Friday, January 20, 2017

Defining Hitler Into Christianity

This is a reprint of the last chapter of my ebook Hitler's Christianity. In it I address claims that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Hitler should still be reckoned a Christian because...well, because!!


In spite of all the information we have presented in this volume, and the twisted nature of Hitler's Positive Christian beliefs, and of the Nazi persecution of mainstream churches, and in spite of the attempted destruction of European Jewry, there are critics who will nevertheless insist that this is insufficient to disqualify Hitler (or any Nazi figure) as a Christian. We will now consider a collection of objections designed to argue this point, although ineffectively.

The Self-Profession Argument

The first objection has been formulated by one online atheist source as follows:

The basic problem (for religious folks) is that Hitler said he was a Christian, and God apparently didn't feel the need to disagree in public.

We may disregard the rather childish supposition that God is in some way obliged to think on our behalf, and save us the trouble of critical discernment when it comes to the religious professions of others. The key argument in this statement is that: Hitler was a Christian, because he said he was one. In the same way, referring to theologians like Kittel who accepted Nazi doctrine, Ericksen says: "Their self-definition as believing Christians cannot be doubted." He notes other signals of their religious allegiance: A professed personal meeting with Christ; being asked to preach; practicing piety, and regular Bible reading and prayer. [1]

A more sophisticated variation of this argument can be found even in the otherwise excellent historical work of Steigmann-Gall, who points out that "many Christians of the day believed Nazism to be in some sense a Christian movement." He further states that "only false-consciousness theory allows us to contend that millions of sincere Christians could create a non-Christian movement." And, finally, he adds that proponents of Positive Christianity "maintained that their anti-Semitism and socialism were derived from a Christian understanding of Germany's ills and their cure." [2] Though written in more formal terms, the argument is little different in substance than that of the former atheist website; namely, a self-profession and self-conception is sufficient to objectively classify one's self as a Christian.

We may immediately note that this argument sets a rather low bar of evidence for how one may be defined as a Christian. If simple self-profession and self-conception is all that is required to define one's personal identity, without any reference to objective criteria, then there is little to stop even a hardened atheist from referring to themselves as a Christian.

This is not so outlandish a proposition as one might suppose. Among the wide variety of movements on the market today is one that terms itself "Christian atheism." The sum of this view is that, while Jesus is not God, and God does not exist, the moral teachings of Jesus are superior and ought to be followed.
The designation of "Christian atheism" leads to a salient point. As we have noted in prior chapters, cults or deviant movements are frequently posed as, "Christianity plus," or, perhaps "Christianity minus," with the implication that the differences make the variation purer than, or superior to, mainstream Christianity. Can we accept that when a person or group adds a term (or beliefs) to differentiate themselves from another group, that this might place them outside the defining bounds of that other group?

Indeed, the extra designation exposes a key problem with the "self-profession" argument. The critic is intent upon resting in the broad definition of "Christian" as defining a group or body of persons which would include Hitler. One critic put it this way: "A Christian is simply a person who believes in God and Jesus in some form or manner." Needless to say, such a broad designation is difficult to defend. [3]

But let us grant for the sake of argument that Hitler and his associates added the designation "Positive," to define themselves separately from other persons designated as "Christian." The critic argues that Hitler was a Christian in order to suggest that persons in the category of "Christian" are somehow immoral, dangerous, or could be responsible for the sort of evils Hitler perpetrated. But why then use the broader designation of "Christian" rather than the more specific designation of, "Positive Christian?" Why not say, as we all will agree, that it is "Positive Christianity" specifically that leads to immorality in its adherents?

The "Variety of Christianity" Argument

The above offers a segue into the second form of objection, which is that Hitler's Positive Christianity was simply another "variety" of Christianity. One atheist critic put it this way:

There can be little doubt that Hitler was a Christian. You really don't get to disqualify Hitler's beliefs just because you believe a different version.

And, yet another atheist critic said:

The trouble is, there are thousands and thousands of different groups out there and they all claim to be Christians. Isn't it just a little bit arrogant to say that a Jehovah's Witness, a Mormon or a Roman Catholic is not a true Christian, especially since they might well say the same about you? Since as far as I can see there is no way of being able to decide who is and who is not a Christian Adolf Hitler's claim to be one is as good as yours.

Steigmann-Gall again provides a more sophisticated form of the argument: "[T]he Nazis represented a departure from previous Christian practices. However, this did not make them un-Christian." [4]

As with the first objection, however, the critic is refusing to consider objective criteria, and is instead making an emotional appeal to the sensitivities of those who are designated as not Christian. It is at this stage that we must now show that objective criteria are the only basis whereby a person's religious identity can rightly, and must be defined. To illustrate this, I have created what I term the Patriot Analogy.

As one may ask, "Who is really a Christian?" it is also possible to ask "Who is a loyal, patriotic American?" (Of course, the reader may substitute any national or political designation for "American.") Would it be someone who:
  • Displays a flag?
  • Is willing to join the military (or other organization) to serve the country? Or, to serve the country in other ways outside an organization?
  • Knows the contents of the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence?
  • Knows the laws of America? Arguably, these are all things (though not the only things) one can or must do to be called a Patriot. Yet of course, the absence of these things does not cause us to say someone is not a Patriot. At a minimum we suggest they must love their country. Yet if they do none of these things, or are unwilling to do them, or refuse to do them, what do we say? Is it evident that they do love their country as they profess? They may be:
  • A real patriot, but not an active one; or,
  • A patriot who takes issue with some of the claims of the country upon them, but still loves the country and adheres to the core values of the nation; or,
  • A "wolf in sheep's clothing" pretending to be a Patriot, for whatever reason (i.e., like friendship, etc.) By now one can guess that this is analogical to the question, "Who is a true Christian?" Let's rework some of the questions above. Who qualifies as a real Christian? Someone who:
  • Displays a cross or a Christian T-shirt?
  • Is willing to join the church (or other organization) to serve the body of Christ? Or, to serve the body in other ways outside an organization?
  • Knows the contents of the Bible?
  • Follows the precepts of the Bible? Arguably, these are all things (though not the only things) one can or must do to rightly be called a Christian. So in light of the above, does the absence of these things not cause us to say someone is not a Christian?
  • At a minimum we suggest they must love God, and Jesus. Yet if they do none of these things, or are unwilling to do them, or refuse to do them, what do we say? Is it evident that they do love their God as they profess? They may be:
  • A real Christian, but not an active one; or,
  • A Christian who rejects some part of the Bible's teachings, but still adheres to the core principles of the faith; or,
  • A "wolf in sheep's clothing" pretending to be a Christian, for whatever reason (i.e., like friendship, etc.) Of course, there is another issue: What about someone who is a member of a cultic group (like the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses) who qualifies on all counts for the list above? In that case, the question turns not just upon, for example, whether they follow the Bible, but it also follows upon whether they do so accurately. Ericksen pointed out that professed Christians as Kittel performed actions in accord with that profession (e.g., Bible reading and prayer). This adds a step to the argument, but is no more definitive. These actions are expressions of devotion to a specific doctrine, but if the doctrine is a false one, those actions may as well be directed to a brick wall.

  • If someone claimed adherence to the Constitution, but professed to somehow read out of it a model for a dictatorship (!), wouldn’t we rightly wonder of their ability to be defined as a “patriotic American?" Certainly, the more selective a person is with beliefs, the less likely it is that they can satisfy the definition of "patriot" to a given cause.

    Now, let us turn this back to the issue of Hitler's religious beliefs. Is it really impossible to wedge Hitler or anyone else into the fold at our convenience, just because they say "I am a Christian?" To do so, one must show that Hitler was at the very least loyal to Christian principles, otherwise, the claim is unreasonable. To illustrate the folly of the critics, can you imagine a conversation like this being seriously pursued?
  • Skeptic: "Osama bin Laden is a patriotic American!"
  • Christian: "What?"
  • Skeptic: "He said in one of his own speeches he was!"
  • Christian: "Anyone can call themselves a patriotic American, but that doesn't make them one."
  • Skeptic: "Oh yeah? How can you judge who is a patriotic American?" Of course, it is always possible that some flag-waving, Bill-of-Rights-quoting person out there is really some sort of false patriot, a terrorist in disguise plotting to blow up something, but we recognize that such people are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, consider the absurdity of designating, as an American patriot, someone who, in parallel to the major deviations of Positive Christianity:
  • Declares that we should ignore half of the Constitution, including more than half of the Amendments;
  • Claims that George Washington was actually a Communist;
  • Believes that we should ignore the nation's laws and just concentrate on activities like having Fourth of July picnics. How much credence would we give to someone who advertised this as “Positive Patriotism?”

  • There is one final point, which shows that this objection can also backfire. One frequent argument of Christian apologists is that Hitler was inspired by the teachings of Darwinism. We will not here pursue the accuracy of that claim, but it is rather instructive to consider one Skeptic's response to this argument:

    ...what reached Germany was not the English version of Origin of Species, it was a translation by German paleontologist Heinrich Georg Bronn that was a main source of German notions of Darwinian evolution, and those notions were a distortion of Darwin’s views. Bronn had a substantially different conception of evolution than Darwin, and Bronn’s translation apparently incorporated a good bit of his own conception rather than being a straight translation of Darwin. Bronn even added an extra chapter to OoS to incorporate his own ideas. [5]

    Using the same logic of critics, however, can we not say that Bronn's "distortions" are merely another "variety" of Darwinian teachings? The critics who use the "variety of Christianity" argument end up cutting off their nose to spite their face.

    The Flattened Criteria Argument

    Once a critic is compelled to consider objective criteria as a way to define who is a Christian, an attempt may be made to flatten the criteria by classifying Hitler's Positive Christianity variation as somehow comparable to the mainstream. In this regard, the critical issue is whether the key variations of Positive Christianity -- a bowdlerized canon, a dejudaized Jesus, and a hypertrophied orthopraxy -- are sufficient to divorce it from mainstream, orthodox Christianity. The matter is somewhat tendentiously summed up by one critic as follows:

    Hitler was no more anti-Christian than your run-of-the-mill Protestant bigot. His Christianity was odd, surely, but so is that of many die-hard believers today.

    Concerning the canon of Positive Christianity, Steigmann-Gall, though he admits that Hitler's conception of Christianity "contained a good deal that was far from orthodox," [6] says that the criterion of canonicity "do[es] not constitute a reliable gauge, as others whose Christian credentials are undisputed would similarly fail to pass." [7] Unfortunately, Steigmann-Gall does not say to whom he refers in this context, only vaguely saying that “the rejection of the Old Testament in fact found expression within bona fide varieties of Protestantism." [8] But what were the "bona fide varieties?" Steigmann-Gall does not explain, so no answer can be directly made. Why would it not be argued in reply that the "varieties" Steigmann-Gall has in mind are not "bona fide" at all? And why would this not especially be the case for Positive Christianity followers, whose radical surgery on the canon involved discarding some 80 to 90 percent of it?

    What about the doctrine of a dejudaized Jesus? As we noted earlier, one critic has pointed out that the Aryan Jesus of Positive Christianity has parallels in mainstream views that depict Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon. But this is an inapt comparison. Mainstream depictions of Jesus in this fashion come of a mistaken idea that all Jews of the first century were white Anglo-Saxons. In other words, it is not the result of an active racism, as was the case with Positive Christianity, but rather, the result of simple ignorance. At the same time, if we ignore questions of Jesus' fundamental identity, and say that someone who "follows Jesus" counts as a Christian, we are left to admit into the Christian fold all manner of outlandish deviations. As noted earlier in this volume, one of my "favorite" books as an apologist is titled The Elvis-Jesus Mystery, by Cinda Godfrey. This amazing volume declares that Elvis Presley was the Messiah, and as the title indicates, makes a direct connection between the fundamental identities of Elvis and Jesus. If we follow the logic of such types of critics to its proper conclusion, even Godfrey must be admitted to be a Christian!

    It is true that even early Christianity was subject to a certain amount of diversity. Nevertheless, it must also be apparent that diversity has its limits. Critics naturally have no desire to place limits on the acceptable limit of diversity within Christianity, but if they fail to do so, they risk making the definition of "Christian" so broad that it has no meaning at all.

    Steigmann-Gall writes, "By detaching Christianity from the crimes of its adherents, we create a Christianity above history, a Christianity whose teachings need not ultimately be investigated. Seen in this light, those who have committed such acts must have misunderstood Christianity, or worse yet purposefully misused it for their own ends. 'Real Christians' do not commit such crimes." [9] But this is not a matter of detaching Christianity from the crimes of its adherents. This is a matter of whether, indeed, the alleged adherents have, in fact, misunderstood, distorted or misrepresented Christianity, according to a set of objective criteria, and not their crimes. In the final analysis, the critics simply do not do enough analysis to answer this question.

    [1] Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler, 39.
    [2] Steigmann-Gall, Holy Reich, 5, 6, 10.
    [3] A distinction should be made, though, between defining "Christian" in historical and theological terms, and defining it in strictly anthropological terms. Social scientists with no concern for theology may define a wide variety of groups as "Christian" using the same broad definition as the critic, with no intention to besmirch the Christian belief. Of course, the critic may try to shift the goalposts by arguing that Hitler was anthropologically a Christian, when whether he was theologically a Christian is far more meaningful in terms of their argumentative goals.
    [4] Steigmann-Gall, Holy Reich, 262.
    [5] Accessed August 10, 2013.
    [6] Steigmann-Gall, Holy Reich, 37.
    [7] Ibid., 6.
    [8] Ibid., 11.
    [9] Ibid., 267.

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