Dietrich Bonhoeffer and American Religious Liberty

November 14, 2014

I grew up in the south, where “separation of church and state” was understood as something akin to confessional allegiance to the emperor Nero. My southern, conservative, Christian community battled local school administrators over prayer at football games, 10 Commandments at the courthouse, and tried our best to get as many evangelicals elected to office in Washington as possible. We thought “separation of church and state” was the principality that stood in opposition to our efforts to preserve our influence in the culture.

We had little to no understanding that the separation of the power of the state over the church would be at the top of our collective wish list just a few decades later.

Now, in the wake of Supreme Court rulings like Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, evangelical Christians are digging deeper on the idea of religious liberty, and the concept of “separation of church and state.”

To be sure, evangelicals haven’t changed much on one issue; we still want to preserve the right to bring our faith with us into the public square. But now—perhaps more than ever, or at least since 1776—American Christians want to gain absolute clarity about the limits of power of the state over the church. Evangelicals are also learning that coercive power and influence are two different things; especially when you are in the religious minority.

One place American evangelicals are unlikely to look for perspective on religious liberty for all is Nazi Germany. But there in Pomerania—teaching at an underground seminary—Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay on American Protestantism and church-state relations.

Bonhoeffer viewed the American experiment as an outsider, first as a student in New York City, and later in search of political asylum. He only returned home to Germany in 1939—his second trip to the United States—because, as he said in a letter to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr: “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of the Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”[1]

Two concepts, according to Bonhoeffer’s assessment, frame how outsiders perceive the church in a foreign context. First, a foreign observer “has the tendency to attribute the strangeness of another church to the peculiarities of its geographical, national, and social location, that is, to understand it in terms of its historical political, and sociological context.”[2] There is a mix of both fixed, cross-culturally transcendent realities of the Church (God’s revelation, the real presence of the Body of Christ, etc.) and dynamic attributes that distinguish one context from another. An outside observer that fixates only on the universals or only on the particulars fails to understand the foreign church.

Second, Bonhoeffer writes that “[t]he observer of a foreign church is all too easily content with the current picture of the church’s situation.”[3]Churches—like cultures—are supported by the momentum of history and set on a trajectory that requires inevitable change. They are fluid. Reducing another culture’s identity to a two-dimensional, static caricature is a real danger to the outside observer. Churches and cultures change over time.

Bonhoeffer was impressed, in many ways, by what he observed in America. He understood the separation of church and state the way Thomas Jefferson intended in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. Bonhoeffer’s observation was that the state’s power over the church was limited. The state’s power, in the American form of democracy, is limited by civilians that make up both church membership rolls, as well as voter registration lists. They have dual citizenship in Luther’s two kingdoms. The basis of this separation, Bonhoeffer explains, is why democracy and Christian principles have aligned better in America than in any other national government in the world.

Bonhoeffer writes of the contrast between the European governments and the American form of democracy:

The fundamental difference between [the American] church-state relation and that of the churches of the Reformation is obvious. The American separation of church and state is not based on the doctrine of two offices or the two kingdoms that were ordered by God to remain until the end of the world, each serving a fundamentally [sic.] difference way.[4]

According to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, an aberrant form of the Reformation’s two kingdoms doctrine became justification for all sorts of atrocities by the German government at the time. A sort of “pseudo-Lutheran” natural theology emerged that was used to establish a radically optimistic view of the orders of creation. Bonhoeffer scholar Larry Rasmussen, in a footnote to the critical edition of Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers, writes:

As in Creation and Fall, given as lectures in the winter semester of 1932-1933, he is countering a natural theology and its misuse, which was to bolster the Nazi platform of ‘blood and soil.’ ‘Orders of creation’ was being used by conservative Lutheran theologians and the German Christians in a natural theology that yielded autonomous orders, such as state and family, apart form the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.[5]

In fact, it was none other than cosignatory of the Barmen Declaration, Karl Barth that led Bonhoeffer away from this view of creation toward a more moderate two kingdoms perspective. Bonhoeffer never fully abandoned the two kingdoms framework, but he did provide a critically nuanced alternative to the distorted Lutheran concept of the divine orders in his day.

Bonhoeffer concludes:

This should make us think about why on the European continent it has never been possible to base a democracy on Christian principles, about why on our continent democracy and Christianity are always seen in somewhat opposition to each other, while in America democracy can be glorified as the epitome of a Christian form of government. In answering this question, one must recall that the European continent ruled out this possibility when it persecuted and expelled the spiritualists.[6]

One might assume, based on such a positive, self-deprecating appraisal of American church-state relations, that Bonhoeffer was naively optimistic about the future of the church in the United States in contrast to Germany’s.

On the contrary, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Our knowledge of the American church situation can teach us the following lesson: a church that is independent of the state is no more protected from secularization than a state church. Whether the church is connected to the world or independent of it, the threat of infringement in the church remains the same.”[7] The purity of the church is not threatened only at the institutional level, but at the organic level as well. Sin’s influence on the church can attack from any number of angles. It’s clear that Bonhoeffer is not weary of the state only, but in the tendency of healthy churches to become sick over time. Bonhoeffer’s critique—now in hindsight—resonates today, nearly prophetic it it’s anticipation of America’s flirtation with secularism. Many of America’s mainline churches—who at one time were the context for great revival in our nation’s history—gave way to secularized graveyards.

Take a look at Bonhoeffer’s report to Berlin on his impression of churches in New York in 1931:

Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has heard how they try to persuade a new resident to join the church, insisting that you’ll get into society quite differently by doing so, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership–that person can well assess the character of such a church. All these things, of course, take place with varying degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically ‘charitable’ churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is.[8]

For Bonhoeffer, it is the lack of distinction between the two kingdoms that has led to secularization of the church in America. “The European-continental secularization of the church stems from the—misinterpreted—Reformation distinction of the two kingdoms; the American secularization stems from precisely the lack of distinction of the kingdoms and the offices of state and church…”[9] Bonhoeffer wrote. Discerning the role of the church in contrast to the role of the state in America can be a bit like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” To put it lightly, the Germans were a bit clearer in regards to who was in charge in 1939. Unfortunately, Germany’s was an illegitimate government who abandoned its role to protect its citizens.

LifeWay Research’s analysis of the “Rise of the Nones” is confirmation of the increasing exposure of nominal Christianity within American churches—what is so often described as “church decline.” While many run panicked to polling stations, hands wringing over the perception of an emerging Christian religious minority in a country who has historically maintained religious homogeny since its founding, Bonhoeffer speaks to us today with the voice of a strikingly similar Christian minority in Nazi Germany.

Germany, like America, had a national religious identity. The Lutheran State Church was a large part of what it meant to be German volk. But in spaces where the spiritual content of religious forms and institutions in Germany became void, a prophetic minority from within—the Confessing Church movement—rose up. “Is America a Christian nation?” might seem like an increasingly irrelevant question if our churches are not filled with Christian people; that was the problem German churches faced in Bonhoeffer’s day. A better, more urgent question is, “Will America be a nation of faithful Christians?” or, “Will our churches be Christian churches?” The “Rise of the Nones” exposes our own sort of secular state churches scattered about in America—mainly mainline Protestant churches that died years ago.

As I’ve grown up, I am more comfortable with the phrase “separation of church and state” than when I was a youngster in Nashville, TN. It’s not that I want to compartmentalize my faith and civic duty; the opposite is the case. But I want to heed Bonhoeffer’s cautionary tale. We cannot so marry the two kingdoms that the church begins to look like the state/world.

“Let’s keep Christianity Christian, y’all.”

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Clifford J. Green ed. Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011. 210.

[2] Ibid. 438.

[3] Ibid. 439.

[4] Ibid. 452.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Clifford J. Green ed. Berlin: 1932-1933. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009. 362.

[6] Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, 452.

[7] Ibid. 453.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928 – 1931. Clifford J. Green ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008. 313-314.

[9] Ibid.

Devin Maddox

Devin Maddox is the trade book publisher at B&H Publishing Group. He is also a Ph.D. student in Applied Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, focusing his research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writing. He and his wife, Cara, and three boys live in Nashville, Tennessee. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24