Saturday, September 29, 2018

Reading Bonhoeffer in the Age of Trump

            Recently my Jewish friend and I were discussing the disastrous state of our national life. Since I am in the process of re-reading the works of the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer I cited his example of courage in the face of the rising fascism of his era. My friend chided me suggesting that our situation and Bonhoeffer’s were very different. The Nazi’s destroyed Germany’s institutions of democracy: elections, the press, and the courts. Today those institutions are still very much alive in America if not exactly well. Trump has attacked each one of them both before and after his election: he has raised questions about the legitimacy of our elections, called the press “the enemy of the people”, and is now is the process of attempting to pack the courts with right-wing ideologues rather than judges of honesty and integrity whether they lean left or right. The difference between Trump and Hitler, of course, is that Trump has no discernable ideology other than puffing his own ego, increasing his own power, and enriching himself, his family, and his friends. In pursuit of these aims he has lied and dissembled, cruelly attacked anyone who crossed him, and corrupted all who serve him. It will take us a generation to recover from his narcissistic bile, if we ever do.

            We should not have been surprised. His apparent lack of a moral core was demonstrated well before the election when he bragged about assaulting women and paid off prostitutes and porn stars to keep quiet about sexual liaisons. His dishonest business dealings were legendary and especially devastating to the small contractors his lawyers could bully and intimidate. I could go on. In spite of this the Evangelical world, my spiritual homeland through the majority of my life, showed itself as morally bankrupt as Trump himself. Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, James Dobson and a host of lesser lights fawned over Trump. They saw in him a way to silence women, shove gay people back into the closet, attack advocates for social justice with political impunity, and, especially, gain access to the power and influence they so desperately craved. Although some Evangelicals have shrilly claimed that this is not the true Evangelicalism, the large numbers of white Evangelical voters that enabled Trump’s election puts a lie to this. After all those sonorous words about the importance of moral probity and character in our leaders the Evangelical world swooned over a duplicitous, adulterous, sad little man. I repudiate the lot of them.

            One outcome of this has been, at least to me, surprising. I recently heard a group of progressive thinkers pondering what it meant to live an ethical life.  One woman said this was one of the major conversations in her circle of friends. Confronted with a total lack of ethical probity in the White House, the abject failure of many faith leaders on the right and the flaccidness of some on the left, some progressives are now pondering their own failures.  They are finding there is a difference between living an ethically robust life and political correctness. The latter could be a matter of checking an ideological box. The former requires a richly articulated set of values and convictions to ground one’s behavior in more than the current, passing moralistic fad. This has the potential of driving progressives back to the conversations so recently abandoned by Evangelicals in their quest for power: the nature of  personal character, communal standards of ethical conduct, and the wisdom located in the texts and traditions of the great religions of the world—including Christianity. And here, for me, is the value of reading Bonhoeffer. In the midst of creeping fascism Bonhoeffer was deeply rooted in his Christian, specifically Lutheran, texts and traditions. He possessed a moral narrative from which to challenge Hitler’s assault on Germany’s political, moral, and spiritual foundations. This grounding enabled him to resist all the way to the point of death. It is melodramatic to suggest our creeping fascism may lead to martyrdoms, but lacking a moral core and a spiritual grounding, we will much more easily give way to the seductive calls of wealth, power, and injustice.

John E. Phelan, Jr. 

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