In an early unpublished lecture version of his book White Man, Listen!, Richard Wright made a startling claim. Instead of accepting the traditional academic view that western culture is becoming increasingly more secular, Wright observes: “The Mid-Twentieth Century finds more active religion on earth than at any time since 1455! This is a startling fact and I do not think that it has been sufficiently weighed, studied, and appreciated.” It is impossible to overstate the significance of Wright’s reference to the year 1455. As he claims in Black Power, the Portuguese have the dubious honor of having launched the slave-trade “crusade against Africa,” because they “had the right, under a papal bull of 1455, to subject to servitude all infidel peoples.” In other words, the slave trade was legal and righteous, because the Church, God’s representative on earth, authorized it. So when Wright mentions “active religion on earth” in the mid-twentieth century, he is suggesting that religion exerts as much political power in his day as the Church did when it authorized slavery in 1455.
Wright’s work, I argue, not only sets the record straight about that overstated fiction known as secularization theory, but it also clarifies precisely why the secularization hypothesis has blinded us to the powerful role religion has continued to play in the formation of the modernist polity. Given my debt to Wright, The Modernist God State stands in stark contrast to Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler (2004), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), and Theodore Ziolkowski’s Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief (2007), which claim that secularization is either well underway or an established fact in the contemporary West. Not surprisingly, these (and many like-minded) writers claim that secularization made Hitler and the Nazis possible. And yet, here are some facts that these writers conveniently overlook or strategically ignore: The Nazis declared themselves to be a Christian Party in their official program. In his first wireless speech to the German people after he came to power in 1933, Hitler announced that his political party regards “Christianity as the foundation of our national morality.” Just two weeks later, he boldly declared in another speech his theological allegiance to Christianity: “it is Christians and not international atheists who now stand at the head of Germany.” In a 1934 speech, Hitler specified the nature of the Nazi Party’s Christian orientation by claiming that “[t]he National Socialist State professes its allegiance to positive Christianity,” and by positive Christianity, he meant “caring for the sick, clothing the poor, feeding the hungry and quenching the thirst of the parched.” Put simply, Hitler believed that, given its commitment to positive Christianity, the Nazi Party “stands on the ground of a real Christianity,” because it is based on “Christian principles.” These are not anomalous claims. As I demonstrate throughout my book, Hitler and many prominent Nazis consistently defined themselves and their Party as Christian.
I offer many explanations to clarify why scholars have failed to understand that Hitler and the Nazis consistently considered themselves a Christian Party, but let me offer only one. The standard approach has been to say, if a person or a group does not have a proper concept of Christianity, then that person or group is not Christian, even if they profess themselves Christian. Ironically, this is the very approach Hitler adopted. For instance, in an April 12, 1922 speech, Hitler mentioned Count Lerchenfeld, who argued before the German Landtag that his faith as a Christian requires him to disavow anti-Semitism. Enraged and indignant, Hitler denounced Lerchenfeld’s approach to Christianity and therefore countered: “my feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the [biblical] passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.” For Hitler and the Nazis, to be a true Christian is to be an anti-Semite, and since the Nazi Party “stands on the ground of a real Christianity,” it is incumbent upon the Nazis to eliminate the Jews. Within his framework, there is only one true Christianity, and for a truly Christian nation to flourish, it must not compromise its Christian principles. Indeed, it is this propensity to compromise that doomed the Weimar Republic. Note Hitler’s logic as he denounces the post-Great War political agenda: “[W]here, I would ask, was Christianity for them in these fourteen years when they went arm in arm with atheism? No, never and at no time was greater internal damage done to Christianity than in these fourteen years when a party, theoretically Christian, sat with those who denied God in one and the same Government.” By aligning themselves with atheistic-Jewish parties, Weimar Republic leaders, who are only “theoretically Christian,” have corrupted the faith, thus leading to its demise. Hitler, by contrast, argues that he and the Nazi Party will institute a different kind of politics, one based on the true faith: “I do not merely talk of Christianity, no, I also profess that I will never ally myself with the parties which destroy Christianity.” For Hitler, theoretical Christians have forfeited their right to call themselves true Christians or true Germans, for in cavorting with atheistic Jews, they have debased Christianity and, therefore, the nation.
Central to my work is a de-essentializing of Christianity. As I demonstrate throughout my book, there are many versions of Christianity, some respectful, tolerant, and humane, some not. As a scholar, I refuse to use one version of Christianity to debunk another. Rather, I try to define various versions of Christianity. Consequently, I take Hitler and many of the Nazis at their word when they call themselves Christian. The scholarly task, therefore, is to define Christianity as they understood it. To my mind, this is of utmost importance, for if we want to understand what enabled the Nazis to perpetrate their horrible atrocities, then we have no choice but to define the specific version of Christianity that led them to follow Hitler, who said: “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Michael Lackey, author of The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazi's Christian Reich