Michael P. DeJonge
Contemporary political theology often defines itself against Lutheran social ethics, which is portrayed as politically disengaged and overly deferential to state power. At the same time, contemporary political theology often embraces the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an exemplary political theologian. This incongruity is generally resolved by distancing Bonhoeffer from his tradition, at least on matters of political theology. But Bonhoeffer’s political theology was thoroughly Lutheran. Throughout the years of his political-theological engagement, from the Nazi rise to power in 1932–1933 to the drafting of Ethics and related writing in 1940–1943, he participated in ongoing conversations within Lutheran social ethics on the issues of, among others, the two kingdoms and the orders. In the process, he critically appropriated these elements of Lutheran thinking into an especially dynamic and christocentric framework that in turn informed his positions on various issues such as the church’s proclamation against the Nazi state and the ecumenical church’s witness for peace. Bonhoeffer is an example of Lutheran political theology, one that suggests the need to revise at least the more sweeping judgments about Lutheran theology as inherently incompatible with political engagement.
What does Martin Luther mean for Germany? Formulated in such a way, this is an impossible question, due in no small measure to the existence of many “Luthers” and many “Germanys.” But it also invites historical investigation. Luther has long held a privileged position in the writing of German history, stretching back to his own lifetime, even if the exact nature of that position has hardly remained static or uncontested. Luther’s position in the annals of German historiography testifies to the influence of social and political upheavals on the way in which historians understand the past—and vice versa. Each era’s critical events have encouraged certain aspects of Luther’s person and work to be remembered and others to be forgotten.
Like swapping between telephoto and wide-angle lenses, historical perspectives have moved between a narrow concentration on the German reformer’s biography and theology and a broader focus on the Protestant movement he launched in Germany. Historians have regularly enlisted Luther in an expansive, sweeping vision of the German Reformation and the emergence of the modern German nation-state with Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, contemporary ideas of nation and nationalism have had a determining influence on interpretations of Luther. This is true as much for German historians like Leopold von Ranke, writing toward the beginning of history’s professionalization as a full-fledged, independent academic discipline in the first half of the 19th century, as it is for those surveying Luther in the midst of the First World War, in the aftermath of Hitler and the Nazi era, in the postwar German Democratic Republic in the East and Federal Republic of Germany in the West, on the cusp Germany’s “turning point” (die Wende) of 1989–1990—and even for historians now situated in the 21st century.
The topic of Luther in Marxism is vast and too diffuse to be useful to define issues and orient future research. However, the more limited topic of Luther in Marx is definite, manageable, and useful. If the framing of the relation between Luther and Müntzer first created by Müntzer and then adopted and popularized by Engels can be bracketed, and if the comparison of Luther and Marx is carefully controlled by Marx’s encounter with Luther texts, the result is a tacit but surprising claim by Marx to have found in Luther a predecessor in the analysis of capitalism. This surprise, however, entitles Luther to be heard afresh in his own voice in making his theological-ethical critique of mercantilism and monopoly finance in the 16th century. This new listening to Luther yields a concurrence between Luther and Marx regarding Marx’s claim that, in distinction from historical Christianity, the Marxist revolution brings an earthly, not otherworldly salvation; Luther, however, states just this difference differently, in terms of the Augustinian ordo caritatis. The double love commandment drives his own analysis of the proper Christian use of temporal goods. Beyond the exposé by Luther’s Augustinian theology of the false loves moving the civitas terrena, however, we discover the descent of critical social thinking to both Luther and Marx from the apocalyptic tradition of Second Temple Judaism. Recognizing this family resemblance makes visible the messianic divergence between the two. With this divergence clarified, new questions for Luther research arise.
Throughout the nearly fifteen centuries of Muslim-Christian encounter, individual adherents of both traditions often have lived peaceably with each other. At the same time, Muslim expansion into Christian territories and Christian imperialism in Muslims lands have fostered fear and ill-will on both sides. Repercussions from the Crusades continue to resound in the contemporary rhetoric employed by defenders of both faiths. In recent years relations between Muslims and Christians across the globe have become increasingly polarized, fanned by anti-Islamic rhetoric and fearmongering. While a number of verses in the Qur’an call for treating Christians and Jews with respect as recipients of God’s divine message, in reality many Muslims have found it difficult not to see Christians as polytheists because of their doctrine of the Trinity. Christians, for their part, traditionally have viewed the Qur’an as fraudulent and Muhammad as an imposter. Old sectarian rivalries play out with serious consequences for minority groups, both Christian and Muslim. Conflicts in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere for much of the 20th century were often labeled as ethnic, political, or ideological perpetuations of long-standing struggles over land, power, and influence. These conflicts now tend to be labeled in accord with the specifically religious affiliation of their participants. Understanding the history of Muslim-Christian relations, as well as current political realities such as the dismantling of the political order created by European colonialism, helps give context to current “hot spots” of Muslim-Christian conflict in the world.
It is difficult to imagine a time in history at which there is greater need for serious interfaith engagement than now. We need to understand better the history of Muslim-Christian relations so as to give context to current “hot spots” of Muslim-Christian conflict in the world. It is also important to understand the ways in which members of the two communities experience each other in specific areas of the world today, including the United States, taking note of efforts currently underway to advance interfaith understanding and cooperation. The events of September 11, 2001, and the resulting American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to ugly commentary reminiscent of medieval hyperbole. Right-wing evangelical rhetoric in the United States against Islam has been fueled by incidents of international terrorism involving Muslims, while the well-funded Islamophobia industry in the United States has been producing and distributing large amounts of anti-Muslim material. Since the events of September 2011, American Muslims, caught in a painful position, have decried the acts of the 9/11 terrorists and defended Islam as a religion of peace. American Muslims want to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech in expressing their objection to certain American foreign policies, at the same time that they fear the consequences of the Patriot Act and other acts they view as assaults on their civil liberties. Meanwhile other Americans are struggling to understand that the Muslims with whom they interact in businesses, schools, and neighborhoods are different from the Muslim extremists who are calling for ever more dire measures against the United States. This is the general context in which Christian-Muslim dialogue is now taking place and to which it must address itself if it is to be effective.
Luther had a notoriously ambivalent attitude towards what was still the new technology of the printing press. He could both praise it as God’s highest act of grace for the proclamation of God’s Word, and condemn it for its unprecedented ability to mangle the same beyond recognition. That ambivalence seems to be reflected in the judgment of modern scholarship. Some have characterized the Reformation as a paradigmatic event in the history of mass communications (a Medien- or Kommunikationsereignis), while others have poured scorn on any reductionist attempt to attribute a complex movement to a technological advance and to posit in effect a doctrine of “Justification by Print Alone.”
The evidence in favor of some sort of correlation between the use of printing and the success of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland is certainly formidable. Thousands of German Reformation pamphlets (Flugschriften) survive to this day in research libraries and other collections (with Luther’s own works predominant among them), suggesting that the Holy Roman Empire was once awash with millions of affordable little tracts in the vernacular. Contemporary opponents of the Reformation lamented the potency of cheap print for propaganda and even for agitation among “the people,” and did their best either to beat the evangelical writers through legislation or else to join them by launching their own literary campaigns. But, ubiquitous as the Reformation Flugschrift was for a comparatively short time, the long-term impact of printing on Luther’s Reformation was even more impressive, above all in the production and dissemination of Bibles and partial Bibles that used Luther’s German translation. The message of the Lutheran Reformation, with its emphasis on the proclamation of God’s Word to all, seemed to coincide perfectly with the emergence of a new medium that could, for the first time, transmit that Word to all.
Against this correlation must be set the very low literacy rate in the Holy Roman Empire in the early 16th century, which on some estimates ranged between only 5 and 10 percent. of the entire population. Even taking into account the fact that historical literacy rates are notoriously difficult to estimate, the impact of printing on the majority must have been negligible. This fact has led historians to develop more nuanced ways of understanding the early-modern communication process than simply imagining a reader sitting in front of a text. One is to recognize the “hybridity” of many publications—a pamphlet might contain labeled illustrations, or be capable of being read out aloud as a sermon, or of being sung. Luther himself published many successful hybrid works of this kind. Another is the notion of the “two-stage communication process,” by which propagandists or advertisers direct their message principally to influential, literate, opinion-formers who cascade the new ideas down. Clearly much work remains to be done in understanding how Luther’s propaganda and public opinion interacted. The fact that our present generations are living through a series of equally transformative and disruptive communications revolutions will no doubt inspire new questions as well as new insights.
Janine Giordano Drake
As a nation grounded in the appropriation of Native land and the destruction of Native peoples, Christianity has helped define what it means to be “American” from the start. Even though neither the Continental Congress nor the Constitutional Convention recognized a unifying set of religious beliefs, Protestant evangelicalism served as a force of cohesion that helped Americans rally behind the War for Independence. During the multiple 19th-century wars for Indian removal and extermination, Christianity again helped solidify the collapse of racial, class, and denominational categories behind a love for a Christian God and His support for an American nation. Close connections between Christianity and American nationhood have flared in popularity throughout American history, particularly during wartime. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the closely affiliated religious and racial categories of Christianity and whiteness helped solidify American identity.
However, constructions of a white, Christian, American nation have always been oversimplified. Slavery, land-grabbing, and the systematic genocide of Native peoples ran alongside the creation of the American myth of a Christian nation, founded in religious freedom. Indeed, enslavement and settler colonialism helped contrive a coherence to white Protestantism during a moment of profound disagreement on church government, theology, and religious practice. During the antebellum period, white Protestants constructed a Christian and American identity largely in opposition to categories they identified as non-Christian. This “other” group was built around indigenous, African, Muslim, and sometimes-Catholic religious beliefs and their historic, religious, and racial categorizations as “pagans,” “heathens,” and “savages.” In the 19th-century republic, this “non-Christian” designation defined and enforced a unified category of American Protestants, even though their denominations fought constantly and splintered easily. Among those outside the rhetorical category of Protestantism were, frequently, Irish and Mexican Catholics, as well as Mormons. Enforced segregation of African Americans within or outside of white Protestant churches furthered a sense of Protestant whiteness. When, by the late 19th century, Protestantism became elided with white middle class expectations of productive work, leisure, and social mobility, it was largely because of the early 19th-century cultural associations Protestants had built between white Protestantism, republicanism, and civilization.
The fact that the largest categories of immigrants in the late 19th century came from non-Protestant cultures initially reified connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Immigrants were identified as marginally capable of American citizenship and were simply considered “workers.” Protestant expectations of literacy, sobriety, social mobility, and religious practice helped construct Southern and Eastern European immigrants as nonwhite. Like African Americans, New Immigrants were considered incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of American citizenship. Fears that Catholic and Jewish immigrants, like African Americans, might build lasting American institutions to change the cultural loci of power in the country were often expressed in religious terms. Groups such as the No-Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Restriction League often discussed their nationalist goals in terms of historic connections between the nation and Anglo-Protestantism. During the Great Depression and the long era of prosperity in the mid-20th century, the Catholic and Jewish migrants gradually assimilated into a common category of “whiteness” and American citizenship. However, the newly expansive category of postwar whiteness also further distanced African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others as perpetual “foreigners” within a white, Protestant, Christian nation.