What’s Wrong With Being “Right”?

For those who are enthusiastic about the voices calling for a return to or preservation of the Christian foundations of our society, you will probably find yourself largely in agreement with the sentiment of another famous politician, who said:

The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality.

Today Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theatre, and in the press – in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during recent years.

For those following currents in American religious and political life, the language sounds very familiar, and you may wonder precisely whose words these are. They are the words of Adolf Hitler. This is a quotation from the address he gave after coming to power in Germany (from “My New Order, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922-1939″, Vol. 1, pp. 871-872, Oxford University Press, London, 1942).

I am tempted to simply leave it at that, without comment. But just to make certain my point is clear, I will say just a few words about it. It is my hope that, by highlighting the similarity between current American voices and that of Hitler, my fellow Americans will understand why the voices on the far-right scare so many of us who do not share their views. Moderate leanings to the left or right are not what I am talking about here, but there are voices that are far to the right of center, and we use that language often without realizing what it means: far in the direction of Hitler, of the Nazis, of fascism. Many in our country today lean in that direction. It claims that our heritage (cultural, religious, economic, political, whatever) is the best, and that it is our destiny to be the most powerful nation precisely for this reason. It claims certainty that those who question our cherished values are wrong, and would ideally like to see our laws uphold and enforce these values.

Yet in an American context, to claim that our nation’s heritage is simply “Christian” is misleading. The faith or Thomas Jefferson, a deist, would not be considered acceptable to most of those American Christians today who claim that the founding fathers were Christians. The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans the right to break at least the first two of the Ten Commandments by guaranteeing religious freedom for all.

What is wrong with being on the right? Too many in this country today are leaning further and further in that direction, even though they would claim to abhor what Hitler did. Yet all it takes for history to repeat itself is a people leaning in that direction, a leader willing to use the language of Christianity and conservativism to manipulate the populace and exploit their faith and enthusiasm, and a failure to care when those we disagree with are persecuted and punished. The spirit of the far right is absolutely antithetical to the heritage and foundations of American democracy. And it is precisely that democracy that protects Christianity as well as all other religions to present their case, to make their appeal, to urge any and all who will listen to follow their lead and adhere to their values and convictions – whether they are about abortion, social justice, or the editing of Veggie Tales on NBC.

It is only a faith that is insecure that wants to force it on others and legislate it, because of a lack of trust in the persuasive power of the message itself. It is only the faith of the proud that claims absolute certainty, as opposed to humility and absolute trust in God as the only one who truly knows with certainty.

I found a couple more quotes from Hitler that illustrate just how similar the language he used is to that of certain voices in American Christianity today:

“Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith . . . we need believing people.” (Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933, from a speech made during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordant of 1933).

In his book Mein Kampf he wrote: “. . . I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.”

The founding fathers, despite what is so often claimed, were very careful to point our nation in a direction that could not (at least not legally) be taken in that direction. Much of what we assume to be the case about our “Christian nation” (such as the universal addition of the motto “In God We Trust” and the addition of “under God” to the pledge of allegiance) is shaped by things that were added in the 1950s, and certainly subsequent to the composition of the Constitution. Not only did Thomas Jefferson emphatically argue that American law is NOT based on the Bible [letter to Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814], and in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, which the U.S. Senate ratified, it emphasizes that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” Fundamentalists claim to believe the whole Bible and take it literally, and yet they ignore whole vast parts of it and impose their own interpretative framework on those verses they quote out of context. They claim to be following in the footsteps of the founding fathers and yet clearly have never read the writings of our nation’s early leaders or studied the historical evidence in an appropriate, scholarly manner. This is not to deny the profound influence of Christianity upon all of them in some way, shape or form. It is merely to assert their awareness that as soon as one allows a particular religious tradition to have a unique status, then there will be wrangling over whose version of that tradition is the right one, and the debates will never end.

Returning to our original subject, it is true that once he rose to power Hitler came to oppose Christianity, but it is important to note that this does not suggest that his earlier religious views were simply a charade. His opposition to Christianity results from his conviction that the church was a threat to his power; it is clear, however, that his anti-Semitic views were adopted in close connection with his extreme religious views. Quotes found online illustrate this point and the shift in his views well.

The form of Christianity that he adhered to was known as Positive Christianity, and it essentially remade Jesus in the image of the culture and ideals of Northern Europeans. Now it is inevitably true that people read their own cultural and personal presuppositions and ideals into their Scriptures, and project these values onto God, but some do it more radically than others. American fundamentalist Christianity does this to a lesser extent than Hitler’s Positive Christianity, but to a far greater extent than is healthy for the church if it is to have a role in challenging cultural norms with the Gospel. [There was a wonderful illustration of this on the 2006 season premier of Trading Spouses, where an orthodox Jewish mother from Boston changed places with a Pentecostal mother from a small town in the South. The latter viewed the Jewish woman's way of thinking as "un-American", and she assumed that her own traditions were what is meant by Christianity, as did the rest of her family.]

Hitler had been raised a Catholic and viewed himself as such at least until 1941. Lest it be assumed that these views have nothing to do with other branches of Christianity, let’s have a few quotes from Martin Luther: “The Jews deserve to be hanged on gallows seven times higher than ordinary thieves,” and “We ought to take revenge on the Jews and kill them.”
It is because racism, greed, lack of concern for the poor, and countless other values that are at odds with the most basic teachings of Christianity (as of most religions) continue to flourish in our society that I am so passionate about getting good Biblical scholarship to the public and teaching not only religion majors but as many students as possible. There is a wonderful paragraph in LeAnn Snow Flesher’s recent book Left Behind?: The Facts Behind the Fiction that puts it beautifully and shows the connection with the topic we’ve been discussing:

Every fall a new set of students enters my Introduction to the Old Testament
course, and invariably, at least one student will come up to me and say, “I
really don’t need to take this class, I already know the Bible.” Having read the
Bible is not equal to knowing the Bible. Reading the Bible is essential, of
course, but the Bible is a very complex collection of documents from an ancient
age and culture. In the United States today, and I dare to say in much of the
world, the common method for reading has become one of direct application
wherein the reader selects a passage, often at random, reads it through, and
immediately sits back to contemplate how the text directly applies to today and
to his or her life. This almost magical approach entirely disregards the
realities of what the Bible is and what it means to read it with integrity. In
the end, this method demonstrates disrespect for Scripture and replaces the
authority of the Word with the authority of the reader’s time, place, and needs.
Scripture verses pulled out of their contexts and strung together can be made to
say almost anything. Many bad interpretations have resulted from such a process
- some of which have been downright devastating (pp.57-58).

It fascinates me that religion seems to mean two completely opposite things for people in our time. On the one hand, there are the fundamentalists for whom religion is all about certainty, about my own knowledge about God being accurate, about being correct in what one believes/knows. On the other hand, there are those of us who have had a personal spiritual experience of genuinely being born again, and although most of us start out spiritually with a fundamentalist outlooks (just as young children see the world in black-and-white terms), as (or I should say if) we mature we acknowledge that all our words and doctrines are simply pointers to that experience that transcends them, to a God who transcends them. For us, religion is not about our own certainty, but a recognition of our own human limitations, so that we cast ourselves utterly upon God who alone is certain, alone is wise, alone knows, alone is right.

[NOTE: The above post originally appeared as two separate entries here]

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, you appear to be another hypocrite who demonizes his opponents while draping his politics in a cloak of enlightened religiosity. You may think that your part of the solution, but you’re really just part of the problem.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, so let’s say I reply to you and say “Sadly, you appear to be another hypocrite who demonizes his opponents while draping his politics in a cloak of enlightened religiosity. You may think that your part of the solution, but you’re really just part of the problem” back at you. Has anything really been communicated? Please feel free to disagree with me however strongly you like, but I’d appreciate it if you did so on actual details and points of substance. Assuming you have some criticisms to make, that is, apart from simply “I don’t like what you said, therefore you must be wrong”.


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