“In a world full of Nazis, one can be forgiven for being a Barthian.” — Peter L. Berger
Two years and five months into the Trump presidency, the erosion of liberal-democratic-republican institutions and norms in the United States has, if anything, accelerated. Witness, among other things: endless attacks on a free press and the demonizing of the political opposition as inherently disloyal. The conspicuous winking at white-nationalists. The targeting of transgender military personnel, and the removal of civil rights protections for transmen and transwomen in housing and healthcare, out of little more than spite. Warehousing refugees at the southern border in cages. Punishing hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico for little more than being populated by brown people who are somehow, contrary to fact, deemed not quite American. Slamming European allies while licking the boots of despots from Putin to Kim to Duterte. His incoherent stances on tariff and trade policies, on deficits, and on deregulation, have rattled economists left, right, and center, raised eyebrows in the business community by disrupting supply-chains, and directly damaged the livelihoods of farmers who depend on foreign markets. His attack on the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare, before that dubbed Romney-care) threatens the medical coverage of up to 20 million Americans, many of them the rust-belt working class white people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and switched to Trump in 2016 to register their discontent with the status quo. All this, while overtly fostering the interests of the wealthy and connected in a way that would make even the most doctrinaire libertarian’s or neoliberal’s jaw drop — this is now the American cosmos cum chaos, where the heat has been significantly turned up on the frog already being slowly boiled to death.
Yet this has done little to cause Trump’s “core constituency” to defect. They do not primarily consist in economically disadvantaged working-class whites in the Upper Midwest, contrary to the received opinion of many pundits. Many Trump supporters, perhaps most, are relatively-well-off suburban white males who will vote Republican no matter what, as they assume they will not disturb their reverie of middling affluence and muscular patriarchy. And second, his most fervent, unswayable support comes from the so-called Religious Right, a large swath of self-identified Christians, some Catholics or mainstream Protestants, but mainly Evangelical Protestants.
Since the election, I have wondered how the Evangelical sector of Trump’s base have dealt with the cognitive dissonance that ought to be ubiquitous, given the core tenets of Christianity, which include care for the poor and powerless, an obligation to tell the truth, a sense of one’s own finitude and sinfulness, the ethos of the beatitudes, abhorrence of violence, and most importantly love of neighbor even — especially — when it is hard to do. Trumps opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights certainly figure in their allegiance, even if that opposition is little more than cynical pandering. But I find their embrace of Trump even on these grounds hard to square with the rest of his political antics, as well as the obvious corruption of his character. As journalist Amy Sullivan put it, Trump is “pretty much the human embodiment of the question ‘What would Jesus not do?’” He lies and bullshits incessantly, is a misogynist, racist, adulterer, bully, narcissist, sadist, and more. Much more.
Yet Trump has been wearing the mantle of Christian conviction since he won the nomination in 2016, when he began to figure out the convictions of this key fraction of his base. Their tenets of faith weld a kind of nostalgic theological literalism to an intense nationalism, drenched in a self-satisfied mythology of inherent American goodness and the glory of economic prosperity and world dominance that is its divinely guaranteed birthright and reward. It is a faith saturated with resentment toward any and all who question its creed, which blurs the boundaries between love of God and love of country.
This phenomenon has led me, of late, to blow out some cobwebs of memory and revisit the theological writings of Karl Barth. Barth’s theology faced down similar cultural incongruities in the run up to the First and Second World Wars. He was one of a few German-speaking theologians and intellectuals able to establish a standpoint from which these grotesque religious-political oddities could be explained and understood, as well as opposed.
On the surface, my curiosity about Barth might seem doubly incongruous. First, it is hard to see how Barth, a Swiss theologian working in the Reformed tradition who died in 1968, might have much relevance to the present political situation here and now in the United States, or to its religious history, which is very different from that of Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century. And second, I admit it’s peculiar that a convinced, self-described pragmatist like myself has become an avid reader and admirer of Barth, the austere representative of the Reformed tradition. One would be hard-pressed to find thinkers more dissimilar than, say, Barth and John Dewey, or Barth and Richard Rorty, or Barth and Hilary Putnam, all of whom count as some of some of my philosophical lodestars.
Or so it seems. Barth, I will contend, may well be one of the best resources for challenging the agenda of those on the Right who claim to be defending “Western Christian Civilization”, on their own theological ground. And while Barth was hardly a pragmatist, he shared with America’s indigenous philosophical tradition a suspicion of abstraction, foundationalism, and the absolutizing of that which is relative to our fallible, finite human points of view. While I have disagreements with the theology Barth articulated in Church Dogmatics and elsewhere, I think that in his critique of German “Christendom” he identified certain temptations plaguing American religion since the republic’s inception, and on clear display right now. His theology is precisely the astringent tonic needed by American Christians, whether Right or Left wing. Like Hannah Arendt, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, he is a timely thinker once again in a world full of, if not Nazis, the ugliest of nationalists.
In May 1934, Barth, along with other members of the Confessional Synod of German Evangelical Churches, co-authored the Barmen Declaration. This document was a blunt and fierce condemnation of the “German Christian” movement, with its explicit accommodation to the policies and ethos of the Nazi regime.
The Deutsche Christen were ardent supporters of a Völkische Christianity, viewing German nationalism as integral part of their Christian identity. They enthusiastically signed on to the Nazis’ anti-Semitic ideology (even going so far as to suggest eliminating the “Jewish” Old Testament from the Biblical Canon), and supported policies designed to align the church with the Nazi regime, such as prohibiting Jewish converts to Christianity from entering the ministry.
From the start Barth condemned the German Christian movement as rank idolatry. For Barth, steeped in the Reformed tradition, idolaters deliberately mistake finite, profane realities for infinite, sacred ones, thus debasing the sacred as they elevate and worship a false god, whether it be a golden calf, Baal, or a thousand-year Reich.
“We reject”, Barth proclaimed,
. . .the subordination of the Church to the state, and the subordination of the Word and Spirit to the Church . . . We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and the work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans. 
The Nazis sought to domesticate the Christian religion into a servant of the state. Barth’s Barmen Declaration responds with a stubborn “Nein!” to any such attempts. The Church’s duty, for Barth, is to honor a standard set by God, not by human beings. Even if the ends and actions of one’s patria or nation-state align with this divine standard, Christians and the Christian Church must not blur the sharp distinction between God and nation, assuming that fidelity to the latter is equivalent to fidelity to the former, or that both loyalties are unconditional. When those worldly ends and actions are at odds with that divine standard, it is imperative not only to refuse idolatry, but to challenge and oppose the evils of state and society by witnessing to that higher standard, the divine Word.
Barth paid a price for his intransigence toward the Nazis (although not the supreme one paid by his Barmen colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer). He refused to sign a loyalty oath or to begin his lectures with the compulsory “Heil Hitler” salute, and as a result was dismissed from his position in Bonn and exiled to his native Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life, a professor of systematic theology in the University of Basel.
Barth’s refusal to cede any Christian ground to the Nazis was not simply a matter of his leftist political allegiances, separable from his theology and faith. Rather, it was a direct consequence of the “Theology of the Word” that he had been developing from his early days as Reformed pastor in the Swiss canton of Safenwil, where he was famous (and among the wealthier burghers, infamous) for his unwavering support of workers and the poor.
Like Kierkegaard, Barth was dismayed at the ease with which the task of becoming a Christian was conflated with being a tithe-and-tax-paying, socially-conformist, “respectable” member of a “Christian nation.” He saw academic theology as reinforcing this religious complacency by identifying Christian belief and practice with prevailing human thoughts and accomplishments — with “culture.” If Christianity is identified with culture — any culture — then it becomes a point-of-view like any other, rather than a community of disciples possessing a standard for understanding and criticizing any and all culture. Liberal theology, typified by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Adolf von Harnack, simply ratifies this complacency. For Barth, the content of Christian faith is reduced by theological liberalism into acknowledging “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Man” [sic] as his teacher von Harnack put it, and thus identifies the basis for this faith with what Schleiermacher called the subjective “feeling of absolute dependence” (about which Hegel quipped that were this so, his dog would count as the perfect Christian).
Barth understood liberal theology to be toothless in both theory and practice. When his former professors, including Harnack, enthusiastically supported the nationalistic German cause in the First World War, Barth felt not so much vindicated as pressed to formulate an alternative — one in light of which the Barmen Declaration would later become intelligible.
Barth’s attitude toward Harnack and Schleiermacher is akin to that of Karl Marx toward his chief philosophical influences. Marx described his own project (at least in its early phase) as one of turning an upside-down Hegel right-side-up again. There is an analogy to be drawn here with Barth’s theological project, of which the six-million word Church Dogmatics, unfinished at his death, was the culmination. Similar to Marx’s take on Hegel, Barth thought that theology had somehow been turned on its head. The etymology of the term “theology” is Theos + Logos, or “speaking of/reasoning about God.” The liberal theology entrenched in academia pretended to be that, but was actually “talking about man [sic] in a very loud voice.” By re-aligning theological discourse in Church Dogmatics toward the topic of God, the biblical “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, and of the Jesus Christ of the Gospels as the “incarnate Word”, Barth sought to bring theology back to its roots, to make theology theological again. And not only that: to recover a standard for judging and acting in God’s created world.
Barth entered into a “strange new world within the Bible”, one where the narratives of the Old and New Testaments disclose God’s self-revelation to humankind. God is disclosed in, and only in, this kind of self-revelation. Attempts by humanity to “find God” through philosophical argument or universal religious experience therefore result in idolatry, absolutizing the relative Weltanschauungen of human beings into a “god’s eye view”. We do not find God, for Barth. God finds us.
The project of 19th Century liberal theology was apologetic: defending theological belief against its “cultured despisers” by supplying philosophical, anthropological, or psychological foundations. This brand of theology was therefore at odds with itself. Unable to stand on its own, it was reduced to some other intellectual discipline. But for Barth the basis for faith is, instead, “The Word of God”: God’s self-disclosure to humanity which conditions the practices and beliefs of the Church, rather than the achievements of human thought or culture, important as these are. Barth’s “Nein!” was thus not simply a political refusal of the melding of Church and society: it worked as a theological imperative that viewed as idolatrous all attempts to absolutize relative, finite human accomplishments of any kind. Barth refused all Natural Theology (the project of providing an independent philosophical groundwork for theistic belief) as “diabolical”, not because he was opposed to philosophy per se, but because it tends to colonize and then dissolve the aims of theology, centered around the Word of God, which we do not speak, but which is spoken to us.
This might seem to imply that Barth was a kind of Protestant fundamentalist, hanging the truth of Christianity on a literal interpretation of the Bible as the Word of God. Nothing could be further from the truth. For Barth, the words of the Old and New Testaments are human vessels in which revelation is carried. To literalize the Bible is to retreat from the Word of God into a different kind of apologetics, into another kind of crypto-philosophical foundationalism. The Word of God is not a set of marks on a page or the phonemes uttered in a sermon, but the Incarnate Word in the person of Jesus Christ, the logos. To limit God’s self-disclosure to a literal interpretation of scriptural texts is an attempt to steal God’s ongoing self-disclosure and enclose it into the territory of human ingenuity and virtue. It is Bibliolatry, the creation of a “paper Pope”, as much idolatry as reinterpreting faith into “a feeling of absolute dependence”, or possibly as faithfulness to a nationalized, Nazified Christendom.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to go into more detail about Barth’s reflections on the nature of God and Creation, and the self-communication of God in Christ as the Incarnate Word. But it is significant to note that Barth shares with pragmatism, as well as other currents in contemporary analytic and continental philosophy, a deep antipathy to foundationalism and reductionism.
It is important to not construe this antipathy as a kind of fideistic relativism. Disciplines and discourses are not conceptually insulated from each other. For example, theologians should be willing to learn from the historical-critical examination of biblical texts, to political analysis, and to philosophical traditions. But neither are they beholden to any one of these disciplines as foundational to or legislative for all the others. Theology is, for Barth, a special case, as it articulates and explicates not the natural or human world, but the self-revelation of God. In doing so it leaves philosophy, anthropology, natural science, and psychology as they are. Faith does not need foundations: it needs intelligent reflection, interpretation and debate. It does not need to defend itself from its “cultured despisers” on some nonexistent neutral ground they are rationally bound to acknowledge. Rather, it is a witness to “the God who speaks” and infuses this divine speech into the life of the Church. It is confessional rather than apologetic.
As a pragmatist who is also a Christian in the Episcopal tradition, I cannot unequivocally accept Barth’s confidence that the “Word of God”, as he construes it, is not only its own validation but has no natural forms of support. At crunch-time, I wonder whether he believes that given the autonomy of theological discourse theology nevertheless provides its own canons of rationality, which are beyond critical reproach from outside (placing him close to the fideism of D.Z Phillips, and Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein as Phillips misreads them). Still, I don’t think this is an completely accurate take on Barth. When brought into the arena of philosophical argument, the appeal to self-authenticating experience, whether that of an individual epiphany or the infusion of sanctifying grace, either devolves into a vapid relativism or a hidebound dogmatism, neither of which is anything Barth would endorse. Barth remains committed to theological discourse, but on its own terms and with its own non-negotiables. Dialogue with philosophy, science, and the other disciplines is necessary, but not sufficient. Above all, theology must not bow to philosophy as “the foundational discipline” that sets up the canons of rationality and rules for discourse once and for all. He is no philosophical rationalist.
Barth construes theological rationality as situated within, and bound by, the practices of theology and Christian faith. But one cannot thereby accuse Barth of irrationalism either, as many of his secular critics (and religious critics like C.S. Lewis) did. For Barth, God is nothing that human beings could possibly possess, whether they be dogmatic fundamentalists or philosophical or scientific reductionists. God is beyond Cartesian demonstration. The structures of rationality exhibited in and proper to Christianity are conditioned by the practices and beliefs that acknowledge The Word of God confessed in and by the Church. To grasp those rational structures you must grasp the contours of those practices, either as a participant or an engaged “ethnographic” observer. There is no outsider’s view. The worst charge one could level against Barth’s theology, then, is that it is ultimately arbitrary, an insider’s game. But if Kant was right in claiming that there are no knock-down arguments either for or against the existence of the God of Western monotheism — and I believe he was — then it is hard to maintain that Barth is any more arbitrary than anyone else. Barth, like Kant, argued for reason’s ineluctable limits. But given those limits, there is enough room left for both faith and unbelief, for Kierkegaard and Nietzsche — or William James and John Dewey.
My disagreements with Barth on God and revelation remain significant. But my admiration for Barth, and my conviction that he is supremely relevant to today’s social and political milieux, centers on the challenge he poses to religion, especially the Christian religion in the United States.
To right-wing Evangelical Protestants, Barth’s challenge is as straightforward as the one he levelled at the German Christian movement. Their task is to avoid the charge of idolatry, of ignoring Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative difference” between God and creation and raising the latter to the status of the former. To accomplish this, right-wing evangelicals would need to face and then seriously address their penchant for identifying the cause of God with that of the United States of America, and with the success of Donald Trump and the contemporary Republican party as the principal agent of that cause. They do not, at present, seem up to that task. It is not just a matter of right-wing policies being prima facie incompatible with Christian belief and practice — of belligerence toward allies and enemies alike, of open contempt for the poor and displaced at home and abroad, and so on. It is also a matter of accepting the right-wing media portrayal of Trump as the last best hope for a “Christian nation.”
Dwell on that thought for a moment. To affirm his role as defender of the faith, one would need to overlook the grotesquely bad character and worse policies of Trump from a Christian ethical standpoint: his lies, vanity, his con games, his thirst for the autocrat’s iron hand and the monarch’s gilded throne, his deference to established wealth and his worship of money, and other qualities far too numerous to mention. More to the point, though: what is the good of advancing the cause of establishing a “Christian nation” in the first place? What stake does the Church have in the success or failure of any particular historical state — as opposed to witnessing to the Word of God, which is simply being the Church? Right-wing Evangelicals never tire of proclaiming their loyalty to the tenets and culture of Protestant Christianity. Yet the entire American project, according to right-wing evangelicals, seems to hinge on absolutizing what is historically relative — the nature and prospects of a single 18th Century Liberal Democratic Republic — and then identifying it with God’s providential way with the world.
So never mind that the policies advanced by the Trump administration are the antithesis of the words spoken in the Sermon on the Mount, and Trump the polar opposite in character, justice, and true piety of the one who spoke those words. (Not to mention that Trumpism is deeply at odds with the charter of any liberal democratic republic.) But that isn’t even the biggest scandal of the religious right. It is that of marrying the Christian religion to a regime, any regime — of promoting a superpower Constantinianism that will usher in the millennium, with nukes if necessary. Barth would, I think, be suffering an acute sense of déjà vu were he able to witness what has transpired since November 2016.
Or, in fact, the past few decades. Barth’s Nein! to all political ambitions that absolutize the relative could easily carry over to those precincts populated by liberals, leftists, and “never Trump” conservatives. The self-congratulatory posture of the ascendant far-right could easily be duplicated by those on “the resistance” side of America’s political divide, should they eventually prove ascendant. The millennium would not have arrived if the citizens of the United States were, after a long wandering in the wilderness, to re-embrace norms of liberal republican democracy and a politics of the common good, any more that it would have come if a literal Armageddon were to happen in the Middle East, as some right-wing evangelicals gleefully anticipate. It is tempting, when one political “side” has become so corrupt and demonic, given the duty to resist and rebel against it, to infer that God must be on our side rather than theirs. It is idolatrous to invoke the divine in this manner. It is not that God does not “take sides”, but rather that God takes the side of humanity itself, and as God: as the Creator of all things, as the Word Incarnate, as the indwelling Spirit of history.
It would be wrong to read Barth as an apolitical or anti-political thinker. In fact I take Barth’s relevance today to rest precisely in the political. The political sphere may be, in a sense, autonomous, but whatever autonomy it has stands under the judgment of God and the election of Jesus the Christ to be for all humanity. Barth’s “Theology of the Word of God” provides a standpoint from which one can judge whether a political order or regime is fundamentally just or corrupt — better still, it provides God’s judgmental standpoint from which one can witness to both true justice and true mercy.
This is not to say that there is no room for disagreement on what that witness demands of those contemplating a particular policy issue. I see a broad convergence between Barth’s political position and that of Hannah Arendt, who construed the political sphere as a space in which free and equal citizens engage in debate, persuasion, listening, and responding to opinions on what is to be done to secure the common good. Barth draws a limit around the political sphere, whose circumference is bounded by “the One who loves in freedom.” Arendt draws that limit from the perspective of atheist humanism — the clear recognition that the final goal of totalitarian tyranny that one must resist is to “make humans superfluous”, to extinguish the humanity of those dominated in order to dominate more effectively, which ultimately nullifies the humanity of the dominator as well. One might argue that this is the same standpoint under different descriptions, one theological and one moral and philosophical. But Barth himself wouldn’t. It would smack of “natural theology” and the assumption that human words, however noble, can be correlated with and elevated to The Word of God, the Logos incarnate who reaches out and reveals himself to a humanity the Logos freely shares. Yet he would, I think, agree with Arendt that there are constraints on what passes for politics.
Thus there is a point at which one must command, “Stop! No more!”, a standpoint from which a clear “Nein!” can and must be uttered. This is important to acknowledge, not only for Christians but also for Jews, Muslims, religious believers and unbelievers alike. That standpoint may be grounded in convictions that are not completely commensurable with Barth’s. Atheists cannot invoke “the One who loves in freedom”, but they can invoke as a kind of political bedrock Kurt Vonnegut’s appeal to “common decency” or Albert Camus’ appeal to human solidarity-in-rebellion. But without such a standpoint it is impossible to call to account, with charity and without malice, those who are infatuated with tyrants and tyranny. In short, to answer with a firm and forceful “No.”
 Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 18
 Amy Sullivan, “America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism,” New York Times, December 15, 2017.
 Quoted in Terry Pinkard, Hegel: a Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p. 501.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2010).
 Which is to say that I am somewhat antagonistic to Barth’s wholesale rejection of “natural theology.” What I find curious is the fact that Barth replaces the Thomistic “Analogy of Being” with an “Analogy of Faith” that reproduces much of the former in a radically “Reformed” context. It is ironic, however, that if you reject the strict nature/grace dichotomy of Neo-Thomism, as did the Thomistic Nouvelle Theologiens Henri de Lubac and Marie-Dominique Chenu prior to Vatican II who decisively influenced that Council, and then scrap the foundationalism and representationalism of post-Cartesian philosophy, the “Analogy of Faith” is indistinguishable from the “Analogy of Being”, since philosophy is no longer the foundational discipline slipping answers under the desk to theology. A reading of Barth in this vein, as “natural theologian” despite himself, can be found in Stanley Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures, published as With the Grain of the Universe: the Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).
 Many thanks to the following individuals who have read and commented upon earlier drafts of this essay: Stephan T. Mayo, Wendy Williams, Suzanne Schneider, G. Scott Davis, Rev. Morgan Ladd, Rev. Michael Delaney, and Rev. Dr. Michael T. Sniffen.