Critics of “Christian nationalism” speak as though there were something wrong with Christianity’s shaping public life. Bonhoeffer suggests, by contrast, that the real problem is when Christian faith is shaped by politics. What if the word of God were let loose in America, not merely in service of our national norms, but in order to call our nation to a more faithful Christian discipleship?
There is no theology here,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend shortly after arriving in America in 1930. He was referring to Union Theological Seminary, home to some of the day’s most respected liberal theologians, including Reinhold Niebuhr. But he didn’t just mean the seminary. Later he would write:
In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.
For Bonhoeffer, the American churches in the Union Theological Seminary orbit seemed no longer dedicated to the preaching of the gospel. This kind of Christianity had become a “social entity” with more worldly purposes. “In the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation.”
As Joel Looper notes in this excellent book, Bonhoeffer’s first sojourn in America came a hundred years after another European visitor traveled to this experimental nation and returned to old Europe to write about it. Alexis de Tocqueville’s account has several points in common with Bonhoeffer’s. Looper quotes one passage that anticipates Bonhoeffer’s more withering attacks a century later:
A countless number of sects in the United States all have differing forms of worship they offer to the Creator but they all agree about the duties that men owe to each other. Each sect adores God in its own particular way but all sects preach the same morality in the name of God. If it matters a lot to the individual that his religion is true, that is not the case for society as a whole. Society has nothing to fear or hope for from the afterlife; what matters is not so much that all citizens profess the true religion but that they profess one religion.
In Bonhoeffer’s view, the morality of the American church had become conformity to the politics of American democracy. And so the preaching of God’s word was, at best, relativized to suit the needs of that order. More often, the gospel was simply neglected and ignored. As an outsider, Bonhoeffer could see that this species of Protestantism took its cues from the social order rather than the word of God: It was a Protestantism that could exist only within the peculiar social order of American public life. The core problem of American Christianity, Bonhoeffer thought, was that the word of God had been made subservient to worldly authorities. As Looper puts it, “Each individual, it seemed, determined the will of God by her own reading of the scriptures by the Spirit, by the ‘inner light,’ or by an internal sense of what was morally right.” Bonhoeffer’s own starting point was Reformation Christology. But for him, the American church exhibited “Protestantism without Reformation.”
Bonhoeffer’s dismay at American Christianity has something in common with critiques from scholars such as John Milbank, William Cavanaugh, and Jeffrey Stout. Looper shows that Bonhoeffer can usefully complicate this debate. For Milbank and Cavanaugh, secularism is almost a purely extractive, negative social force, replacing a thick web of interconnected common life with atomized individuals and all-powerful nation-states.
But, Stout counters, how should society function when its members are pluralized not only religiously, but also along cultural and economic lines? Explicit appeals to Christian thought to buttress one particular vision of the good might still be worth hearing out. Yet such appeals are unlikely to be conducive to a healthy body politic when many members of that body explicitly reject such reasoning. For Stout, secularism isn’t about secularist individuals, but about a secularized public square in which radically different communities can find ways of coexisting.
Yet for Bonhoeffer, as Looper puts it, “American pluralism was not first and foremost a product of capitalism and an increasingly interconnected world.” Rather, pluralism had been forged by English dissenters who gave authority to their own personal reading of Scripture. In more extreme forms, this personal reading of Scripture gave way to an “inner light,” by which individuals could discern the truth by means of their own internal disposition or witness.
Stout views pluralism as intractable due to economic and social transformation. He bases his argument for secularism on the unalterable fact of pluralism. But for Bonhoeffer, secularism grew out of a church that had chosen to define itself politically and subjectively rather than according to Scripture. When privatized Christian experience and “the inner light” become normative, the word of God wanes in the church, and the politics of the church become the politics of the world.