Right-Wing Rhetoric Heats Up, As Talk of Nazis Enters the Conversation
Photo Credit: Brian Leon
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In March of this year, Eric Metaxas, author of a bestselling biography of the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a presentation about his book to a small audience at a bookstore near the White House in Washington DC.
Probably few who gathered to hear Bonhoeffer’s latest biographer expected to be asked to imagine themselves called by God to rise up against a regime that might be as heinous as the Third Reich—but as it turns out Metaxas is not unique among religious-right intellectuals in his use of the language of armed revolt.
“I Am Offended”
Metaxas is not yet a household name, but this has certainly been his year. He was not only the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast where President Obama also spoke; he also succeeded the late Charles Colson—both as the voice of the nationally-syndicated radio commentary, Breakpoint, and as one of the three-member board of directors of the premier US conservative Catholic/evangelical alliance, The Manhattan Declaration.
As an up-and-coming evangelical leader, he has also been busy denouncing proposed federal regulations on contraception coverage in employer insurance packages. But he is unique in employing his status as a Bonhoeffer scholar to claim parallels between the regulations and early Nazi-era legislation, as he did, for example, in an appearance on MSNBC.
The Bonhoeffer book itself has drawn praise, but also scathing commentary, especially in the community of Bonhoeffer scholars. Clifford Green wrote in Christian Century that Metaxas is “hijacking Bonhoeffer” into the fundamentalist camp to deploy him against religious and political liberalism.
Less than two weeks after presenting a copy of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy to President Obama, Metaxas found himself discussing the implications of his Nazi analogy at the bookstore of the Catholic Information Center, the DC outpost of Opus Dei (the rightist order that was made a personal prelature of the pope by John Paul II in 1982).
“I am, as an American, offended,” Metaxas told a small audience at the Center, “by the idea that we cannot discuss certain things, and there is a kind of proto-facist—(I am being generous when I say proto)—bullying that happens in the culture” that disallows discussing the “big questions” about life and God.
Bonhoeffer’s voice, Metaxas explained, was prophetic:
“I see him as someone who like Isaiah, or Jeremiah, was saying things to call the people of God to be the people of God... In his day, clearly his voice was not heeded. His voice, if it’s prophetic, is not Bonhoeffer’s voice—it is really the voice of God.”
“This HHS mandate” situation he said “is so oddly similar to where Bonhoeffer found himself” early in the Nazi era. “If we don’t fight now,” Metaxas warned,
“if we don’t really use all our bullets now, we will have no fight five years from now. It’ll be over. This it. We’ve got to die on this hill. Most people say, oh no, this isn’t serious enough. Its just this little issue. But it’s the millimeter... its that line that we cross. I’m sorry to say that I see these parallels. I really wish I didn’t.”
Serious conversation about revolution is not new in elite religious-right circles. In fact, it has been ongoing for years.
Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution
Take Fr. C. John McCloskey, whose dystopian manifesto of a decade ago rocked American public life.
The prominent priest’s appearances in major American media at the time included Meet the Press with Tim Russert. On the show, McCloskey discussed his avatar, Fr. Charles, a future priest, looking back on the history of the Church in the U.S. from the year 2030. The Church had faced persecution, participated in a civil war that broke up the United States—and although the Church now comprised fewer members, the remnant hewed closely to doctrine and had achieved Catholic supremacy in some places. Church membership had also been refreshed by hundreds of thousands of “orthodox” evangelicals who had been co-belligerents in the war.