It’s no secret that conservative Christians who oppose marriage equality are using increasingly hyperbolic language to describe their campaign against LGBT rights. But as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments on a landmark case involving same-sex marriage later this month, anti-LGBT Christians are issuing a call to arms by invoking an unlikely hero: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prominent German pastor and theologian who was famously murdered for participating in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler during World War II.
The trend started last month, when Rick Scarborough — an influential Southern Baptist pastor who believes AIDS is God’s judgement for immorality and has close ties to presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) — spoke on a conference call with evangelical leaders about the upcoming Supreme Court case.
“Because of the trends and cultural shifts that we have witnessed in culture over the past 40 years, we have all known that this day would likely come and Christians would be put at odds with the culture and the courts,” Scarborough reportedly said. “I believe we are there. We are approaching a Bonhoeffer moment in America.”
Mat Staver, founder of the conservative Liberty Counsel law firm, echoed Scarborough’s reference to the famous Christian thinker moments later, proclaiming “this is indeed a Bonhoeffer moment.”
Scarborough repeated the phrase on another conference call last week, adding that anti-LGBT activists should be willing to “fight until we die” while resisting same-sex marriage. Various other conservative Christian opponents of the right to marry are now also citing the maxim, hoping the legacy of the martyr-pastor will rally people to resist marriage equality.
The evangelical Christian tendency to draw inspiration from Bonhoeffer isn’t surprising. The theologian is extremely popular in both progressive and conservative theological circles, and at least one of his books — usually The Cost of Discipleship — is often required reading at evangelical colleges and seminaries. But just because Bonhoeffer is well-known doesn’t make the use of his name appropriate or accurate, and while anti-LGBT Christians might fancy themselves heirs to his stirring legacy, scholars and the theologian’s own writings paint an image of the late pastor that doesn’t quite line up with modern homophobic theology.
First, there are obvious historical differences between Bonhoeffer’s context and that of today’s anti-LGBT Christians. Bonhoeffer assisted in an attempt to assassinate Hitler (the subject of a recent film starring Tom Cruise), primarily because the infamous Führer was actively coopting Christian churches in Germany for his own needs, seizing whole sections of Europe using one of the most powerful militaries ever assembled, and waging one of the bloodiest wars in human history with the goal of establishing a new world order based on the supposed genetic supremacy of white Germans. This in addition to Hitler’s overseeing of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of millions of Jews, Romani people, Poles, communists, and yes, LGBT people as a part of his “Final Solution.” This genocide was enacted by requiring Jews and others to wear symbols acknowledging their “non-Aryan” status, siloing them into ghettos, shipping them off to concentration camps, forcing them into gas chambers, and performing perverse, horrific medical experiments on Jewish men, women, and even children.
By contrast, today’s conservative Christians such as Scarborough are invoking Bonhoeffer because LGBT people are being granted the right to marry in the United States.
Regardless of one’s politics or theology, these two situations are not in any way equivalent, and the comparison is offensive on the face of it.
But even setting aside this jarring juxtaposition, there is still the lingering question of whether or not Bonhoeffer would have opposed same-sex marriage. The issue is difficult, primarily because most scholars agree his theology doesn’t fit neatly into any of modern America’s political or religious categories. In fact, Bonhoeffer, trained in the meticulous German style of theology, was unimpressed with the American religious landscape of his time: although he attended the historically progressive Union Seminary in New York City during the 1930s, he was deeply critical of the school’s left-leaning theology, acknowledging its various rejections of Christian fundamentalism were “healthy” but noting that students would get “carried away with the general collapse.” He was equally disapproving of fundamentalist theology and Scarborough’s own Southern Baptist denomination, however, accusing it of preaching “the crassest orthodoxy…an unrelenting harshness in holding on to one’s possessions, possessions either of this or of the other world.” As Nancy Duff, a Christian ethicist at Princeton Theological Seminary, told the Religion News Service last year: “you can’t turn [Bonhoeffer] into an American evangelical … The same can be said for liberal Christians with his traditional theological language. Both sides have to look at the whole picture and be challenged by his work.”
Still, the Lutheran pastor did find something to love in American Christianity. While in New York City, Bonhoeffer became enamored with the preaching and worship of black Christians, so much so that he attended an African American church in Harlem every Sunday, where he was active in several church groups and even taught Sunday school to the congregation’s children. Scholars of church history such as Reggie L. Williams argue that Bonhoeffer was so impacted by their concept of a black Christ — where Jesus sides with the oppressed rather the oppressor — that he channeled it into his later efforts to resist the Nazis. He taught African-American spirituals to the students of his secret, illegal seminary in Germany, and later declared in a lecture “it is barely understandable that great Negro singers can sing these songs before packed concert audiences of whites, to tumultuous applause, while at the same time these same men and women are still denied access to the white community through social discrimination.” The theological mindset that so inspired Bonhoeffer, where God stands consistently with society’s marginalized, was later sharpened by other scholars into what came to be known as Liberation Theology, a school of thought often derided by the Religious Right but embraced by Hispanic Catholics, African Americans, feminists, and LGBT or Queer Christian theologians.
Conservatives, of course, point to Bonhoeffer because he opposed the government of his time — particularly its manipulation of German Christians and subjugation of Jews. They claim that they, too, are being persecuted by their government (presumably because same-sex marriage is being “forced” upon them), and should follow his example of resisting power. Yet they fail to recall why Bonhoeffer opposed the Third Reich: not to allow his church to discriminate, but rather because, as he wrote in one of his many letters, “the church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” In his time, African Americans and Jews were the obvious victims of two different disordered societies, but the situation facing today’s conservative Christians in America — who were granted wildly expanded powers following last year’s Supreme Court decision involving the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby — is simply not comparable. Meanwhile, there is no question that LGBT people have been victims for centuries, both in wartime Germany and throughout most of American history, where they have been killed, beaten, disparaged, and denied basic rights.
Speaking of LGBT people, there is one other thing conservatives who invoke Bonhoeffer seem either to have forgotten or simply choose to ignore: many scholars believe the famed theologian was gay. Although Bonhoeffer reportedly died a virgin (he was hanged before marrying his fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer), a recent biography entitled “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” argues that he experienced same-sex attraction to Eberhard Bethge, one of his male students. According to the book’s author, University of Virginia religious studies professor Charles Marsh, Bonhoeffer and Bethge shared a bank account, gave gifts bearing both of their names, played piano together, and slept by warm fires next to each other. Marsh insists he was “ever chaste,” but adds that “Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love.” He also noted that while Bonhoeffer willed Bethge his money, car, music, clothes, and books, he only left his fiancé a memento of her choosing.
There is no way to “know” definitively if Bonhoeffer was gay, just as there is no way to “know” if he would have supported LGBT rights— even if he was gay. Bonhoeffer wrote little on sexual ethics other than ambiguous descriptions of marriage, and the modern equality movement barely existed during his tragically shortened lifetime. But no matter how you read his theology or history, the reality is that Bonhoeffer was killed while courageously standing up for the oppressed, which includes LGBT people — both during World War II and today. Christians who center their faith on anti-LGBT theology will likely continue invoking his name for their causes, but the claim that Bonhoeffer, who repeatedly railed against the blindness of “bourgeois” Christians, would consider their fight his own is dubious at best.