October 14, 2005

Muscular Christianity

The National Council of Churches recommended a new documentary looking at the state of Christianity under Hitler. They noted that in the 1930s Germany thought of itself as a most Christian country and that Hitler was a blessing from God because he was bringing the word of God to the world.

The church under Hitler: unified and defiant? Look again.

The documentary film, Theologians Under Hitler, examines post-war Allied revisionism and the portrait of a German church unified, defiant against Nazism. Historical research uncovers a very different story. The film, scheduled for PBS release November 9 (check local listings), is an effort by producer Steven D. Martin and his company; Vital Visuals, Inc., to ask what this history teaches us about religious faith, institutions, ourselves and evil. Based upon the research of Robert Erickson, Ph.D. (Pacific Lutheran University), the film introduces the viewer to three of the greatest Christian scholars of the twentieth century: Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel, -- men who were also outspoken supporters of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

You can watch a excerpt from the film here.

In the Germany of the 1930s, the most renowned theologians were firmly in the camp of Hitler.

This film, based upon groundbreaking research, introduces the viewer to three of the greatest Christian scholars of the twentieth century: Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel, men who were also outspoken supporters of Hitler and the Nazi party. In 1933 Althaus spoke of Hitler's rise as "a gift and miracle of God." Hirsch saw 1933 as a "sunrise of divine goodness." And Kittel, the editor of the standard reference work on the Jewish background of the New Testament, began working for the Nazis to find a "moral" rationale for the destruction of European Jewry.

According to the film, religion was transformed from the meek and apologetic Christianity which many thought was too feminine to a muscular movement which attracted strong young men and those who found their brand of forceful and righteous anger attractive. The churches gloried in their patriotism, displayed national flags and honored the war heroes. And those who found this message compelling were strongly anti-intellectual. Too many brains and too much reason was seen as suspect. They compared Hitler to Jesus (favorably) and declared that the "Third Reich is God's Kingdom".

Today, concerned Christian leaders are asking, can what happened in Germany happen again? And what could we learn from the experience of Germany?

There are some signs that our own religious tradition is displaying some of the same ominous traits. During the last days in the runup to war, there were many stories about how George W. Bush had come to believe that he was the arm of God, put on this earth to smite the infidels.

Gary Wills wrote an oped before the start of the war worrying about how Christianity was being co-opted by the warriors. He wrote about the lengths the American Christian leaders had gone in justifying the upcoming war. Even Catholic priests found reason to beat the drums of war rather than listen to their Pope who was actively trying to stop the illegal war.

The priests who do not bow to the War God are, in a chaplain's words that Dreher quotes with approval, reinforcers of the notion that ''religion is for wimps, for prissy-pants, for frilly-suited morons.'' This is what used to be called ''muscular Christianity,'' and Dreher thinks it is the only authentic form of his faith.

This year in May Harper's Magazine had several investigative pieces on the Christian Right. One of the movements they investigated was the most powerful Mega-Church in the US: the New Life Church, run by Pastor Ted Haggard. As Harper's reported, Haggard's New Life Church defines what it means to be evangelical:

...[evangelicals are an] army of Christian capitalists.... "They're pro-free market, they're pro-private property," he said. "That's what evangelical stands for."

...he describes the church that good Christians want: "I want my finances in order, my kids trained, and my wife to love life. I want good friends who are a delight and who provide protection for my family and me should life become difficult someday... I want stability and, at the same time, steady forward movement. I want the church to help me live life well, not exhaust me with endless 'worthwhile' projects." By "worthwhile projects" Ted means building funds and soup kitchens alike. It's not that he opposes these; it's just that he is sick of hearing about them and believes that other Christians are, too. He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than "moral values" - it needs customer value.

New Lifers, Pastor Ted writes with evident pride, "like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of a free-market society." ... He believes it is time "to harness the forces of free-market capitalism in our ministry."

Pastor Ted sees the New Lifers as the bulwark against Islam.

"My fear," he says, "is that my children will grow up in an Islamic state."

And that is why he believes spiritual war requires a virile, worldly counterpart. "I teach a strong ideology of the use of power," he says, "of military might, as a public service." He is for preemptive war, because he believes the Bible's exhortations against sin set for us a preemptive paradigm, and he is for ferocious war, because "the Bible's bloody. There's a lot about blood."

If Pastor Ted is the leader of the fastest growing church and he wields the power on politicians that this article says, then I fear our some American versions of Christianity have way too much in common with that of Hitler's Germany.

Update: rephrasing the conclusion as Jack K's point is valid. There is a faux-Christianity in this country that gets too much attention. Describing it as Christianity is a blasphemy on what Jesus actually preached.

[Update (11/02/2006): Harper's posts Jeff Sharlet's article online upon breaking news that Ted Haggard was paying for gay sex.]

Posted by Mary at October 14, 2005 07:30 AM | Religion | Technorati links |
Comments

...I don't fear so much for "our American version of Christianity". It's not the mainstream of Christianity that is beginning to bear a resemblence to '30's Germany. I do fear the rise of this bizarre faux "Christianity" offered by certain minority viewpoints that is gaining the upper hand in terms of visibility and influence. They no more represent the American version of Christianity than the Republican Party represents the actual viewpoints of the majority of Americans. In both cases we are talking about message dominating over actual substance, and Haggard is a classic example. He may hold a particular fast growing congregation under his twisted anti-biblical spell, but there are entire denominations that are doing ok nation-wide that don't hold any of his viewpoints...

Posted by: Jack K. at October 14, 2005 10:04 AM

I think we continually need to emphasize that most Christians are not fundamentalist bigots. Most Christians support a woman's right to choose, see no conflict between evolution and spirituality, believe in equal rights for all of us, and generally are fairly reasonable sorts.

We should also ask, if we're going to have a national church, which church is it going to be? And how do we choose who's going to run it- the same way we pick a president? Weighty questions....

Posted by: serial catowner at October 14, 2005 03:20 PM

Whow, let's hold our proverbial horses here! The National Council of Churches does NOT speak for American Christianity, anymore than Greenpeace speaks on behalf of all those who love the environment. I suggest you read the accounts of "real" Christians of all backgrounds, races, creeds, etc who were actually there. Hitler was a pseudo-cult self-worshipper, dabbling in many different religions, including Hinduism and Taoism. He WAS NOT a Christian, nor were any of his inner circle. Defiant Christians were burned in the ovens and gassed just like Jews and other "undesirables." I also suggest you read accounts by the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (such as his "Cost of Discipleship"), one of the primary leaders of underground Christians in Nazi Germany. He was shot in the head in a prison camp.

In fact, this seems a little like fear-mongering hate speech to me. Let's just blame "the religious right" and "the Christians" for our all society's problems ... what?

How does such a post further elucidate diversity and plurality? How is it that every other group besides the religious in nature can speak out and make their point, and the "religious types" somehow can't, or, at the very least, are often subjected to this kind of slamming, one-dimensional portrayal? Why?

Just wanted to present another point of view.

Posted by: Bill at October 14, 2005 08:23 PM

Bill,

As your own scare quotes suggest, defining " 'real' Christians" is historically problematic. What criteria do you propose?

Let's just blame "the religious right" and "the Christians" for our all society's problems ...

Where does Mary blame "all society's problems" on anyone?

How is it that every other group besides the religious in nature can speak out and make their point, and the "religious types" somehow can't, or, at the very least, are often subjected to this kind of slamming, one-dimensional portrayal?

Not to say one-dimensional portrayals are a good thing (and I'm glad to see Mary moderate her concluding sentence), but other groups are also caricatured. Feminists, socialists, and environmentalists — see your own mention of Greenpeace — spring to mind. What makes you think religious types are especially discriminated against in this regard?

Posted by: Contradictory Ben at October 15, 2005 03:28 AM

Personally, what scares me about this flavor of "faux" Christianity over all other types of fanatical thinking is that God is used as the justification for all their beliefs.

And as we know, and certainly the historical record shows, many many terrible things have been done all in the name of God.

THAT is what I find truly terrifying ...

Posted by: Gregory L. Marx at October 15, 2005 10:21 AM

A couple of points, Bill.

First, this documentary says nothing about Hitler's beliefs. It only talks about the influential theologians in Germany and how many of the churches backed Hitler's regime because they associated it with their beliefs and it supported the Muscular Christianity that they practiced. As Gary Wills said in his oped, this is a direct co-optation of Christianity in a form that was very far from the actual words of Jesus.

Second, if one practices what Jesus preached, then Muscular Christianity is a true perversion of that doctrine. Last weekend I posted another piece that discussed the series by Brad Hicks that showed exactly how the Christian Right is wrong in their beliefs.

In the United States, not all Christians hold these perverted beliefs and not all evangelicals believe them either. But a good number of people who call themselves Christians do have a very strange set of beliefs that are antithetical to the preaching of Jesus. And in my opinion, they have too much power and are just as scary as those that backed Hitler so ardently. Pastor Ted is responsible for the statements about loving preemptive war and glorying in blood.

And, yes, in Germany there were some extraordinary people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who refused to be conned by those who loved the violent fantasies of a cleansing blood bath which ended up tying too many German Christians to Hitler's dream. That type of courage and clarity of purpose is evident in a number of remarkable people in our country today as well. They actively preach love and act as if that was important. They protect and serve the weakest among us rather than strive for their own gain. They continue to be role models of what a true Christian can be.

Posted by: Mary at October 15, 2005 11:58 AM

There you go again. The liberals have been going through mental gymnastics trying to compare Bush to Hitler. What a bunch of partisan nonsense.

Posted by: muckdog at October 15, 2005 07:42 PM

There you go again. The liberals have been going through mental gymnastics trying to compare Bush to Hitler. What a bunch of partisan nonsense.

Posted by muckdog at October 15, 2005 07:42 PM

I see the Muck Filled Pus Toad has expanded his duties as a Repugnicant operative.

What about all of the conservatives and their mental gymnastics trying to elevate Putsch to the second coming of the Jesus fable? funny how you seem to be strangely silent about that sort of thing...

My fear is that todays' children will be forced to grow up in a christian fundamentalist state.

Posted by: (: Tom :) at October 17, 2005 06:55 AM

You state that "In the Germany of the 1930s, the most renowned theologians were firmly in the camp of Hitler." This statement is incorrect, even if it is referring only to Christian theologians (and, thereby, excluding Martin Buber). I believe it is universally acknowledged that Paul Tillich and Karl Barth were the most renowned Christian theologians in Germany in the 30's. In fact, I would be surprised if any student of theology ranked them below Althaus, Hirsh or Kittel in renown. I do not believe I ever read Althaus, Hirsch or Kittel in my seminary studies; however, Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer were assigned readings. I believe all these Christian theologians, who either studied or thought in Germany, were vocal critics of Hitler and the Nazi party. Tillich, for instance, was an early critic of Hitler and was the first non-Jew to be barred from teaching at German universities. Barth was a key member of the Confessing Church, wrote the Barmen Declaration and urged resistance of the Third Reich. It is, therefore, utterly wrong to claim that minor figures such as Althaus represent German theological thought or tradition.

There are other inaccurancies and misrepresentations in this post (which I came across via the Daou report), but I do not have the time to identify or correct them.

Posted by: Jared at October 17, 2005 10:51 AM