Near the end of a brief visit to the United States in 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer recorded his reflections on American Christianity in an essay entitled, “Protestantism Without Reformation.” The title itself ought to be telling enough, but his thoughts on the unique American perspective on “religious freedom” are no less pertinent today (with that long cherished “freedom” eroding) than they were over seventy years ago.
America calls itself the land of the free. Under this term today it understands the right of the individual to independent thought, speech, and action. In this context, religious freedom is, for the American, an obvious possession. Church preaching and organization, the life of the communities can develop independently, without being molested. Praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere, coupled with the sharpest condemnation of any limitation of such freedom which has taken place anywhere. Thus freedom here means possibility, the possibility of unhindered activity given by the world to the church.
Now if the freedom of the church is essentially understood as this possibility, then the idea [of freedom] is still not properly discerned. The freedom of the church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it. The essential freedom of the church is not a gift of the world to the church, but the freedom of the Word of God itself to gain a hearing. Freedom of the church is not an unlimited number of possibilities. Freedom exists only where a “must,” a necessity compels it on occasion against all possibilities. The praise of freedom as the possibility for existence given by the world to the church can stem precisely from an agreement entered upon with this world in which the true freedom of the Word of God is surrendered. Thus it can happen that a church which boasts of its freedom as possibility offered to it by the world slips back into the world in definite ways, that a church which is free in this way becomes secularized more quickly than a church which does not possess freedom as possibility. The American praise of freedom is more a praise which is directed to the world, the state and society, than a statement about the church. Such freedom may be a sign that the world truly belongs to God. But whether it belongs to God in reality does not depend on any freedom as possibility, but on freedom as reality, as constraint, as actual event. Freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church. It can be a gracious gift given to the church by the providence of God; but it can also be the great temptation to which the church succumbs in sacrificing its essential freedom to institutional freedom. Whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God. Only where this word can be preached concretely, in the midst of historical reality, in judgment, in command, forgiveness of sinners and liberation from all human institutions is there freedom of the church. But where thanks for institutional freedom must be rendered by the sacrifice of freedom of preaching, the church is in chains even if it believes itself to be free.