Two notes were sounded about Christianity in Nazi Germany at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, when I attended the school in the late 1970s.
One note was played softly, easily missed. A passing reference was made to Gerhard Kittel, founding editor of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a standard work that pastors still use today for sermon preparation. Professors and seminarians called his dictionary “Kittel.”
While some professors may have mentioned that he sympathized with the Nazis, they did not report that he was arrested at the end of World War II and sentenced to prison for 17 months for his writings on “Die Judenfrage,” the Jewish Question, writing that abetted the Nazi ideology.
Nothing was said about other prominent Protestant theologians—Emanuel Hirsch and Paul Althaus. No mention was made of Deutsche Cristen, the widespread German Christian movement that saw a reinforcing mutuality between Christianity and Nazism, one that resulted in swastikas on pulpits.
The second note was played loudly. Professors talked with deep admiration about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, leaving one with a sense that that movement was more extensive than it really was. Seminarians read Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and readily determined that they would have been with Bonhoeffer against the preachers of cheap grace.
A few years later, Lloyd Allen, now a church history professor at McAfee School of Theology, wrote an important piece about how Baptists assessed Hitler. His report, and subsequent articles by others, gave a disturbing picture.
Allen reported that when Baptists gathered in Berlin for the 1934 Baptist World Alliance, they walked into a hall where an “imposing flag of the Third Reich” hung with “a huge painting of historic Baptist figures William Carey, J.G. Oncken and Charles H. Spurgeon standing at the foot of the cross.”
Allen’s research found that Southern Seminary’s president, John Sampey, warned against quick criticism of Hitler—Hitler, after all, had made German women stop wearing red lipstick in public.
John Bradbury, a Boston pastor, praised “the new Germany” for burning “corrupting books and magazines” from “Jewish and communist libraries.” He cited evidence of a positive Nazi morality in a nation where gangster movies could not be seen and pornography could not be sold.
The editor of the Texas Baptist newspaper, F.M. McConnell, thought those Baptists at the BWA meeting who were concerned about Germany’s economic, social and political policies should be more concerned about evangelism.
M.E. Dodd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that Jews used their intelligence in ways that injured the German people. He referred to Jewish refugees as “communist agitators.”
Another researcher, Mark Rathel, found that C.M. Brittain, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, saw evidence that Hitler was a Christian because he abstained from alcohol and tobacco, as well as advocated clean living and opposed communism.
The past hands the present an inescapable question: Could it happen again?
Like the leading German theologians and prominent Baptist clergy, could we make a similar horrific mistake of being on the wrong moral side of history?
Regrettably, we may answer too quickly out of our hubris that it could not happen to us. We tend to have an inflated view of our moral discernment and courage. We see ourselves as those who would have stood with Bonhoeffer, as many Southern clergy believe that they would have marched with King.
Being on the morally right side of history is always so obvious from the vantage point and distance of time. Our problem is not so much reading the past with clarity. It’s being on the morally right side now.
Once we acknowledge the sin of personal pride, we would do well to arm ourselves with church practices that protect Christians from the temptations of national pride and idolatry. One practice is to keep high the wall of separation between church and state. The symbols of state power should never be draped over the sacred systems of the church—no flag-draped crosses, no camouflaged-covered Bibles, no Bible verses on weapons of war, no crusading war-ethic.
We would also do well to stop placing the moral mantle on political leaders because they claim loyalty to Jesus, say they pray daily and declare they don’t drink. Personal morality is undeniably important, but not more important than public policies.
The question about theologians supporting state evil is what makes the documentary “Theologians under Hitler” so compelling and necessary.
That is why the Baptist Center for Ethics is sponsoring a screening and panel discussion of the documentary in Nashville on Sept. 13. That’s why we believe churches should view and discuss this film.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.