Hitler’s American Christian Friends

Can Christianity clean up its act?

I marvel that I was sheltered from Christian extremism, even as I was brought up in the 1940s and 1950s in a conservative Christian home in rural Indiana. My devout mother couldn’t stand Billy Graham, which, it turns out, was a big clue why I wasn’t aware of the hateful Christianity that had been in vogue in the decades before my birth.

It was much later that I learned about Father Charles E. Coughlin, Gerald Burton Winrod, and William Dudley Pelley; the hateful Christianity that we’re living with today can be traced to personalities such as these—and to the Bible. Slavery was baked into our national heritage, thanks to rationales found in the New Testament. Another gift of scripture to Western civilization has been anti-Semitism (more about these later). Given these realities, how hopeful can we be about banishing racism and anti-Semitism?

The climate into which I was born (1942) is worth a close look. To grasp the ugly American landscape that now confronts us, take a look at where we’ve been. I recommend Bradley W. Hart’s 2018 book, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States, in which he describes Coughlin, Winrod, and Pelley—and many others. It is clear that their hatreds have not disappeared; they live on in the descendants of their followers. For a quick introduction to these three, see their Wikipedia profiles: Coughlin, Winrod, Pelley.

Hart points out: “Hitler’s friends thus used the deep-seated religious devotion of Americans to further their political aims and spread anti-Semitic prejudice and pro-Nazi views at a crucial moment in the country’s history.” (p. 72)

• It was in his radio address of 20 November 1938 that Father Coughlin “…quickly launched into a startling defense of Nazi Germany’s policies toward the country’s Jewish population.” (p. 68) “What made Coughlin’s voice uniquely resonant for millions of Americans was fundamentally his religious message. He was, after all, an ordained and practicing priest who had instant credibility with Catholic listeners.” (p. 70) “In many ways, Coughlin established the model for the indignant, belligerent, no-holds-barred talk show hosts that hit the airwaves in every American city in the late twentieth century.” (p. 69)

• Coughlin’s success invited competition. “The most prominent of these emulators would be Gerald Burton Winrod, a pale imitation of Coughlin who would nonetheless made a name for himself as one of Hitler’s top American fans.” (p. 80) “…Winrod was an entirely self-educated fundamentalist Protestant who built his following in America’s rural heartland.” (p. 80) “At some point he stumbled across the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, one the most notorious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of all time.” (p. 82) His “…discovery of the Protocols started him down the road to becoming one of Hitler’s key American friends.” (p. 82) “…Winrod’s increasingly pro-Nazi remarks were quickly gaining him a national following…(he) was far from shy about his connections to the Third Reich.” (p. 83)

• “Founded by eccentric mystic, former Hollywood screenwriter, and failed novelist William Dudley Pelley, the Silver Shirts [aka Silver Legion] became one of the nation’s leading security threats in the mid-1930s…Pelley and his followers were open about their desire to establish fascist government in the United States…the Silver Shirts represented perhaps the most direct effort to emulate Hitler’s Nazi Party in the United States.” (p. 50)

In May 1928, “…he experienced a vision of being whisked away through a ‘bluish mist.’ He regained consciousness lying on a marble slab next to two men who began to reveal the secrets of the universe…the men told him he would receive additional revelations in the future.” (p. 53)

“Critically, Pelley tried to reconcile his spiritualist teachings with Christianity, claiming he had been able to contact Jesus through his spiritualist methods. He declared Jesus was the greatest spirit of all that could be contacted, and that their conversations had revealed the truth about Christianity…he was now able to receive messages directly from Jesus.” (p. 53-54)

“Pelley’s stated goal was to bring about a ‘Christian Commonwealth’ in the United States…African Americans would be reduced to slavery to provide a supply of cheap physical labor, and Jews would be excluded entirely.” (p. 55)

The memories of these characters are not cherished; they do not stand out as heroes of the faith. Most Christians were/are not like that; so we are reassured by defenders of the faith (although there are some scary polls out there these days). Maybe they’re right; after all, I was not even aware of these hateful characters when I grew up in the heartland.

But we can’t let Christianity off that easily. Why does it provide the fertile soil for fanatics? It needs to clean up its act.

Starting with the Bible

How might the vast Christian bureaucracy go about disavowing horrible Bible texts? It is possible to stop saying that the Bible is the word of God?

• The Ten Commandments overlooked slavery as a sin worthy of mention, and it’s missing in that supreme expression of moral guidance—so we’re told—the Sermon on the Mount. We know now that the Letter to Titus is a forgery in Paul’s name, but how about this for bad theology enshrined in the NT?

“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.” (Titus 2:9-10)

• Anti-Semitism has been fueled for centuries by “the Jews” positioned as the adversaries of Jesus in John’s gospel, e.g., in addressing “the Jews,” in John 8:44 Jesus says that they are from their father the devil. Hector Avalos has pointed out that this verse ended up on Nazi road signs. (See his essay, “Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust,” in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, p. 378)

• We find these horrendous words in I Thessalonians 2:14-16: “…you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.” Some scholars have suggested that these verses are an interpolation, but this is pretty much beside the point: they are part of the dreadful NT legacy.

• It would be impossible to calculate the damage caused by this text, Matthew 27:24-26:

“So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”

How About a Christian League Against Extremist Evangelicals?

More than two years ago (12 March 2018), John Pavlovitz wrote an article titled, “The Sinful Silence of Moderate Christian Pastors,” in which he said this:

“Growing in malevolence and more and more prone to violence, the American Church is becoming a safe haven for those who have contempt for the very people Jesus spent his life caring and advocating for; the poor, the invisible, the outsiders, the marginalized. It is no longer sanctuary for disparate souls looking for refuge—but a hospitable greenhouse for white supremacy and isolationism.”

Thus, indeed, the legacy of Coughlin, Winrod, and Pelley lives on. And Pavlovitz identified some of the reasons why moderate Christian pastors remain silent—these are direct quotes:

• a genuine desire to be a more measured, more polite voice of faith that easily drifts into lukewarm religion
• a theology less prone to absolutes and less driven by the threat of damnation
• a subtle, unseen privilege that feels insulated from the damage being done
• a fear of the pushback...from more Conservative people in their local congregations
• the simple self-preservation of keeping the peace and avoiding controversy

And there’s fear. Pavlovitz reported a conversation with one pastor:

I talked to a Presbyterian minister recently while visiting Alabama.
“I so appreciate you saying what you’re saying” he said. “I wish I could say it.”
I asked him why he couldn’t. He didn’t respond with words, but I saw in his face an expression I’ve seen many times before: terror.

Haunted by the ghosts of Coughlin, Winrod, and Pelley it would seem. Welcome to Christianity in the Trump Era.

Cleaning Up Their Act also Means Being Honest About Jesus

As much as I appreciate Pavlovitz’s sane voice, it is troublesome that he is dishonest about Jesus, whom he portrays in these words:

• “the open-hearted Jesus of the Gospels”

• “the American Church is becoming a safe haven for those who have contempt for the very people Jesus spent his life caring and advocating for; the poor, the invisible, the outsiders, the marginalized.”

• and he refers to “Jesus’ heart for the marginalized, his burden for the poor, his barrier-transcending expansion of the table”

Of course it is possible to find texts that enable an idealized view of Jesus, but this is misleading. The gospels are a minefield—because the strident Jesus, the cult-fanatic Jesus is also there. It would appear that Pavlovitz’s approach is pretending these texts don’t count. That sort of myopia is possible if you’ve already made up your mind about the Good Jesus, who is absent in these texts:

• Luke 14:26: hatred of family is required for those who want to be his disciples

• Matthew 10: the disciples, on their preaching mission, are not to go among the Gentiles; any towns that don’t accept their message will suffer the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah; and “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

• Matthew 25: those who fail to show compassion “will go away into eternal punishment.”

• At the time that the Kingdom of God arrives, there will be more suffering than at the time of Noah—more than ever since creation.

• There are dozens of such texts reflecting bad theology, bad advice, and apocalyptic nonsense. All of them attributed to Jesus by the gospel authors.

Even so, Christians by the billions want to belong to Jesus—and wonder What He Would Do. It is a faith that thrives on worship of a defective hero.

And I had a good laugh when I read that William Dudley Pelley claimed that he was in touch with Jesus (“he was now able to receive messages directly from Jesus… their conversations had revealed the truth about Christianity”). This undercuts Christianity in yet another way. The apostle Paul claimed exactly the same thing. There is no more reason to take Paul’s word for it than Pelley’s: cranks pop up in every generation. But people believed Paul and elevated his letters—the real ones and the forged ones—to the status of scripture.

How can Christians clean up their act when it’s this bad?

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus. The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.