The Cultural Formation of the Failed German Church and American Evangelicalism

Who said it: Bonhoeffer (about Germany) or Wehner (about the United States)?

In The Atlantic this week, in an article by Peter Wehner, evangelicalism is depicted as falling apart. There is not only a mass exodus of members but pastors are being driven from the ministry by the prevailing mean spiritedness that has invaded churches. While many factors may be part of the problem (including Covid and the resulting isolation) the primary problem, the article claims, is that Christians are influenced and shaped more by social media and secular politics than by Christ.[1] The depiction could come directly from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which describes the failure of the German church in the face of the rise of National Socialism. To make this case (that the German and American church failure follow a similar course), below I reference the Atlantic article, which is in each instance quoting church leaders and experts (whose names I have omitted), and Bonhoeffer’s depiction in Ethics. There is an overlap in the two descriptions such that, minus the references provided in the footnotes, it is nearly indiscernible who said it: Bonhoeffer (about Germany) or Wehner (about the United States)?

There is an “aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset” characteristic of the politics of the day making its way into churches in their treatment of pastors and teachers. The same toxic culture, the domineering leadership and bullying on the national scene is now predominant within churches in their internal politics. Churches and Christians “have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics” so that churches are polarized and politicized as they have become “repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized.”[2] On the national scene, the catalyst is a leader with a “profound distrust of all people” who depicts himself part of the community of common people, “he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid; he considers them weak, and they become weak; he considers them criminal, and they become criminal. His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare-faced cynicism. In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks the favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god.” [3] The leader “was able to add open hatred and resentments to the political-religious stance of ‘true believers,’ with “tribal instincts” becoming overwhelming. The result is that many Christian followers of (Hitler?/Trump?) “have come to see a gospel of hatreds, resentments, vilifications, put-downs, and insults as expressions of their Christianity, for which they too should be willing to fight.” [4] Which is it, The Atlantic or Ethics?

Both describe a similar social development. The church “has been held together by political orientation and sociology more than by common theology.” Discipleship is displaced by propaganda: “What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure.”[5] Success by the culture’s standard is the formative factor, “the majority fall into idolizing success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and lie, decency and malice.” With the successful person as model, “Ethical and intellectual capacity for judgment grow dull before the sheen of success and before the desire somehow to share in it.”[6] There has been a church wide failure “to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness. All that was needed to cause the implosion that we have seen was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came.”[7] Which is it, Germany or the United States?

The message in each instance is, “culture catechizes.” “Our current political culture has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing . . . People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.”[8] And with this catechesis there develops a forced tolerance in which “evil is reinterpreted as good, meanness is overlooked, and the reprehensible is excused.” It becomes very difficult to resist the majority and so “one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything.” Admiration for the individualist “a self-made picture of human beings that has little similarity to reality” takes hold, and the result is deadly.[9] Is it Bonhoeffer or Wehner?

The way in which the culture catechizes is through the manufactured consent of propaganda. “Catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them.”[10] The culture has produced its “untouchables” like “a black person in a white country,” or like the poor the ill and the disabled.[11] The propaganda scapegoats a particular group and this becomes the basis for identity formation, with hatred as the common denominator. To stir up hatred is to stir up engagement and blind passion. “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred. . . And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it.”[12] “Too often, when (Americans?/Germans?) look at the Church, they see not the face of Jesus, but the style of (Donald Trump?/Adolph Hitler?). The leader “normalized a form of discourse that made the once-shocking seem routine.”[13] In either case, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak.”[14]

Christians “have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.” Christian nationalism is “the belief that America?/Germany? is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such.” This “is a powerful predictor of attitudes toward non-Christians . . . on issues such as immigration and race.”[15] Over against the masculine, rugged, Jesus, “God sanctifies pain, lowliness, failure, poverty, loneliness, and despair in the cross of Christ. Not that all this has value in itself; it is made holy by the love of God, who takes it all and bears it as judgment. The Yes of God to the cross is judgment on the successful.” This is the great mystery, that the sign of Christ’s seeming failure in the world, the cross, is the marker of his success.[16]

Perhaps the only difference in the two descriptions, as in the above paragraph, is that Bonhoeffer weaves warning and solutions throughout Ethics, but these too would seem to apply in both cases, as he is describing an alternative ethical formation centered on Christ. Christian “formation,” Bonhoeffer explains, means not “formation of the world by planning and programs, but in all formation it is concerned only with the one form that has overcome the world, the form of Jesus Christ. Formation proceeds only from here.” Formation does not happen by striving “to become like Jesus” but “as the form of Jesus Christ himself so works on us that it molds us, conforming our form to Christ’s own (Gal. 4:9).” As Paul indicates, it is God’s action over and against the world and not through world formation.

Bonhoeffer describes the atmosphere of Nazi Germany as imbued with an idolization of death., “Nothing betrays the idolization of death more clearly than when an era claims to build for eternity, and yet life in that era is worth nothing, when big words are spoken about a new humanity, a new world, a new society that will be created, and all this newness consists only in the annihilation of existing life.” Hitler had planned for a thousand-year Reich or an earthly kingdom without limits. To accomplish this goal “unworthy lives” were to be destroyed, as happened in the “euthanasia” murder action in 1940–41 and then in the mass slaughter of the Jews. “Where death is final, earthly life is all or nothing. Defiant striving for earthly eternities goes together with a careless playing with life, anxious affirmation of life with an indifferent contempt for life.” As the Atlantic describes it and as the disregard for life indicates, “More than most other Christians, however, conservative evangelicals insist that they are rejecting cultural influences . . . when in fact their faith is profoundly shaped by cultural and political values, by their racial identity and their Christian nationalism.”

The atmosphere of fear seems to be the common denominator in the compliance of German Christians to Hitler and American evangelical compliance to a politics of hatred. Fear of the foreigner, fear of the minority, fear of poverty, fear of the future, fear of liberals, fear of conspiracies. Such that “for more than half a century evangelical leaders have found reason to deem the situation sufficiently dire. They rallied their congregations against the threats of communism, secular humanism, feminism, gay rights, radical Islam, Democrats in the White House, demographic decline, and critical race theory, and in defense of religious liberty.” Just as Hitler created fear of the communists and fear of the Jews, evangelical militancy is a response to fear. However, as with Hitler and Trump, “it’s important to recognize that in many cases evangelical leaders actively stoked fear in the hearts of their followers in order to consolidate their own power and advance their own interests.”

Fear explains both the “explosion of conflict” and the resulting spiritual deformity. Germany experienced a fear of international humiliation after W.W. I, and in the United States there is a regional fear and shame. “What we’re watching right now in much of our nation’s Christian politics . . . is an explosion not of godly Christian passion, but rather of ancient southern shame/honor rage.” It is a fear and passion “stirred up by the Trump presidency, the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and the January 6 insurrection; the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical race theory; and matters related to the pandemic, such as masking, vaccinations, and restrictions on in-person worship.” The biblical depiction of grace and gratitude, but most especially of love, describes an emotional life in which fear is not formative. As Scripture says, “Perfect love drives out fear.”

In Bonhoeffer’s description, it is only Christ’s resurrection that breaks through this culture of fear and death. “Christ is the one who has become human, who was crucified, and who is risen, as confessed by the Christian faith. To be transformed into his form is the meaning of the formation that the Bible speaks about.” This enables a new sort of formation: “Transfigured into the form of the risen one, they bear here only the sign of the cross and judgment. In bearing them willingly, they show themselves as those who have received the Holy Spirit and are united with Jesus Christ in incomparable love and community.”[17]

Love and not fear marks this new community who, though they live in the midst of death, are not controlled by death. In this the followers of Christ are are enabled to be fully human, resembling everyone else in many ways, with one key difference. “They are not concerned to promote themselves, but to lift up Christ for the sake of their brothers and sisters.”[18] Christ conveys what it means to be fully human. “Christ was not essentially a teacher, a lawgiver, but a human being, a real human being like us. Accordingly, Christ does not want us to be first of all pupils, representatives and advocates of a particular doctrine, but human beings, real human beings before God.”[19]

Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s prescription for the failed German church is the only remedy for a rapidly failing American church; to be fully human by being conformed to Christ and not culture.

[1] Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart,” The Atlantic (October 24, 2021).

[2] Ibid

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Clifford Green, (Published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2008) from the edition published online by Project Muse file:///C:/Users/Paul%20Axton/Downloads/Ethics%20as%20Formation.pdf, 86.

[4] Wehner.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bonhoeffer, 89.

[7] Wehner

[8] Ibid.

[9] Bonhoeffer, 87.

[10] Wehner

[11] Bonhoeffer, 90

[12] Wehner

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bonhoeffer, Ibid.

[15] Wehner

[16] Bonhoeffer, 90-91.

[17] Bonhoeffer, 93, 95.

[18] Bonhoeffer, 95.

[19] Bonhoeffer, 98.