Perhaps this one surprises you. Comparisons to Hitler or asserted associations associations with Nazism stand out among the most common (and most flippant) ways to criticize anyone or anything. The tactic proves so basic that its employment in online arguments was predicted by an attorney named Mike Godwin. In 1990. However, such comparisons (or smears) do not reside only on virtual forums. I can remember the self-proclaimed philosophers at my high school comparing church youth groups to Hitler Youth, and the famous think tank and TV program, The View, ensured that daytime television viewers received the revelation of Hitler’s Christianity as well. See below.
For the record, no, Timothy McVeigh did not claim the Christian faith for himself. Instead, he stated clearly and explicitly his agnosticism. However, the main outburst to consider remains the one we’re currently considering: the claim Hitler was a Christian.
Let’s talk about the motivation behind the claim first. Obviously, association with architect of the most infamous human extermination project in history would be a bad thing. Below the bare phrase “Hitler was a Christian!” lays the idea that Christianity has a major flaw in it. Membership in the faith claimed by Christians—repentance, faith, and obedience to the commands of Christ as revealed in Scripture do not preclude one from the murder of millions of people and waging a war of conquest. It represents an attempt to undercut any sort of credibility of the biblical gospel through association with Adolf Hitler. The claim heavily implies the Christian beliefs held by Hitler did not conflict with his murderous and genocidal desires and possibly that his vision of an Aryan Europe found support in his supposed Christian identification.
If you blinked, you might have missed the serious flaw.
The objector throws the label, “Christian,” onto a person with no apparent definition of what the word means, if anything. At this point, the objector has two choices: agree that a Christian must observe and believe certain things to properly be called such or that the way he used the word really communicates nothing. In the case of biblical, historic, and orthodox Christianity maintains repentance from sin and faith in Christ as Son of God and Redeemer of mankind as absolutely essential. On the second choice, anyone can apply the moniker “Christian” to anyone else. The objector cannot actually use the “Hitler was a Christian” line to criticize anyone because it lacks any sort of significance. He cannot choose the second option, for then he must admit his completely meaningless assault.
Option #1 it is! A Christian must be a person who believes and observes certain things. Built into the preceding statement is the idea that if the individual does not, one cannot categorize the individual as a Christian. Christianity involves beliefs and precepts, and the lack of adherence to them places one outside of the faith. For example, trinitarianism lies at the foundation of Christianity. If one denies the Trinity, he cannot properly call himself a Christian. So it also goes with the divinity of Jesus Christ. Claim Jesus proves anything other than God Himself, and you place yourself outside established Christian orthodoxy as it has stood for more than two millennia.
The question then remains—does “Hitler was a Christian” hold water? The objector made the claim; the objector must supply the evidence for his assertion. A good reply would be: In what way did Hitler stand in continuity with the historic, orthodox teaching and tradition of the Christian church? The question requests the objector make an explanation of Christianity (without Hitler or Nazis), and then explain how Hitler fits into the mold. The ideas of teaching and tradition of the church of Christ Jesus prove key to the question. The bad witness and hypocritical lives of some who claim the name of Jesus does not pass muster. Such a problem proves old as the faith itself. 1 John deals with individuals who would both claim the name of Jesus but also believe and live in a way contrary to Jesus’s teaching and work. Putting it bluntly, because the objector knew some mean church-goers or fallen public figures does not prove Hitler’s Christianity a reality.
Notice the difference in Hitler’s own identification of himself as a Christian (or an argument from Hitler that Christian teachings led to his actions) and and the charge that German Christians of his time acted in a complicit way with the Third Reich. Those are two different things. One is a falsehood, and one proves the sad, sad state of the church of Germany following World War I. What one easily gleans from the interplay between Hitler and Christianity, however, is that Hitler and his officials had the ability to twist the prevailing religion at the time to their own ends. Such a thing hardly has any uniqueness to it. It represents a failure of some Christians, not something insidious in Christianity itself. Moreover, the ability of churches to act waywardly arises from Scripture itself. Several of the letters of Paul the Apostle address wrong doctrine and practice in churches. Likewise, Revelation 3:14-22 deals with the same issue. The black marks upon these churches (and others in history) stand as deviation from Christian teaching rather than the upholding of it. Rather than knowing nothing more than Christ and him crucified, they showed nothing relating to Christ.
The sort of drop-the-mic assertion of Hitler’s Christianity fails also on the count that many (though not nearly enough) who called themselves Christians opposed Hitler and his party. The famous Barmen Declaration resulted from this opposition. Continental European theologians Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all opposed Hitler’s regime. To be sure, all three of these theologians prove problematic for evangelicals (Barth on both theological and moral grounds), but for none of them would the term “Christian” prove meaningless. Evangelical pastors and theologians still study the writings of these men, wrestling with their theology. Though imperfect, they represent a stream of resistance to Hitler due to their understanding of Christianity and called the German Christians to abandon Hitler.
The objection does not stand. It falls on the basis of Christianity’s historic system of thought and observing history without an eye to a quick criticism. “Hitler was a Christian!” sounds like an exciting way to ruin a Christian’s day by undercutting his or her platform. However, the one making the proposition will find himself unable to defend it under basic scrutiny.