Sophie Scholl was beheaded by guillotine in Munich, Germany at the age of 21.
Her crime? Speaking out against the Aryan white supremacy of the Nazi regime.
It was 1943. Sophie was a member of the White Rose, a clandestine group of university students who were distributing leaflets at universities throughout Germany urging resistance to the Third Reich.
A janitor saw Sophie dropping leaflets off a balcony railing into a central hallway at the University of Munich, and he turned her in to the Gestapo. She was arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and murdered four days later.
After the execution, a pro-Nazi rally was held at the university, and the janitor was given a standing ovation.
“Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go,” Sophie said, before she was guillotined. “But what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who became a leader in what was known as the Confessing Church, which opposed German Christian policies of exclusion and marginalization. He was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler that culminated in a failed coup on July 20, 1944. As a consequence, he was imprisoned for two years and sentenced to death at a court-martial in Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany.
On April 9, 1945, he was led naked into the execution yard and hanged. His crime? He would not subvert Christianity to a religion that put Hitler ahead of God. He believed that the German Protestant church failed to stand up against the evils of Nazism and he stood in solidarity with the victims.
Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have become heroes in the pantheon of “upstanders” against the Christian nationalism of Nazi Germany.
What is Christian nationalism?
As Georgetown University political science professor Paul D. Miller described in Christianity Today, “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Christian Nationalists assert that America is and must remain a ‘Christian nation’ – not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future.”
We’ve all seen T-shirts proclaiming, “Jesus Christ is my savior and Donald Trump is my president.” This is an example of Christian nationalism.
Hitler hated Christianity but he co-opted most of Germany’s church leaders into supporting his regime. They embraced his ideas of nationalism, racism, and anti-Semitism.
Where are we today?
“The stoking of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, while making nativist appeals to the Christian right, could accurately be described as a white Christian nationalist strategy,” said Robert Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, in The New York Times.
Katherine Stewart, author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,” was asked about the intersection of Christian nationalism and the “great replacement theory.”
“There is definitely a wing of the Christian nationalist movement that overlaps with the great replacement theory and demographic paranoia in general,” she said.
The “demographic paranoia” extends to people who are seen as the other, who are not white, male, Christian, and heterosexual. This paranoia demonizes people of color; equality-seeking women; non-Christians, particularly Muslims and Jews; and members of LGBTQ communities, especially transgender women, who are seen as abdicating masculinity.
Why is Christian nationalism gaining strength?
There have been several inflection points of social and demographic change in the past two decades:
- The election of a Black president.
- The reversal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military.
- The legalization of gay marriage.
- The decline of Christianity in the U.S. from 80% in 2000 to 65% today.
- The decline of the white population in the US from 77% in 2000 to 57% in 2020 to a predicted white minority of 49.7% by 2045.
The perceived hegemony of white Christianity is irreversibly shifting. Those who feel threatened are passing laws, denying voting rights, stacking courts, challenging and changing materials in public schools and libraries, and acting out with violence against those they see as causing this seismic shift, this great replacement of white Christians.
What can be done?
The organization Christians against Christian Nationalism urges, “We must stand up to, and speak out against, Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation – including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.”
Sophie Scholl said, “Stand up for what you believe, even if you are standing alone.” And from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”
Dr. Ellen Kennedy is the executive director of World Without Genocide and adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. The Rev. John Matthews is past president of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society and pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley. The Rev. James Erlandson is pastor at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, St. Paul, and founder and clergy leader of ISAIAH, a faith-based community organization in Minnesota.
World Without Genocide will hold a webinar, “Human Rights and the Threat of Christian nationalism,” on Jan. 25, 2023, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.