The Battle for Bonhoeffer – Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump

A review by John W. Matthews

Indeed, The Battle for Bonhoeffer is a book that combines important historical material with current events and issues. Stephen Haynes, professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and a well-respected scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy, is at his best in this – likely to become – well-respected and well-received book. Two of Hayne’s earlier books, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint (2004) and The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives (2006), were also highly respected surveys of Bonhoeffer’s ‘reception and following,’ mostly in the United States. This book, The Battle for Bonhoeffer, extends these surveys by unfolding the multiple ways Bonhoeffer’s theological/political legacy is being used and misused in more recent years, specifically by conservative/Evangelical – but also more liberal-minded – people, leading up to and including the ‘Age of Trump.’  It was specifically the popularization and misuse of Bonhoeffer’s theology by Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (2010), combined with Metaxas’s unequivocal endorsement and subsequent support of Donald Trump, that moved Haynes from a more academic reserve and scholarly detachment to an all-out confrontation. Stephen Haynes – in about 2017 – came to believe that customary reserve and respectful critique needed to step aside because too much was at stake; the use and misuse of Bonhoeffer’s theology to buttress the nationalistic and narrow agenda of President Trump required challenge, yes, from a respected Bonhoeffer scholar. In one hundred and forty-eight pages, Haynes takes the reader on a brief historical journey/sketch of (mostly) Evangelical efforts in the past several decades to employ Dietrich Bonhoeffer for Evangelical ends. Haynes is not only professionally qualified, but personally well-suited to lead this tour, since he began his life as an Evangelical. He ends the book with a very poignant and powerful Postscript (Open Letter) to Evangelicals who (still) support Donald Trump.

Early in chapter one, “The Man, the Myth, the Battle,” Haynes adds a fifth “portrait” of Bonhoeffer to the labels he spelled-out earlier in The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon; to the portraits “radical,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and “universal,” he adds “populist.” As the battle for Bonhoeffer has evolved, the more popular renderings of Bonhoeffer’s legacy have shown disregard – if not complete rejection – of nearly five decades of serious scholarship regarding the context and content of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy. Haynes calls this a “suspicion of academic elites.” The author’s grasp of the plethora of contemporary expressions and uses of the Bonhoeffer legacy (books and blogs, conferences and cinema, drama and documentaries) is nothing short of encyclopedic; he monitors the internet for virtually every ‘Bonhoeffer’ entry, being passionate about the ways this 20th century witness for Jesus Christ is being interpreted. After a brief excursus through the earliest –  more liberal – interpretations of Bonhoeffer beginning in the 1960s, the author embarks on a journey through the early ‘Evangelical’ distrust of parts of the legacy, especially in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, then on to Evangelical appreciation for Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a “Christian hero,’ a ‘cultural warrior,’ an ‘internal critic,’ and an ‘ecclesiological guide.’

Rightly so, one chapter is dedicated to “Bonhoeffer, Bush, and the ‘War on Terror,’” in which diverse appreciations of Bonhoeffer’s legacy are detailed (Stanley Hauerwas in ‘conversation’ with Jean Bethke Elshtain) as is another chapter focused on “Bonhoeffer, Obama, and the ‘Culture of Death.’” It is at the end of the ‘Obama’ chapter that the name Eric Metaxas enters the journey/sketch, with the publication of his 2010 book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This New York Times best-seller helped to launch Metaxas’s next project of taking Bonhoeffer on the road, from small town America to the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. At those public forums, Metaxas took aim at neuralgic issues like sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research, employing (misusing?)  the words and actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Woven throughout virtually every presentation of Metaxas was his passion to enlist Dietrich Bonhoeffer to confront the ‘liberal erosion’ in America that he shared with many Evangelicals. He was a guest on programs hosted by Glenn Beck and Lauren Green of Fox News; Eric Metaxas clearly understood and aggressively promoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an American-styled Evangelical. Again, his contempt for the scholarly guild of academics, who committed their lives to accurately bequeathing the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the world, prevented him from knowing that Bonhoeffer was many things, but an American-styled Evangelical was not one of them.

Beginning in chapter six, about half-way through the book, Haynes transitions into his full confrontation with Eric Metaxas, the ‘Evangelical’ Bonhoeffer and Metaxas’s misreading of Bonhoeffer to garner support for the candidacy and election of Donald Trump. The author describes Metaxas’s accusation, that the scholarly gatekeepers of the Bonhoeffer legacy represent “Fifty Years of Misappropriation,” and then details the “Scholarly Backlash” to that accusation. One glaring example of Metaxas’s reshaping Bonhoeffer’s legacy is with regard to his (Bonhoeffer’s) work and writings regarding Jews in the early years of the Third Reich. While Metaxas attempts to place Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the vanguard of opposition, making him a “righteous Gentile,” such placement does not square with the historical record. Bonhoeffer’s place and influence were much more nuanced and cautious with regard to the ‘Jewish Question.’  Haynes also points out the irony that at the same time Metaxas was lobbying for a more conservative Bonhoeffer regarding issues of sexuality, other members of the scholarly guild were “exploring the homoerotic undertones in the theologian’s relationship with his closest male friend.” Even the conservative theologian Richard Weikart argued at this time that Metaxas had “insufficient grounding in the fields of history, theology, and philosophy (that) caused him to get ‘in over his head.’”

Although the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” initially appeared in Metaxas’s talk at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, it was in 2015, within the context of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case regarding same-gender marriage, that his phrase went more public. It is at this time also that Eric Metaxas passionately welded his understanding of Bonhoeffer’s “gift” and America’s future. In an interview on American Family Radio in 2015 he said, “I really believe the story of Bonhoeffer is the gift of God to the American church today. . . If the church does not wake up right now . . . the game is over.” In June of 2016 Metaxas elaborated more specifically: “. . . (despite) all of his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts . . . (Trump was) nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history.” Later, Metaxas, while admitting Trump’s moral flaws, stated, “Bonhoeffer would have voted for Trump. You should too.”

It was at about this time that Haynes put his scholarly detachment aside and entered the fray of engagement full speed ahead: “Studying Metaxas’s portrait of Bonhoeffer and his ongoing attempts to use him for partisan political purposes has caused me to rethink my role as an observer of what might be called the American Bonhoeffer. . . while I continue to offer “scholarly” criticism of Eric Metaxas’s interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s relevance for contemporary America, I can no longer do so in the manner of a detached observer. . . Today I no longer believe it is enough to respectfully disagree with someone who relies on Bonhoeffer’s moral gravitas to support President Trump and his policies . . . too much is at stake.”  With historical and theological ground laid, Stephen Haynes lays down the gauntlet and offers a Postscript: “Your Bonhoeffer Moment: An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Trump.”  In those eleven pages, the author challenges all (Evangelicals) to reconsider their loyalty to Donald Trump, arguing from the standpoint of traditional, Evangelical, biblical values and priorities. It is a passionate appeal. Will it make a difference? Hopefully.

John W. Matthews is Senior Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and past-President of the International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section.                

Stephen R. Haynes is professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and theologian-in-residence at Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. The coauthor of Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, he has also written articles about Bonhoeffer and American culture for the Huffington Post and the Christian Century.

The Battle for Bonhoeffer – Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump can be purchased at the following link:

Topics: Readings and Receptions
Stephen R. HaynesJohn W. Matthews




The English Language Section is dedicated to advancing the theology and legacy of German pastor-theologian and Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the academy, church, and world, and has been on the forefront of this work for the last fifty years.

Learn More

Become a Member

Join us in the work of the IBS-ELS! We invite you to register today as a Friend of the Society, Student Member, Contributing Member, or Sustaining Member.

Discover more from International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Skip to content