The Nazis and Christianity: Is History Repeating Itself?

I’m reading my way through Eric Metaxas’ book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy which is a biography of the well known Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As most people familiar with Bonhoeffer’s life know, Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazi’s on April 9, 1945 for his participation in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.

I only know of the atrocities committed by the Nazis through history books, yet I do not know of any words which adequately describe the depths of depravity it took for the Holocaust to happen across Europe. However, as a Christian preacher and minister, I do wonder how the Nazi party was able to convince a nation of professing Christians to support their political agenda. After all, whatever we think about the ethics of Christian participation in state politics, it is clear that the Nazi agenda was evil, oppressive, and anti-Gospel. So how could professing Christians by in to such a program?

The answer to that question is huge and probably cannot be fully explained in a few simple paragraphs. One thing that is clear to me, as I read through this biography, is how much ignorance there was among Germans when it came to the Bible, theological understanding, and knowing their history as Christians. This ignorance, coupled with a largely nominal faith, allowed the Nazis to co-opt German Christianity into a nationalistic faith serving the Nazi agenda.

As Metaxas notes, “The Nazis were anti-Christian, but they would pretend to be Christians as long as it served their purposes of getting theologically ignorant Germans on their side against the Jews” (p. 94). This included using the anti-Semitic writings of a very old and, perhaps, mentally unsound, Martin Luther on the unsuspecting Germans who were unfamiliar with the earlier writings of Luther that were very sympathetic to the Jewish people. This is all worth noting because, as the maxim goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Is such history repeating itself in the United States of America? Most likely not with the same depraved results of Nazi Fascism but I do suspect that Christianity in America is quickly evolving into a nationalistic faith, if it has not already (and I’m not alone in that suspicion). Further more, the repetition of history appears to be for the very same reasons: a growing biblical, theological, and historical ignorance. In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to hear apathetic attitudes by Christians towards any study of theology and church history. On top of this, there are more and more professing Christians who’s faith is increasingly nominal.

Added to this is the plenty of politicians, both liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, who’s agenda is nationalistic rather than that of Jesus’ Christ…the Gospel, the Kingdom of God. Like the Nazis, such politicians express enough Christian sentiments in order to gain our support of their cause. The real question is at what cost?

There is more I want to say about the trend toward nationalism as the nation begins another election year. For now, I just want to point this out for two reasons. First, this is, in my judgment, the biggest problem facing Christianity in America. Secondly, I also want to stress the need for teaching the Bible, as well as Christian theology and church history among churches. We can learn from what happened in Germany that both nationalism as well as biblical, theological, and historical ignorance are cancers to the Christian faith as well as cancers to society.

12 responses to “The Nazis and Christianity: Is History Repeating Itself?

  1. Perhaps a good starting point is a reminder of the context of “Honor the Emperor.” Showing respect for one’s leaders because they’re one’s leaders is an extension of showing respect to God. Along with that, we may, perhaps, need a reminder of our status as resident aliens in this country.

    • Robert, I think you remind us well of the tension Christians should feel living among the nations. On the one hand, our identity and status as Christians is that of “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet 2.11, NRSV) and we are still to show honor and respect to our governing authorities (Rom 13.7). That’s a tension that needs to be thought of and practiced more often than it appears to be.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Rex, I am a huge Bonhoeffer fan and enjoyed Metaxas’s book. An additional thought about the connection between nationalism and Christianity – the dire economic situation that the Germans faced. I know we are nowhere near that situation today, but reading the book made me realize just how desparate the Germans were following WWI. As the economy here weakens we hear more about mythical enemies that have caused the problem, and sadly enough one group I hear mentioned more often than not is the Jewish people (once again!). But there are no shortage of people who blame the Muslim people as well. Compare that attitude to the words of the prophets – Israel’s situation was the result of Israel’s sins not the sins of the other nations. That should give us all the more reason to pause in our headlong rush toward American National Christianity.

    Enjoy the book! I found Metaxas a bit snarky in places, but he adds to Bonhoeffer’s story in ways that Bethge was lacking (Metaxas wrote for a more English, less German, audience.)

    Paul Smith

    • Paul, thanks for the reminder about the economic situation of post WWI Germany, as that was an important factor too. I also think you are right about the similar sentiment in our nation to blame others for our economic problems. I would ad Latino immigrants to the list of people who get the blame thrown at them. Your comment about the prophets is also a reminder of why churches need to hear more preaching from the OT Prophets.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. There you go causing trouble by pointing us to the kingdom of God! Interestingly I literally bought this book tonight while at B & N with Rachael and Talya. I look forward to reading it.

    Yes the Nazi’s were anti-Christian. However some “Christians” were not “anti-Nazi” and therein lies the problem. Your post reminds me of my two recent posts on The Aryan Jesus. We must ever be on guard against baptizing nationalistic ideology to assuage our conscious. Easy to do however when our eyes see more Red White and Blue than thorns and nails and resurrection.

  4. Thanks Rex… you are writing important things.

  5. Amen, Rex. Keep up the vigilent posture!

  6. Yes, much like Islam is a nationalized Arab religion that spread beyond boundaries, Nominal Christianity in America is dulling the senses of our spirits to the call to be & make disciples. May God awaken the sleeping so that they love the Lord more than their own national self.

  7. I’m going to lean back just a little bit on a few points, since I think that the Nazi phenomenon came out of a situation where, from a certain German perspective, the entire world was crushing an already-defeated and shamed Germany under their boot. There may be some parallels, but not enough in my estimation to call it “History repeating itself.” The US has far more in common with the late Roman Republic/early Roman Empire than Nazi Germany.

    First, of course, there’s Godwin’s Law with which anyone making your comparison must contend.

    Second, I do not get the sense at all that “there are more and more professing Christians whose faith is increasingly nominal.” This, because I don’t get the sense from American history that there was ever a time when there was a great deal of NON-nominal Christian faith. In fact, I get the opposite sense – in a nation where there is less and less pressure every day to profess a nominal Christian faith in order to fit into the culture, there is less and less reason to be a nominal Christian – what’s the point? Just be a soft agnostic like the rest of the crowd.

    Now, that shift in percentages might cause nominal Christians to cry out about how their country is changing from the comfortable Christian Nation enclave they’ve always known, but higher decibel level doesn’t mean more nominal Christians – just louder ones.

    Finally, just as I don’t see a trend towards higher nominal Christianity, I don’t see a trend toward nationalism. As Dr. Hughes suggests in his fantastic little book, Myths America Lives By, there’s hardly been a day gone by in American history where there wasn’t some level of Christian syncretism in the civil religion of America. I don’t see people getting more nationalistic – I would like to see some stats on that idea.

    PS – this is *not at all* to say that nominal Christianity and/or syncretism with the civil religion aren’t serious issues worthy of discussion – they are, and they need to be discussed a lot more than they are. And your words about the deep need for theological thinking at the congregational level (which will require, IMO, a worldview shift from the modern humanocentric worldview that is summed up by the idea that we ask God to bless our religious activities towards a theocentric worldview where we ask God to show us what He is doing around us so we can get involved – in the late modern humanocentric worldview, theology is just another hobby like fly fishing) are timely and valuable as well.

    • Nick, Thanks for the pushback. Having said that, let me push back on you :-).

      I don’t think I am engaging in Goodwin’s law. I am not saying the results of what is happening and coming will be the same as Nazi Fascism. I am simply making the point that just as German Christians were vulnerable to having their faith co-opted into a nationalistic religion because of their biblical, theological, and historical ignorance, so too are American Christians as it seems that there is an ever increasing level of biblical, theological, and historical ignorance. I don’t have any hard statistics but that is a opinionated statement based on not only what I hear, see, and read but also having lived in ten different US states that span three different time zone.

      As for the nationalism, though there has always been strands of nationalistic/civil religion in America, there has certainly been an increase in its pop culture expression since 9/11. Just take for example some of the music you hear in Country/Western. For example, Toby Keith’s popular “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” or hit song by Alan Jackson “Where We You When the World Stopped Turning” (which is certainly not crass like the Toby Keith song). Also consider how the national hymn “God Bless America” has now become a mainstay in every Major League Baseball game (ironically, America’s national pastime) along with singing of the National Anthem (which was already a main-stay). I don’t have the hard research to determine and show to what degree nationalism has increased in America but I would say the evidence from pop culture is certainly present…enough to say that Americans, of which the majority are still professing Christians, have become more nationalistic since 9/11.

      Any ways, I appreciate the exchange, as I think we model a great way to dialogue and disagree at some places on a subject where there is surely to be differing viewpoints.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

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  9. very interesting post. I wonder if the structure of America, being a representative republic and democratic in nature (the majority rules) might not have led to a problem among the church as well where it should be Sovereign rule of the Head.

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