The memory of the Shoah is holy and its implications for Christian moral reflection profound. Among the many ideas that flow from meditation on the Holocaust, two appear in seeming tension. On the one hand is the determination that any consideration of Nazi crimes produces to see that it never happens again. On the other, comes a reverence for the memory of those who died—as individuals and as members of communities targeted for elimination. The moral imperative compels us to be ever vigilant in rooting out the structures of evil that give rise to such terror, while the reverence imperative cautions us to never cheapen or profane the memory of those who were lost.
It is my conviction that in the debate over the HHS Mandate notable leaders in the Christian community have failed to show reverence for the memory of the Holocaust and have in their zeal to force a change by the Obama Administration manipulated the moral imperative of the Holocaust in ways injurious to the common good. I have in mind in particular the best-selling author Eric Metaxas, biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. Metaxas has been a very public ally of the bishops, having coauthored an important essay in the Wall Street Journal with Cardinal Wuerhl and a Jewish leader. In that essay no mention was made of Germany and Nazism, but in a number of different venues Metaxas has been pushing the idea that the religious freedom limitations of the HHS Mandate are strikingly similar to some set of undefined early Nazi laws. In a talk at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception’s Catholic Information Center Metaxas said:
“This [the HHS Mandate debate] is so oddly similar to where Bonhoeffer found himself [in the early stages of Nazi Germany]… If we don’t fight now, if we don’t really use our bullets now, we will have no fight five years from now…it’s the millimeter that is that line which we cross. I’m sorry to say that I see these parallels, I really wish I didn’t…We are getting a second chance…so we don’t make the same mistakes and go down the same road.”
In February, following an address that President Obama attended and also spoke at for the National Prayer Breakfast, Metaxas appeared on MSNBC and filled in the historical record ever so minimally saying that “In the early 30s little things was happening where the state was bullying the churches. No one spoke up. In the beginning it always starts our really, really small. We need to understand as Americans if we do not see this as a bright line in the sand…eventually this kind of government overreach will reach you.” While Metaxas has thrown out these serious charges he has never, to my knowledge, and certainly not anywhere available on line or in print, substantiated these charges with what would generally be considered a sustained argument. He has never, for instance, cited an early Nazi law that he thinks is comparable to the HHS Mandate in terms of religious freedom, nor has he ever explained how the HHS Mandate will lead us “down the same road” that led to the Holocaust.
Metaxas shows every intention of continuing to use this unsubstantiated rhetoric. In a speech just weeks ago at Fr. Sirico’s Acton Institute Metaxas again made the charge as part of an explanation for why the Fortnight of Freedom is so important to America’s future. His many followers on twitter have been reading constant reminders of the Fortnight of Freedom and about the “unprecedented abridgment of religious freedom” posed by the HHS Mandate, as a recent tweet put it. And a recent commentary for the widely read and listened to Breakpoint program of the late Charles Colson’s ministry featured Metaxas urging his largely Protestant audience to give full support for the Fortnight, though without reference to the German laws.
Metaxas’ cavalier use of the memory of the Holocaust era is striking for someone whose biography has been so widely read and praised. His standing as a commentator on religion and public life owes itself to that reputation. In fact, it earned him an audience with President Obama at the recent National Prayer Breakfast which Metaxas and the president addressed. Metaxas owes it to the president, and to the memory of the Shoah, to either explain and justify his charges or retract them as publicly as he made them. Of course to say this does not in anyway imply agreement with the HHS Mandate. One critic of Metaxas’ language, the noted Protestant ecumenist John Armstrong, has said, “I disagree with the President about how to solve the health care crisis, rather profoundly if I am pushed, but I do not think his actions are remotely like Hitler's in the 1920s and early 1930s…Christians cannot continue to violate civility and expect to be heard when their voice is truly important.”