Stephen R. Haynes is professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and theologian-in-residence at Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon and has also written articles about Bonhoeffer and American culture for the Huffington Post and the Christian Century.
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1. What led you to write The Battle for Bonhoeffer?
I’ve been concerned for some time about the ways Bonhoeffer’s legacy has functioned in American political discourse. Since writing The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon in 2004, I have kept abreast of issues where Bonhoeffer’s name, words, and martyrdom are regularly applied.
In 2015, as conservatives claimed that the pending Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (on same-sex marriage) represented “a Bonhoeffer moment,” I sensed something new was afoot. This hunch was confirmed in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, as Eric Metaxas, an influential interpreter of Bonhoeffer, began to invoke the German pastor-theologian in support of Donald Trump.
In November 2016 I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post in which I suggested that Bonhoeffer’s relevance to the election might actually lie in his modeling of Christian resistance to authoritarianism and hate. The article received a great deal of attention and led to several requests that I write a longer piece on the subject. I decided that Eerdmans was the right place for such a book. That’s how The Battle for Bonhoeffer came about.
2. What’s something not enough people know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
Because Bonhoeffer is so universally admired among Americans with knowledge of the Christian theological tradition, it’s natural to assume that he was universally admired in his own day. In fact, however, Bonhoeffer was seen by many church leaders, especially the more established, as unreasonably radical in his opposition to Nazism and its ecclesiastical supporters.
In particular, they did not appreciate Bonhoeffer’s unwillingness to give the government space to try out new approaches to social issues such as “the Jewish question.” In retrospect, his uncompromising resistance to Hitler and Nazi-sympathizers in the church seems like a natural path for any Christian to take; but this was not so clear in the 1930s, particularly as Hitler’s popularity was bolstered by support for his domestic policies.
3. If you had to describe your book in ten words or fewer, what would those words be?
Christian support for Trump will do permanent harm to American Christianity. That’s eleven—best I can do, but still pretty succinct.
As far as writing The Battle for Bonhoeffer is concerned, the book that has influenced me most is John Huffman’s A Most Amazing Call: One Pastor’s Reflections on a Ministry Full of Surprises. John was my pastor when I was a teenager and my family was part of his church in Key Biscayne, Florida where President Nixon frequently visited. John became one of Nixon’s “spiritual advisors” and a frequent guest at the White House.
I was fifteen when Nixon resigned in disgrace and remember a vague sense that it was difficult for John to acknowledge that he had been manipulated by a president who had used him for moral cover. What I didn’t know until reading A Most Amazing Call was how decisively Huffman had repudiated Nixon when it became clear who he really was. John’s bold stance, which cost him a great deal personally, was and is an inspiration to me. And it has helped me understand and articulate my reaction to Christian support for Donald Trump.
5. What question should we have asked you (but didn’t)?
The one several interviewers have asked is whether I’m worried about “pushback” to the book. The answer is that I’m not.
In part, this is because I tend to be an optimist who believes that anyone who reads the book will appreciate its point of view because it’s well-informed and well-reasoned. In part, it’s because I believe that in our polarized political environment Christian authors have a contribution to make by encouraging careful, contextualized thought about living responsibly in the world.
Purchase audio edition of The Battle for Bonhoeffer at Audible.com.