“The connection between religion and politics is like brain surgery. You’ve got to do it, but you’ve got to do it well. You can’t do it sloppily, or it ends up terribly for both religion and politics.”

The Rev. Bryan Hehir
Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life
Harvard Kennedy School

 For those interested in exploring the connection between religion and politics, especially during the stretch run of this election season, I invite you to consider the Barmen Declaration of 1934.

Written as a confession of faith, the Barmen Declaration responded to one of the ways the relationship between religion and politics can go terribly wrong: when politics invades religious space, subjugating religion and using it for its own political purposes.

After Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, he directed a strategy to nationalize Protestant churches and create a new form of German Christianity. Hitler was to be recognized as a prophet and as a source of divine revelation for Christian preaching and teaching (in effect, placing Hitler’s agenda of racial purity and supremacy on equal footing with the scriptural teachings of Jesus and the Apostles).

nazi-altarProtestant pastors and congregations, along with all other members of German society, were pressured to adopt the “Fuhrer Principle” in which Hitler was the supreme head of all things German – including the Protestant Church.  Many Christians succumbed, as depicted in this picture of an altar draped with a parament bearing the image of a swastika.

Other Christians resisted.  Meeting in Barmen, Germany in May 29-30, 1934, representatives of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, including Karl Barth, wrote the Barmen Declaration as a united confession of faith in response to these political pressures.

They wrote:

“Precisely because we want to be and remain true to our various confessions of faith, we may not keep silent, for we believe that in a time of common need and trial a common word has been placed in our mouth.”

 In six points, the Barmen Declaration:

  1. Rejected the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, images and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God, as a source of her preaching. 
  2. Rejected the false teaching that there are areas of our life in which we belong not to Jesus Christ but another lord, areas in which we do not need justification and sanctification through him. 
  3. Rejected the false teaching that the church can turn over the form of her message and ordinances at will or according to some dominant ideological and political convictions. 
  4. Rejected the false teaching that the church can and may apart from this ministry, set up special leaders (Fuhrer) equipped with powers to rule over the church. 
  5. Rejected the false teaching that the state can and should expand beyond its special responsibility to become the single and total order of human life, and also thereby fulfill the commission of the church.  And, rejected the false teaching that the church can and should expand beyond its special responsibility to take on the characteristics, functions and dignities of the state, and thereby become itself an organ of the state. 
  6. Rejected the false teaching that the church, in human self-esteem, can put the word and work of the Lord in the service of some wishes, purposes and plans or other, chosen according to desire.

The Barmen Declaration is not just a forgotten footnote in history. It continues to live on today as one of the confessions of faith included in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (8.01 – 8.28). You can also find it on the website of The United Church of Christ (UCC) with the acknowledgement that the declaration “profoundly influenced many first generation of pastors and laypeople who formed the UCC in 1957.”

It’s helpful to remember that the Declaration played defense. It defended religious space from the invasion of political forces. It identified, but did not explore, the opposite extreme: religious forces invading political space and subjugating politics for religious purposes. It offered no public rebuke against Hitler’s agenda outside that which directly affected the Protestant churches.   It also said nothing about the suppression of the Jewish faith and the persecution of the Jewish people.

Recognizing the limits of the Barmen Declaration reminds us there are no quick and easy answers to the complex relationship between religion and politics. The connection must be continually explored and articulated in the midst of changing religious and political circumstances.

That being said, the brave witness of this group of religious people responding to the political forces of their day can be a resource and conversation partner as we carefully consider the connection between religion and the political realities of our day.

Read the Barmen Declaration for yourself and consider how it speaks to our context.

I look forward to exploring it further in upcoming posts.