When Liberty University’s president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced his endorsement for Trump, I was amazed at the rhetoric that justified the evangelical vote for a Trump presidency. As someone with close ties to the evangelical community my amazement turned into horror as I witnessed how evangelical leaders across the board joined in the call to urge evangelical voters to love up on Trump.
No-one made it worse, however, than Eric Metaxas, who considers a vote for Trump analogous to the courageous act of resistance by Bonhoeffer as he joined a plot to assassinate Hitler.1 I couldn’t believe my eyes! Later, I found another article on the interwebs by another author who takes Bonhoeffer’s words equally out of context. Under the guise of intellectual discourse she outlines why, quoting Bonhoeffer left and right, the German theologian is an ally to those voting for Trump.2 Bonhoeffer has been interpreted in many different ways, but none is quite so odious as the 21st Century North American Bonhoeffer who congratulates himself in his attempt to maintain the status quo of a Christianized culture with its white privilege by voting a misogynistic racist liar into office.
Frankly, all of this is very disconcerting. Not only is the evangelical vote for Trump evidence of the failure of evangelical discourse and morality, but Bonhoeffer is drawn into an ugly presidential election as a trump card for one of the most deplorable and unfit candidates the USA has ever seen. In which worldview does such argumentation count as rational? If Bonhoeffer has anything to say to the US elections, and in particular, the evangelicals who are considering christianly giving their vote to the Republican candidate, the argument will look quite different. Here’s how Bonhoeffer can be your ally, if you’re considering giving your vote to Donald Trump.
Bonhoeffer and the vote for Trump are complete opposites
First of all, Bonhoeffer’s resistance against the nazis and the evangelical vote for Trump have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Here’s why. Bonhoeffer’s deed of resistance was indeed a very courageous one. Imagine standing up against a totalitarian system that can and will devour you if and when you are found out. Bonhoeffer had to overcome his fear. The evangelical vote for Trump, however, is actually giving in to fear. Fear for the Muslim, the stranger, and, most of all, the fear of losing the culture war. There is nothing courageous about a vote for Trump.
Bonhoeffer’s resistance was a resistance against tyranny. The Moloch of nazism was devouring the Jews, the Germans, Western Europe. The monster had to be stopped. The evangelical vote for Trump, however, is actually facilitating a process that leads from populism, which appeals to people’s base fears and instincts, to potential dictatorship, as freedoms are stripped and minority’s rights are taken away to “protect” the majority’s safety.
Bonhoeffer’s resistance was a resistance from below. Under the crushing weight of a totalitarian system that had all of Germany in its grip, Bonhoeffer’s complicity in the assassination attempt was a grassroots effort after all forms of democratic process were annihilated. The vote for Trump, however, is a desperate attempt from above to impose, in whichever way possible, a law that enforces some form of Christianized morality upon culture. It is an attempt to coerce people into behavior that some deem essential to the Christian faith.
The vote for Trump is an attempt to gain power, or to save whatever political influence the religious right used to have in the past. It’s a desperate attempt to remain in control of public discourse. Of course, Bonhoeffer’s resistance had nothing to do with gaining power or remaining in control. Bonhoeffer’s was a desperate attempt to breach the wall of totalitarianism in order to forge a way to liberation and freedom.
While the evangelical leaders who tell us to vote for Trump purport to do so in the name of Christ, the resulting lack of care for the alien, the widow, the orphan, and the poor—were Trump to gain power—entails a betrayal of the very Christ whom they proclaim. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, truly put Christ at the center, because he was willing to follow Christ to the point that he risked losing his life. For him the humble and suffering Christ—not the conquering one who rides a white horse and wields a murderous sword—called him to follow.
With his words and actions Bonhoeffer speaks to the truth of a theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory that would establish God’s kingdom here and now with human hands. In the end, Trump is a good example of the menace Bonhoeffer saw need to do battle with. The evangelical alignment with Trump bears more resemblance—if we have to make a comparison, this is—with the German Christians who sided with Hitler. I don’t like to make this analogy, but if Metaxas and others insist on making references to the nazi era, this one would be more appropriate. The politically and religiously conservative take on Bonhoeffer is for that reason very troubling to say the least.
How Bonhoeffer can be an ally for Trump voters
All this is not to say that Bonhoeffer is not useful in this situation. There are several ways in which Bonhoeffer can be an ally for Trump-voting Christians.
Bonhoeffer can teach you the notion of true courage. True courage refuses to give in to fear. It eschews self-preservation in favor of and on behalf of the well-being of others. True courage allows you to put yourself out there—even when your knees tremble—to defend those that need protection and help, even at your own peril.
Transformation as the result of the encounter with Jesus Christ should produce women and men who are actually transformed. They don’t play the power games of the political systems they live in but are truly counter-cultural. They show that following Christ is not merely saying something different, but also that it entails living different kinds of lives. Bonhoeffer gave flesh to the idea that the being-for-others that was so characteristic of Christ, ought to become our own being-for-others.
At the core of their theology, evangelicals have an emphasis on the lordship of Christ. Discipleship means following Christ wherever Christ leads. Discipleship means servanthood and, if need be, giving your life for the other. A vote for Trump, however, is the very opposite. It is the attempt to hold on to power. It means to force others, who are not Christians, to live according to Christian rules. A vote for Trump is not being-for-others but a mastery-of-others by way of a deranged character. Waging the culture war is not part of the Christian ethos or mission. Establishing a theocracy is not what the Church is about.
Bonhoeffer understood the times in which he lived. He was one of the first theologians to resist the Führer and one of the first to resist the exclusion of Jews from the Church. His decision to join the resistance (which included his willingness to become complicit in murder) was informed by understanding the times. The totalitarian system could only be overthrown by military force from without or by removing Hitler from within. Evangelicals too need to understand the times they are living in. This means, among other things, understanding that the moral majority doesn’t work anymore. In order to get a majority today you need to vote Trump which implies losing the morality you stand for. It is time to let go of power politics and time to return to a subversive Christianity that changes things from below. The time of Christian domination in politics is over.
Much of the current debate is framed around the notion that America is a Christian nation, that it is known what the definition of “Christian” is, and that this “Christianness” ought to be restored and preserved by all means necessary. Such discourse is only possible if we actually think we can know what God thinks, if somehow we assume that the Bible gives us absolute truth concerning God’s intentions, opinions, and wishes. This is an absolutely perilous path of thinking. It objectifies God, i.e. it makes God into a thing that we can know and place into categories. The result is that God becomes a puppet who says what we want God to say.
Those who are willing to listen to Bonhoeffer, will have to take serious his notion of God’s nonobjectivity. God is not an object of knowledge such that we can execute God’s will for the world. God is not available in that way. God cannot be trumped up to head our victory parade or to condone our ideology. God is not knowable in that sense. God can be known, Bonhoeffer admits, but only when we surrender our ideologies, world views, and culture wars. God is manifested in Jesus Christ. And through the encounter with Jesus, God may show up in our actions as the humble servant who serves the other.
These are some ways that Bonhoeffer can help Trump-voting Christians. And the advice is to run away from Trump, culture wars, and the anxiety that drives all this, as fast as possible. Bonhoeffer tells us it is time for a different Christian presence in our culture today. We need to start putting our money where our mouth is and actually do what we preach. We need to selflessly invest ourselves and our church communities in the wellbeing of those who are needy in our society.
Who knows, America may yet notice the alternative narrative Christians live out of and be changed by it instead of it changing Christianity beyond recognition. But in order to be a genuine salt to the world, Christians who are thinking of voting for Trump should turn their backs on the rhetoric their leaders are feeding to them in the name of power, domination, and control. Christians who stand squarely behind the muslim neighbors, the latino immigrant workers or the destitute refugee, Christians who are willing to support women in their struggle for dignity and recognition—in short Christians who look like Christ—will be recognized by the world as Christ among them.