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America’s Christian Nation Debate and the Holocaust
2018 Seminar on Church and State Attendees

America’s Christian Nation Debate and the Holocaust

It was perhaps the most unique seminar ever conducted in the Mt. Hood Meeting Room of the Northwest Headquarters of the Seventh-Adventist Church in Ridgefield, Washington.

62 attendees packed the room on October 1-2, with one quarter of them made up of interested professionals having no affiliation with the church, including the two keynote speakers from Baylor and Pacific Lutheran Universities.

The majority were interested Adventist professionals from all over the United States, including attorneys and Capitol Pastors that make up the advisory board of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). It was a distinguished crowd.

The guest speakers were some of the most qualified experts in the nation and internationally on the subjects of the Founders’ intentions regarding the Constitutional Separation of Church and State, it’s current rapid erosion, and the related important matter of understanding the dangers of Christian Nationalism through the historical lens of the Holocaust in Germany.

America’s Christian Nation Debate

Dr. Derek H. Davis is retired Director & Chairman of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.

He inquired as to whether the Founders intended to establish a Christian nation by law. Was there a crucial distinction made by them between secular-legal and cultural constructs with the intent of safeguarding pluralistic religious realities? To what extent did they intend to separate church and state, as well as religion and the state? Like the Constitutional Founders, is there a distinction to be made today between a culturally religious nation and a Christian nation by law? If so, why is such a distinction important for the Evangelical World and the Seventh-day Adventist Church to understand? Such a question is admittedly rhetorical considering today’s dangerous emotional thirst for Christian Nationalism and control of the government. But it is a question that continually needs to be kept before our church and the nation.

Davis’s five lectures included 1) a sweeping overview of the historical philosophical influences on the Founders; 2) a close examination of the language of the eleven drafts of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, and how the Founders intended to do more than just prevent the establishment of a national church or prevent non-preferential establishments of religion; 3) an analysis of the emergence and growth of church-state separation in the nation’s first half-century; 4) the concept of a ‘Christian Nation’ in light of the religious beliefs of the principal Founding Fathers; and 5) a close look at the strengths and weaknesses in recent court decisions.

He is the author of many books, including Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent; The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States; and Original Intent: Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Course of American Church-State Relations.

Here are the links to Dr. Davis’s books:

Christian Nationalism & the Holocaust – “Making Germany Great Again”

One of the highlights of the two-day seminar was listening to Dr. Robert P. Ericksen who is Kurt Mayer Chair in Holocaust Studies at Pacific Lutheran University, and author of Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches & Universities in Nazi Germany. Dr. Ericksen is the world’s leading expert on the relationship between Christian Nationalism and the Holocaust in Germany. He serves as a leading consultant to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and Holocaust museums internationally.

Dr. Ericksen spoke on how an advanced, highly-educated, Christian nation grew to enthusiastically accept and support Nazi ideology. He eloquently and painstakingly explained how churches and universities found in Adolf Hitler a national savior to restore the honor of Germany post World War I.

More important was his explanation of how the unbridled enthusiasm of the Christian Right—Protestants (especially Lutherans) and Catholics, and their lack of criticism for his persecution of the Jews—made them thoroughly complicit in the ultimate crimes of the Holocaust. How so? They supported Hitler more because of his nationalism and focus on family values than on his pathological anti-Semitism, even though history has since revealed that they were deeply anti-Semitic too. In other words, they overtly fostered and encouraged it and did not look the other way.

For example, Dr. Gerhard Kittel, the leading German Lutheran and Protestant theologian of his day, and a lexicographer of biblical languages, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis and harshly critical of Jews. Yet he was a pious and ardent man of Christian devotion and ritual which belied his rampant anti-Semitism. Kittel’s widely spread views galvanized Christian prejudice in ways that made the Holocaust possible. In a recently published research essay in Kirchliche Zeitgeschicte (vol. 31/2, 2018) titled “Devotion, Protestant Voters, and Religious Prejudice: 1930’s Germany and Today’s America,” Dr. Ericksen notes that “Voter analysis and other sorts of evidence show us that Kittel was not alone. It was voters in the most pious Protestant regions of Germany that led to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Reichstag Fire, theological moderates were especially central in persuading political moderates in the Reichstag to give Hitler a two-thirds majority to pass his request for an “Enabling Act”—where he promised to “Make Germany Great Again.” This gave him absolute dictatorial authority.

Germany’s intellectual and spiritual leaders effectively gave the German populace permission to participate in the Nazi regime and thus in crimes against humanity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller were representative of a small minority of dissidents among the clergy. But it was churchmen and academics—including a clear majority of theological moderates—that “provided the rationalizations and adjustment of moral norms that permitted ordinary Germans to accept and even implement the regime’s brutal and murderous policies.”

During the panel session following the lecture, Ericksen pointed out how Hitler’s propaganda slogan “Make Germany Great Again” is eerily like what we hear today. The difference is that Germany truly was under international economic duress and humiliation in the aftermath of World War I—a catastrophic national meltdown.

He said that it is possible that unfounded fear and paranoia could have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which America begins to head down the same road of dictatorship even during relatively peaceful and stable economic times.

He said the difference is that America would be committing a self-inflicted wound that would have catastrophic consequences for the world community. He argued that all that would have to happen is for some rapid series of events to occur that would create internal instability like in pre-World War II Germany.

He said there would be no excuse for this because the United States has a long history of Democracy. Germany did not. The Weimar Republic—Germany’s short-lived experiment in Liberal Democracy—did not satiate German citizens’ impatient need to return to better times sooner driven by an intense sense of national pride.

But the same forces are clearly alive today in the United States. In Germany, the Moderate Center, Center-Right and Extreme Right, among religious and political leaders, were in the driver’s seat. Germany’s Protestant and Catholic alliance hoisted up Adolf Hitler as their nation’s savior. The clear difference is that America’s academic community is fastidiously liberal; Germany’s was not. But that could change, too.

Perhaps it is good to remember Martin Niemoller’s prophetic warning—a warning to all of us:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Here is the link to Professor Ericksen’s book so that you can order and read it: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1107663334/ref=mp_s_a_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1491978595&sr=1-1-fkmr0&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_FMwebp_QL65&keywords=robert+erickson+complicity

Other Speakers

Dr. Nicholas P. Miller is Director of the International Religious Liberty Institute and professor of Church History at Andrews University. Miller spoke on the Protestant Reformation’s influence on the constitutional Founders. He warned about how the polarizing far right and left are creating a self-destructive path for our country’s constitutional future as a Democratic Republic. How much longer can it last under today’s current stresses without both a moral national compass and a sensible preservation of civil rights and the constitutional separation of church and state?

He is the author of two important works on this subject, one of them published by Oxford University Press: 1) The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State; and 2) 500 Years of Protest and Liberty: From Martin Luther to Modern Civil Rights.

Here are the links to Dr. Miller’s books:

Gregory W. Hamilton opened the conference by highlighting how Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s debates with Patrick Henry in the Virginia Assembly in 1776—over what constituted true religious freedom, and how far to separate church and state—ultimately influenced the drafting and ratifying of the First Amendment of the Constitution. He detailed how Henry’s defeated argument to allow non-preferential establishments of religion is consistently winning in the court’s today, and how Jefferson’s intent for a stricter separation of church and state is losing, and how this should represent a prophetic wake up call to both Adventists and Christians in terms of where our beloved nation is heading—towards Christian Nationalism.

He specifically referenced Executive Order 13831 signed by the President that established the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, similar faith-based orders had non-proselytism regulations attached to them. Charitable services provided by charitable faith-based organizations could not proselytize their clients while receiving federal and state block grant monies. Under the current Order, they can.

Here is the link to Mr. Hamilton’s recent work, Soul Liberty: Celebrating America’s First Freedomhttps://www.amazon.com/Soul-Liberty-Celebrating-Americas-Freedom/dp/1532351291/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1539240121&sr=1-1&keywords=Soul+Liberty

Pastor Kevin James gave an inspiring devotional overview of the life of the prophet Jeremiah and how the odds he faced against popularity majorities, including the kings he served—and who called his warnings “fake news”—are not dissimilar to what many of us may face in the future. This is only if we are faithful to our calling.

Attorney Alan J. Reinach focused on the systematic erosion of the constitutional separation of church and state in America and its increasingly dangerous consequences to both the church and the state, and how Seventh-day Adventist pastors and attorneys have steadily warned about how this is prophetic and why we cannot stay silent.

Dr. Edward Woods III spoke on why it is vitally important for Americans of all ethnicities to speak up about the rapid increase of systemic racism in the United States. To not do so constitutes the greatest single threat to our constitutional system.

Liberty Magazine Editor, Lincoln Steed, spoke on the lessons of the English Revolution that America’s Founders learned from in conceptualizing the birth of the U.S. Constitution.

Rich DuBose, singer and songwriter, regaled us with ballads with his voice, guitar and harmonica at each of our banquet dinners and lectured on how Christ’s kingdom is not an earthly kingdom of force, but rather a kingdom of love and choice.

Sarah Hope challenged the audience to think about how Christ treated people in the marketplace—how He treated them in an inclusive manner and not in a pharisaical exclusive and discriminatory manner.

Today’s Tug-of-War

There are powerful forces that threaten both the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. Government neutrality means religion and religious institutions must be allowed to thrive freely, but without its official endorsement through direct financial support, government sponsored school prayers, or by overt means of symbolic messaging via Ten Commandment or Nativity displays.

The First Amendment, in part, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …. ”

Today many conservative Evangelicals and Catholics seek to reinterpret the no Establishment Clause provision separating church and state in ways that would require government to financially support their institutions and enforce their dogmas with the intent of solving the moral ills of the nation.

Led by constitutional and historical revisionist David Barton, there is a movement afoot called “Project Blitz” that seeks to overwhelm and influence state legislatures to introduce and pass bills that will eventually overthrow the constitutional separation of church and state and certain aspects of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which they see as the central impediments to be removed in their fight against 1) the restriction of direct government funding of religious institutions; 2) free speech restrictions on faith-based organizations that receive funding for charitable social work; and 3) equal constitutional protections for women, ethnic minorities and same-sex people. Establishing the United States as a Christian Nation by law is their main goal—to restore what they perceive to be “the good old days.”

Admittedly, there is a tug-of-war going on. This is because in recent years the Secular Left has regularly sought to marginalize the Free Exercise of religion by failing to recognize that government must have a sufficient compelling interest when lawfully denying or restricting the constitutional right of individuals and institutions of faith to exercise and maintain their religious mission and practices. This has been manifested by attempts to defeat State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that ensure the right of institutions to hire only those who meet their mission standards and purposes, and ensure that business owners and employees are not forced to violate their conscience and their rights to free speech. The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Masterpiece Cake situation highlights this war over whose equally guaranteed rights will prevail.

Both forces are harmful to our constitutional health, and yet the nation’s founders anticipated this severe tension. That is why they created an internal check and balance within the very wording of the First Amendment to prevent the country from being overrun by either extreme in the great church-state debate—a puritanical vs. godless society. Remove this balancing safeguard, and our nation’s constitutional guarantees will be lost and with it our civil and religious freedoms.

Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Supreme Court justice, summed it up best: “The religious zealot and the theocrat frighten us in part because we understand only too well their basic impulse. No less frightening is the totalitarian atheist who aspires to a society in which the exercise of religion has no place.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Prophetic Mission & Responsibility

What is the church’s prophetic mission in the United States of America and around the world? Each of the speakers carefully assessed why the constitutional separation of church and state, the free exercise of religion, and thereby religious freedom, is so crucial toward understanding the Church’s true mission and calling to equally protect all people of faith—including the vast secular majority not of faith—in our democratic republic. Even though it is a difficult and ultra-sensitive task, it represents a rich evangelistic field of outreach if the church chooses to be faithful to its calling in the public arena. If we abandon it, we only have ourselves to blame.

Today’s climate is a divisive climate in which many state and federal legislators, and judges, are increasingly intent on advancing the Christian Nation by law motif, among other more obvious things such as the potential breakdown of the separation of powers among the three branches of government. We need to have our eyes wide open and know how to navigate between the proverbial rock and hard place that we continually find ourselves in as a church when it comes to addressing critical constitutional and social issues. This means fortifying ourselves with a sound worldview regarding church and state so that we know how to diplomatically dispel myths and promote the truth in a balanced and effective manner in our public testimonies and activities when called upon to be faithful Ambassadors for Christ at the highest levels of government. This is the mission of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). This is one of the vital missions of the church. And this is a challenge to Seventh-day Adventist church members.

All the speakers agreed on one thing: regardless of which perspective one tends to favor regarding the constitutional separation of church and state, we need to speak up and not be passive. As John Hancock once wrote: “I conjure you, by all that is dear, by all that is honorable, by all that is sacred, not only that ye pray but that ye act.” Find a way. Even if you think it is a lost cause, write your Congressperson and take a group with you to lobby them. Our country’s future dependent on each one of us.

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.