Karl Barth’s Response to the Donald Trumpkins: Making Space for the Word of God

I want to repurpose a post that I wrote years ago, and from time to time have re-posted at my various blogs – the original title of the post was: A Critique of the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Society. Since tonight was the Republican National Convention, and thus Trump’s nomination as the Republican nominee for the candidacy of the President of the United States, I thought it would be trumpapropos to share this post again (this time with a new title). As you read this short post, hopefully, as a evangelical Christian, you will see the similarities between the nationalism that was present in what came to be Nazi Germany, and the nationalism that is propelling Donald Trump to where he is currently. The thing that saddens me the most is that good meaning evangelical Christians have
been taken in by Trump’s rhetoric, without critically interpreting Trump through the lens of ideas and history. Hopefully this short post will whet the appetite of my evangelical brethren/sistren to look more deeply into the past so that we will not make similar mistakes (like the German’s did) in the present hour. We are at a point of principle, it is  not a matter of winning or losing; it is a matter of voting, or not voting coram Deo (before God). I contend that it is not possible for evangelical Christians to vote for Donald Trump (or Hillary Clinton, for that matter) based upon the Kingdom principles of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ.

Here is that post.

I really like how John Webster describes Barth’s understanding against the Liberal Protestantism of his day. Ironically, I think, that the way Barth understood the Liberal Protestants of his day, could (should) be the way (by and large) that we understand American Evangelicals of our day [please note: I am speaking in generalities, there are obviously many exceptions to this amongst American Evangelicals, just as there was exceptions to the Liberal Protestants in Barth’s day].  Barth’s understanding gets to the question of how it is that “good” honest hard working (even Christian) people can be duped into thinking that the aformentioned attributes serve as the garb that justifies their place in society (i.e. as good honest hard working folk). There is always room for conviction and self-“criticality;” I know we don’t like this, and I know that much of this ultimately bothers our sensibilities, but we are Christians, people of  love and truth (insofar as we participate in God’s life in Christ).

As I’ve already alluded to, the following is Webster commenting on Barth and his critique of the Liberal Protestants (which I am lifting and applying to American Evangelicals). This is intended to decenter our trust in ourselves, and instead cause us to throw ourselves at the mercy of God in Christ. This is intended to turn our lights on so that we can more critically see how what counts as Christian and Ethical (in America and the West), probably is not as ethical and Christian as we think. This is intended to highlight how it is that “we” so easily become the standard for what is good and right in the world instead of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[A] large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[1]

The ‘Human culture building itself up’ was the German one (for Barth) that ultimately expressed itself in German bourgeois society, and ultimately Nazi Germany. For Barth, for the Liberal Protestant, because of the collapse of the Christian self into the self as the moral self; there no longer remained space for Christ to break in and speak a fresh word of holiness over and against the established norms of what the Liberal Protestant had come to already think of what counted as such. In other words, Barth was against a What Would Jesus Do? society.

I am appropriating this critique from Barth (a la Webster) for the American Evangelical in particular. We have come to think that what counts as moral is captured by the symbol ‘Conservative’. It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal. It is this posture that negates any space for the Word of God to break in on all of these norms or the status quo; since the status quo is synonymous with being Christian. And it is this self-evidential situation which allows for atrocities to take place in the name of Christ; through the “absolute self.”

That’s the end of this old post of mine. I don’t think evangelicals feel emboldened, at the moment, which is why they are desperate. But they want to have that ‘feeling’ of the ‘absolute self’ again; and for them Trump can potentially deliver this golden age and feeling of self-worth once again, he can provide for cultural power that the moral majority has seemingly lost in these last days. I think we ought to take Barth’s reading of the German society of his day to heart, and once again as evangelicals divorce ourselves from nationalist longings so that we are able to have space for the Word of God to break into our lives in ever afresh and new ways; if we take this critique to heart I am sure that Trump (or Clinton) will no longer be viable alternatives for evangelical Christians.

[1] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.


18 thoughts on “Karl Barth’s Response to the Donald Trumpkins: Making Space for the Word of God

  1. Hi Bobby
    I think you are right with evangelicals seeing Trump as an artifice or stage prop ( deus ex machina) to solve the conundrum that beset our lives. However God doesn’t furnish us with ready made solutions, but expects us to lean on Him in daily dependence that sollicits our responsible action in live and moral decisions.
    Like your thoughts and blog.
    Good luck with the elections there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You truly have no idea what nationalism is if you think a conservative, free market entrepreneur is a nationalist. You completely flipped the political parties and the idelogical movements that support nationalism!

    Have you not been paying attention to the last eight years of Obama nationalizing about 35% of ou economy? The left traditionally has been the party of nationalizing economies, not the right. National Socialist German Workers party. There’s a reason why Hayek and Marx were polar economic opposites.

    Von Mises is rolling on his grave. Thomas Sowell, pick up your phone !


  3. Mallen, you’re thinking of a different kind of nationalism. In the Trump/Nazi sense, “nationalism” means essentially “Our country is the end-all-be-all” and is a kind of hyper-patriotism. The economic nationalism to which you refer is a totally unrelated thing. I find this confusion surprising, given that the former meaning is in far more common use.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Mallen, you truly did not even read my post. While I directed it at Trump, in reality it is an indictment on all evangelicals right or left who conflate the Gospel with the state. If you can’t see that you’re blind!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not only that, Mallen, my point as Caleb recognizes and as I just mentioned AGAIN has to do with the conflation of the Gospel with the state. Again, open your eyes and look to see why evangelicals are supporting Trump. They do so purely out of fear, it pretty much has nothing to do with the economy. If you are going to make such triumphalist comments make sure you understand what you are responding to in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mallen, I don’t presume to know anything about you, but if you have lived in Europe for any length of time as I have, you would realize that the worst evils in the last century were perpetrated by right-wing nationalists. In Italy, many evangelicals vote left, because they remember that Mussolini and Fascism came from the right. Having lived there myself for many years, I find the parallels between the Fascism and Trump’s rhetoric highly disconcerting.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s funny, Jonathan!

    And I think the shootings in Munich only confirm what you just noted about right-winged fanatics. I don’t think many Americans on the “right” have the kind of critical perspective needed to see the problem here. Because they are AMERICANS (they are exceptional and above historical reality — I would characterize the american evangelical, when it comes to politics, as largely docetic in their views).


  8. To continue insisting on an ignorant comparison of Trump and nationalist policies does not help your cause. Really, there are many, many economic and political books that can help. Jonah Goldberg is a good place to start. Hayek is even better. Nationalism is not free market capitalism.


  9. @mallen. I think, like the others, that you need to read what the German National Socialism (Nazi) rhetoric was all about and that Trump’s promises to make America great again and pinpoint Hispanics and other undesirables as the cause of social and economic disruption in your US of A; has in fact close parallels. Try Eric Metaxas’ book “Dietrich Bonhoeffer” for a start as an expose on the political climate in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. When those things abound we can be worried and I believe that ‘Jesus weeps’.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The scary thing is how Eberhard Bethge once visited a fundamentalist church in the U.S. and found it to be just like the German Christian church.

    Rein Zeilstra, unfortunately Eric Metaxas is supporting Trump as America’s best hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. So the real orthodox thing to do is vote for the”Clintons”. We Americans have a choice between Clinton or Trump in this election, I know the history of the right and the left, neither is righteous historically!


  12. Mallen,

    I’ve already explained what I’m referring to as nationalism, if you continue to ignore that then I’m going to consider your posts as spam and treat them as such.


  13. Rein,

    Exactly. Except as Ivan points out Metaxas unfortunately is supporting Trump. Plus his book on Bonhoeffer, overall, was not an accurate reading of Bon.


  14. Ms. Clinton or Mr. Trump will be the next president. Is there someone else with a chance on the ballot of which I am unaware?


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