After viewing a documentary film about Christian acquiescence to and support for Nazi Germany in the 1930s, an audience member noted a startling parallel.
“I haven’t heard us say anything about the war we’re currently involved with from our platform,” Scott Hudgins, an administrator at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, said at a Friday workshop at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Atlanta.
Hudgins, former director of admissions at Wake Forest Divinity School, was among 150 participants in a screening and panel discussion of the documentary “Theologians Under Hitler” sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics.
“You could come and look at the record of this meeting and you wouldn’t know what in the world is going on in one of the most important moments in our history that is going to set the course of how this country is understood and responded to,” Hudgins said. “And yet I’ve heard nothing. There is something in this that is very disturbing to me.”
The film, produced and directed by Methodist minister Steven Martin, tells the story of three famous Protestant theologians of the 20th century. Their nationalism caused them to view Hitler as a gift from God to restore the diminished glory of their German homeland in the aftermath of the First World War.
Panelist Craig Sherouse said part of the problem was Germany’s state church’s reliance on Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” notion–that church and state are both divinely ordained but do not influence each other. He said that is a “very different form of the separation of church and state” held today in the United States, but the problem runs deeper.
“I don’t think Southern Baptists said one word about persecution of the Jews throughout the 1930s,” said Sherouse, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Griffin, Ga. “The only guy I found who said anything was Harry Emerson Fosdick,” pastor of the historic Riverside Church in New York City and author of the hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory.”
Sherouse said Baptists “were absolutely seduced” by Germans when the Baptist World Alliance met in Berlin in 1934. One position paper denounced nationalism, he said, and the German Baptist newspaper “responded with the German party line.”
“I’ve often asked myself if I had been a pastor in 1964, what would I have done,” he said. “If I had been a pastor in Germany in 1934, what would I have done? But it’s here today. You just kind of bob-and-weave. You compromise and don’t say what the prophetic voice would say, and you’re complicit.”
Sherouse said the Baptist system of congregational polity too often discourages prophetic preaching. Without a bishop to protect an unpopular minister, a Baptist pastor can be fired by a simple majority.
“Our system, every system, every polity has its plusses and minuses,” Sherouse said. “We have produced some of the greatest prophets, but we have produced some court prophets.”
Panelist Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, viewed parallels between the German church under the Nazis and today. “They began with an identifying of the people with the people of God,” he said. “The church and nation are all united.”
Prescott said Americans today like David Barton have “the same mindset.” Viewing the United States as a Christian nation with a special covenant with God, he said: “Mythologists try to paint us as a new Israel. It’s just as dangerous if we’re not careful.”
Panelist Kathy Dobbins said images in the film of the Nazi flag draped across church pulpits influenced her views about displaying the U.S. flag in worship. Many churches plan patriotic services for the weekend preceding July 4.
“We’re all about worshipping God and not worshipping our country,” said Dobbins, minister of adult education and outreach at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga. “We’re honoring our country as we remember our birthday. But it’s two different things.”
“Theologians Under Hitler,” a 51-minute documentary, is accompanied by a printed guide for group study in churches. Information about ordering is here. Testimonials say it is an effective way to introduce discussion of important issues like citizenship and separation of church and state against a backdrop of history instead of potentially polarizing current events.
“I think the problem we have is this seems so brash to us,” commented audience member Jim Holladay, pastor of Lyndon Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. “But we have been so seduced by civil religion it is really hard for some of us to see how far down this road we’ve walked.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.