When Speaking Out Costs You

A historical perspective on the political cost that often comes with speaking truth to power.

You might have seen the news that over 200 evangelical leaders have signed a public letter condemning Christianity Today’s article that called for the impeachment of Trump.

Are you surprised?

I’m not.

It’s not enough to praise Trump for the “good” he does for you; you have to keep your mouth shut about his failings or else you’re considered the enemy. This mentality isn’t new: the same kind of thing happened in Germany during World War II.

Several Protestant leaders in Germany (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller) were instrumental in starting a “Confessing Church” movement which split away from the state sponsored Reich Church after the Nazi party began to encroach on the church’s autonomy.

Hitler needed the support of the church since they were a sizable group in Germany (a large % of German Protestants supported him at that point), so he agreed to meet with the leaders of the Confessing Church to hear their concerns.

Martin Niemoller, one of the leaders of the Confessing Church who supported much of Hitler’s politics but disagreed with his intrusion into the church autonomy, agreed to meet with Hitler.

At the meeting, Hitler told the Confessing Church leaders, “You confine yourself to the Church. I’ll take care of the German people.” This was a common argument called “two spheres” used by Christians back then to say that the church should stay in the sphere of faith and leave matters of State alone. It’s one of the reasons so many Christians were able to wink at the later atrocities of the Nazi party: that was all happening within the State’s sphere.

The meeting with Hitler continued, but Niemoller felt convicted. When he shook hands with Hitler to leave, he came back to Hitler’s earlier statement: “You said that ‘I will take care of the German people.’ But we too, as Christians and churchmen, have a responsibility toward the German people. That responsibility was entrusted to us by God, and neither you nor anyone in this world has the power to take it from us.”

It seemed like Hitler ignored the statement, but that night the Gestpo ransacked Niemoller’s house. A few days after that, a bomb went off in his lecture hall.

Worse than the political threats, though — and most relevant to the Christianity Today denouncement — was the nearly universal disdain Niemoller received from those in the Confessing Church for his statement to Hitler. Once word of what Niemoller had said to Hitler had gotten out, more than 2000 pastors left the Confessing Church for the Reich Church. They felt like he should have been more politically savvy and kept his mouth shut in Hitler’s presence instead of bringing Hitler’s wrath upon the Confessing Church movement.

Niemoller had done the unthinkable. He had spoken truth to power, but did so at great political cost, something unforgivable for a group that supported much of Hitler’s nationalism and economic platform.

I recently shared this story with another Christian friend of mine. His response? “Well, yeah… he should have kept his mouth shut.”

So does it surprise me when a host of evangelical leaders are condemning Christianity Today’s article when they stand to gain so much politically from Trump’s platform? No… but it does sadden me.

Addendum: You can read more about Niemoller’s meeting with Hitler in “Hitler’s Cross” by Erwin Lutzer, which chronicles the response of the German church to Hitler’s rise to power. The book has its flaws, but there are some powerful stories in it.