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Bonhoeffer’s America: 
A Land Without Reformation
by joel looper
baylor university, 272 pages, $54.99

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.

Thus, Bonhoeffer seems to see “the secular” and “unbelief” as bound up with one another, such that secularism is less a prudential means of holding together diverse coalitions and more a consequence of the church’s failure to attend to the word of God. Bonhoeffer’s concern was that as churches were secularized, Christians ceased to “practice the church’s politics in public.”

Bonhoeffer came to believe that the origins of the accommodating Christianity of the American church could be traced back to Wycliffe and the ­Lollards in England. Though historical genealogies of this sort can be and often are more than a little dubious, Looper’s explication of Bonhoeffer’s theory is interesting and not without merit. 

The Lollards, Bonhoeffer said, were the first to give primacy to the private reading of Scripture, which in time would give way to the “inner light” of the individual believer—an idea that one can find in a variety of radical Protestant movements, including many that took deep root in America, not just the Quakers but the New Light Presbyterians and other offshoots of the First Great Awakening. Looper suggests that one can detect this spirit in Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’s treatise Religious Affections asks “what is the nature of true religion?” and answers that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” The church itself is almost entirely absent from Edwards’s answer to this question. “In fact, being formed into the image of Christ together with one’s sisters and brothers barely enters the equation for Edwards,” Looper writes. He goes on to say,

The individualism of Edwards’s analysis is never clearly paired with any ecclesial politic at all. In fact, it seems that only one unambiguous reference appears in all of ­Edwards’s writings that discusses the church as church enacting a different sort of politics from civil society. Perhaps this is not surprising given that nearly everyone in early America claimed to be Christian. But it is also exactly what one would expect if Edwards, whether he knew it or not, had Wycliffe in his theological family tree. Like the Lollards and English dissenters before him, religion was an inward, spiritual, individual affair for Edwards. . . . After all, for Edwards, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”

Looper does impressive work in substantiating Bonhoeffer’s claim that pre-Reformation and radical Reformation sources exerted significant influence over American church life, by highlighting the many ways in which Union faculty were themselves far more interested in the radical Reformation movements than in the magis­terial Protestant tradition to which ­Bonhoeffer was committed.

If American Christians have “often eschewed Christian reasoning in public discourse,” Looper writes, they have not done so for reasons of prudence. Rather, “American Christians do not know how to reason politically as Christians.” Our politics should have begun with theology, our activism should have been primarily that of witness. Instead of making Christ and the church our starting point, “we have directed our political action and our allegiance to the nation-state.”

This critique obviously hit the mainline harder in Bonhoeffer’s day than it does in ours. But it would seem to hit contemporary evangelicalism no less hard. It’s sadly common to find older evangelical churches that mark July 4 as a Christian celebration, as when Robert Jeffress’s First Baptist Dallas notoriously sang a hymn titled “Make America Great Again.” Other evangelical establishment congregations have accommodated themselves to the consumerist spirit of postwar suburban capitalism, presupposing that “church” ultimately exists to give people good feelings and to make demographically targeted appeals through specific event offerings and programs. Likewise, many younger evangelical churches are now beset by the totalizing claims of therapeutic culture and discourse. Pastors are often seen as vaguely spiritual therapists or life coaches, and Christian maturity has been rendered virtually synonymous with emotional health or self-actualization. If Bonhoeffer visited today, he would surely detect signs that the gospel is once again being accommodated and relativized to American life.

Where, then, should American Christians look for a way past these pitfalls? Bonhoeffer’s ­experience in America again suggests an ­unexpected answer—­specifically, his experience with the black church, during his time visiting and teaching Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, then pastored by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. “Here,” Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend in 1931, “one really could still hear someone talk in a Christian sense about sin and grace and the love of God and ultimate hope, albeit in a form different from that to which we are accustomed.” In 1939, after his second visit to America, during which time he again visited Abyssinian, he would write: “Here the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners, is truly preached and received with great welcome and visible emotion.”

It is not terribly difficult, given his critique of American Christianity, to understand why Bonhoeffer would see the black church as existing outside that critique. If the word of God had been sidelined in favor of American democratic unity, where better to look for the word than in those communities that had often been excluded from that same unity?

Today, American Christians struggle to understand their own place in this republic and what Christian faithfulness in the American nation looks like today. Much ink has been spilled arguing for and against “Christian nationalism.” But what is interesting is that when one considers some of the core ideas of “Christian nationalism” as defined by scholars such as Andrew ­Whitehead and Samuel Perry, the black church scores very highly for Christian nationalism.

If “Christian nationalism” simply means that “the federal government should advocate Christian values” and “the federal government should allow prayer in public schools,” for example, then the black church is quite friendly to Christian nationalism. According to the research ­cited in Perry and Whitehead’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, African Americans are more likely to agree with articulations of Christian nationalism than are white Americans, and black Protestants support Perry and Whitehead’s tenets of Christian nationalism at rates nearly as high as do white evangelicals. 

Of course the black church ­faces all the usual temptations toward political partisanship. But at its best, it has provided an important model of how Christianity can transform the life of governments and nations. 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? That is the potential Bonhoeffer sensed at Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Jake Meador is the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy.

Image by Picryl via Creative Commons. Image cropped.