Barth and Bonhoeffer:
Saviors of Democracy?


Adam McDuffie

From his very first line, Joshua Mauldin establishes immediately what is at stake in his new thought-provoking volume Barth, Bonhoeffer, & Modern Politics: “Modern democracy is in crisis.” The modern liberal democratic project does seem to teeter perpetually on a knife’s edge. Critics and prognosticators routinely predict its demise. While there has been no shortage of overwrought responses to events which failed to alter the status quo, it would be incorrect to suggest that all who foresee the fall of democracy as we know it are Chicken Littles convinced that the sky is falling. There have, of course, been critics offering legitimate responses to the emerging stress fractures in the institutions that undergird our democracies.

One would be well within their rights to cast a quick glance across the state of democracy in the world today and sincerely wonder whether its survival is assured. Confidence in liberal democracy is wavering around the world, and a roster of autocrats and illiberal voices under the guise of populism stand ready to fill the vacuum. Closer to home, on January 6 the United States watched what many once believed to be unthinkable (however unsurprising it may have truly been): insurrectionists invading the Capitol Building and halting the legitimate counting of electoral votes. The core of the American democratic process — the certification of the vox populi in the wake of a free and fair election — came under literal attack that day. It is glaringly obvious that something needs to be repaired in the liberal democratic project. But what is broken? And what can fix it?

It is glaringly obvious that something needs to be repaired in the liberal democratic project. But what is broken? And what can fix it?

Mauldin is by no means the first or only contributor to this conversation. He joins a host of voices in recent years taking a critical look at democracy’s ills as well as potential solutions. Shadi Hamid’s recent column in The Atlantic, “America Without God,” focuses an assessment of the precarious state of American democracy on the evolving role of religion. Hamid argues that, while not an explicitly Christian nation, the United States was nonetheless founded on a common creed. Increasing secularization has eroded the foundation of that basis for unity. Far from alone in his focus on an apparent decline of religion, Hamid joins a chorus of voices responding to signs of secularization, such as the decline in religious membership reported in a recent Gallup poll, or the substantial growth of the so-called religious “nones.” The displacement of traditional religious forms by a politics imputed with an almost sacred significance has rendered the Founders’ vision of democracy unworkable, and Hamid predicts this could have severe consequences for the future of liberal democracy in America. For Hamid, the question of diagnosing and treating democracy’s ills is inseparable from the question of the proper place of religion in a democratic society.

A potential solution to Hamid’s concerns lies in the concept of American Civil Religion. First explored in detail by sociologist Robert N. Bellah in his 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America,” the concept of a civil religion can be found in the work of Rousseau or as far back as the writings of Isocrates or Philo of Alexandria. In the American context, civil religion provides a nonsectarian national system of sacred symbols, texts, rituals, and sites. Among other functions, American Civil Religion can mediate a national consciousness which generates unity around a shared memory of a common history. The unfortunate reality is that this American Civil Religion, much like American democracy, is also proving itself to be ineffective — if not irreparably broken. In an increasingly pluralistic society, a central civil religious narrative built around a white, predominantly Christian history inevitably struggles to provide a source for true unity. American Civil Religion is in need of reflection and reform, again, much like democracy itself. As a system of belief which is ideally nonsectarian and specific only in terms of its Americanness, according to Bellah, American Civil Religion would appear to be a uniquely effective solution to the lack of ideologically binding ties in a democracy. It remains clear that the key to understanding the present condition of democracy is an analysis of the function of religion in modern society.

In an increasingly pluralistic society, a central civil religious narrative built around a white, predominantly Christian history inevitably struggles to provide a source for true unity. American Civil Religion is in need of reflection and reform, again, much like democracy itself.

This is the starting point from which Barth, Bonhoeffer, & Modern Politics enters the conversation, addressing the future of the liberal democratic project through a focus on the place of religion in modernity. Mauldin emphasizes the relative certainty that democratic societies felt in the wake of the Cold War, the sense that the liberal democratic project had won out. Francis Fukuyama observed an end to history itself, arguing that we as a world had reached the denouement of our global narrative of political and societal development. With the unraveling of the Soviet Union, it was assumed that democracy was “it” — the political solution for ordering a well-functioning society. And yet, Mauldin observes that today, we watch as “the ties that bind our democratic ways of life together are unraveling” (1). China and Russia are enjoying increasing geopolitical clout, enthusiastically inserting themselves into the global conversation, while the United States deals with sundry problems at home in addition to (and not wholly disconnected from) a host of intractable foreign policy issues and criticisms of human rights hypocrisy abroad. Heightened polarization among both American politicians and the American electorate alike results in a sense of hopelessness for any progress through democratic institutions which now appear irreparably broken. In Mauldin’s words: “The feeling grows that the center cannot hold” (1).

Joshua Mauldin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Yet these are not new questions or concerns. This is not the first time the modern liberal democratic project has teetered on that knife’s edge. Mauldin knows this, and he believes there is something contemporary society can learn from those past close encounters with the unraveling of democracy. Specifically, he hopes this book can demonstrate to his audience “how these worries harken back to a similar reappraisal that took place in the early part of the twentieth century, in the wake of two world wars, mass genocide, and the devastation of Europe” (2). Not a historical text but a work of social ethics, the book is not meant to provide an explanation for how we got here. Mauldin’s intention is to reflect on theological responses to some of the defining crises of the twentieth century to discern what we may reapply in assessing our contemporary ethical and political issues.

To accomplish this aim, Mauldin focuses on the work of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As Barth and Bonhoeffer are both well-known, their writings and histories also tend to produce certain presuppositions. Mauldin wishes to avoid falling into the trap of repeating the same old hagiographical or morality tales which have so often typified works on the lives of Barth and Bonhoeffer. He looks beyond the contours of their histories to hone in on specific arguments in their writings which can reveal much to a modern audience about ideological and societal contributions to the rise of National Socialism. His choice of two theologians is intentional. Much of the critiques of modern democracy, such as Hamid’s mentioned above, center the place of religion in society. As Mauldin notes, many of these criticisms rely on the assumption that “the modern domestication of religion is the source of modernity’s ills” (7). If we are to accept that the issue is rooted in the role of religion in modern society, then it stands to reason that theologians reflecting on religion and society may have something of value to teach us. Barth and Bonhoeffer offer “theologically inflected answers” to questions that may not appear inherently theological — and that is an integral piece of Mauldin’s larger point. To truly understand the crisis of modern democracy, Mauldin contends we must ground our self-conceptions as social beings in a “theology of history” (9).

Barth and Bonhoeffer offer “theologically inflected answers” to questions that may not appear inherently theological — and that is an integral piece of Mauldin’s larger point.

This undertaking begins with sketches of some prominent critiques of modernity found in the works of Brad Gregory, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas. Gregory attributes the ills of contemporary Western society to what he terms a “hyperpluralism” of religious and secular commitments. Placing a considerable amount of blame on the Protestant Reformation, he considers the diversity of worldviews in modern societies to be a structural flaw with which democracy cannot contend, and longs for the days of Latin Christendom, when a central Church authority possessed the capacity to order the lives and answer the moral questions of society. MacIntyre, whom Mauldin considers to have influenced Gregory’s arguments, similarly contends that the modern project has failed to produce any societal consensus on questions of morality. He perceives a decline from the moral peak of Aristotelianism and laments the loss of a shared account of the human good. MacIntyre’s proposed solution is the creation of small, cloistered “communities of virtue in which good human lives can be lived against the backdrop of a decadent, bureaucratic, amoral world” (23). Hauerwas presents a different approach in what Mauldin characterizes as a “mixed” attitude toward modernity (26). Operating in a similar vein as MacIntyre in his sense that modern liberalism results in “moral fragmentation, alienation, and chaos,” Hauerwas calls for a Church that exists separately and emphasizes its unique Christian identity, but he stops short of suggesting complete withdrawal from society (26). Contrary to Gregory, Hauerwas has no such nostalgic vision of the pre-Reformation Church. He is opposed to the Constantinian model, and on that point believes himself to be in agreement with political liberals. Where he diverges from the modern project is in his sense that there is no ground for human rights or morals; this is where he advocates for an emphasis on Christian identity as a source for moral life in an amoral age.

In Mauldin’s view, these three criticisms of modernity “reject the implicit progressive assumptions of modern liberal politics,” and in the process render those implicit assumptions explicit (30). They force defenders of those liberal politics to lay out justifications for assumptions thought to be foundational with a degree of certainty sufficient to obviate the need for such grounding. They further destabilize the prevailing accepted narrative of liberal progress “from religious darkness into secular enlightenment” (31). What emerges in its place is a narrative of religious communities sensing a need to extricate themselves from the disorder and violence of modern society, “perhaps in order to hasten its demise” (31). Critiques similar to those offered by Gregory, MacIntyre, and Hauerwas have become more common in recent years as the perception of democracy’s fragility has increased. Barth, Bonhoeffer, & Modern Politics is based on the assumption that our attempts to understand the dangers to democracy in our present age are best answered by examination of our past. To that end, Mauldin turns to exploration of how Barth and Bonhoeffer understood and responded to modernity in their own times of crisis.

Barth, Bonhoeffer, & Modern Politics is based on the assumption that our attempts to understand the dangers to democracy in our present age are best answered by examination of our past. To that end, Mauldin turns to exploration of how Barth and Bonhoeffer understood and responded to modernity in their own times of crisis.

Barth and Bonhoeffer both stood witness to potentially fatal moments for liberal democracy in the midst of two world wars. The traditional story of Karl Barth’s life and work tells of his experience watching liberal theologians who had been his teachers and mentors throw their support behind German militarism in the First World War. This led to Barth’s disillusionment with the modern project and his efforts to follow his own dogmatic theological path. Mauldin wants his readers to see a different Barth, however — a more complicated picture than we may be used to. Mauldin actually demonstrates that not only did Barth remain committed to political liberalism, but it was that very commitment to political liberalism that provided the foundation for his rejection of theological liberalism (41). With his emphasis on the objectivity of God, Barth offered an alternative theology of history which avoided nostalgic or utopian eschatologies which could easily end in despair. Similarly, Bonhoeffer’s own theological response to shifts in modern society pushed back against a penchant for utopianism, while also expressing an appreciation for modernity and the “liberated ratio” found in the legacy of the Enlightenment (72). In reflecting on modern life, Bonhoeffer took less issue with the secularizing legacy of the Protestant Reformation than with “the utopian religious impulse of a penultimate realm lacking all reference to the ultimate” (71). He held utopian projects, including National Socialism, to be intent on a “religious devotion to the human will,” societal efforts of self-deification (72).

Bonhoeffer’s divine mandates of Church, marriage, work, and government provided the framework for his theorization of resistance under National Socialism. As Mauldin notes, the mandates offer ethical forms necessary to the fortitude of society, and can thus be of use whether that society has already fallen apart or merely appears vulnerable to such collapse. This framework from Bonhoeffer’s work can be applicable “even when we are uncertain how far down the path of social ruin we are” (104). Mauldin does note the complications inherent in contemporary attempts to assert a “Bonhoeffer moment” and presume to be taking up his mantle in a particular protest. Such assertions presume the protester’s rightness and legitimacy in adopting the moral example of Bonhoeffer, while immediately aligning their opponents with illegitimacy if not outright evil. This strays from the legacy of the divine mandates as central to Bonhoeffer’s strategies of resistance, as “Bonhoeffer’s legacy is thus drawn into bitter forms of partisanship that weaken not only the mandate of government but the other mandates as well” (108-9). Barth, for his part, undertook a theological analysis of National Socialism, because he arrived as the understanding that this was a “product of a theological error” and could only be “interpreted and critiqued through a theological lens” (140). This appeal to a theological reading of history, and correspondingly theological critiques of modernity, further supports Mauldin’s overarching purpose advocating for such means of assessing modern democracy’s ills.

In his concluding remarks, Mauldin contrasts the arguments of Gregory, MacIntyre, and Hauerwas with those of Barth and Bonhoeffer. Barth and Bonhoeffer both had front row seats to an experience with which Gregory, MacIntyre, or Hauerwas cannot relate: they saw the societal shifts which precipitated descent into two world wars and the unmatched terror of the Holocaust. They saw this massive threat to society as they knew it, but rather than reject modernity because of it, they on the contrary perceived that “[i]lliberal anti-modernism was the cause of the collapse of the West,” and so a further abandonment of the project of modernity could not possibly be the solution (152). Whatever partisan vitriol and ineffectiveness liberalism may produce, it is nonetheless “preferable to the revolutionary terror of illiberal alternatives” (152).

Mauldin laments how easily we overlook this fact today. He suggests we ought to adopt the template of Barth and Bonhoeffer “to live in the time we are given, foregoing dreams of an imagined past or a utopian future” (153). Both theologians viewed time through a theological lens, which served as a ground for a forward-looking hope while also providing context and stability for the present. This theological hope also precludes a need for nostalgia, which can preoccupy us with memories of a past which may never have existed exactly the way we dreamed, and contribute to despair and pessimism about the days to come. In Mauldin’s words, “Hope compels us forward, encouraging us to work while it is still day” (153).

In Mauldin’s words, “Hope compels us forward, encouraging us to work while it is still day” (153).

Mauldin presents a compelling argument, with the support of illuminating analysis of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s work, to inform our responses to modern democracy’s present peril. I certainly applaud approaching democracy’s tenuous circumstances through an exploration of the place of religion in society, and I am in strong agreement with Mauldin’s hesitance to abandon the modern project too hastily. The appeal to history is one with which I resonate. I also agree that the uniqueness of the historical moments experienced by Barth and Bonhoeffer and their respective responses both prove helpful for Mauldin’s argument for a theology of history.

What I think remains up for debate is the broad applicability of such a theological approach to history. Mauldin seems to suggest that any reading of the historical development of the modern liberal project must be to some degree theological, and what he is suggesting is to an extent the substitution of one eschatology for another. His conclusion, and the suggestion that we ought to simply inhabit our present moment without nostalgia or utopian dreaming, relies heavily on theological belief. This of course does not come as a surprise; Mauldin established from the beginning that he is bringing an approach from theological ethics to bear on the questions at hand, and he asks his readers to allow for what may be for them unexpected or unusual answers to such questions.

Mauldin seems to suggest that any reading of the historical development of the modern liberal project must be to some degree theological, and what he is suggesting is to an extent the substitution of one eschatology for another.

My concern is simply that such words ring hollow to me after the past year. I don’t know if you can tell the families of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Jacob Blake or Daunte Wright or countless others to simply live in the time we are in because of hope. I don’t know if you can tell Americans watching in shock as rioters carrying Confederate flags or wearing “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts roamed the halls of the Capitol to simply live in the time we are in. I just simply do not know if that is enough. The issue I have is the presumption that progress can only ever be a hopeless cyclical movement from status quo to revolution to the establishment of a new status quo. Sometimes that results in the end of slavery, or the institution of rights to vote to women. Yes, it becomes the status quo, but I fail to see how that erases the reality of these steps as progress. For some, their eschatological hope for democracy is not a liberal paradise but merely the broad realization of basic human dignity.

The issue here may be a question of reach due to a Christian theological reading of history. To bring the discussion into my own wheelhouse, the possible solution may be a revitalization of American Civil Religion. What civil religion at its best can provide is an eschatological purpose for the nation which renders a purpose to America’s past, present, and future. Contrary to critics such as Gregory, the present problem with American Civil Religion is not “hyperpluralism” but rather a lack of pluralism. This nonsectarian religious system, meant to undergird American democracy, has not adapted to meet the nation where it now is; it remains a primarily Protestant system of ideals based on a primarily white history. The hope Mauldin calls for could indeed eliminate nostalgic MAGA dreams, or imaginings of some future fully secularized liberal paradise. But perhaps what America needs most is a baseline civil religious framework that can simply offer space for everyone — whether they share a Christian theological hope or not. ♦


Adam McDuffie is a third year PhD student in American Religious Cultures at Emory University. His work probes the intersections of religion, politics, and law, with a particular focus on the place of soldiers and soldier bodies in American civil religion.


Recommended Citation

McDuffie, Adam. “Barth and Bonhoeffer: Saviors of Democracy?” Canopy Forum, June 18, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/06/18/barth-and-bonhoeffer-saviors-of-democracy/.