Monday, December 6, 2021

Civil Courage

In December 1942 German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote what has become known as his “Christmas Letter” to his closest friends in the resistance. It was entitled “After Ten Years,” which referred to ten years under the rule of Adolf Hitler. In the epistle he laments the lack of courage among Germany’s Christian leaders and others to speak against the Nazi regime.

He cries out “Where are the responsible people?” He goes on: “What lies behind the complaint about the dearth of civil courage? In recent years we have seen a great deal of bravery and self-sacrifice, but civil courage hardly anywhere, even among ourselves.”

He humbly includes himself in his lament even though he had been serving as a double agent in German Intelligence and was a part of a clandestine plot to assassinate Hitler. He was eventually court-martialed and executed for these crimes in 1945. In my estimation Bonhoeffer was one of the bravest of Christians in a time and place when extraordinary courage was needed.

We need Bonhoeffer’s type of courage today in the United States. It is sorely lacking in American politics and the American church. In America today we are facing the rise of an American form of fascism within the Republican Party.  It is aligned with a dangerous form of Christian nationalism in the evangelical church. I say this as a Republican and as an ordained Baptist pastor who served most of my ministry within Evangelicalism.

American fascism has been growing underground for decades. It sprouted aboveground in 2016 with the election of an autocratic president who brought out the worst qualities of my party and our country. This anti-democracy movement culminated nearly a year ago in the former president’s attempt to steal the presidential election by any means necessary, including encouraging an assault on the Capitol.

He lost the election and the battle, but the war is not over. American authoritarianism continues to grow like a cancer in our country, especially within the former Confederate states. Even Pope Francis recently acknowledged this “retreat from democracy.” This existential threat to our democracy and our freedoms could be foiled if Republican congressmen and senators would stand together against the Leader and his base. But they are afraid.

Congressmen and senators are afraid that he will speak against them and end their careers. Some are afraid for their lives and the lives of their families. Death threats are common. In a recent Salon interview Miles Taylor, the infamous “Anonymous” who wrote the 2018 New York Times op-ed "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” said Republican congresspersons are worried they will be attacked physically and politically if they cross the former president. He remarked:

“I'm talking about former Cabinet secretaries, sitting members of Congress and others who personally confessed to me, ‘I don't think I can join you in rising up against this guy because I've got to worry about my family's safety.’” Taylor said. “I didn't anticipate how much I was going to hear that as a response. They would say to me, “Look, I’ve got kids and this is too crazy right now.”

There are a few brave Republican congresspersons and senators willing to speak out, and I applaud their personal integrity and courage. Patriotic Americans need to do everything we can to support them. But they are immediately ostracized by their own party, and their political future is in doubt.

The dearth of courage extends beyond the halls of congress to the pulpits of our land. Christian pastors are afraid of their congregations, and it is affecting their mental health. According to Barna surveys, in 2016, 85 percent of pastors rated their mental wellbeing as good or excellent. In the October 2021 poll, it was down to 60 percent.

Pastors are afraid to speak the truth from the pulpit or in private conversations. They fear losing their jobs if they dare to stand against the tide of Christian Nationalism which is sweeping through White Evangelicalism. Those who follow their conscience and dare to speak truth are leaving the ministry at an alarming rate.

Fascism feeds on fear. That was true in Bonhoeffer’s day, and it is true in ours. Fascists march in the streets, brandish their weapons and make threats. They lie, intimate and bully. They use propaganda and disinformation as weapons.

This is the climate that now exists in America and in the Republican Party in particular. This is a time for civil courage for people of all political persuasions and religions. Let us support those with the courage to exercise their right of free speech. Let us exercise courage ourselves, so that in the 2030’s we will not have to write our own version of Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years.”


  1. I admire the true Conservatives who try to protect he best of our past. The Republican Party used to be the Political Party that best gave them representation. That Party today, unfortunately, best represents Racism, Fascistic goals, Separation, and Fear Mongering. I'm sorry but today consider the admission of being a Republican shameful! Conservative, Fine. Republican, No. Until and unless they change. Happi

  2. It is rather lengthy but you might find Murray Rothbard's book "The Betrayal of the American Right" (pdf here: insightful. It documents how members of the old left moved to the old right which was then that was taken over by what we have going on today. Interestingly, the term conservative was originally a pejorative used against the right but Russell Kirk brought it into favor with the right-wing. It had been a term to refer to maintain the old power centers which were opposed to individual freedom.
    In any case, I hope you may find that to be interesting.

  3. Very good Marshall. Agree 100%. It is very scary times with feelings of helplessness. I keep thinking it can't get any worse with the types of Republican politicians does. Kristin Berg

  4. The failings of political parties are apparent on all sides. The desire for power is rampant and exists on the right and the left. You've singled out the Republican party. Power seeking is equally the case amongst the Democrats. This "my team vs. your team" mentality, devoid of individual responsibility for our thinking, will be the downfall of our culture. Perhaps it needs to fall before we smarten up and start accepting that others think differently from us.

    1. I agree with you, Eric. For that reason I try to be as fair and objective as I can - which is admittedly an impossible task. That is also why I chose to criticize my own party rather than the opposing party, which is too easy to do and can easily be nothing more than partisan politics. Also we have to spiritually discern the greatest threat in our time. That is what I have tried to do in this post. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    2. Thanks for reply. Truly appreciated. I really enjoy your work and perspective. For me, it's valuable to connect the deepest level of various traditions as being One. I know that is not popular, denying the exclusivity so many rely on. But to quote the great sage, Popeye, "I yam what I yam!"


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