Friday, August 31, 2012

National Conventions and The Führer Principle


You're no Jesus
You're no Elvis
You're no answer
Step down

- Incubus, "Megalomaniac," A Crow Left of the Murder (Epic/Immortal, 2004)


On February 1, 1933, two days after Adolf Hitler's election as chancellor, German theologian and professor Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address entitled "The Younger Generation's Altered Concept of Leadership." In this speech, Bonhoeffer criticized the popular Führer Principle. Prior to Hitler's rise to power and his embodying of the term Der Führer ("The Leader"), the morale of postwar Germany had been waning. The lack of confidence in traditional authority led the German Youth Movement to develop the concept of an independent, autocratic leader; a kind of political messiah. "[Hitler] insisted on being called der Führer because he wished to fully exploit this principle for political gain. But in February 1933 the idea was not yet uniquely associated with him. Still, the timing of Bonhoeffer's speech, two days after Hitler's election, was uncanny."[1] In his speech, Bonhoeffer attacked this ideology as misguided and idolatrous. Explaining that the German youth were desperate for order and meaning, Bonhoeffer distinguished between the mentoring nature of the true leader and the self-justification of the false one. A true leader, Bonhoeffer proclaimed, understood his limitations:

He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads...He serves the order of the state, of the community, and his service can be of incomparable value. But only so long as he keeps strictly in his place...[H]e has to lead the individual into his own maturity...Now a feature of man's maturity is responsibility towards other people, towards existing orders. He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted.[2]

For the pastor, real authority came from God alone and the only true Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth. To place one's salvation in the hands of a mere mortal was sheer idolatry. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer's speech was cut short.[3] Upset, the professor sent the full speech to influential family and friends, published it in the politically conservative Kreuzzeitung, and gave an extended version of the speech at the College of Political Science in Berlin the following month. Bonhoeffer's opposition to the Führer Principle and the Third Reich eventually led to his co-founding of the Confessing Church, his participation in conspiracies against Hitler, and his hanging at the hands of the Nazis a few weeks prior to Hitler's death.[4] During his imprisonment and final hours, pastoral services and prayer sustained him.[5]


Nowadays, one cannot mention der Führer, fascism, or socialism without the claim of reductio ad Hitlerum.[6] The terms have been so overused and misused that they have been nearly stripped of all discussion power. However, with the Republican National Convention this past week (and the DNC next week), it is worth reflecting on how the Führer Principle is alive and well in American politics. This is perfectly demonstrated by the infatuation with Obama in 2008. With absolutely no shame, the soon-to-be President presented himself as the savior of America: the very Führer Principle Bonhoeffer warned about.[7] Of course, political messianism is not merely an attribute of the Democrat party. Without fail, the GOP primaries were filled with their own version of "saving America." To be clear, this is not to make the ridiculous comparison of Hitler to Obama or any U.S. president. But as one writer explains,

Our Constitution was originally defined to exclude political messianism by doing everything it could to keep presidents from becoming kings. When presidents are treated as king-messiahs, we are looking to them as gods. When we look to them as gods, we tend to give them political omnipotence to act as our quasi-divine saviors. We give them more and more power, as our desperation increases...But no election can take the place of the need of a real savior, someone who's aiming at the root of the problem in our hearts rather than merely trimming the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government...[T]he one who comes to save us from our sins, not somebody else's...

One's patriotism is often connected to one's party affiliation, candidate vote, or views on policy. However, love for one's country is difficult to determine. One may want to fundamentally transform America due to love for country, while another may want to restore it.[8] In my view, the definition of a "patriot" closest to that of the original British/American colonists is the secondary definition offered by English author Samuel Johnson in the fourth edition (1773) of his influential A Dictionary of the English Language:

It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.[9]

When viewed in this way, American patriotism has less to do with party loyalty or xenophobic nationalism and more with democratic values and principles. As Frederick Douglass made clear in his brilliant speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," there is a difference between the hypocritical flaws of the nation and the spirit of the nation itself. The sin of slavery did not rid the founding documents of their ultimate value. When "interpreted as it ought to be interpreted," Douglass declared, "the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? ...[L]et me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slave-holding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it...Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery." Despite the "dark picture" Douglass painted, he said, "I do not despair of this country." Instead, he drew encouragement from "the great principles" found in the Declaration of Independence, "the genius of American Institutions," and the increasing globalization. This was an experiment worth celebrating. Historian Thomas Fleming notes in The Wall Street Journal that "not a few of the rebels saw that the Revolution was a spiritual enterprise that would never really end. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvanian who signed the Declaration of Independence, wrote that the war was only the first step in the Revolution's destiny to transform America and the world." (italics mine) This is not to say that America should intervene in every world affair (as Patrick Buchanan decries neoconservatives for doing). It is a recognition of the transforming power of the principles behind the document. According to an 1833 revelation by Joseph Smith, the U.S. Constitution was "established" by God through "wise men" based on "just and holy principles." (D&C 101:77, 80) In his March 1839 letter from Liberty Jail, Smith called the Constitution "a glorious standard...founded in the wisdom of God" and "a heavenly banner." He placed the document on a divine pedestal: "We say that God is true, that the Constitution of the United States is true, that the Bible is true, that the Book of Mormon is true, that the Book of Covenants is true, that Christ is true, that the ministering angels sent forth from God are true."[10] D. Michael Quinn describes Joseph Smith as "Mormonism's greatest Constitutionalist," as demonstrated by the "1844 minutes of the Council [of Fifty] contain[ing] hundreds of pages of the Prophet's teachings about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution and the application of that document to the Latter-day saints in the world and during the Millennium."[11] Other modern church leaders have also spoken on the divine inspiration behind the Constitution.[12]

Yet, this has nothing to do with attaching our hopes and dreams to various government leaders or candidates. Rather, it is the embracing of universal principles and concepts; rooting out the unnecessary baggage in search of the divine buried beneath. The proper application of these principles is determined through open discussion and consistent debate, including criticism and reevaluation through trial-and-error. These ideas not only have and will benefit America, but nations worldwide that embrace them. The U.S. president (even a Mormon one) is not the king, der Führer, or Jesus Himself, but an executive leader. The government is not an omnipotent god, but a limited number of individuals with a limited role to play. By cutting back the crippling overbearance of both, we can potentially stand on our own feet and increase the life, liberty, and happiness we all desire. 



May both parties be cautious in the upcoming election.



1. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 139.

2. Quoted in Metaxas, 2010: 141. For reading on the dark side of leadership, see Barbara Kellerman, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2004).

3. It is unclear as to whether or not this was due to Nazi censorship. The most plausible answer is that it was not, but instead due to Bonhoeffer running out of time.

4. The failure of Operation Valkyrie exposed the web of conspiracies to the Nazis, leading to their discovery of Bonhoeffer's involvement. He had already been arrested for his involvement in an attempt to smuggle several Jews into neutral Switzerland. Mark Thiessen Nation, Professor of Theology at Eastern Mennonite University, argues for Bonhoeffer's pacifism in his lecture (and eventual book) "Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging a Myth, Recovering Costly Grace."

5. It may be worth noting that significant growth in Bonhoeffer's spirituality came during his stay in the U.S. and attendance at New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Bonhoeffer was deeply moved by what he called the "negro spirituals" (Bonhoeffer was a virtuoso pianist whose parents thought he might pursue a profession in music).

6. For a polemical, yet highly informative reading on the usage of fascism in political rhetoric, see Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

7. I personally thought Mitt Romney's mockery of this was funny.

8. The differences between political liberals and conservatives in patriotic manifestations could stem from differing moral visions. See Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, Brian A. Nosek, "Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96:5 (2009); Ravi Iyer, Spassena P. Koleva, Jesse Graham, Peter H. Ditto, Jonathan Haidt, "Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians," PLoS One 7:8 (August 2012 - updated); Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Revised Edition (New York: Basic Books, 2007); Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

9. For those interested, Johnson's address "The Patriot" is worth reading.

10. Dean C. Jessee, John W. Welch, "Revelations in Context: Joseph Smith's Letter from Liberty Jail, March 20, 1839," BYU Studies 39:3 (2000): 144-145. It is worth noting that the influence of the U.S. Constitution on foreign constitutions has declined in recent decades. Nonetheless, the durability and global influence of the U.S. Constitution cannot be denied.

11. D. Michael Quinn, "The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844 to 1945," BYU Studies 20:2 (1980): 1.

12. Ezra Taft Benson is one controversial example. See his 1987 Conference talk "Our Divine Constitution" or 1986 BYU devotional "The Constituion--A Heavenly Banner." For more on Benson's political conservatism, see Gary James Bergera, "'Rising Above Principle': Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 1," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 41:3 (2008); Bergera, "'Weak-Kneed Republicans and Socialist Democrats': Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 2," Dialogue 41:4 (2008); Gregory A. Prince, "The Red Peril, the Candy Maker, and the Apostle: David O. McKay's Confrontation with Communism," Dialogue 37:2 (2004); D. Michael Quinn, "Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts," Dialogue 26:2 (1993). Jeff Blake provides an important critique of Quinn's article.