The Devil in the Details

Michael Massing’s attempt to explain the enigma of American evangelical support for Donald Trump [“How Martin Luther Paved the Way for Donald Trump,” May 14] appears to be a straightforward case: Martin Luther’s reform efforts were in fact a faux-populist desire to make Christianity great again, a desire unconsciously transmitted to evangelicals through their indebtedness to Luther’s theology and inflamed now by Trump. In Luther, Massing finds the missing link connecting Trump’s personality to theologies that for him define American evangelicals. Thus, by believing as Luther believed, American evangelicals unwittingly became expectant watchers for a leader like Luther, found in Trump.

Luther would wholeheartedly agree with Massing’s view that our beliefs have unintended consequences. False doctrine, however abstract, if sincerely believed could result in something as tangible as the mass exploitation of people. Or so Luther argued in his epochal work, the 95 theses. There Luther questioned the power afforded indulgences, which for him had supplanted the Gospel, the better to fleece the laity. Luther challenged why the pope sold indulgences rather than dispense them freely, and why he built St. Peter’s Basilica “with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep” rather than his own money. The threats of excommunication that followed did not dissuade Luther, for concerns about his own well-being rarely entered his consideration. Most know his famous stand at Worms, but few recall his subtler braveries, such as leaving hiding to calm a riot by preaching patience for those we disagree with, or housing a bitter enemy in his hour of need.

If the above does not sound like Trump, it is because historical figures are rarely as simple as our need for caricatures to service easy explanations. And Massing’s Luther is a simple one, stripped of his complexity and world to help make sense of our own. Many works already published can correct Massing’s factual and interpretive errors; here, let’s consider some of his omissions. To arrive at his simple Luther, Massing ignores how commonplace crass rhetoric was in Luther’s time. He dismisses Luther’s most popular writings in favor of obscure works, some virtually unknown until the 20th century. He appears unaware of Luther’s foundational “theology of the cross” and insistence upon suffering for the neighbor in love. Lost is Luther’s criticism of those like Trump, whom he called theologians of glory for preferring “works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness,” being blinded by hate and self-love.

Massing’s argument is an instructive study in how complex and nuanced truths are severely disadvantaged compared with caricatures appealing to our preconceived notions. Such caricatures never pave the way but are always constructed after the fact to suit agendas. The idea that evangelicals ate something tainted long ago, which then festered into support for Trump, offers only the bitter consolation of believing opponents beyond hope. Strange that Massing should adopt the same polemical view of the other that he sees connecting Luther and Trump. In this we are reminded that as our hunger for explanation grows, so too must our discernment. For we become what we eat, bones and all.

Miles Hopgood
Ph.D. Candidate
Princeton Theological Seminary
princeton, n.j.

Massing Replies

What a nasty letter. Hopgood refers to my “factual and interpretive errors” without giving any examples. He instead focuses on my “omissions,” such as my dismissal of Luther’s most popular writings in favor of obscure ones “unknown until the 20th century.”

This is simply false. I quote from To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, a famous work whose first edition of 4,000 copies sold out so quickly that another was quickly arranged; Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants and An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants, both of which were widely read—and condemned—at the time; Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, a remarkably vulgar work that became a key tool of Protestant propaganda against Rome; and the widely read On the Jews and Their Lies, which persuaded a number of contemporary German princes to crack down on the Jews in their realms. That last tract might well be the vilest work ever written against the Jews, and since World War II Lutherans around the world have struggled to come to terms with it and with the horrible legacy left by Luther’s detestation of the Jews.

As I try to show in my book Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, the rhetoric of the period was indeed crude, but Luther’s was in a class by itself, and Erasmus repeatedly warned him that it would likely lead to violence if he didn’t desist. One of the great tragedies of Luther’s life is that his early and admirable populism, defense of liberty of conscience, and embrace of suffering gave way to a toxic mix of intransigence, intolerance, and paranoid hatred. But, as I try to show in my article, the populist aspects of Luther’s work remain discernible in American evangelicalism. For someone decrying polemic and caricature, Hopgood serves up a pretty good helping himself, bones and all.

Michael Massing
new york city

The ACLU Forsworn

Re “The ACLU Reborn,” by Dale Maharidge [May 21]: Although the American Civil Liberties Union courageously stands up for our constitutional rights, there is a darker side to the story: The ACLU also supports the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The reasoning is that “money is speech,” and so unlimited and anonymous speech is a First Amendment right. This is stretching the point. Indeed, the Citizens United decision set democracy so far back that we most likely will never recover from it.

I had been an avid ACLU supporter for most of my life (even supporting them as a Jew during the Skokie episode). I was an ACLU speaker for western Colorado, standing up for the separation of church and state when the city of Grand Junction wouldn’t remove the Ten Commandments from public property. But I felt that I had to resign after they became part of decimating US democracy. I still support many of the things they do, but I cannot be part of an organization that supports the takeover of the US government by corporations and the wealthy.

Bob Bogner
aspen, colo.


The article “Off to the Racists” [May 14] claimed that Joe Arpaio is running for the Arizona Senate. He is, in fact, running for a US Senate seat from Arizona. The Nation regrets the error.