historic, sociological, dogmatic, and Christological window into America looks like.

Eberhard Bethge notes regarding this study: (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, pg. 658-660)

“The real reason Bonhoeffer thought he was more perceptive during this short stay in America in 1939 than he had been in 1930 was his own experience of existential insecurity. This time the refugee and person turning back home could appreciate the nation of refugees.”

“With this essay Bonhoeffer turned his very personal American experience into a cornerstone of ecumenical awareness that held true in general.”

1. Unity of church and denomination (No Rusty Swords, pgs. 89-97)

The first eight pages of this work are the hardest to work through. Rather than overburdening this entry with all of the issues involved here, I have to painfully extract from the whole.

Bonhoeffer analyzes the origin and development of denominations in the United States and finds that there is no basis for discussion in creedal unity. In Germany a return to the creed was the starting position for learning the state of the church. Bonhoeffer recognizes that the churches in America have no central creedal unity, and that “culture, the liturgy, community life and organization occupy the same position as the creed in Germany.” (pg. 96)

He begins:

“It has been granted to the Americans less than any other nation of the earth to realize on earth the visible unity of the church of God. It has been granted to the Americans more than any other nation of the earth to have before their eyes the multiplicity of Christian insights and communities. Statistics show over two hundred denominations; about fifty of these have more than fifty thousand members.”

It is interesting that the number of denominations in the US today has stayed roughly the same as in Bonhoeffer’s day (1939), whereas the populations within them has, with the overall population, increased significantly. (The Hartford Institute for Religion Research estimates 217, if you include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.)

“Where no struggle for truth divides the churches, the unity of the church should already have been won. The actual picture, however, is just the opposite. Precisely here, where the question of truth is not the criterion of church communion and church division, disintegration is greater than anywhere else. That is to say, precisely where the struggle for the right creed is not the factor which governs everything, the unity of the church is more distant than where the creed alone unites and divides the churches.”

The question of unity posed here seems alien to evangelical thinking. We can unite on some things, like evangelism and social causes for instance, but I don’t think we really see any point in creedal unity. The fact that Christ’s church is one body and that denominations do appear to be a visible weakening of that at best, and apostasy at worst, almost seems like a trifling detail. We evangelicals seem to agree on essentials and from that point we accentuate the positive. Isn’t that unity? Well, Bonhoeffer says no. As we’ll see from the next section it is a flight from struggle.

II. Refuge of Christians: “from the beginning America has been a refuge for persecuted Christians from the European continent.” (pg. 97-98)

A. The question of Perseverance or Flight: “The beginnings of a great number of American denominations are to be found in voluntary or forced flight and all the Christian problems which that involves.”

“the deep abhorrence which any confessional discrimination in American Christianity has always met with in the long run may be quite adequately explained from the Christian right to flee, from the character of America as sanctuary.”

B. “Absence of struggle becomes for them the normal and ideal state of Christianity. The descendants of the fugitives grow up into a peace which is not won, but inherited. Thus for American Christianity the concept of tolerance becomes the basic principle of everything Christian. Any intolerance is itself unchristian.”

This section is very autobiographical. Bonhoeffer in many ways extends his own circumstance into his position on the American church. For this reason it makes it hard to apply this passage to native American Evangelicals today, except to see that we tend to have roots to our need for avoiding confessional struggle.

But no, then again, I think there is more usefulness here than that. Bear in mind that Bonhoeffer writes on behalf of refugees from struggle-laiden countries. How many thousands of Christians today bear in themselves the struggle that Bonhoeffer embodied at this time? They are forced to make the dreadful decision of fleeing the struggle of their homeland for a new generic protestantism without struggle or staying possibly to face death? Think in particular of the situation for Arab Christians in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Sudan right now. Bonhoeffer allows us a glimpse into his own decision and reminds us that ecclesiology involves a life decision. Our American ecclesiology has a cross-cultural effect on anyone choosing a life in America. As Evangelicals we need to look at our tolerant Reformation-less protestant theology and ask whether as the world’s victors (after and since WWII) we can really understand a Christ who has suffered defeat and remains identified with this world’s defeated.

III. Freedom

A. Religious freedom as an obvious possession.

“Praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere, coupled with the sharpest condemnation of any limitation of such freedom which has taken place anywhere. Thus freedom here means possibility, the possibility of unhindered activity given by the world to the church. Now if the freedom of the church is essentially understood as this possibility, then the concept is still unrecognized.” (pg. 100)
“The freedom of the church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it. ”

“Thus it can happen that a church which boasts of its freedom as a possibility offered to it by the world slips back into the world to a special degree, that a church which is free in this way becomes secularised more quickly than a church which does not possess freedom as possibility. The American praise of freedom is more a praise which is directed to the world, the state and society, than a statement about the church.”

“Freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church. It can be a gracious gift given to the church by the providence of God; but it can also be the temptation to which the church succumbs in sacrificing its essential freedom to institutional freedom. Whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God.

“. . . where thanks for institutional freedom must be rendered by the sacrifice of freedom of preaching, the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.” (pg. 101)

I’ve heard it more times than I can count, “We should really be grateful this morning for the right to meet together here in church without fear of persecution. Many countries don’t have that, Amen?!” It’s almost like we have to remember that we’re free in order to call it that. Bonhoeffer is pointing out here that real freedom is not in its possibility but where the Gospel makes room for itself on the earth. What does that mean? As I understand it, as Christians we should have our eyes on God’s action– his creative, free, redemptive work in the world. Where countries (like America) institutionalize a free space for religion they also shape it into a non-threatening character. William Cavanaugh had much more to say about this in a lecture he gave titled, “The Empire of the Empty Shrine.” Essentially, the gospel as salvation of souls has never been a threat to the government in America because, it says, “God can have the souls— America has the bodies!”

So when Bonhoeffer says that the actual preaching of the Word of God determines whether the churches are really free he’s talking about a certain kind of preaching. He wasn’t impressed by the preaching he encountered in America. It didn’t seem to represent “the Gospel that makes room for itself on earth.” That’s not to say that Bonhoeffer offered a direct critique of America’s preaching per se. He is just making observations here about what real freedom looks like. With his assertions in mind, what kind of preaching would allow the gospel to make room for itself?

IV. Church and State

Bonhoeffer begins by acknowledging two truths about America’s separation of church and state:

1. nowhere in the world has it had such significance

2. nowhere else have churches been so active in political, social, economic, and cultural events, than here where there is no state church.

A. History: Bonhoeffer then looks into the history of the separation of church and state, and reveals that its real meaning lies in idea that the state has its boundary at the churches. This is the key to its original significance. The original colonies kept the order of their mother states, it was only after federal rule after the American Revolution that this changed. With the founding of the nation there were no public religious stats, school instruction, or public inquiries into the religious affiliation of state offices. (Bonhoeffer is obviously compare/contrasting with the German situation.) The influence of the church in public life at this time was still so strong that the church could refuse state help or interference.

“But above all, the religionlessness of the state expressed a fact which was of fundamental significance for American Christianity, namely that the state has its boundaries at the churches. The religionlessness of the state was from this point of view not a triumph of secular authority over Christianity, but quite the reverse, the victory of the church over any unbounded claim by the state.” (No Rusty Swords, 102.)

He points out that the difference between the American and French Revolutions is that American democracy is founded not on humanity or the dignity of man, but on the kingdom of God and the limitation of earthly power. (I’m interested in whether American historians would agree with this last point.)

B. Democracy and the Reformation: (pg. 103) Bonhoeffer uses the Reformation doctrine of the state as “the divine office of the sword” as the reference point for discussing church and state relations. He seems to ask, “How does Democracy hold up in reformation thought?” He points out that in Europe “democracy and Christianity have always been regarded there as in some sort of opposition, while in America democracy can be extolled as the form of the Christian state.” (pg. 103)

But he uses the words “enthusiasm” and “spiritualism” to describe what Americans did. Instead of separating church influence into spheres or realms the church reserved its right to use the state.

“The dignity of the state, which is developed in Reformation doctrine more strongly than anywhere else, grows weaker in American thought. The interplay of state and church becomes a relationship of subordination in which the state is merely the executive of the church. The state is essentially a technical organisation and administrative apparatus. But the dignity of the divine office of the sword ‘to avenge the evil and reward the good’ appears to be lost. It is the enthusiastic doctrine of the state, whose destiny it is to be taken up into the church even on this earth, which governs American thought and at the same time provides a firm Christian foundation for American democracy.”

I don’t know about you but I’ve never quite heard it put this way before. It’s definitely food for thought. If Bonhoeffer is right, America has succeeded in producing a unique “kingdom” envisioned form of democracy wherein the church always is secured an influential seat within the state’s discourse. This is quite hopeful, to say the least. The question for Evangelicals today is whether as the new Mainstream Christian presence, (after the Mainline Protestant influence declined) they will still continue with the previous generation’s belief in America’s Christian democracy. Do we believe that we have not yet lost the battle, that America is not yet Post-Christian and that we are winning the values war for hearts and minds?

“The secularisation of the church on the continent of Europe arose from the misinterpretation of the reformers’ distinction of the two realms; American secularisation derives precisely from the imperfect distinction of the kingdoms and offices of church and state, from the enthusiastic claim of the church to universal influence on the world. That is a significant distinction. While for the churches of the Reformation the doctrine of the two realms needs a new examination and correction, the American denominations today must learn the necessity of this distinction, if they are to be rescued from complete secularization. The lesson which we can learn from a knowledge of the nature of the American church is this: a state-free church is no more protected against secularisation than is a state church. The world threatens to break in on the church as much because of freedom as because of association. There is no form of the church is as such protected in principle from secularisation.” (NRS, 104.)

His last sentence makes it clear. There is no protection in being American from the process of secularization. Church and state separation is no perfect principle that protects the church from state influence. So why do some reconstructionist evangelicals (like D. James Kennedy) want to do away with all talk of separation of church and state? They seem to fear nothing about the state’s influence on the church and view it as this harmless instrument which the church can use to make everyone better Christians or Christians-to-be!

Next Bonhoeffer looks at the issues of church influence in public schools, military service and conscientious objection, what he calls “a question of less importance,” the use of the American flag in churches. He seems to just be observing the American way of things with each of these issues, not making too much of any except to describe life with under a separation of church and state. But then he gets to the where the real power lies:

“The strongest influence of the church on the state in America is exerted not by the community and the pulpit, but by the considerable power of the free Christian associations which are not linked with any denomination. The picture of American Christianity is not complete without this decisive connecting link between community and public life. These are private associations, founded by individual Christians for any limited aim which may be termed working for the kingdom of God in America.”

We often call these parachurch organizations and where Mainline Protestants used these well during Bonhoeffer’s time, evangelicals have been and are now using them tenfold. As someone who has spent his life involved to one degree or another involved in different parachurch organizations, I can testify to their power and appeal among American Christians. I must also confess that I am troubled by the clear lack of authority and communication between parachurches, the churches, and the state. Who governs the birth and influence of non-profit organizations in America? Anyone with the money and influence has the right to start one, and anyone may assume the role of speaking for God and the people. But are we looking at the responsibilities involved there?

Bonhoeffer goes on to list the kinds of associations covering everything from evangelisation to social aims, peace movements and unemployment aid. He seems impressed by all of this. But then he says this:

“In this connection, however, American Christianity has had a strange and perhaps highly momentous experience. it has had to recognise that the transference of Christian principles to state life has led to a catastrophic breakdown. The prohibition law gave an unprecedented impulse to crime in the large cities. A ‘Christian’ law meant the ruin of the state and had—with the agreement of the churches—to be repealed. This fact has given American Christians much food for thought, and it must make us think too.”

Well what shall we make of this today in 2007? Within evangelical circles I’ve read policymakers who take the exact opposite view of the Prohibition in hindsight. With a sunny optimism they accentuate the positive. Its true that many died from tainted alcohol and crime syndications grew stronger, but statistically overall (they claim) people drank less and were better off for it. I’m serious! This is how people think! But let’s try to stand in the shoes of those who fought hard for Prohibition and were burdened with its result. Mainline Protestants lived with both sides. Can we take a lesson from this? Could it be that evangelicals are still not of a mind admit that the business of social advocacy is a two edged sword and that the political maneuvering involved makes ripples that might serve to shame us rather than empower us?

V. The Negro Question (p. 107-109)

We don’t use the word Negro anymore and even the sight of it brings up the weight of changes in America since 1939. What is significant is that the German Dietrich Bonhoeffer placed race relations among the most critical questions facing the churches at this time. We should remember that sociality is a crucial starting point for understanding his theology and that the race divide in America at this time spoke to Bonhoeffer directly about American religion. He points to the historical, racial and cultural divisions, the tendency among Americans to blindly “other” and “exclude” blacks for centuries as a matter of church policy, and seems to say “THIS is your church. Take a good hard look.”

“If it has come about that today the ‘black Christ’ has to be led into the field against the ‘white Christ’ by a young Negro poet, then a deep cleft in the church of Jesus Christ is indicated.” (NRS, 108)

Here he is referring to the poem “The Black Christ” by Countee Cullen. (In his article for Cross Current, “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin” Scott Holland tells us more about this poem, “Indeed, Cullen’s narrative poem, “The Black Christ,” has a rather astonishing conclusion. As the story of a racist lynching develops, the subject position of a black man who is lynched by whites for his love of sensuality, the spring, and a white woman is assumed, in the end, by Christ.”)

“. . . the picture of a racially divided church is still general in the United States today. Black and white hear the Word and receive the sacrament in separation. They have no common worship.”

Let’s think about this for a moment before we rush to laud the “progress” we’ve made since 1939 with the Civil Rights Movement. I cringe when I hear my fellow evangelicals speaking of how we’ve all come to embrace the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember an interview I heard between Terri Gross and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in which Mr. Land capped off the interview with a personal testimony:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. is a personal hero of mine. He models for me what it means as a baptist minister to bring your faith into critique of society and to right wrongs and to address evil in society. And that was furthered by my exposure to Francis Schaeffer whose central tenet was truth is truth with a capital “T” and if its true at home its true in the world if its true at church its true in government and you have an obligation to be salt and light in the world and to speak truth to power at all places and in all times.”

This all sounds very nice as a sound bite, but you should know that during the whole course of this interview Richard Land defended policy issues that directly defied Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s own social policies of non-violence and empowerment for the poor, and never once addressed race as anything he cared about! The fact of the matter is that Richard Land represents one of the most powerful political interest groups of the Christian Right in America. To claim Dr. King as one of his heroes and to use and place a very different man, Francis Schaeffer, beside him is to project the work of the Christian Right onto Dr. King’s legacy–something he would be repulsed by!

But let me get back to Bonhoeffer. We can’t claim today that our churches are no longer divided along racial lines. There is still a long way to go. Until we realize that only together do we form the true Christian church, we will continue to see the world and ourselves wrongly.

Bonhoeffer then pointed out the contribution of the Negro spiritual to American life at the time. He says,

“Every white American knows, sings and loves these songs. It is barely understandable that great negro singers can sing these songs before packed concert audiences of whites, to tumultuous applause, while at the same time these same men and women are still denied access to the white community through social discrimination.” (pg 109)

We Americans are naturally bifurcated in our thinking. This doesn’t seem to be changing. We’re still good at watching other humans suffer and living the same way.

VI. Theology

Bonhoeffer saves his discussion of theology for last because he doesn’t consider American theology as significant! He says that denominations in the US should not be judged theologically but “from their practical work in the community and their public effectiveness.” Then he says, “This is true in a similar way of almost all Anglo-Saxon churches and represents a great difficulty for us.”

This is followed by a lengthy encounter with the changing theological scene from classic liberalism to neo-orthodoxy, but always with an emphasis on religion and ethics and never an abandonment of natural theology. He uses the Niebuhr brothers as a case in point. They change, but not enough. Bonhoeffer’s final words leave us with enough food for thought.

“American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics. But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognised as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness. The decisive task for today is the dialogue between Protestantism without Reformation and the churches of the Reformation.”

What Dietrich is talking about here is of course the manner of criticism Karl Barth propounds beginning in his Romans commentary. The gist is that we cannot remove our work from God’s judgment. The trouble with us evangelicals is that we’ve drunk too deeply of our own hubris, we like the sound of our own voice, we’re conditioned for the limelight, our PR is sound. We’ve got humility down to an art form and we’re convinced that in a Christian democracy we can do no wrong. Well, this attitude didn’t work for the last church elites and history doesn’t seem to say it will faire well for us either.



Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, Karl Barth, religion and politics, theology

3 responses to “Bonhoeffer for critiquing American evangelical statecraft

  1. wtm1

    Thanks for doing all this hard work! This was a really informative and thought-provoking read, and I especially appreciated the bit on freedom. I’m sure that there are plenty of people around who want to add their two-cents worth, so I’ll leave the floor to them. Keep up the good work!

  2. Chris,

    Thank you for posting this. As usual, I’m a little more critical of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of things, though I cannot express enough my admiration for his idea that true Christianity lies beyond ethics or so-called morality. This quote, however, drew my special attention:

    “The dignity of the state, which is developed in Reformation doctrine more strongly than anywhere else, grows weaker in American thought. The interplay of state and church becomes a relationship of subordination in which the state is merely the executive of the church. The state is essentially a technical organisation and administrative apparatus. But the dignity of the divine office of the sword ‘to avenge the evil and reward the good’ appears to be lost. It is the enthusiastic doctrine of the state, whose destiny it is to be taken up into the church even on this earth, which governs American thought and at the same time provides a firm Christian foundation for American democracy.”

    In short, I think that either D. B. was being somewhat ironic (doubtful, in my opinion, as he doesn’t seem to me to be that sort of person), or his observation exactly reversed things. I am sure that most Christians in this nation might also read it as he read it vis a vis the nexus between an ascendant church and submissive state. However, as I read the above, I can’t help thinking the exact reverse has occurred. Christianity has ended up being subsumed by the State, American policy of our “Christian President” being ratified as God’s Will. Of course, our situation now and the one existing in his day here were quite different. There was effectively no powerful “Christian Right” in intellectual circles, the theological liberals at that point holding the day. (Fundamentalism existed, but largely was dismissed by the folks around Bonhoeffer, at least as I understand his Union Seminary surroundings.)

    I could easily be wrongly reading this. So please don’t take this comment as an idea set in stone — far from it. But on first read, anyway, it hit me that way. This young German pastor really got it about racism in America, but as far as the exact interrelationship between church and state, I’m not so sure.

    Anyway, thanks for the helpful, thoughtful post.


  3. Jon,

    Thanks for reading and offering comments! Its hard for many of us today to relate to Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the Reformation doctrine of church and state. Many of my online friends are Anabaptists who believe that Luther and Calvin got it exactly wrong. I’m following a conversation now that maintains that we’re in a Post-Christendom era in which the values of the Radical Reformation can finally be clearly appreciated. I think you’re right that the US has changed since Bonhoeffer’s day. But I appreciate his insight into the naive US idea that the church can use the state as it’s apparatus, a technical means for making the Kingdom here in the US. I don’t think the church can bring the physical Kingdom anywhere here on earth and that’s clear from history.


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