Stephen R. Haynes: The battle for Bonhoeffer

Book cover detail

In an era of intense polarization, as liberals and conservatives argue over the meaning of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work, a Bonhoeffer scholar considers what it means to be a disciple in the age of Trump.

Scholars and theologians across the spectrum have long argued over the meaning of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work, but in recent years, those disagreements have intensified, spreading beyond the church and academy and into the political world, says Stephen R. Haynes.

“Basically everybody with an opinion who’s even heard of Bonhoeffer wants to use him to strengthen their case about whatever issue is under consideration,” said Haynes, the author of “The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump,” to be released this month by Eerdmans.

Since 9/11, and especially in the past few years, as America has become increasingly polarized, so too has Bonhoeffer’s legacy.

“People want to use him in a liberal way or a conservative way,” said Haynes, the Albert Bruce Curry Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. “They want to use him in a way that speaks not only for what they believe but against what they’re against.”

The politicization of Bonhoeffer became most apparent in the 2016 presidential election, Haynes said, when Eric Metaxas, author of a best-selling Bonhoeffer biography, and other conservative evangelicals cited Bonhoeffer in urging evangelicals to vote for then-candidate Donald Trump.

“For the first time, people are using Bonhoeffer to say specifically, ‘We need to support this candidate in order to salvage our democracy,’” Haynes said.

In his book, Haynes takes issue with Metaxas, who he said “normalized” Trump in a way that many Christians find “difficult to imagine.”

As one who grew up in the evangelical tradition, Haynes said he is trying to speak to evangelicals who support Trump.

“I’m talking to people I know and respect who are committed to Trump, to try to think outside the box, outside the voices that they hear all the time, and reconsider what they’re doing,” Haynes said.

Haynes has been at Rhodes since 1989 and teaches courses on the Holocaust, religion and racism, and religion and literature. His research interests include Bonhoeffer, Jewish-Christian relations, and religion and higher education.

“The Battle for Bonhoeffer” is his fourth book on Bonhoeffer, joining “The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint” (Fortress, 2004), “The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives” (Fortress, 2006) and “Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians” (co-written with Lori Brandt Hale; Westminster John Knox, 2009).

HaynesHaynes has a B.A. from Vanderbilt University, an M.A. from Florida State University, an M.Div. from Columbia Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from Emory University.

He spoke recently with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Regarding “the battle for Bonhoeffer,” you say in the book that he’s been contested and fought over by people across the political spectrum for years. How so?

That’s been true for a long time, and it goes back probably to the beginning of Bonhoeffer’s reception in the English-speaking world in the early 1960s.

So in that sense, it’s nothing new. What is new is that since 9/11, and increasingly in the last few years, Bonhoeffer has begun to show up in public discourse, where it’s not just theologians or church people arguing about what he means and how he relates to contemporary life; it’s also bloggers and op-ed writers and people on social media.

Basically everybody with an opinion who’s even heard of Bonhoeffer wants to use him to strengthen their case about whatever issue is under consideration.

Q: As you say in the book, the political right and left and everything in between has been fighting over his legacy.

Yes. As the American public has become more polarized, Bonhoeffer’s reception has also become more polarized. People want to use him in a liberal way or a conservative way. They want to use him in a way that speaks not only for what they believe but against what they’re against.

And of course in all of this, the level of attention to the details of his life is not very great sometimes, so Bonhoeffer’s life becomes a place people go to make points about contemporary issues rather than to understand his own time.

Q: You take particular issue with the biography by Eric Metaxas, which was incredibly popular but wasn’t well-received by scholars.

No, it wasn’t. It’s not so much the book itself that was problematic for me -- although it had some glaring errors. It was the campaign that the author went on after the book’s release to position it in a way that would attract a certain readership.

He went on a lot of programs on Fox News and American Family Radio and outlets like this, and his pitch was that Bonhoeffer had been intentionally misunderstood by liberals or radicals -- he uses the terms interchangeably -- for 50 years, and that basically what he, Metaxas, had done was to wrest Bonhoeffer’s life and reputation and legacy away from these liberals that had, in his words, hijacked it.

This was the theme not so much of the book -- although it’s in the book -- but of the campaign that followed the book. And this is the part that became dangerous, because it made Bonhoeffer a player in this larger drama about whether America was well-served by its traditional commitments, its liberal orthodoxies. For people who saw liberalism and political correctness as part of a larger problem, they were able to locate Bonhoeffer in that struggle as well.

I talk in my book about “the populist Bonhoeffer.” What Metaxas succeeded in doing was to make Bonhoeffer this populist figure. [He argued] that one should be suspicious about credentialed elites and how they interpret Bonhoeffer, because they are misrepresenting him and distorting him, and that in fact it should be the average person -- informed by Metaxas -- who can really understand who Bonhoeffer was and what he means for us.

Q: In addition to “the populist Bonhoeffer,” who are some of the other Bonhoeffers over the years that have been held up and put out there?

I wrote a book in 2004 that tried to describe the Bonhoeffer legacy in the English-speaking world. I talked about “the radical Bonhoeffer,” particularly in the 1960s among the secularizing theologians who were often associated with the “death of God” movement. They saw Bonhoeffer as informing their understanding of where the world was and where theology and the church needed to be.

There’s also what we might call “the liberal Bonhoeffer,” which was more committed to traditional Christian ideals but informed by liberationist theology. It saw Bonhoeffer as the grandfather of liberation theology, who -- a generation before people like [Gustavo] Gutiérrez in Central and South America -- looked at history from the underside, seeing the events of history as they’re experienced by the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed. The liberal Bonhoeffer is seen as another resource in describing this suffering God and the way that God helps us see history from the underside.

And then “the evangelical Bonhoeffer” is another portrait of Bonhoeffer, which Metaxas plays into and shapes as well. The evangelical Bonhoeffer goes back to the 1970s and attempts by evangelicals to claim Bonhoeffer as somebody who, if not an evangelical, was at least safe for evangelicals, somebody whose piety and commitment to Christ makes him a figure who can be fruitfully studied by evangelicals.

This was my own experience in the ’70s in a Christian parachurch organization. I was in a training program, and we were handed “The Cost of Discipleship” to read without any help in understanding it, but what came through was this sense of Bonhoeffer’s radical commitment of faithfulness to Christ.

The fourth portrait of Bonhoeffer that I talk about is “the universal Bonhoeffer,” which is an attempt to claim Bonhoeffer for the world and for humanity in general rather than for Christians or for Germans. So Bonhoeffer is seen not so much as a theologian but as somebody committed to human rights. Not somebody who is necessarily a committed follower of Christ but somebody who had the courage of his convictions and so on. It’s a flattening out and broadening of Bonhoeffer’s legacy.

These are four distinct but overlapping portraits of Bonhoeffer. But when I came to this current book, I realized that none of them captured what was going on with Bonhoeffer currently, so I built this idea of the populist Bonhoeffer.

Q: I gather that a lot of this came to a head with the notion of “the Bonhoeffer moment,” a phrase that Metaxas used at a prayer breakfast during the Obama administration. Tell us what that phrase means. What’s “the Bonhoeffer moment”?

One thing about “the Bonhoeffer moment” phrase that’s so interesting is that it’s never really defined, so one has to infer what’s intended. The phrase wasn’t used for the first time in 2012, but that’s when it took on its contemporary meaning, and Metaxas is the one responsible for coining it.

I think at that moment he meant that he was concerned with the direction of the country, the Supreme Court and abortion rights. He sees abortion in the light of the Holocaust and slavery, as another example of culture being co-opted by this ideology of death and needing to be rescued by some kind of Christian insight.

But where the term really became popularized was in 2015 during the runup to the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which would be decided in favor of same-sex marriage rights. Sensing that this decision was going to go in a way that was unfavorable to them, some Christian conservative activists in March 2015 started talking about “the Bonhoeffer moment,” but they don’t really define it.

I argue that they don’t have to define it, because by then Metaxas’ book has become so popular, his image of Bonhoeffer has become so ubiquitous, that people intuitively understand that a Bonhoeffer moment is a moment where conservatives need to wrest culture back from those who have hijacked it.

Because of Bonhoeffer’s own biography, it also suggests that it’s a moment of resistance, of cultural resistance. It’s never clear what exactly that means or what that looks like, but that’s certainly what the term implies.

Q: When you’re talking about a pastor who returns to Germany and ends up dying in a Nazi prison camp, losing his life for what he believed in, doesn’t it imply that this is a comparable moment? “Would you be willing to do the same? If the Supreme Court rules for gay marriage, will you be willing to die for your beliefs?”

That’s exactly what it implies, and even more, it’s, “Are you willing to risk your life to oppose an evil leadership or government?”

Although it’s never spelled out, the implication is that a Bonhoeffer moment is a moment where people say, “Enough is enough,” and they’re willing to do whatever is required -- civil disobedience, violence -- to stop the government in its tracks, or to use Bonhoeffer’s language, to “stick a spoke in the wheel” of government.

I think one reason why it’s never spelled out is because it starts to sound a little ridiculous when you do spell out what’s being suggested.

Q: Whether one agrees or disagrees, doesn’t it speak to the seriousness with which some take these issues and the deep threat they perceive?

It does, and it gives some insight into how alienated a lot of conservative Christians felt from the Obama administration. I think they probably assumed that a Hillary Clinton presidency was on the horizon and started to despair of the America they knew and loved, and thought that it might be necessary to do something drastic to bring things back from the brink.

This is the language that Metaxas uses in the runup to the election. As the book explains, he describes the prospect of a Clinton presidency as a cultural disaster that has to be averted at all costs, and if voting for Donald Trump is what it takes, then that’s what it takes.

Q: That was my next question. The book’s subtitle is “Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump.” What does all this have to do with Donald Trump?

The book’s point of departure is 9/11, and how in the wake of 9/11 and the runup to the Iraq War Bonhoeffer is cited in a lot of arguments for and against military intervention. Later, it becomes much more common to see him evoked, especially as we get closer to the 2016 election.

What it has to do with Trump is that for the first time, somebody says, “If you love Bonhoeffer and understand his life and his legacy, you will vote for this person.”

This is basically what Metaxas does in October of 2016, right after the “Access Hollywood” tape comes out and threatens to derail Trump’s presidential bid. And Metaxas tries to shore up Trump’s reputation among evangelicals by saying, “Look, it’s true that what we saw is terrible, but there’s so much at stake here, and Trump is in a way like Bonhoeffer, because Bonhoeffer also did things that we don’t agree with. But still we need to keep our eye on what’s most important, which is what’s at stake culturally.”

For the first time, people are using Bonhoeffer to say specifically, “We need to support this candidate in order to salvage our democracy.”

Metaxas was, in my view, the chief evangelical spokesperson for Trump or defender of Trump, and he normalized Trump in a way that for many of us Christians is difficult to imagine but that many evangelicals see as perfectly acceptable.

Q: What does it mean to be a disciple in the age of Trump? In your book, you have an open letter to Christians who love Bonhoeffer but still support Trump.

In the letter, I try to talk to evangelicals who support Trump from the perspective of somebody who grew up in the evangelical tradition and still feels very shaped by it.

I talk about my own experience. When Nixon was president, he had a home on Key Biscayne, off the coast of Miami, where I lived as a teenager. He got very close to our pastor, John Huffman, and invited him to the White House. We were all very fond of Nixon, particularly because he was such a good example of a Christian in public office. Then when it came out what he really was and the attitudes he had and the language he used, we were all appalled, and Huffman publicly repudiated Nixon in a way that really affected me.

The notion that political figures were willing to court evangelical Christians in very cynical ways for their own benefit really affected me, and it pains me to see people basically making the kinds of mistakes that we made, thinking that Nixon was a savior for conservative Christians.

In the letter, I plead with people to be willing to do basically what Bonhoeffer did, which was refuse to go along with what everybody in his time and place and in his church assumed was the right and responsible thing to do.

So I’m talking to people I know and respect who are committed to Trump, to try to think outside the box, outside the voices that they hear all the time, and reconsider what they’re doing.

Q: In the letter, you say that the evangelical embrace of Trump is doing real damage to American Christianity.

I really think so. I’m convinced by what I’ve read from people more closely connected to the evangelical movement, and younger evangelicals who have taken their elders to task, that the brand is really being damaged. An anti-Trump evangelical in Washington told me that he thinks Christianity in America will never recover.

Q: What do you think Bonhoeffer would say to Christians in the U.S. today?

It’s perilous to even think that way. His time was so different.

But I think he would be really concerned at how much consensus there seems to be among evangelical Christians about the importance of support for Trump, support for nation, support for the symbols of our nation and the narratives we tell ourselves about how great America is.

Even the slogan “Make America Great Again” would give him pause, because Bonhoeffer was able to see the demonic nature of nationalism and how it can motivate people to do things and think in ways that are destructive.

So I think he would be really concerned, and I don’t think that reaction would be limited to supporters but [would apply] also to any situation in which the Christians were unthinkingly committed to the American military or American narratives of exceptionalism or nationalist stories. I think he would want to bring us back to some Christian fundamentals that relativized all that.