Posted on September 3rd, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology
Tagged with America, Christianity, church, ethics, Interfaith, Judaism, morality, Peace, pluralism, politics, Religion, tolerance, Violence
It was a damp, rainy day when I witnessed the black iron gate that looms ominously over Auschwitz I. ‘Arbeit macht frei’, it pronounces: “Work will set you free.” I could not help but notice the similarity to the words attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel – “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Though there was likely no intentional connection between these two dictums, it nonetheless brought to mind the perverse form of “Christianity” that had existed among many of the Nazi perpetrators. In order to maintain social control and create divisiveness, the Nazis constantly kept the truth from prisoners of Auschwitz. Intense manual labor, combined with an extremely low-calorie diet, was used to maximize a prisoner’s labor potential before he or she died from malnourishment. Truth may have set the prisoners free, but work brought them closer and closer to death.
This summer I had the privilege of traveling to Germany and Poland with a fellowship program run by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Along with eleven fellow seminarians, I studied the role of the church and the clergy, for both good and ill, during the Nazi Regime. What profoundly and consistently struck me throughout the trip were the ways in which a significant portion of the church played an active role in the justification of National Socialist ideology. Called the German Christian Movement, this segment of the church was six hundred thousand members strong at its weakest point. How could Nazi ideology, which is so blatantly contrary to the love ethic found in the Gospel narrative, have permeated Christian theology and praxis so pervasively?
It seems the German Christian Movement used pieces of Christian language, history, tradition and symbolism to legitimate a new religious narrative that aligned more with the psychological needs of the people and the ideology of the state than with traditionally orthodox Christianity. The anti-Jewish, anti-feminine and anti-doctrinal nature of the German Christian church emerged from a German collective memory that was informed by hardship related to Germany’s defeat in WWI, resentment over the perceived unfairness of the Versailles Treaty, the longstanding presence of anti-Semitic theology in the German Church and the political agenda of the increasingly powerful National Socialist Party. Though this paradigm was replete with Christian language and ritual, these were merely hand-plucked from the Christian narrative and used in radically unchristian ways.
Stanley Hauerwas warns against this use of religious symbol outside of its indigenous narrative framework, as without its context the symbol inevitably loses its meaning. Religious language, symbol and ritual must remain within its own narrative lest it be misconstrued, all too often for nefarious purposes. The German Christians had created a perverse civil religion that hollowed and reassigned quite a few elements of Christianity. In the case of the German Christians, it is obvious that the church was unable to live both the orthodox Christian narrative and the German Christian narrative side-by-side: because of their incommensurability, one necessarily overtook the other.
Yet what about us? As with the German Christians, American Civil Religion (ACR) has borrowed heavily and selectively from the Christian narrative. Robert Bellah points out that this has allowed ACR to coexist with Christianity in the U.S. without the average American Christian perceiving any conflict between the two. Yet if the German Christian civil religion could not practically coexist with orthodox Christianity, is American Civil Religion able to do so?
As with German Christianity, ACR arose out of a present social psychological need that defined the collective memory of the past. Though America’s founding fathers did not intend civil religion to be a substitute for Christianity, their creation of a distinct civil religious narrative used familiar Judeo-Christian language to unify the fledgling country with a common story: “Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land. God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations.” Over 200 years later, Americans still seem to need a story to unify and promote a sense of national pride. Yet what of the dark underbelly of American history? It would seem somewhat sacrilegious, or at least gauche, to publicly recall the Trail of Tears on Independence Day, the hegemonic atrocities of the Vietnam and Iraq wars on Memorial Day or the barbarisms of slavery and Jim Crow on Thanksgiving.
Further, as Bellah contends, the image of the United States as the new Israel can lead to a troubling fusion of “God, country, and flag.” This phenomenon is indeed evident in contemporary American political discourse. Last month Presidential hopeful Rick Perry organized an enormous rally in Texas to pray and fast for “God to save a nation in crisis” and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich “has vowed to defend his grandchildren from the imminent threat of ‘a secular atheist country’ or, somewhat inconsistently, political domination by radical Islamists.”
ACR is certainly at least capable of, if not prone to, creating an “other” and, as with the German Christian narrative, ACR is able to justify the exclusion of the other and the wrongs we have committed against her. Yet according to the orthodox Christian narrative, the U.S. is not the new Israel. It seems that we too have selectively plucked religious symbols from their original context and reassigned their meaning. Consequently, the ACR narrative competes with the orthodox narrative of the church. One cannot simultaneously believe both that his nation is the “city on a hill” and the church is the “city on a hill,” as the first excludes from the church those who are not deemed to be a legitimate part of American society. As with the Aryan Clause (though certainly not as extreme), ACR’s misuse of Christian language and symbol creates a disenfranchised other: the Illegal Alien, the Welfare Queen and the Muslim terrorist.
The tragedy of the German Christian Movement appears evident to our 21st century hindsight. Yet when will we begin to see ourselves with such clarity?
 Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 96(1) (1967): 10.
 Ibid., 6.
 Michael Wolraich, “Republicans Race to Prove Christian Cred,” CNN.com, August 10, 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/08/10/wolraich.perry.christian/index.html?hpt=po_bn1.
Sara is a student at Yale Divinity School, where she is working toward a Master of Religious Studies with a concentration in ethics. Her research interest lies broadly in the role of faith communities in religiously charged conflicts and more particularly in the conversation between American evangelical and postliberal theologies as it relates to the construction of an evangelical ethic for interreligious engagement.