Ron Berger —
Evangelical Christians were a significant part of the political coalition that won the presidency for Donald Trump, with more than 80 percent of this constituency voting for him. Although Trump’s own commitment to religious values is questionable, Mike Pence, the incoming vice president, gave Trump needed credibility with Evangelical voters. According to Jeff Sharlet, author of two books on Christian fundamentalism, Pence is a believer in “biblical capitalism,” the belief that our country was founded on Christian principles, that our capitalist economic system is ordained by God, and that secularism poses a grave threat to the survival of our nation.
Religion, according to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how and for whom it is used. Some believers are “selective literalists,” cherry-picking the Bible, which contains contradictory passages, to conform to their own ideological predilections. For some, God is always loving, compassionate, and merciful; for others, God is sometimes judgmental and punishing of those who reject his teachings. Social psychologist Erich Fromm writes of an historical “limited conversion” to the best of Christian principles, by which he means that religion may entail dogmatic adherence and submission to the authority of the Church, or it may entail a genuine change of heart devoted to tolerance, compassion, and the betterment of humankind.
Liberal Christians who abhor Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, have been dismayed by their fellow Christians who voted for him. They invoke the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke, which calls upon Christians to extend God’s command to “love thy neighbor” to those they do not personally know and who may be different from themselves. According to religion scholars Richard Rubenstein and John Roth, the Good Samaritan extends his or her universe of moral obligation to others on the basis of “need—not race, nationality, class, or creed,” or for that matter, any other category of social difference. Rubenstein and Roth advance the view that to do otherwise is to be guilty of what some call “idolatry” and they call “apostasy,” that is, the abandonment of genuine Christian principles. They offer the Christian response to German Nazism as a case study in apostasy and a warning of how people of faith can be led astray.
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In Nazi Germany, the vast majority of Germans were baptized Christians, with Lutherans comprising the largest denomination. Religion historians credit Martin Luther—the 16th century theologian who denounced Jews as Germany’s particular “misfortune,” “plague,” and “pestilence”—with establishing anti-Semitism as a key element of German culture and national identity. In his treatise “On the Jews and their Lies,” which Luther wrote in response to Jewish rabbis who challenged his interpretation of Scripture, Luther exhorted:
“Do not engage much in debate with Jews about the articles of our faith….They are real liars and bloodhounds….Be on guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which…blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously….There is no hope until they reach the point where their misery finally makes them pliable and they are forced to confess that the Messiah has come, and that he is our Jesus….”
“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews?…First…set fire to their synagogues or schools and…bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn….Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues….This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians….We are at fault in not slaying them.”
It would be difficult for any hate monger to match the viciousness of Luther’s condemnation of any group of people, as it would be difficult to exaggerate Luther’s contribution to German anti-Semitism. As historian Paul Rose observes, “The first great national prophet of Germany and the forger of the German language itself, Luther…shaped the overwhelmingly pejorative, indeed, demonic, significance of the word Jude. Through the influence of Luther’s language and tracts, a hysterical and demonizing mentality entered the mainstream of German thought and discourse….The Jews…were blocking the Germans’ need to fulfill themselves in achieving both their ‘Christian freedom’ and their political ‘freedom’….Morally, the Jews were the worldly agents of the devil….Materially, [they] were extorting money from…[the] German nation….Germany’s redemption [meant] her redemption from the Jews and Judaism.”
As such, David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics, believes that Christian churches deserve special mention in understanding the German response to the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews, because in both “its historical antecedents and in its wartime course, the annihilation of the European Jews was inextricably related to Christianity and the behavior of Christian people….Every church official at every level who had the opportunity to help Jews faced a test of Christian moral leadership, while every Christian with similar opportunity faced a test of Christian moral character.” Regrettably, during the Nazi period the vast majority of Germans who were baptized Christians were not up to this test, and they instead did their best to stay clear of controversy.
As noted, German Lutheranism was characterized by its historic antipathy toward Jews and by its highly nationalist sentiment. In early 1933, as Hitler came to power, Lutheran and other Protestant denominations began moving toward a unified Evangelical Church; and by mid-year, Ludwig Müller, Hitler’s envoy to the Evangelical community, was elected as the first bishop of the Evangelical Reich Church. Müller was the leader of the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement, the radical right-wing of German Lutheranism. Although relatively small in number (about 600,000), German Christians came to occupy key positions on theological faculties, regional bishops’ seats, and local church councils. German Christians saw no contradiction between worshiping Hitler and worshiping Christ. They viewed Hitler, in Rubenstein and Roth’s words, as “God’s man for Germany, the savior himself,” and his program of racial purity a “holy crusade.” Of the Jews, Müller wrote that once it was believed that “if a Jew was baptized, he was then a Christian. Today we know that you can baptize a Jew ten times, he still remains a Jew and a person whose nature is alien to us.”
In response to the establishment of the Evangelical Reich Church, an oppositional group of clergy formed the anti‑Nazi “Confessing Church.” According to Gushee, the Confessing Church, which had the support of about one‑third of Protestant clergy, “rejected any belief that God’s revelation” could be found through Hitler and the Nazi state. In the Barmen Declaration of 1934, leaders of the Confessing Church condemned “the false doctrine that the State, over and above its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life.” They asserted that Christianity and Nazism were inherently irreconcilable and that Christian followers of Hitler had abandoned their true faith. But this declaration was not so much a repudiation of Hitler as a statement of the limits of secular authority. Even within the Confessing Church there was mixed opinion regarding the legitimacy of the regime, and not all of its leaders were thoroughly opposed to it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among the most notable leaders of the Confessing Church movement. Although he wrote in 1933 that the “church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the ‘chosen people’ [the Jews], who nailed the redeemer of the world to the cross, must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering,” he nonetheless warned his followers that Nazi attacks against the Jews perverted the spirit of Christianity, and he encouraged them to aid the victims of Nazi repression. Bonhoeffer even plotted to assassinate Hitler and was involved in efforts to help Jews escape from Germany. He believed, in Gushee’s words, that “those who take upon themselves the mantle of Christian leadership must be prepared to suffer and die in the service of Christian moral fidelity.” In 1943 he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where he was executed in 1945.
Unlike Protestants, Catholics (who comprised about a third of the German population) had an organizational center with autonomous ruling authority outside of Germany in the Pope and the Vatican City in Rome. In 1933, however, the Vatican secretary of state Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, a former papal diplomat to Berlin, signed a concordant with Hitler on behalf of Pope Pius XI that guaranteed religious freedom for Catholics. In return Pius XI agreed to recognize the legitimacy of the Nazi regime, to refrain from criticizing it, and to confine the Church’s activity to purely religious matters. Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII after the death of Pius XI in 1939, even wrote Hitler a letter just four days after becoming Pope, which read:
“To the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler, Führer and Chancellor of the German Reich! Here at the beginning of Our Pontificate We wish to assure you that We remain devoted to the spiritual welfare of the German people entrusted to your leadership. During the many years We spent in Germany, We did all in Our power to establish harmonious relations between Church and State. Now that the responsibilities of Our pastoral function have increased Our opportunities, how much more ardently do We pray to reach that goal. May the prosperity of the German people and their progress in every domain, come, with God’s help to fruition!”
For the most part, therefore, German Catholic bishops admonished their followers to be obedient to the Nazi regime. They increasingly adopted a nationalist stance and were supportive of German military expansionism. Some even spoke vehemently against the Jews, associating them with Communism and reminding the faithful that Jews were Christ killers who were, in historian Gordon Zahn’s words, “harmful to the German people…[and who] in their boundless hatred of Christianity were still…seeking to destroy the Church.”
Nevertheless, Hitler was not satisfied with Catholic cooperation and attempted to further erode the Church’s influence by closing Catholic schools, prohibiting publication of Catholic literature, and dissolving Catholic associations such as the Catholic Youth League. Thus, in 1937 Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical entitled “With Burning Anxiety,” which was read in Catholic Churches and condemned the Nazis’ racial ideology and usurpation of religious authority. Still, according to Rubenstein and Roth, for the most part both Pope Pius XI and Pius XII “counseled prudence not boldness…[and] urged that a lack of restraint would invite further evils.” They arguably feared Communism as much or more than Nazism and were inheritors of a religious tradition that viewed Jews as the carriers of modern ideas that threatened established Church doctrine. Theologian John Pawlikowski notes that Pius XII had a “high regard for the German church” and to some extent may have been relieved that “the Jewish community’s ‘subversive’ influence on the traditional social order was being removed.”
While Pius XII’s commitment to the “traditional social order” seems to have waned as the war went on, the Vatican was concerned about losing the allegiance Catholics in Germany and elsewhere, and it used private diplomacy rather than public protest in its efforts to ameliorate the plight of Jews under Nazi control. Papal diplomats tried to persuade neutral countries such as Spain and Portugal to accept more Jewish emigrants, and when emigration was no longer an option, they tried to get Nazi‑occupied governments such as Hungary and Slovakia to resist Nazi orders to deport Jews to the death camps.
To be sure, many Catholic and Protestant clergy did speak out against the Nazi regime and some tried to help Jews escape. Few other Gentile groups in Nazi Germany were put under as much surveillance by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, and had as many cases lodged against them. Most of the protests, however, took the form of critical sermons, and relatively few clergy were actually sentenced to lengthy prison terms or sent to concentration camps for making them. Church leaders spoke most loudly when the Nazis undermined Church prerogatives and persecuted Jewish converts to Christianity. Their protests were effective in curtailing the euthanasia program that was carried out against German citizens who were physically and mentally disabled, which resulted in 200,000 to 275,000 deaths. But according to Rubenstein and Roth, rarely did they or speak out or act “on behalf of Jews as Jews,” never did they rally “their congregations to make a unified, principled protest against the Nazis’ fundamental Jew‑hatred.”
In Germany only the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a small Christian minority, refused to make any compromises with the regime, and they continued to meet, organize, and proselytize even after they were banned in 1933. They refused to join any Nazi organizations, attend political rallies, give the Hitler salute, or serve in the armed forces. According to historian Eric Johnson, they even passed out “literature that pointed out specific instances of Nazi atrocities, cited Gestapo, police, and Nazi Party torturers by name, and called on the German people to turn away from the false prophet Hitler and to place their faith in the true savior, Jesus Christ.” About a third of their 25,000 to 30,000 members were imprisoned or sent to concentration camps, and some 1,200 were killed.
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The response of Christian Churches to the scourge of German Nazism indicates there is nothing inherent in religiosity that leads to virtuous behavior. Rubenstein and Roth characterize this as a matter of apostasy, that is, the abandonment of genuine Christian principles. But insofar as religious texts can be selectively interpreted, I am not sure that apostasy (or idolatry) is the best way to frame this issue. Rather, I find myself looking to the wisdom of Tenzin Gyatso, better known at the The Dalai Lama, who says that while religion “has the potential to help people lead meaningful and happy lives, it too, when misused, can become a source of conflict and division.” He believes that what unites the best of religions of all stripes, both theist and non-theistic (as well as secular) ethical systems, is the recognition of our shared humanity and interdependence. He believes that our capacity for empathy, an emotional resonance or “feeling with the other person,” must be coupled with compassion, the wish to see others “relieved of their suffering” and the courage “to do something to relieve the hardship of others.”
In these difficult times, may we all have the courage to commit ourselves to the collective cultivation of our compassion, forgiveness of those have been led astray but who may still see the light and join us in our dedication to social justice, and the strength to remain hopeful that we can correct the dark course upon which we have embarked.
Ronald J. Berger. 2012. The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory. Transaction.
The Dalai Lama. 2011. Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. Mariner Books.
Erich Fromm. 1997. To Have or To Be? Bloomsbury.
David Gushee. 1994. The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: A Christian Interpretation. Fortress Press.
Eric A. Johnson. 1999. Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. Basic Books.
John Pawlikowski. 1998. “The Catholic Response to the Holocaust: Institutional Perspectives.” In The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, and the Disputed, edited by Michael Berenbaum & Abraham J. Peck. Indiana University Press.
Paul Lawrence Rose. 1990. Revolutionary Anti-Semitism in Germany: From Kant to Wagner. Princeton University Press.
Richard K. Rubenstein & John Roth. 1987. Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy. John Knox Press.
Jeff Sharlet. 2008. The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. HarperCollins.
—. 2010. C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. Little Brown.
Gordon C. Zahn. 1962. German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Context. Sheed & Ward.