Would-be Hitler assassin inspiring evangelical Trumpists: Deakin research

Media release
03 April 2019

A Deakin researcher is investigating how a German pastor executed in 1945 over a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler has become a modern evangelical martyr used to advocate far-right political violence.

Dr Petra Brown, from Deakin's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said her investigations into the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer showed his subversive opposition to the Nazi regime had been construed in today's context as a means to encourage opposition to abortion rights, same sex marriage and homosexuality.

"Bonhoeffer's actions as a conspirator have come to be seen not only as permissible, but uncritically accepted as righteous and justified because of the magnitude of his enemy," Dr Brown said.

Dr Brown, whose full thesis is outlined in the recently published book, Bonhoeffer: God's Conspirator in a State of Exception, said among US evangelicals, for example, there was an image of Bonhoeffer as both agent of God and a political liberator.

"And if he can be regarded as a martyr despite his involvement in a murder plot, then murder in itself is not a disqualification to the title 'martyr'," Dr Brown said.

"What many of these adherents have internalised is an idea that Christians should be willing to become politically dirty, and contemplate forms of political action that do not sit comfortably with their Christian values."

Dr Brown said Bonhoeffer had also inspired political leaders such as former US president George W Bush, who linked Bonhoeffer's decision for conspiracy against an evil regime to America’s "war on terror".

"Clearly there are a number of troubling questions around the 'martyrdom' and sanctification of Dietrich Bonhoeffer," she said.

"His story has inspired subversive, violent protesters within Western democratic nations – American protesters, arrested and prosecuted during the mid to late 1980s at the height of the anti-abortion protest movement, not only turned to Bonhoeffer for justification of their actions, but for spiritual support.

"Indeed the radical elements of the pro-life movement, including abortion clinic shooter Paul Hill and attempted clinic bombers Michael Bray and John Brockhoeft, were more than willing to connect Bonhoeffer's conspiracy involvement with their own claims and acts of violence against American institutions and citizens."

Dr Brown said the Bonhoeffer-inspired "dirty hands" mindset was evident in US evangelicals who vocally supported President Donald Trump, despite him regularly saying and doing things that would typically be thought to conflict with Christian values.

"Recent uses of Bonhoeffer as part of the 'culture-war' between the politically conservative right and the progressive left have taken place in the US over the past 10 years and are being echoed across the globe," she said.

"Against the backdrop of the current political divide between the left and the right, evangelicals who support Trump may also support Trump's turn to violent rhetoric in the service of nationalism.

"Whether it's issues of same-sex marriage or conversion therapy, the term that now appears among conservative evangelical Americans is that of a 'Bonhoeffer moment' – a righteous and seemingly justified resistance that contains the seeds for violence, but is nevertheless permitted because of the magnitude of the perceived enemy."

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