In 1934 Germany, the only structure to oppose the supremacy of the Third Reich was one segment of the Christian church. Hitler had already castrated the Roman Catholic church by forcing it to sign the Concordat of 1933, in which the Church, with certain guarantees of limited autonomy, agreed its bishops, upon taking office, would swear an oath of fealty to the Reich as follows:
"Before God and the Holy Gospels I swear and promise, as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich...I swear and promise to honor the legally constituted government and to cause the clergy of my diocese to honor it. In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and interests of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts which might endanger it."
By acceding to the concordat of 1933, the Church effectively allowed the Hitler regime power over it. Their capitulation, which was complete, was to have disastrous results for the Church and for Christians and Jews living under the Nazi regime.
In protest, the leading German theologians of the day, Karl Barth and Hans Asmussen, formulated and published the Barmen Declaration in protest against the theological claims of the state. Those claims included demands to "Aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ministry and to accede to the "Fuhrer Principle" as the chief organizational impetus for church structure. The end goal of the Nazi regime was to subsume all churches under state control as well as to use the churches to proclaim and reinforce the existing regime as above the authority of the Church. The Church was to persuade the congregations to adopt Nazi legislation. An auxiliary goal was to have the pastors preach Nazi race theory as a revelation equal to that of the Bible.
Barth, Asmussen and the great martyr to the Christian faith Dietrich Bonhoeffer protested the intrusion of the Nazi regime and its agenda into church affairs in no uncertain terms, completely and decisively rejecting the "false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God (Christ), yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation."
They added that they also rejected the idea that "there could be other areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords....We reject the false doctrine that the Church [must hand over] its message...to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day."
The theologians concluded that neither special leaders such as the Fuhrer nor the government itself were vested with ruling authority over the church. They rejected absolutely the idea that the State "should become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfill the vocation of the church as well."
Today in the United States of America, we are once again revisiting the manifold issues of the authority of Church and state which forced the Reformed and Lutheran churches of Germany to take their stands against the force and power of the state government.
One of the most egregious examples of the intrusion of the United States government into church affairs was articulated recently by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who declared concerning Roman Catholic bishops’ stance on the passage of the administration’s immigration bill, "But I say I want you to speak about it from the pulpit...I want you to instruct...the people [who] oppose immigration reform and are sitting in those pews...that this is a manifestation of our living the Gospels."
It’s worth noting the phrase "But I say..." as it is the very phrase Jesus used when asserting his moral authority. Always the phrase was used to insist on the transcendent moral authority of the Kingdom of God, an authority never subsumed under any earthly government.
The Church has always held to moral autonomy derived from its belief that the kingdom of God informs and suffuses earthly structures, not vice versa. Ms. Pelosi has by her statements reversed that order, putting the political agenda of the state above those of the church. In a shocking reversal of authority similar to that Barth and Bonhoeffer faced, she has put the state above the Church. She has elevated the political religion of progressivism above the Church, trashing the Church’s historic claims to be free from the authority of the kingdoms of this world.
A powerful political leader has once again presumed to tell the Christian church what the political ramifications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ should and must be. Effectively, she has said, "This is what you are to believe as the Gospel, and therefore this is the legislation you are to support and help pass."
She has thereby declared the state the ultimate conscience of the Church and thus has eradicated the lines between Church and state. Barth, Asmussen and Bonhoeffer would have revolted against Ms. Pelosi’s presumption. They would have excoriated her, realizing the Church is not regarded by her as an institution with a sphere of influence that must not be superceded or informed by the demands of the state.
The implications, much less the consequences, of her statement and attitude are indeed eerily similar to those which face the German Church in Nazi Germany. Religion disappears under the aegis of the all powerful and all knowing state. The Church merely ratifies the a piece of legislation important to the agenda presently defined by a powerful state official as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Were Ms. Pelosi alone in her desire to make the Church the vehicle for actualizing the latest political agenda, she could be dismissed as an anomaly. But she is joined by many others, including many within the Church, who in their desire to effectuate social justice, are in danger of giving over the unique and transcendent authority of the Church to the state by doing the state’s bidding.
The Church needs to understand, reclaim and effectually utilize its role as the conscience of the state. It must vigorously and decisively and reject becoming a tool of the state. Catholic bishops need to refute Bishop Pelosi’s infallible declaration of a manifestation of the Gospel of Christ emanating ex cathedra from her secular seat in the hallowed halls of Washington. That refutation should go out form Church authorities with vigor and unmistakable force and clarity.
In the case of immigration, as in much else that needs the concentrated attention of the Church, it needs to come up with a plan on its own based on the scriptures and traditions of the Church lest it become the mere rubber stamp for federal state immigration legislation–the rubber stamp Bishop Pelosi apparently would like the Church to be. The Church needs to lead, not to follow.
Both Catholic and protestant churches must rise up in outraged protest against the intrusions of the state as propounded by Nancy Pelosi and others. Top theologians need to come together as Barth and others came together during the Third Reich in order to articulate, publish and disseminate another Barmen Declaration. They need to assert with vigor the separation of Church and state and to resist with all their might the assertion of state control over the Church in whatever form it manifests itself. This they must do so lest the Church continued to be crushed and subdued by the state. This they must do lest the Church become a mere tool of the state used to reinforcing state authority.
This they must do in order to remain free to proclaim the historic Gospel of Christ in all its manifestations in accordance with their free conscience.