The Religious Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous
and the Twelve Steps

Chapter 29: Reinhold Niebuhr: "Hitler and Buchman"

Here is the full text of the chapter "Hitler and Buchman" from the book Christianity and Power Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr, the eminent theologian who authored The Serenity Prayer. This appears to be a word-for-word reprint of Niebuhr's criticism of Buchman that first appeared in The Christian Century magazine, October 7, 1936, pages 1315 and 1316.


      On returning from Europe, Frank Buchman, Oxford group revivalist, is quoted by a reputable New York paper as having said: "I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front-line defense against the anti-Christ of communism.... My barber in London told me Hitler saved all Europe from communism. That's how he felt. Of course I don't condone everything the Nazis do. Antisemitism? Bad, naturally. I suppose Hitler sees a Karl Marx in every Jew. But think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God. Or Mussolini. Or any dictator. Through such a man God could control a nation overnight and solve every last bewildering problem."
      In this interview the social philosophy of the Oxford group, long implicit in its strategy, is made explicit, and revealed in all its childishness and viciousness. This philosophy has been implicit in Buchmanite strategy from the beginning. It explains the particular attention which is paid by Mr. Buchman and his followers to big men, leaders, in industry and politics. The idea is that if the man of power can be converted, God will be able to control a larger area of human life through his power than if a little man were converted. This is the logic which has filled the Buchmanites with touching solicitude for the souls of such men as Henry Ford or Harvey Firestone and prompted them to whisper confidentially from time to time that these men were on the very threshold of the kingdom of God. It is this strategy which prompts or justifies the first-class travel of all the Oxford teams. They hope to make contact with big men in the luxurious first-class quarters of ocean liners.

      In other words, a Nazi social philosophy has been a covert presumption of the whole Oxford group enterprise from the very beginning. We may be grateful to the leader for revealing so clearly what has been slightly hidden. Now we can see how unbelievably naïve this movement is in its efforts to save the world. If it would content itself with preaching repentance to drunkards and adulterers one might be willing to respect it as a religious revival method which knows how to confront the sinner with God. But when it runs to Geneva, the seat of the League of Nations, or to Prince Starhemberg or Hitler, or to any seat of power, always with the idea that it is on the verge of saving the world by bringing the people who control the world under God-control, it is difficult to restrain the contempt which one feels for this dangerous childishness.
      This idea of world salvation implies a social philosophy which is completely innocent of any understanding of the social dynamics of a civilization. Does Mr. Buchman really believe that the dictators of the modern world create their dictatorships out of whole cloth? He does not know, evidently, that they are the creatures more than the creators of vast social movements in modern history. The particular social forces which create dictatorships are on the whole the decadent forces of a very sick society. The sickness of that society is the sickness of sin; and if a word of God is to be spoken in such an hour as this let it be the woe of Christ upon his Jerusalem or the prophecy of judgement which an Amos or Jeremiah pronounced upon their civilization.

      There is unfortunately not the slightest indication that the prophetic spirit of the Bible has ever entered into this pollyanna religion by way of the quiet hour. Several times Mr. Buchman has confessed that the word of God which he heard in his quiet hour was the slogan: "An international network over spiritual live-wires," whatever that may mean. In other words, the world is to be saved by a vulgar advertising slogan rather than by a genuine priestly and prophetic mediation of the judgement and the mercy of God upon a sinful world.

      In the simple and decadent individualism of the Oxford group movement there is no understanding of the fact that the man of power is always to a certain degree an anti-Christ. "All power," said Lord Acton with cynical realism, "corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely." If the man of power were to take a message of absolute honesty and absolute love seriously he would lose his power, or would divest himself of it. This is not to imply that the world can get along without power and that it is not preferable that men of conscience should wield it rather than scoundrels. But if men of power had not only conscience but also something of the gospel's insight into the intricacies of social sin in the world, they would know that they could never extricate themselves completely from the sinfulness of power, even while they were wielding it ostensibly for the common good.
      Mr. Buchman has greater aptness for advertising slogans than for historical perspectives. Otherwise he might have had occasion to meditate upon the life of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was a Christian in the real sense. There was a vital Christian faith in him which is hardly available for a modern statesman even after the ministrations of the Oxford group. Cromwell really wanted to do the will of God — and thought he was doing it. Yet nothing in Cromwell's personal religion could save his dictatorship from being abortive and self-devouring. Let Mr. Buchman read about Cromwell's campaign in Ireland and the religious pretensions he made for his ambitions there and learn something of the moral complexities which men of power face and the temptations to which they succumb. It might be added that Cromwell's genuine religion not only failed to make his dictatorship palatable; it also failed to save him from the personal temptation to arrogance and cruelty.
      The life and religion of Bismarck suggest similar lessons. Bismarck, who established a slightly more palatable dictatorship in Germany than Hitler's was a convert of the pietist movement. This movement was informed by an evangelical fervor which some of us may be pardoned for preferring to the sentimentalities of the Oxford groups. It deeply affected Bismarck. He was in certain areas of his life a very genuine Christian. But his surrender to God hardly accomplished the results in politics which Mr. Buchman envisages as a possibility in the case of Hitler's conversion. It did not help God to "control his nation overnight and solve every last bewildering problem."
      The increasingly obvious fascist philosophy which informs the group movement is in other words not only socially vicious but religiously vapid. The slightest acquaintance with the history of Christian thought on the problem of the relation of the absolute demands of the gospel to the relativities of politics and economics would prove its childishness. A careful study of the gospel itself, particularly its abhorrence of the self-righteousness of the righteous, would reveal the danger of any doctrine which promises powerful men the possibility of fully doing the will of God. They had better be admonished that after they have done what they think right they will still remain unprofitable servants.
      The Oxford group movement, imagining itself the mediator of Christ's salvation in a catastrophic age, is really an additional evidence of the decay in which we stand. Its religion manages to combine bourgeois complacency with Christian contrition in a manner which makes the former dominant. Its morality is a religious expression of a decadent individualism. Far from offering us a way out of our difficulties it adds to the general confusion. This is not the gospel's message of judgement and hope to the world. It is bourgeois optimism, individualism and moralism expressing itself in the guise of religion. No wonder the rather jittery plutocrats of our day open their spacious summer homes to its message!

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Last updated 28 May 2009.
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