The Battle for Bonhoeffer

Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump

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Stephen R. Haynes
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , September
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephen R. Haynes’ aim in The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump is to chronicle the multifaceted 21st century American interpretations of Bonhoeffer, the attendant interpretative conflict, and how it “influenced, and was influenced by, the 2016 American presidential election” (1). Building off of his earlier works The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Self (Fortress Press, 2004) and The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-holocaust Perspectives (Fortress Press, 2006), which chronicled the 20th century American reception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Haynes focuses the bulk of his work on the emergence of a “populist” Bonhoeffer, best exemplified by Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2011), and used as a justification for voting for Donald Trump (5-6).

In the first two chapters Haynes gives updated descriptions of his 20th century Bonhoeffer portraits, and recounts the evangelical reception of Bonhoeffer starting in the 1970’s. Features of both of these accounts provide an explanatory background for the populist Bonhoeffer, namely the tendency of Americans to cast their domestic opponents in Nazified terms (19) and, in contrast with what would come, generally text-based responses to Bonhoeffer by evangelicals (37).

Chapter 3 shows how Bonhoeffer is used to both advocate for the war with Iraq in 2003, and subsequently oppose the same war, and criticize perceived totalitarian leanings in the US government. The very fact that Bonhoeffer could be employed by two opposing camps demonstrates to the reader just how much of a battle for the interpretation of Bonhoeffer takes in the US. In moving beyond the George W. Bush years (2001-2008) to the Obama administration (2009-2016), the battle is shown to have intensified considerably as Obama and domestic problems were cast in Hitlerian terms by evangelicals, all of whom looked to Bonhoeffer as a guide and weapon in their fight against gay marriage and abortion (56-58). At this juncture, Haynes moves on to the main interlocutor shadowing the book: Metaxas.

When assessing Metaxas in chapter 5 Haynes pulls no punches. He first notes that, compared to even other evangelicals, Metaxas’ use of Bonhoeffer was both hyperbolic in its comparison of Hitler’s Germany to Obama’s America, and then was summarily dismissive of the scholarly discussion on Bonhoeffer (69-70). Metaxas claims that Bonhoeffer has been misunderstood by liberal scholars, but also Haynes notes that this view is a result of Metaxas’ own lack of understanding of Bonhoeffer studies. Metaxas rests his claim on the admittedly-liberal and humanistic views of the death-of-God movement but, as Haynes notes, this brief movement in Bonhoeffer studies was thoroughly rejected by the academy as misrepresentative of Bonhoeffer’s thought. In effect, “Metaxas seizes on misuse of Bonhoeffer by one of the briefest theological movements of the twentieth century to cast suspicion on Bonhoeffer scholarship in its entirety” (72). Rather than being a piece of genuine scholarship, Haynes argues that Metaxas’ biography is riddled with inaccuracies, and guided by an agenda to link Obama’s America to Hitler’s Germany. 

It is this populist Bonhoeffer which Haynes argues has had the most impact on evangelicals in relation to the 2016 presidential election. This is seen in his chapter addressing the “Bonhoeffer Moment”—proclaimed by evangelicals in relation to gay marriage. In evangelical public statements, legalization of gay marriage would be a Bonhoeffer moment in which they resisted perceived government pressure, in a situation on-par with the Confessing Church’s resistance to Nazism, a moment of resistance which never occurred post Obgerfell (100).

Given the noxious cocktail of ahistoricism, Nazified hyperbole, and self-victimization it is no wonder that evangelicals supported Trump in droves in the 2016 election. Haynes makes clear that the populist Bonhoeffer, created largely by Metaxas, provided rhetorical and moral cover for those who would otherwise be disgusted by Trump. Going beyond simple allowance, Metaxas argued that Christians had an imperative to vote for Trump over Hilary Clinton (105). Metaxas’ rationale was, again, that the election was a Bonhoeffer moment and that the stakes were the fate of the country itself. Even with the revelation of the Access Hollywood tapes in October 2016, Metaxas is strident in asserting that Trump was the Christian’s man. 

This forceful use of Bonhoeffer to advocate for Trump resulted in an equally forceful backlash from his opponents, which Haynes recounts in his last few chapters. His final chapter discusses his own foray into the Bonhoeffer battleground. While noting the often absurd and false equivalencies that abound in comparing any political figure to Hitler, Haynes makes the perceptive remark that, in contrast to any other leader who has been associated with fascism, Trump actually has the support of real-life Nazis and fascists (134). While warning against as simply equivalency between the two, Haynes’ own argument, and the arguments of those he chronicles, make it clear that there are parallels to be drawn between Nazi Germany and the Trump Administration, and that given this parallel, Bonhoeffer can truly be a guide for concerned Christians. 

In his final chapter, Haynes writes a letter to the evangelicals who support Trump—yet also claim to love Bonhoeffer. In this letter Haynes makes an impassioned plea for them to reconsider this support, noting that Trump’s behavior is un-Christian, he cannot be construed as a real Christian, support for him is harming Christianity’s credibility, and that their support of Trump is reminiscent of German Christian’s support of Hitler in the 1930’s. This last point is powerfully reinforced by a comparison between quotes by church leaders in Germany about Hitler, and those of contemporary American evangelicals about Trump (144-45).

The Battle for Bonhoeffer offers a rebuke to the culture-war evangelicals who have embraced an ahistorical Bonhoeffer in order to support a man for presidency who exemplifies nothing of Bonhoeffer’s work or life. The strength of Haynes’ arguments rest in the copious examples of inaccuracies and misrepresentations which Metaxas and others have invented or perpetuated for their political ends. From the bogus, “not to act is to act” quote, to the notion that a liberally-trained German theologian was a simply an American evangelical in Teutonic trappings, Haynes demonstrates again and again the shaky historical and theological moorings upon which evangelicals have constructed their own Bonhoeffer. It is only with these shaky foundations that evangelicals can plausibly utilize Bonhoeffer in support of Trump. To posit that a man who holds the allegiance of present-day Nazis, would be the top pick for a pastor murdered by Hitler’s regime underscores the sad irony and desperation of the evangelical right in their weaponization of Bonhoeffer for their political ends. If there is any work which could convince Bonhoeffer-loving evangelicals to reconsider their allegiance to Trump, it would certainly be Haynes’.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brendon Norton is an Independent Scholar based in Massachusetts.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen R. Haynes is Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College and Theologian-in-Sesidence at Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. The coauthor of Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, he has also written articles about Bonhoeffer and American culture for the Huffington Post and the Christian Century.


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