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Bonhoeffer’s Critique of American Protestantism

I just posted this review on Amazon and Goodreads. The book is Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation, by Joel Looper.

After earning his doctorate in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent the 1930-31 school year at Union Theological Seminary in New York as an “exchange student,” taking classes with Reinhold Niebuhr and others. He did not have good things to say about his experience afterwards, but it wasn’t just the seminary that disappointed him. Having observed American Protestantism (both liberal and conservative), he called us “a land without reformation.”

Joel Looper’s book offers a detailed analysis of this critique. Using Bonhoeffer’s course schedule, he reconstructs, in a general way, the kinds of things Bonhoeffer probably heard from his professors, although the responses from the seminary students were also quite significant (their laughter at some of Luther’s writings, for example, and their distaste for biblical preaching). We learn how his professors reacted to the papers he wrote for their courses. We see how Bonhoeffer attempted a kind of Foucauldian genealogy of American Protestantism, first tracing its roots back to John Wycliffe and the Lollards in England in the late fourteenth century (every man becoming a priest unto himself), then describing America as a refuge for religious dissenters who no longer wanted to fight over religion. The result, on Bonhoeffer’s account, is a land in which political freedom is recognized as the true religion, and the citizens believe more strongly in their democratic rights than they do in any established religion.

The first hundred pages of Joel Looper’s book are the most important, if your aim is to understand Bonhoeffer’s point of view. The second half of the book responds to objections and qualifications (Did Bonhoeffer change his mind later? What about his experience at the African American church he attended regularly? How can we reconcile his earlier remarks the letters he wrote from prison? and so on).

The best thing about this book is the fact that it challenges us to include ourselves in Bonhoeffer’s critique. Looper doesn’t let us off easy by allowing us to say that these criticisms are only relevant for a certain segment of American Christians (in other words, not including me and my group). The author holds up a mirror to all of us, inviting us to see ourselves as Bonhoeffer saw us. Are we, in essence, pagan devotees of American Civil Religion? Have we elevated Democracy to a religion? And are we unable to see this because we’ve reinterpreted the scriptures to suit our brand of American Individualism?

These are questions we dare not dodge. If Bonhoeffer is right, and we Americans have secularized both the Christian message and the church as an institution, then we are actually taking our cues from secular culture and projecting them onto our reading of the scriptures. Our God turns out to be nothing more than an anthropomorphic reification of American Culture. Our political commitments become indistinguishable from our religious ones, rendering our faith no more powerful than our current degree of political clout. And this is true of both conservatives and liberals. If this analysis troubles us, then there may be hope. Looper’s book is supposed to prompt discussion. We should read it, first of all: pastors and lay leaders of all Protestant denominations should put it at the top of their reading list. Then we should have honest, soul-searching discussions about it. And together, we should bring the matter before God – not “God” in quotes, as Bonhoeffer would say, but the real God, the one to whom we must all one day render an account (Hebrews 4:13). This book is that important.

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