God is My Co-Belligerent: Avatar Priests, Hijacked Theologians, and Other Figures of Right-Wing Revolt

In March of this year, Eric Metaxas, author of a bestselling biography of the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a presentation about his book to a small audience at a bookstore near the White House in Washington DC. 

Probably few who gathered to hear Bonhoeffer’s latest biographer expected to be asked to imagine themselves called by God to rise up against a regime that might be as heinous as the Third Reich—but as it turns out Metaxas is not unique among religious-right intellectuals in his use of the language of armed revolt. 

“I Am Offended” 

Metaxas is not yet a household name, but this has certainly been his year. He was not only the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast where President Obama also spoke; he also succeeded the late Charles Colson—both as the voice of the nationally-syndicated radio commentary, Breakpoint, and as one of the three-member board of directors of the premier US conservative Catholic/evangelical alliance, The Manhattan Declaration

As an up-and-coming evangelical leader, he has also been busy denouncing proposed federal regulations on contraception coverage in employer insurance packages. But he is unique in employing his status as a Bonhoeffer scholar to claim parallels between the regulations and early Nazi-era legislation, as he did, for example, in an appearance on MSNBC.

The Bonhoeffer book itself has drawn praise, but also scathing commentary, especially in the community of Bonhoeffer scholars. Clifford Green wrote in Christian Century that Metaxas is “hijacking Bonhoeffer” into the fundamentalist camp to deploy him against religious and political liberalism. 

Less than two weeks after presenting a copy of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy to President Obama, Metaxas found himself discussing the implications of his Nazi analogy at the bookstore of the Catholic Information Center, the DC outpost of Opus Dei (the rightist order that was made a personal prelature of the pope by John Paul II in 1982). 

“I am, as an American, offended,” Metaxas told a small audience at the Center, “by the idea that we cannot discuss certain things, and there is a kind of proto-facist—(I am being generous when I say proto)—bullying that happens in the culture” that disallows discussing the “big questions” about life and God. 

Bonhoeffer’s voice, Metaxas explained, was prophetic: 

“I see him as someone who like Isaiah, or Jeremiah, was saying things to call the people of God to be the people of God… In his day, clearly his voice was not heeded. His voice, if it’s prophetic, is not Bonhoeffer’s voice—it is really the voice of God.”

“This HHS mandate” situation he said “is so oddly similar to where Bonhoeffer found himself” early in the Nazi era. “If we don’t fight now,” Metaxas warned,

“if we don’t really use all our bullets now, we will have no fight five years from now. It’ll be over. This it. We’ve got to die on this hill. Most people say, oh no, this isn’t serious enough. Its just this little issue. But it’s the millimeter… its that line that we cross. I’m sorry to say that I see these parallels. I really wish I didn’t.”

Serious conversation about revolution is not new in elite religious-right circles. In fact, it has been ongoing for years.

Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution

Take Fr. C. John McCloskey, whose dystopian manifesto of a decade ago rocked American public life.

The prominent priest’s appearances in major American media at the time included Meet the Press, with Tim Russert. On the show, McCloskey discussed his avatar, Fr. Charles, a future priest, looking back on the history of the Church in the U.S. from the year 2030. The Church had faced persecution, participated in a civil war that broke up the United States—and although the Church now comprised fewer members, the remnant hewed closely to doctrine and had achieved Catholic supremacy in some places. Church membership had also been refreshed by hundreds of thousands of “orthodox” evangelicals who had been co-belligerents in the war.

McCloskey is no militant-but-obscure cleric—he has been a regular in the national media and is credited with the conversion of the rich and powerful, including Newt Gingrich, then-Senator (now governor) Sam Brownback (R-KS), journalists Robert Novak and Lawrence Kudrow, former abortion provider Bernard Nathanson, publisher Alfred Regnery, financier Lewis Lehrman, and Judge Robert Bork. McCloskey also famously accompanied then-Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) to Rome for the canonization of Opus Dei founder Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer in 2002. McCloskey is a member of Opus Dei, and once headed the Catholic Information Center.

McCloskey recently published an update of his essay. “I—or perhaps my thesis” he wrote, “received quite a bit of vitriolic criticism from the elite mainstream media and even from the late Tim Russert on Meet the Press. A goodly number of faithful Catholic writers also found it dark and threatening, however, although I had intended it to be positive and optimistic.”

“My avatar priest,” he continued, “looked back from the vantage point of 2030 to reflect on recent ‘history’: the story of American Catholics who became confessors and martyrs to the faith as the federal government of the ‘Culture of Death’ persecuted them.”

In his original essay, McCloskey’s avatar, Fr. Charles, explained how “the great battles over the last 30 years over the fundamental issues of the sanctity of marriage, the rights of parents, and the sacredness of human life have been of enormous help in renewing the Church and to some extent, society.”

McCloskey’s literary device allows him to avoid openly seditious language, while suggesting that conservative Catholics and allied evangelicals should prepare for civil war. Now a Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute, which published his update, McCloskey repeated his vision of “the secession of the ‘Culture of Life’ states from the United States, precipitating a short and bloody civil war that resulted in a collection of the Regional States of America.” He also says that the Church of “2030” was “much smaller… and nary a dissenter to be seen.”

While there’s certainly no indication that anyone is following McCloskey’s script, if they did it would not be the first time in recent history that fiction was used to help people to imagine scenarios for domestic terrorism and insurrection. The neo-Nazi novel The Turner Diaries, which opens with the blowing-up of a federal building, has infamously been used as a blueprint for white supremacist revolution in the U.S. for a generation—Tim McVeigh had a copy when he was arrested.

Additionally, an account of a future wave of insurrectionist anti-abortion violence called Rescue Platoon, in the 1990s, was serialized in Prayer & Action Weekly News, published by David Leach, (who calls himself the secretary general of the anti-abortion Army of God). The mini-novel tells of a “righteous wrath” to come, and centers around the Army of God’s campaign to blow up clinics and murder doctors and others. In the end, the Army of God wins the day following a bloodbath of epic proportions, and the former Confederate states—plus Utah—outlaw abortion.

In any case, revolution, even if for some only literarily, has been on the mind of a wide range contemporary conservative evangelical and Catholic leaders for some time. It is a conversation that seems likely to continue.

Here’s McCloskey, again, talking about a famous 1996 issue of the neoconservative journal First Things with reporter Charles Pierce in 2003: “That issue examined, as it said, ‘possible responses to laws that cannot be obeyed by conscientious citizens ranging from non-compliance… to morally justified revolution.’”

“It embraced,” McCloskey said “the whole question of the legitimacy of the regime. As a Catholic, what do you obey? What do you not obey? For a serious Catholic who believes in things according to faith, these are serious questions.”