Someone has said, “Everyone has a right to his or her opinion, but not to his or her facts.” I thought of that saying recently while watching Glenn Beck, who hosts one of television’s most watched talk shows.
Beck, who regularly recites his version of history, exemplified having one’s own facts when he asserted that the German churches in the 1930s and early ’40s aligned themselves with the Nazis under threat of death. In fact, all accounts of that era show that the vast majority of churches in Germany supported Hitler not out of fear, but because they believed that God had raised up and anointed him to restore Germany to its key role in world history.
For generations, Germany had considered itself a nation chosen by God for a unique, divine responsibility in the world – in the arts, politics, philosophy and religion. In other words, Germany viewed itself in a manner similar to the way many U.S. citizens regard this nation today.
Consequently, the defeat of Germany in World War I created a crisis of faith among many German Christians. Since they were, in their view, God’s chosen nation, why had God allowed them to be defeated? The most widely held answer was that God was punishing the nation for having disobeyed God by allowing the growth of liberal democratic political thought and by allowing Jews to become an integral part of German society.
A second element was the adoption among most teachers of religion that revelation is found not only in the Bible, but also in major historical events. This belief led many highly respected university and seminary teachers to proclaim that Hitler was God’s new messiah. The logic was simple: Germany was God’s chosen nation; Germany’s defeat in the war was God’s punishment for its adoption of liberalism and its integration of the Jews; and Hitler was God’s deliverer and savior, who would do away with liberalism and “solve the Jewish problem.”
Although there were notable examples of resistance to Hitler – the Confessing Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and individuals such as Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – most German Christians embraced Hitler and his program. Historians remember Hitler’s Christian supporters as “the German Christians.” Nazi flags and other symbols were placed in the churches not under threat of death, but willingly because those churches believed that Hitler was doing the work of Christ.
Beck used his grotesque falsification of history as a warning that the same thing could happen in the United States under the Obama administration. Actually, however, the identification of church and society already exists far more than the talk show host suggested.
In fact, Beck regularly equates true Christianity and ultra-conservative politics. Notice how many Christians affirm U.S. exceptionalism and assume that in any war, God is on this nation’s side. And just as in Germany, this relationship has been not a response to threats, but a welcoming embrace.
Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and theologian in residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. This column is reprinted here courtesy of the Jackson Sun.