Article Note: Challenges to “Christian Civilization” across Europe

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 1 (March 2019)

Article Note: Challenges to “Christian Civilization” across Europe

Paul Hanebrink, “European Protestants Between Anti-Communism and Anti-Totalitarianism: The Other Interwar Kulturkampf?” Journal of Contemporary History 53, no. 3 (2017), 622-43.

Thomas Mittmann, “The Lasting Impact of the ‘Sociological Moment’ on the Churches’ Discourse of ‘Secularization’ in West Germany,” Journal of Religion in Europe 9 (2016), 157-776.

By Victoria J. Barnett, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum*

In the late 1930s the European landscape was roiled by the events in Nazi Germany, the Spanish Civil War, the unfolding terror in the Soviet Union, and the continued repercussions of the political and territorial shift that had followed the end of the First World War. European and North American church leaders were alarmed by the implications of these developments for the institutional church and for clergy, members of religious orders, theological faculties, and laypeople. The sheer scope of what was happening seemed to portend something more ominous: a transnational “Kulturkampf,” a seismic shift that threatened the foundations of what church leaders viewed as “Christian civilization.” Although in the early twentieth century Catholic and Protestant church leaders viewed the rise of Communism as the foremost “secular” threat, by the 1930s the threat seemed more complex and diffuse.

In his 2006 book In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890-1944, Hanebrink skillfully explored dynamics in Hungary. This article is an equally expert treatment of (primarily) Protestant responses to multiple crises that included the imprisonment and murders of Catholic clergy and members of religious orders in Spain, the growing pressures on the churches in Nazi Germany, and the debates within the international Protestant ecumenical movement as it sought to address the complexities of the German Church Struggle. Hanebrink offers three very different case studies from 1937 of battles against (and perceptions of) secularism and totalitarianism: in Nazi Germany, in an alliance between Catholics and Protestants in Hungary, and at the July 1937 Oxford ecumenical conference in England.

He begins with helpful background. The nineteenth-century “culture wars” had been framed largely in the context of church-state issues. During the 1920s the Russian revolution and its anti-church measures, as well as the emergence of left-wing political parties critical of the churches, led Protestants and Catholics to focus on Bolshevism and “secularism” as the new enemy. In the process the antisemitism already embedded in western culture was drawn into these new critiques: for their role in the processes of emancipation and assimilation Jews were accused of promoting a wider “secularism”, and they were also linked to Bolshevism.

By the 1930s such attitudes led many German Protestants to support National Socialism because of its anti-Bolshevism, and they were an impetus for Christians elsewhere in Europe to align themselves with the fascist movement. In contrast to this, Protestants involved in European ecumenism viewed fascism and National Socialism as new forms of “secularism” that contradicted and undermined the “Christian” values of individual freedom, conscience and human rights. These understandings, in turn, would shape the early post-1945 framing of these issues in the Cold War, in which the threat of “godless Communism” became the primary example of the dangers of “secularism.”

Hanebrink’s transnational approach is very useful for such analysis. As he notes, most studies of Protestantism during this period of European history draw on individual national case studies but don’t look comparatively across Europe. Hanebrink’s first case study examines the 1937 attempt in Hungary between Protestants and Catholics to form an anti-Communist alliance, building on a shared language and self-understanding of Christian culture, belief, and nationality. There was even an attempt by a Jewish author to encourage a broader religious alliance against totalitarianism and “godlessness.” This went nowhere; throughout Europe, the evils of Bolshevism were usually linked to a perceived “Jewish materialism and secularism.” The Hungarian case, however, offers a revealing look at a coalition that altered Christian understandings there of the “religious-secular conflict.”

The intersection of anti-Communism and antisemitism was pervasive in the German Evangelical Church as well. An additional complication was the German Kirchenkampf, the internal battles within German Protestantism that began in 1933 over the attempted nazification of that church and the theological extremism of the Deutsche Christen. The Confessing Church emerged in opposition to these attempts, particularly over the efforts to introduce a church “Aryan law” that would affect the inclusion, baptism, and ordination of “non-Aryan Christians” in the church. As Hanebrink notes, “the widespread conflation of anti-Bolshevism and antisemitism” added an additional level of complexity to these internal church debates. Many in the Confessing Church shared the anti-Bolshevism and the antisemitism of their compatriots and leaders, and over time these sentiments undermined the initially strong support for Christians of Jewish descent. This was also a factor in tempering the Confessing Church’s public criticism of the Nazi state. Nonetheless, while anti-Communism (and, I would argue, German nationalism) was a unifying factor throughout the church, the theological divisions and the church-state issues that emerged in the Kirchenkampf remained significant and are worth further analysis in any study of discourse about “secularism” in this instance.

Much of this became evident in the events surrounding Hanebrink’s third case study: the July 1937 conference in Oxford, England, of the ecumenical (Protestant) Universal Christian Council for Life and Work, which focused largely on the events in Nazi Germany. The Oxford meeting convened only a few months after the public reading from German Catholic pulpits of the March 1937 papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge and the Gestapo’s widespread confiscation of that encyclical in response. Delegates at Oxford were well aware of these developments, although there were, of course, no Catholic delegates present. (While there were unofficial communications during that era between Protestant ecumenists and some Catholic leaders, only after the Second Vatican Council was there official Catholic representation at Protestant ecumenical meetings).

For the German Evangelical Church, it was an equally volatile moment in the ongoing internal battles between the official church leadership and the Confessing Church. Shortly before the Oxford conference, Pastor Martin Niemoeller had been arrested. Niemoeller (described by US ecumenist Henry Leiper in 1933 as the new “Martin Luther”) had become the international symbol of the church opposition to Hitler. Moreover, in advance of Oxford, the Confessing Church had insisted that it be invited as the sole representative of the German Church. The ecumenical position since the beginning of the Kirchenkampf had been to maintain ties to all factions in the German Evangelical Church, and this was the moment when the Confessing Church—already itself deeply divided and alarmed by the escalation of state pressure—angrily abandoned its efforts to represent the German churches ecumenically (the pre-Oxford argument about this led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to resign as youth secretary of the ecumenical World Alliance). Ironically, shortly before the Oxford meeting, the German government blocked representatives of the official GEC church from attending the meeting, and so only individual German delegates were present.

Ecumenical leaders at the Oxford conference addressed the persecution of Jews in Germany very differently than did their colleagues who came from in a non-ecumenical context. The persecution of the Jews was understood (and condemned) as a terrible symptom of secularism, and ecumenical solidarity with the Jews as victims was combined with an outspoken critique of totalitarianism. To some degree this perspective had been shaped by the viewpoints of North American delegates and their activism on issues of race and prejudice in the United States, but I would add that even during the 1920s the ecumenical movement interpreted Communism, fascism, and the nationalism emerging in Germany as manifestations of a dangerous kind of “secularism” and was using the language of human rights that became more explicitly framed at Oxford. In 1937, the ecumenical language about nationalism, totalitarianism, and the treatment of the persecution of the Jews was entirely consistent with that of previous ecumenical gatherings beginning with the fall 1933 meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, and it was notably different from how these issues were addressed in other European contexts.

Hanebrink’s important article illustrates why the diversity within European Protestantism—historically, nationally, culturally, and institutionally—makes it far more difficult than in the Catholic case to draw a coherent picture of the Protestant reactions to the turbulent historical events of the twentieth century, both before and after 1945. In framing the very different understandings of and responses to the threat of secularism, totalitarianism, and Communism, he shows that “there was more than one Protestant culture war.”

In an article focused on the post-1945 dynamics in West Germany, Thomas Mittmann picks up where Hanebrink leaves off, and many of his observations are helpful continuities of the discussion begun in Hanebrink’s article. Tracing developments in both Catholic and Protestant churches, Mittmann delineates three phases of “secularization discourse” in postwar Germany. The first, from 1945 to the late 1950s, emerged in the immediate aftermath of Nazism and its collapse. Seeking to regain their standing in the aftermath of Nazism, Christians in Germany longed for a religious revival; as the Cold War intensified this discourse became naturally aligned with anti-Communism. The second phase, beginning in the 1960s, brought a “theologization” of “secularization”: a theological discourse that increasingly embraced secularization as part of a new political awareness about the churches’ role in the modern world (along with a more explicit rejection of the churches’ failures under National Socialism). The third phase occurred in what Mittmann terms the “sociological moment” of the 1970s-1980s. Theological language was downplayed as the churches adapted to an increasingly secularized society, and the very significance of the “religious” vs. the “secular” was redefined. Although Mittmann doesn’t discuss the changes on the German church landscape after 1989, one could extend this third phase, I think, into the post-unification era and the dramatic shift in religious demographics and church membership.

The German churches’ process of navigating these discourses was theological as well as political, and Mittmann does a fine job of describing the role of Catholic and Protestant theologians like Dorothee Soelle and Karl Rahner in framing the discourse of their respective eras (even, in the case of someone like Soelle, bridging several eras). Particularly in the early postwar period, “secularization” was a “transformational term…that bundled church-political concerns and aspirations.” It also drew the lines of internal church debates between those who viewed secularization negatively in terms of church decline and those who saw it as a necessary opening for the church in the modern world.

By the 1960s, secularization was viewed more positively. Particularly in the Protestant churches, there was already a body of theological work by figures such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had framed such processes as positive and necessary renewals of the church—in Bonhoeffer’s case, in his embrace of a “this-worldly Christianity.” In this second phase, Catholic and Protestant theologians called upon the church to renew itself and address the world in affirmation. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council Catholic theologians like Johann Baptist Metz encouraged a similar movement, describing “worldliness” as part of the “inner-historical power” of Christ.

This embrace of a new position in the modern world occurred in conjunction with a new self-identification of church as social and political actor. German Catholic and Protestant churches and their agencies became more openly involved in political causes like the environmental and peace movements. There were also liturgical and church policy reforms. All this fed into the “sociological moment” in which church leaders and laypeople alike arrived at a very different understanding of what the church represented, what it meant to be Christian, and what it meant to have faith in the modern world.

Mittmann offers a fascinating examination of the rise during the 1970s of Islam in Germany and the challenges this development posed, particularly for the Protestant church. Suddenly a trend that the churches had viewed positively was viewed by the Muslim minority as an exclusionary method of establishing boundaries against the immigrant population. Having acclimated religion and its institutions to a modern society, German churches were now confronted by the phenomenon of a “religiosity” that did not want to integrate. Christian “secularity” was understood as supportive of the structures of modern liberal democracy; Muslims were expected to conform and revise the public expression of their religious life accordingly. Since the 1980s, Mittmann observes, the pendulum has begun to swing the other way (a development evident in the United States as well). There is now talk of a “post-secular” society and there are new theological exchanges between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Germany.

It is interesting to read both these articles from our vantage point in 2019. With the resurgence of conservative evangelical Christianity on the larger stage of world Christianity today—affecting not just churches in North American and Europe, but in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—“secularization” is once again viewed negatively by large sectors of the Christian world, with profound implication not just for understandings of Christian doctrine but with respect to church engagement in political issues. There are similar fault lines in Judaism and Islam. These articles by Hanebrink and Mittmann are important reminders that in any era terms like “secularization,” “religion” and even “Christianity” are fluid and subjective, driven by different cultural and political presuppositions and used for different ends.

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.