Democracy After Barth and Bonhoeffer


Derek Woodard-Lehman

In this brisk little book, Joshua Mauldin responds to the contemporary crisis of democracy by taking up three related topics: theological criticisms of modernity and democracy, such as those made by Alasdair MacIntyre, Bradley Gregory, and Stanley Hauerwas; the political theologies of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and broadly Hegelian defenses of modernity and democracy, like those offered by Charles Taylor, Richard Rorty, and Jeffrey Stout. Whether begrudgingly reluctant or belligerently resistant, the religious despisers of modern democracy stand on one side of Mauldin’s account. Whether cultured despisers of religion or sympathetic critics of its excesses, the defenders of modern democracy stand on the other. In between, stand Barth and Bonhoeffer. Mauldin thus defends modernity and democracy from the criticisms of MacIntyre, Gregory, and Hauerwas, and he responds to our current crisis, as he takes up the replies of Taylor, Rorty, and Stout, and transposes them into a religious, and sometimes theological register, via Barth and Bonhoeffer.

Barth and Bonhoeffer take center stage for two reasons. First, on Mauldin’s reading, they overcome the impasse between theological discontents with modern democracy and democratic discontents with traditional religion. He finds in Barth and Bonhoeffer political theologies which raise criticisms similar to those of MacIntyre, Gregory, and Hauerwas even as they offer responses resembling those of Taylor, Rorty, and Stout. Second, although Mauldin rightly avoids hagiography, Barth and Bonhoeffer remain towering figures of twentieth-century theology who responded to previous sociopolitical crises. Mauldin admits that the earlier crises precipitated by the imperialist nationalism of the First War and the fascist totalitarianism of the Second War are different from our own, and dramatically so. He nevertheless argues that inspiration and instruction can be gleaned despite this gap between past and present. “This book,” Mauldin says, “seeks to fill that gap by retrieving forms of thought shaped by this former crisis, in order to make them available for our own reflection today” (2). In so doing, Mauldin’s book also attempts to bridge the gap between religion and politics.

The question, Mauldin says, is whether or not our present political predicament calls into question the modern political settlement as such.

Mauldin begins in the introduction and first chapter with a diagnosis of the crisis of democracy. As he sees it, our crisis is manifold. First, the cluster of situational crises in our political predicament presently threatens the vitality of democratic societies around the world: polarization and radicalization, populism and authoritarianism, racism and nationalism. Second, the specter of congenital crisis perpetually undermines the very viability of democratic society itself. The question, Mauldin says, is whether or not our present political predicament calls into question the modern political settlement as such. The contention of theological critics like Gregory and MacIntyre, and to a lesser extent, Hauerwas, is that the crisis is intrinsic to the modern political settlement. They see our crisis as the necessary result of an inherent defect. It is this contention to which Taylor and Stout, and to a lesser extent, Rorty, respond. They see our crisis as the contingent effect of circumstantial deficits. Mauldin devotes the first chapter to mapping the contours and content of this contention.

For those theologically discontent with modern democracy, contemporary society is beyond repair. It is a declining civilization that exists “after virtue” in which freedom and justice are “bad ideas.” This predicament requires a “Benedict option” for Christians who must live as “resident aliens” amidst the decadence and decay of modern society. Mauldin rehearses these discontents with a focus on Gregory and MacIntyre (25). For them, modern pluralism and secularism have deprived us of a common conception of the good with which to answer what Gregory calls “life questions.” Absent an authoritative consensus about the ends of human nature and the aims of human culture, explains Mauldin (17-19), all that remains are individual self-interest and personal preference, what MacIntyre refers to as “emotivism.” Under such conditions, we simply lack the conceptual and practical resources to distinguish strong normative judgments like “torture is wrong” from weak prescriptive statements like “chocolate ice cream is the best.” In both cases, we are left with mere opinion, and without any rational basis for assessment.

For those theologically discontent with modern democracy, contemporary society is beyond repair.

Mauldin reframes these declension narratives within a Hegelian framework of Sittlichkeit (“ethical life”). Sittlichkeit is Hegel’s term of art for the package of “norms and practices that are both rationally justifiable and determinate, possessing substantive moral content with which members of society identify” (36). While ethical life includes explicit laws and norms, it primarily encompasses informal customs and implicit mores. Most importantly, it indicates the ways in which a society as a whole and its individual members recognize and respect a common set of standards through which they orient their personal and communal lives. Following Hegel via Taylor and Stout, Mauldin implicitly reinterprets the dissolution of the medieval synthesis and subsequent crisis of the modern settlement, not as epic civilizational collapse, but as episodic social contradiction. Our present predicament is neither the unforeseeable result of an “unintended reformation” nor the insuperable consequence of a “radical enlightenment.” It is rather the expected ambiguity that arises when a form of Sittlichkeit falters or even fails. Framed this way, the question, Mauldin suggests, is whether the present crises of democracy can be resolved within the Sittlichkeit of the modern political settlement, or if their resolution requires a new form of ethical life.

Siding with Taylor and Stout against Gregory and MacIntyre, Mauldin answers this question in favor of the Sittlichkeit of the modern political settlement. He sees the present political predicament as a situational dilemma rather than a congenital defect. Modern democratic Sittlichkeit is faltering rather than failing. Mauldin uses the four main chapters that follow to draw on the political theologies of Barth and Bonhoeffer in order to make that case. He begins with Barth and the First World War.

Our present predicament is neither the unforeseeable result of an “unintended reformation” nor the insuperable consequence of a “radical enlightenment.” It is rather the expected ambiguity that arises when a form of Sittlichkeit falters or even fails.

According to Mauldin, the conflict precipitated by the imperialist nationalism of the great powers is, in part, a feature of the modern condition. When confronted by the sorts of alienation described by MacIntyre and Gregory, as well as Taylor, societies sometimes resort to racial-ethnic solidarity as a source of personal and communal identity. That European Protestants — clergy, laity, and faculty alike — did so horrified Barth and prompted his theological critique of modern religion and politics. Beginning with his 1916 “The Righteousness of God,” continuing through his 1919 “The Christian in Society,” and on to both the 1921 and 1922 editions of his Romans commentary, Barth denounced the resort to nationalism as both ideology and idolatry. However, Mauldin argues that the emphatic “No!” Barth pronounces in these works is tempered by an equally insistent “Yes!”. Barth steers a mediating dialectical course between revolutionary political radicalism and reactionary apolitical sectarianism. Unlike the theological discontents voiced by contemporary critics, Barth’s political theology avoids both utopian despair and nostalgic resentment. Barth stands within the modern political settlement even as he stands against its imperialist-nationalist predicament.

Mauldin then turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barth’s younger contemporary in the Church Struggle against Nazism. He reads Bonhoeffer as both Lutheran and Hegelian. This makes sense as Bonhoeffer was Lutheran and wrote extensively about Hegel. Mauldin argues that, as a Hegelian, Bonhoeffer affirmed the Sittlichkeit of modern democratic society. The explicit norms and implicit mores of the modern political settlement are good and right. They are ordered toward justice. (67-74) At the same time, as a Lutheran, he chastened any pretensions to ultimacy and placed modern democratic ethical life within the limits of the temporal kingdom. The direct proclamations and indirect pretensions to absolute power made by the Nazi regime were unjust and unholy. They were disordered toward domination.

Bonhoeffer neither deifies the state nor demonizes it. His theologically-inflected social criticism concerns the particular political predicament of Nazism rather than the overall political settlement of modern democracy. In the Hegelian terms Mauldin borrows from Taylor, Rorty, and Stout, Bonhoeffer engages in “determinate negation” rather than “abstract negation.” He separates wheat from chaff rather than razing the whole field. Mauldin’s Bonhoeffer offers immanent critique from within the commitments of modern democratic Sittlichkeit. He decries the vices of Hitler’s Reich without denouncing modern society as altogether after virtue. He decisively defines a difference between discipleship and citizenship without divisively declaring himself a resident alien.

Bonhoeffer neither deifies the state nor demonizes it. His theologically-inflected social criticism concerns the particular political predicament of Nazism rather than the overall political settlement of modern democracy.

With these critical political and theological principles in hand, Mauldin returns his attention to the present crises of democracy in chapter four. He addresses claims made by pastors and scholars, as well as pundits and activists, that we now confront a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Many, from conservatives like David Brooks and Eric Metaxas to progressives Lori Brandt Hale and Reggie Williams, have likened the present crisis to the Nazi crisis (82-92). Regardless of ideological commitment or partisan temperament, the invocation of Bonhoeffer and the Nazis supplies both rhetorical flourish and analytical focus. The shared analytical focus of the invocation, argues Mauldin, is far more telling than any political differences between those who make the invocation. The invocation of a Bonhoeffer moment signals that, now, as then, the stakes exceed mere electoral contestation or political competition. There is an existential battle for the very soul of the nation.

Mauldin cautions us that such invocations are dangerous, as they not only implore resistance, but even incite violence. He spends the bulk of chapter four, the central expository passages of his book, spelling out Bonhoeffer’s conception of resistance and its application to the present crisis. Mauldin introduces the typology of resistance that Michael DeJonge excavates from Bonhoeffer’s political theology (87-92). Although most readers most readily identify Bonhoeffer’s resistance with his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, DeJonge and Mauldin specify six forms, or modes, or resistance found in his life and work. These range from social criticism and homiletical rebuke (Type 1) through the social relief of diaconal ministry (Type 2), theological confessions such as the 1934 Barmen Declaration (Type 3) or creating alternative communities within an unjust society (Type 5), to “seizing the wheel” of injustice through active resistance, whether nonviolent civil disobedience or armed rebellion (Type 6).

As Mauldin explains, this typology is not merely a spectrum that spans from mild rebuke to violent revolt. Bonhoeffer’s political theology of resistance accounts for multiple factors. First, there is the relative severity of the injustice. Second, there is the question of whether resistance is communal (Church) or individual (Christian), or both. Third, there is the issue of what means are available for resistance. As robust as this three-dimensional assessment is, Mauldin observes that it is not merely a decision procedure. There is a fourth, spiritual or religious, dimension beyond these practical rational assessments. There is individual and communal discernment. And, for Type 6, this is the voice of “conscience” or the “divine command.” This voice becomes discernible in what Bonhoeffer calls the Grenzfall (the “borderline” or “limit” case). At this border, or limit, mere rational calculation leaves off. Pure moral responsibility and ultimate necessity take over.

Unlike far too many Bonhoeffer scholars, Mauldin neither dwells in the shadowlands of the Grenzfall nor attempts to delimit its location and function. He does not ponder the question of whether or not Bonhoeffer imagines the limit-case as an actual epiphany. He does not ruminate on whether or not the plot to kill Hitler was in fact a limit-case. He does not speculate about whether or not Bonhoeffer’s anti-Nazi resistance in this limit-case inadvertently, but perversely, mirrors Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s “state of exception.” Mauldin instead concludes, “[T]here is no simple way to apply [these six types of resistance] directly to the context of modern democratic societies” (91). He turns away from these esoteric puzzles and leads his reader back to the more solid ground of theologically motivated resistance, to what Bonhoeffer calls “the divine mandates.”

The divine mandates, which more traditionally are called “orders of creation,” are those spheres of human community that guide and govern our interpersonal relationships. While classical accounts identify the orders of creation as labor (economy), family, and state (or nation), Mauldin transposes Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran conception of the divine mandates into the Hegelian idiom of ethical life. This move is warranted, in part, by Bonhoeffer’s own texts. But Mauldin seems to rely as much on Hegel’s reliance on Luther as on Bonhoeffer’s reliance on Hegel. In Mauldin’s Rortyan terms, the move he makes is more “rational reconstruction” than “historical reconstruction.” How far we should identify Bonhoeffer’s “divine mandates” with Hegel’s “ethical life” is hard to say, as Mauldin’s text moves quickly and discusses Hegel’s readers Terry Pinkard and Charles Taylor as much as Bonhoeffer’s reading of Hegel. Here, the reader wishes for more patient and extensive work with the primary texts rather than the secondary literature.

Whenever a political community falters or fails to develop and defend these goods, or should they be held by some and withheld from others, social criticism and political resistance are required in order to return the community to the demands of these mandates.

This notwithstanding, Mauldin’s argument stands on its own, whether or not Bonhoeffer would stand behind it himself. As “rational reconstruction,” Mauldin’s emphasis is on using Bonhoeffer to get the diagnosis of the contemporary crisis right rather than getting the exegesis of Bonhoeffer right. Mauldin starts with Bonhoeffer, but interprets him through the Hegelian defenders of modern democracy in order to delineate a basis for theological social criticism and political resistance. As a divine mandate, the ethical life of a political community must fulfill its God-given purposes: creation of peace, maintenance of order, protection of justice, and enhancement of flourishing. Moreover — and, here, Mauldin emphasizes Bonhoeffer’s convergence with modern democracy’s theological critics — these purposes are to be understood as public goods held in common between the members of the political community, rather than as private goods held in reserve by individuals. Whenever a political community falters or fails to develop and defend these goods, or should they be held by some and withheld from others, social criticism and political resistance are required in order to return the community to the demands of these mandates. In this way, Bonhoeffer and Mauldin alike “account for the moral legitimacy of actually existing norms and practices…while maintaining the possibility of social critique” (98).

Chapter five returns to Barth, his leadership in the Confessing Church and his co-authorship of the Barmen Declaration as an example of theologically-inflected social criticism and political resistance. Bonhoeffer himself was a leader in the Confessing Church Struggle against Nazism. He was a co-author of the Bethel Confession the year prior to Barmen. In many ways, this is the least compelling chapter in the book. Despite resisting hagiography, Mauldin gives in to the “legend of Barmen,” — claims, including Barth’s own, that he was the sole author of the Barmen Declaration. Moreover, and more importantly given Mauldin’s purposes, Barth was a critical of “natural theology,” in any form, including those that relied on the orders of creation or divine mandates, like Bonhoeffer’s. Again, the reader wishes for some engagement with this difference between the book’s two central figures. Mauldin need not settle the dispute between them, nor harmonize their views without remainder. Even so, some mention of their divergence beyond the passing invocation of Barth’s charge that the divine mandates betrayed “the residue of Bonhoeffer’s North German patriarchalism” (92) would be welcome.

Nevertheless, Barth conformed to the pattern of legitimacy and critique that Mauldin develops in conversation with Bonhoeffer. As Barmen’s Fifth Thesis states, Barth too holds that the state has a divine purpose: to provide for justice and peace. Responsibility for fulfilling that purpose is shared by rulers and ruled alike. If and when rulers fail in that purpose — or, in the case of Nazi Germany, repudiate it altogether — there is a communal and individual responsibility for the Church and its members to remind the rulers of this duty, and to return their society to its divinely ordered task. The Barmen Declaration intended to provide just such a reminder.

Mauldin elaborates some of the wider theological background and political analysis that shape Barth’s role in the Confessing Church and his contribution to the Barmen Declaration. He insightfully engages with Barth’s 1941 and 1944 letters to Great Britain and the United States. And Mauldin importantly calls attention to Barth’s much-neglected 1939 essay “The Church and the Political Problem of the Day.” However, he inexplicably leaves out Barth’s tandem theological-political (or “theopolitical”) critique of the Nazi Reich as both an “Anti-State” and an “Anti-Church.” This twofold critique of Nazism mirrors the pattern of his earlier critique of nationalism, thus underscoring the continuity in Barth’s theology from The Epistle to the Romans to Church Dogmatics that Mauldin identifies. Moreover, the strong rejection of antisemitism that went missing from the 1934 Barmen Declaration is full-throatedly present in the 1939 essay. On both counts, closer attention to these details would only strengthen Mauldin’s retrospective assessment of Barth, as well as his own prospective argument.

Though the present is troubled and the future of democracy uncertain, there are grounds for hope. Mauldin has shown his reader these grounds through his reading of Barth and Bonhoeffer. For that we can be grateful.

In a brief conclusion, Mauldin revisits recent and present discontents with the modern political settlement. While rejecting the pessimism, despair and resentment associated with these discontents, he admits that, “Above all, we must consider the possibility — as Bonhoeffer and Barth help us see — that something about our modern way of life carries latent within itself the possibility of its own self-destruction, of its own reversal into its opposite, a kind of premodern totalitarianism” (147). Even so, Mauldin sticks by his “chastened defense of the politics of liberal modernity” (148). Led by Barth and Bonhoeffer, tutored by Hegel, Taylor, and Stout, he chastens the aspirations of liberal democracy, and reminds readers that the kingdoms of this world cannot be the Kingdom of God. He defends these same aspirations and reasserts that, within an immanent frame bound by an eschatological horizon, modern democratic societies provide more room for more persons “to flourish amid the moral ambiguities of the saeculum” (149). Though the present is troubled and the future of democracy uncertain, there are grounds for hope. Mauldin has shown his reader these grounds through his reading of Barth and Bonhoeffer. For that we can be grateful. ♦


Derek Woodard-Lehman is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @dwoodardlehman.


Recommended Citation

Woodard-Lehman, Derek. “Democracy After Barth and Bonhoeffer.” Canopy Forum, July 12, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/07/12/democracy-after-barth-and-bonhoeffer/