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Against His Church: The Sad Career of Robert Benne
Same-sex pastoral relationships are so terrible that Benne is now leading a campaign to divide the ELCA and create a Lutheran wing of the religious right. Read here why he is wrong.
By Ed Knudson
Editor's Note: The following article was added to this website on March 24, 2006. It documents the degree to which Robert Benne has engaged in a campaign against his church. Since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) this past summer voted in its church-wide assembly in Minneapolis to allow pastors in same-sex relationships to continue as ordained pastors of congregations Benne has urged congregations to leave that church and form a new one. I am currently preparing a briefer article for congregational leaders who may be considering following Benne's advice so that they can better understand the extremist political position from which he operates.
Robert Benne is one of the best known of current Lutheran social ethicists. He is now of an age to be toward the end of what can only be called a sad career. Rather than support and encourage his church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he has for years now been harping and carping against it. Rather than use his brilliance and careful scholarship to make a significant contribution to Lutheran social ethics he decided long ago that he had other priorities. This is unfortunate since I believe the Lutheran view of social ethics and questions of church and state can make a serious contribution to contemporary debates over these matters. But Benne has not considered most important the tradition of his own church. In fact if there is one person who has done the most to damage the public witness of his church it is Robert Benne. He is now threatening to leave his church if it doesn’t do what he thinks is right concerning homosexuality and encouraging others to do the same. It is sad, indeed.
Benne himself feels alienated even from his academic peers. That is what explains a recent article he published in the Dialog Journal of Theology where he lists the important people he has met during his career. I have never seen an article quite of this type before. He does not explain what these people taught him, just that he knew them. It is as if he is trying to say, “I’m still a good person, I’ve known all these significant leaders.” Reading this I had a sense of compassion for the man. Yes, his career is very sad.
I will explain why this is so by reference to some of his writings as well as my own brief contacts with him personally. As this discussion unfolds we will be touching on the major social-political issues of our times and how the church has tried to address them. We will see very different readings of the signs of the times from different theological and faith commitments. Very early in his career Robert Benne experienced an intellectual crisis and chose to look at the world and the church through two conceptual-theoretical windows: an extreme form of a particular economic ideology, capitalism, and a particular political philosophy, neoconservatism. Thirty years later it is now possible to say that Benne made some very wrong intellectual turns which have led him to attack his church with a politically partisan fury strange for an academic who appears in person as a genial and open-hearted person. His commitment to these false ways of seeing the world has been so fierce that it has severely warped his understanding of how to do what Jesus tells us to do: love God and neighbor.
My first contact with Robert Benne was when I worked at Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota from 1970 to 1974. At the time I also served as an associate pastor at the Lutheran Campus Center where he came to do a workshop. I was thrilled to hear him speaking about racial and economic justice since I had spent the latter part of the 1960s in ministry in the near northeast black community of Washington D.C. and had earlier been involved as a seminarian in Chicago in Martin Luther King’s effort to address urban poverty there. During the workshop I learned Benne was a layperson, he had chosen not to be ordained after seminary. I don’t recall what he gave as a reason for this but I had no basis at the time to question it. I figured he wanted to focus on social ethics, not details of pastoral ministry. These many years later I have begun to wonder about this, however. As an ordained pastor I have always taken very seriously my promise to preach and teach not my own personal faith but the faith of the church. Benne did not make such an ordination promise. I do not know how large a factor this has been for the development of his thinking. But I do know that Benne later postured himself consistently over-against his church and its ecumenical commitments.
He makes this clear in his 1981 book The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment in a chapter entitled “The Great Refusal and My Discontent.” He tells about attending an international ecumenical consultation on human rights in Dublin, Ireland, where he finds participants are critical of capitalism and the United States. “The group was made up of Catholic missionary teachers from Third World countries and Protestant and Catholic officials of various international church agencies. Rounding things out were a highly articulate Hungarian Marxist and myself, the lone American. The full-blown theory of dependent capitalism came out quickly and unanimously – the Western industrial-capitalist nations were wealthy primarily because of exploitation of the Third World; the United States through its CIA kept all oppressive governments in power; the world was neatly divided into oppressors and oppressed; democratic governments were simply tools of the ruling capitalist classes and therefore shams; arms sales by capitalist countries were the primary source of war and the threat of war; and so on.” I had written in the margin when I read this book in the year it was published “will he disprove this.” He did not. He dealt little with global economics. It may be that when people of faith observe economic conditions in other countries that other economic theories seem to explain reality better than capitalism. What he does do is go on in the book to use the philosophy of John Rawls and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr to engage in an abstract justification of American capitalism as a morally superior economic ideology. What we know in the years since Benne’s book is that wealth has continued to flow from poor countries to the rich, that the rules within which the owners of capital must function favor them over the poor, and that business institutions have become very large, powerful actors not only in economic but political realms across the world, trying to make their own rules rather than have to follow laws created through democratic processes. One does not have to be a Marxist or a socialist to ask questions about whether an economic system that wants to be exempt from moral considerations in its decisions and autonomous from legal requirements is going to result in what is best for everyone in either this country or the world. But that seems to be the argument of Robert Benne based on his abstract philosophical argumentation.
What he does not do in his book is use any resources one would expect for one who claims a church tradition. There is nothing from Martin Luther. There is almost nothing from the bible and the prophetic tradition of economic justice. There is nothing about the history of Lutheran thinking and experience on these questions. His primary audience is not the church, we must conclude, it is other social ethicists, yet he purports to teach the church and has engaged in a career of attacking his church on the basis of his philosophical commitments.
Notice in the above quote that Benne says he was the “only American” in the group. Benne writes as if he feels he must try to justify himself as an American. Here I would like to introduce the important distinction between loving God and loving neighbor. To love God means to retreat from the world and from any of our commitments to the things of this world, to go to a holy place and worship the one true God. This creates our identity as the church, as people of faith, a people with a primary allegiance to God not country. We hear in that place that we are to go and love the neighbor, the one other than us and outside of our household of faith. To do that we must know the neighbor, to know the conditions within which the neighbor is living, and various social, political, economic theories may help us to do so. Benne in his meeting in Ireland is sitting with other people of faith who have gone to be with neighbors in many lands. These people of faith have concluded from their first-hand experience that American capitalism is a system and ideology to be criticized. Rather than listen carefully to see to what degree this may be true Benne places his American identity first and foremost. Rather than identify himself with others who share the faith of the church he feels what he later calls “liberal guilt” as an American and decides to engage in a Great Refusal against an ecumenical expression of faith or economic understandings, which means to avoid the guilt, to try to justify himself and the American economy. He has been doing just that for some thirty years now, trying to justify a particular economic ideology and helping Americans avoid guilt for the actions of their government and business institutions around the world. If the church criticizes military actions of the United States or business institutions Benne comes to their aid, and attacks his church.
The great tendency for all of us is to worship first and foremost something other than God, thus breaking the first commandment. In the way Benne describes his partners in ecumenical circles above it seems that they have placed a Marxist related economic view in front of their faith, which means they worship an economic ideology rather than the God who is other than anything in the world. If so, I would criticize them also. But the problem is it is Benne’s writing which reads on the level of a kind of religious confession. That is, Benne really does advocate capitalism so strongly that one cannot help but get the impression that it has become more important for him than anything else. Benne says “I began eating from the tree of economic knowledge…” in the most radical form of market-based economic theory, that of the so-called Chicago school which believes the free market explains all human behavior. “I had gotten acquainted with faculty members of the University of Chicago Business School and Economics Department…..” (p. 3) Now, to read Benne’s glowing account of these teachings leads one to have the feeling he has discovered a new and better church. This feeling is increased when he begins to talk about his affinity with neoconservatism.
Let me introduce the term “solidarity” here. In its basic meaning it refers to those other human beings with whom one declares one’s affinity and association, to those with whom one shares beliefs and views of the world and intellectual perspectives, to those who talk the same language. The last is the key point, all human groupings are created through language; it is through the use of the same terminology that solidarity is created. In this Great Refusal chapter Benne declares his solidarity with the neoconservatives, examples named explicitly are Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Edward Banfield. The neoconservatives during this period were using a term rarely heard anymore, the “New Class.” This class in this interpretation was constituted by intellectuals in public employment, in the media, in the church. As a group it is claimed they share a critique of American capitalism and have “left-liberal or socialist propensities…” (p. 6) Neoconservatives believe this New Class had taken over the country and therefore must be aggressively opposed, a project which, we now know, has been very successful. Into this sinister idea of New Class the neoconservatives place anyone who supported the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt or social welfare programs or questioned militarism in the foreign policy of the nation. This is the source of the name-calling characteristic of recent politics. The New Class figment of neoconservative imagination was associated with “liberals” as a derisive label. We are not talking about careful discussion of policies here, neoconservativism is characterized by its fierceness in attacking its enemies. They have a strong sense of solidarity with one another because they have manufactured a common terminology for a common enemy.
Neoconservative think tanks and publications funded by large corporations have been the prime source for the intellectual content of both foreign and domestic policy of the Republican Party and its leaders for the past three decades. In both his writings and actions Robert Benne is one who has helped further this movement in this country. He has not just voted a particular way or participated in partisan politics now and again, he has been in solidarity with neoconservatism and the Republican Party throughout his career. He has taught the ideology and talked the talk, especially against his own church. His church has been his enemy. As for the so-called New Class it was just an expression of what we now know has been developing for some time now, the “information economy,” an economy based more on the manipulation of symbols than the production of goods. But it is still carried by current Republican electoral rhetoric about the “educated cultural elite.” This paranoid notion of an “elite” which controls the thought of the American people is something we will return to later since Benne is still using it.
I had not known when I met him next that Robert Benne had committed himself so thoroughly to these two conceptual windows by which to view the world, American capitalism and neoconservatism. In 1979 I became pastor of a black middle class congregation on the southside of Chicago, near the seminary at which he taught in Hyde Park which is also where the University of Chicago is located. I attended a workshop led by Benne. He began by saying that there were two ways to begin a study of social problems, begin with the bible or begin with a look at the problem itself. He was going to do the latter. I now realize that Benne never starts with the bible, his views are entirely based on his commitment to particular abstract conceptual interpretations of reality. But what he then said really did cause my head to jerk, a sure sign for me that I was hearing something I was going to have to ponder. He said that if you look at economics from the perspective of the poor you are a Marxist. He was referring to liberation theology which emerged from Latin America which used Marxist social analysis to understand economic life in those countries, countries which have had long histories with American corporations but where there continued to be very large numbers of poor people. Now, all right, liberation theology reads the bible and sees there a commitment to the poor. But does that mean that anyone who is concerned about the poor is a Marxist? After these many years it is clear that for Benne the answer is yes, he has been quite willing to label people. He divides the world into these two categories, one must choose between socialism and capitalism, or, better, between the Communism of the Soviet Union or American capitalism. I use the term “American capitalism” because Benne, remember, was so shocked as an American as he encountered people in other countries who had a critical view of this country. This need to defend American virtue is one of the hallmarks of neoconservatism. In his book Benne himself says he is talking about American capitalism when he uses the phrase “democratic capitalism,” but I think it must be that Benne’s identity as an American is more important than he recognizes as will become clear below, more important, even than reading the bible, that which the church considers the source and norm and content for our faith, more important than being Lutheran with its tradition of suspicion of extraordinary claims on the part of either the state or commercialism.
The views of Robert Benne corresponded very nicely, however, with exactly what was happening politically at the time, an increase of Cold War rhetoric on the part of Ronald Reagan who called the Soviet Union an evil empire to justify huge increases for the military and nuclear arms, increases which, of course, benefit the corporations who build the bombs. Benne leaves that out of his book; there is no analysis of the degree to which the American economy is dependent on taxpayer money for military expenditure, there is no recognition of what Republican Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about, the military-industrial complex. We now know that the Reagan administration lied to the American people about the Soviet threat, that it was a strong country bent on destroying the United States arms must be built up against them. Actually, the Soviet Union was a nation in decline and crumbled due to its own internal failures. This was known by our own intelligence agencies. How each of us interprets history depends on the conceptual windows we use to try to “see” what has happened. My own way of seeing had become very suspicious of Cold War rhetoric, not because I was a Communist or a socialist or had any other commitment to an economic ideology, but because I began to question the degree to which the United States was relying on military solutions to world problems. I and the whole country, I thought, should have learned that from the Vietnam War. But Robert Benne viewed the world through his two primary commitments, American capitalism and neoconservatism and the Cold War rhetoric was central to both views.
Benne was a real cold warrior not only in his views but his actions. The pastors on the southside of Chicago met weekly for text study and mutual support. We were angered to read a full page ad in the paper in support of the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, signed by a social ethicist of our church, Robert Benne. We sent him a letter protesting his action and he ignored us. We were pastors serving in the black community. We saw every day in our ministries that American capitalism was not working for our people, was not giving them an equal chance to gain an adequate income and change their conditions. We identified with a movement in Central America that promised more justice for the poor. We were not socialists, we were not ideological, we just saw with our own eyes every day that American capitalism does not always work for everybody. This was our practical experience. Robert Benne did not care for our experience even though he was our neighbor; the seminary at which he worked was in the very midst of the same communities where we engaged in ministry. He had his own way of seeing things.
I am not exaggerating in what I am saying here. In the workshop I referred to above Benne actually made the comment that the church has to learn the facts about the way the economic system works. He gave an example. He said that he is paid by congregations to speak to adult forums. Money incentives are important in this economy. So it is just natural that he will speak to congregations when he is paid, but may not do so if he is not paid. This is another time when I jerked my head. It was a bit hard to believe. Benne was saying basically that a person, even though serving the church, is always going to be motivated by money. This meant for me that Benne would lend his talents and abilities to suburban congregations who had the money, but not to the mostly black and poor congregations in inner city Chicago. Benne was taking his conceptual commitments very seriously indeed. His rejection of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” was so strong that it leaves out any sense of solidarity with those who have not been able to succeed in a money economy, or better, have not even been allowed to succeed which is the truth we pastors knew who worked in black communities. I can even agree with Benne that money motivation is certainly a factor even in the church. But to hear this said as an affirmation, rather than a critique, leads me to understand Benne as one who does not in the first place care about his own church, pastors in his own church, or even his Lutheran identity as a member of the church. Nor does he believe that a faith commitment can have influence in a person’s decisions; money is the master. I believe it was Jesus who said that one cannot serve both God and mammon.
I can understand why Benne does not want to face the facts of the black community. These facts do not support his uncritical affirmation of American capitalism. In the mid-sixties I worked with a community organization just a few blocks north of Hyde Park. Benne would not have had to travel very far to see these facts of life. One part of my job was to organize tenants in tenements owned by slum landlords. I would chose a building, knock on each door, talk to the residents about any problems they had in the building, and then seek to bring the residents together in meetings at which they would together decide how to deal with the landlord and try to solve the problems. As part of that process I had to learn about property ownership and the legal structure of housing in Chicago. Anyone who makes an absolute ideological commitment to the free market will find what I learned very hard to believe. But any person with any sense of fairness, whatever their political party, will find it a moral outrage.
The market for black housing was very carefully controlled to generate the most amount of money possible for the white people who owned it. I read the minutes of the Chicago Real Estate Board. Specific calculated decisions were made by that board about where black people were allowed to live over time. When a new neighborhood was to be opened up to blacks realtors would canvass it, knocking on each door, informing the white owners that blacks would be moving into the area, that it is well known that housing prices fall when blacks move in, that the realtor would be happy to buy the house right away before the value went down further. After the realtors had bought many of the properties they would show the homes to blacks who would begin to move in. I later served a church in the middle of one of these neighborhoods; I heard the many stories about how this worked. The line around the areas of the city where blacks could live was carefully controlled to make sure that there was increased pressure in the black housing market, which meant there were many more middle class blacks trying to buy homes than the market supplied, which meant that blacks were willing to pay more for the homes than they were worth, much more than what the whites had sold them for. White realtors and investors made incredible amounts of extra money as a result of this racial manipulation of the housing market. This was not a free market, it was a market systematically manipulated by race. It was a market based on rules set up to favor whites over blacks. And that is a key point to realize. The legal system of an otherwise democratic government was used to manipulate the housing market based on race. Robert Benne’s claim in his book that there is adequate separation between government and economy was not true. To blindly affirm American capitalism and refuse to see the reality of how the system is so often rigged is not engaging in responsible social ethical reflection. This does not have to mean socialism is the answer, as if we must choose between two broad abstract theories. It means that we should face the reality that rules should be changed through democratic processes involving everyone in the community to provide for economic justice.
But it gets worse. The above example considered single family homes. In Chicago many of the neighborhoods were made up of three story apartment units. Each story was a large, spacious apartment. When these areas were opened to black housing it was white people who bought the units and converted them to tenement housing. What they did was break each apartment into, say, three small units, added one in the basement, so that each building was no longer just three apartments but ten! Remember, there is a line around the places blacks could live, they had to live within that line, and the line is constricted so there is high demand for housing among blacks, and that raised considerably the rent that could be charged for each converted apartment. White owners made out like bandits, because, that’s what they were. Just imagine the massive amounts of money white people made over years and years from these racially manipulated housing practices. Some of that money went to Robert Benne as payment for his talks at suburban churches extolling the merits of the so-called free market.
But it gets even worse. At the time white slum landlords were allowed to depreciate their properties each year for seven years (if I remember correctly, it was seven years) on their taxes. This meant that after seven years they would sell the property to another slum landlord. They could take this depreciation without investing anything in the property, without fixing it up or maintaining it. So the white slumlords would never fix anything, or do so at the very lowest possible cost, knowing that they could make their money and sell after seven years. Into these small apartments large families of black people moved because it was all that was available. Where three white families had lived now there were ten black families. Now there were thirty or forty people in each building, in each block, in each neighborhood. Black people were literally stuffed and packed into these neighborhoods, all designed to make as much money as possible for white owners and investors. Of course, the buildings and neighborhoods would deteriorate, housing conditions caused social disfunction, other facilities in the neighborhood were not adequate for the new concentrated population, schools became overcrowded and declined. Then white people would say, “Look what they have done to the neighborhood,” blaming black people. This is overwhelming, intolerable hypocrisy. It is not a free market. Chicago slums were created by an American capitalism operating within a legally-rigged market. That is the solid truth. And it has happened not only in Chicago but in cities all across this nation. That is a good reason for the liberal guilt that Robert Benne wants to avoid. It is also reason for what is even more important, conservative guilt. Because it has been conservative economic belief that has provided the ideological justification for these conditions, refusing to face the degree to which racism functions to legally take black people’s money and put it in white people’s pockets. You don’t have to be a Marxist to share moral outrage at these practices. Yes, Marx taught that capitalists set the rules in favor of themselves and this is just what happened in Chicago with the help the Democratic political machine. So, yes, in this case Marx was right. But recognizing that does not make one a Marxist, it should lead all of us to try to prove Marx wrong, to change the democratic process so that everyone can have a voice in the conditions in which they live. Black people were left out of the democratic process so rules could be established which took advantage of them. But for Benne if you criticize capitalism out of a concern for the poor you are a Marxist. He calls names. He is stuck in Cold War rhetoric and either/or thinking.
When Robert Benne was writing his book on American capitalism all of this was all around him but he could not or would not see it. He didn’t have to go to Ireland to hear something about how capitalism was not working to the benefit of poor people He could have walked over a few blocks to see for himself, though in those neighborhoods a white person would not have wanted to walk in the daytime let alone at night. Benne was absorbed in abstractions, justifying capitalism through high-level conceptual argument, not reading the bible, not feeling in solidarity with his church, certainly not feeling in solidarity with the poor. In his book he talks about the anguish he feels over his new commitment to American capitalism, that his heart is with those who stand for justice, but his head leads him to think rather than feel. I think maybe Benne gave up his heart years ago in favor of his head.
I think that because of something he has just written, a summary of his earlier experience in Chicago with the civil rights movement, in an article in the January, 2006, issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics . It is a moving article, even passionate. He explains in another way why he turned from justice to capitalism as a primary commitment. As long as black people sought to reform the system that kept them oppressed he was on their side. But when the black freedom movement turned radical, when black power became important, when social reformers started talking about revolution, Benne decided to turn away not only from radicalism but from the “liberal idealism” of the early 1960s. “In these upheavals I found out how deeply I disagreed with the liberal Protestant transformist vision, i.e., that the central mission of the church is to transform society toward the Kingdom of God through social action.” Now with these words Benne associates liberal Protestantism with black radicalism and turns away from it. Even though Martin Luther King was killed by a white man, exposing to the world the rage existing with the black community all along, Robert Benne ends up telling us that black people went too far by demanding control over their own communities. He does what most white people do, blame black people for the conditions in which they are forced to live by white people and for the rage that blacks experience in their bodies and souls as a result. We are not here talking about grand visions of social perfection as Benne claims, we are talking about the incredible strength of racism and the refusal of this society to see what it has done and continues to do to black people. Benne had a heart for racial justice, he had felt the pain of blacks to some degree, he had felt himself in solidarity with these folks who have more than any other group experienced such utter powerlessness in this society, but when the going got tough he escaped into his head, he began to construct elaborate conceptualizations to justify the way things are so that he could go speak to white suburban churches to make them feel all right about themselves, and associated himself politically with those who have done everything in their power to avoid facing the depth of the realities of racism in this culture. As I wrote the words above on racial injustice about housing in Chicago I felt the old rage I used to feel daily rising up again in my own soul. It is the rage that comes with a sense of solidarity with those who are abused and misused. Living and working in poor black communities it is impossible not to feel that rage because everyone is feeling it. My own analysis at the time led me to conclude that the only solution for black people was for them to announce one day that “this community belongs to us” and refuse any white slum landlords to come to collect any more rent for housing that blacks had already paid for multiple times over. It was a radical thought. It was a thought like the thirteen colonies entertained when they decided to revolt against the king of England. I knew it couldn’t happen. Property rights, the legal system, the police working on behalf of property owners would not allow it. Such an insurrection would mean a lot of black people would be simply killed. Power is in the hands of whites against blacks, justified by notions of capitalism. That’s the truth. Just live with it, just try to live…in spite of the rage. But it is wrong, as Benne does, to blame blacks for entertaining the dream of controlling their own communities; I do not blame black power advocates. And tragically, the fact is that nothing blacks did at the time would make much difference in how the system worked; white people control the government and use it to their benefit. The forces of reaction, what I call backlash politics, had begun soon after King was killed, Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 and soon began the dismantling of the programs of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the clamp came down on the mood of optimism created in the black community by the willingness of Democrats such as John F. Kennedy to use federal power to enforce civil rights in South and North. The politics of the country ever since the sixties has been controlled by these forces of reaction to the achievements of the black freedom movement. Benne did what most white people did, turned against black people. Three of the primary institutional vehicles of this backlash are the religious right, neoconservatism, and corporate enterprise. Robert Benne has been a fierce advocate for all three, against his heart and against his own church.
In 1989 I was a delegate to the founding assembly of the ELCA held in Chicago. An issue concerning the church’s social statements came up. Benne was one pushing the idea that the vote of the assembly should be printed on each social statement. Benne wanted to weaken the statements and I spoke on the floor against the proposal. I said that the social statements were not so much legislative but teaching documents for the church. They are not legislative because pastors and congregations can ignore them as they desire. To put the vote on the document would detract from their teaching value. My view did not prevail. I mention the incident here only to indicate that Benne was at this time working against the concept that the church had a public teaching responsibility because he did not have confidence in what his church would teach. It had become a “liberal Protestant denomination” with nothing good to say. But there were other churches teaching what had become his political priorities, they were not Lutheran, they were part of the religious right. Revivalism has a long history in this country. The main figure in the recent past is Billy Graham who engaged in the rhetoric of the Cold War to build audiences in his crusades. Television preachers emerged in the 1980s out of the South preaching God and country, Jerry Falwell is Southern Baptist, Pat Robertson is Pentecostal. I systematically watched these preachers over several months to see what they were saying. The content was much more about a holy fight against Communism than Jesus. In fact, the idea was to convert everyone in the United States so that it could win the war against atheism. The nation was an agent of God’s salvation of the world (such teaching is heresy for Lutherans). In the late 1980’s a conservative member of a suburban church I was then serving brought me a magazine from the Jimmy Swaggert organization containing the content he thought I should be preaching. It contained several articles about the evils of Communism, nothing from the bible, nothing about Jesus, except one page on which it was stated, “If reading this leads you to accept Jesus as your personal savior please send your donation to….” I mention these matters because many people do not realize the degree to which the religious right relies on political content in its preaching. These preachers believe in the religious market-place, whatever builds big audiences is all right to preach, and religious nationalism sells well. Now, a Lutheran pastor preaching from the Lutheran tradition simply does not preach this way. We hold that salvation is through Christ alone, through the Word alone, through faith alone, not the state, not any law, not through any particular ideology or social structure or nation. We have always been suspicious of any God and country talk. I remember a conversation with my own mother about the small Lutheran country church she attended in North Dakota as a young girl. She told me how they were warned against attending the “tent meetings” that came around from time to time because all they preached was “God and country.” Now, my mother had a pastor who knew the Lutheran tradition! That pastor understood that Pentecostalism was a distortion of Christian faith, an Americanized version of Christianity. A Lutheran pastor or professor teaching the church today should similarly warn against such Pentecostal leaders as Pat Robertson.
But for Robert Benne the religious right preaches what he thinks the country needs. He is a neoconservative, and neoconservatives have two key beliefs: belief in free-market capitalism and belief in military dominance of the United States over the world to promote capitalism. A third key project of the neoconservatives is to use religion to develop and maintain these two beliefs. Neoconservatives are not necessarily Christian, they don’t care what religion is used as long as that religion will promote free-market capitalism and national glory through military dominance. Notice here that religious faith is to serve the interests of capitalism and nationalism, it should not be a source of criticism of these ideologies. Religion is to serve the state. These are the ideological bed-fellows of social ethicist Robert Benne. I criticize neoconservatism on the basis of the command of Jesus, love God and neighbor.
To love God means that nothing in this world is God. It is one thing to believe that the free-market is the best way to organize many aspects of society, it is another to make it into an ideology by which to explain everything and justify inordinate power of one institution, business enterprise, over all others including democratic government. Neoconservatives believe so strongly in capitalism that it becomes for them another god, a false god. So also we can be thankful for our country, believe it is a good country, but it is quite another thing to believe that we are the only good country, that only our ideas and beliefs are true, that we should use military might to make sure everyone else in the world believes as we do and does what is best for us. The extreme nationalism of neoconservatives raises belief in the country to the level of religious faith, faith in a false god. When capitalism and nationalism are raised to the level of religious faith they become idols, false gods, they become the source of evil for the neighbor, for others in the world unlike us. The ELCA along with other Protestant mainline churches do not place their faith in false gods such as capitalism and nationalism. They have been willing to challenge the United States to stand for peace in the world rather than militarism, willing to criticize business corporations if they pollute the environment, willing to encourage government to provide programs for the health and welfare of citizens without the resources to provide for themselves, willing to support civil rights for all people where they live or are employed. For these kinds of actions Robert Benne attacks his church. He has been harping and carping against the social statements of his church for decades now. He is like other neoconservatives who engage in name-calling against anyone who disagrees with them. In the old Cold War rhetoric the term for those concerned with the needs of the poor was Marxist or Communist, now it is simply “liberal”. The ELCA, Benne says, is just another of those liberal mainline denominations.
In April, 2005, Benne was asked by the Journal of Lutheran Ethics to write an article on civil religion in the United States. In the article he calls for the “appropriation” of a civil religion by Lutherans. This has been a major goal of the religious right which indicates Benne has now explicitly joined in the campaign for religious nationalism. Five other Lutheran scholars were asked to comment on Benne’s article. None of them agreed with it, saying it was not in the tradition of Lutheran social ethics which questions natural theology, any revelation of God other than that revealed in Jesus Christ. In his article Benne had referred to this Lutheran tradition and expressly rejected it, referring to Lutherans who taught it as an “elite” who were not in touch with the American people.
This use of the word “elite” is the clue to understanding where Benne is coming from, as mentioned above. Neoconservatives believe a “New Class” of elites dominates public consciousness of the country, liberal government workers, liberal media, liberal church leaders. They say these liberals hate the country, they hate capitalism, they hate common people, they are atheists and relativists and secular humanists. This is an absurd notion, but it has been repeated again and again so much now that this language has itself become dominate in public consciousness. Liberals are immoral atheists! This language has worked to elect Republican politicians for the last thirty years or more who now control all three branches of government. So-called liberalism and liberal politicians have never been weaker than they are now but that doesn’t matter, they are to still to blame for everything that is wrong. When government is in the hands of people with such absurd and wrong-headed thinking, even claiming God is only on their side, and who are trying to create a civil religion to use in holy war, it should make all of us worry very seriously about the future.
The civil religion article refers specifically to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation for Church and State. Benne says these organizations which oppose religious symbols and language in the public sphere are “moving in a direction approved by many Europeans and most mainstream Protestant and Lutheran theologians.” At least Benne is admitting that he is out of the mainstream of Lutheran theology in his support for civil religion. But by mentioning these two groups by name and associating “most Lutheran theologians” with these groups Benne is using the language of the religious right which absolutely hates the ACLU, he is participating actively in the cultural wars, he is, again, name-calling by saying Lutheran theologians are on the side of liberals who are opposed to religion. This is the same simplistic either/or thinking we have seen before. Lutherans have their own very good reasons from their own historic tradition to question civil religion. Benne doesn’t seem to care for that tradition so he resorts to the political language that the religious right and the Republican Party have been using in partisan politics. This is unworthy of one who is supposed to be a teacher in the church.
But in the entire article there is not one specific name of any of the television preachers and organizations of the religious right who are right now pushing strongly for an official civil religion in this country, no mention of the history of the Cold War which provided the conditions for the development of the religious right and its promotion of holy war. By leaving all of this out Benne is not being honest about the current political context and who is involved and what is at stake. There are currently a large number of congresspersons who explicitly endorse the definitions of the religious right for “civil religion” including placing explicitly religious language in the constitution of the United States. Benne is not honest about the Southern influence in the religious right and its beginnings as a movement against the gains of the civil rights movement. He does not mention how strong the hysterical end times beliefs are in the religious right and its Christian Zionism and its explicit promotion of holy war. He says that civil religion can be “critically appropriated” but does not specifically refer to any of these groups in a critical way. He is critical of Lutherans but by omitting any analysis of the groups of the religious right yet using their language he is declaring his support for them. It is a sort of stealth technique of argumentation rather characteristic in my other readings of neoconservatives.
Robert Benne has given up on Lutheran theology just as he decided those years ago to align himself with neoconservatives. Since neoconservativism aligns itself so strongly with the religious right Benne can not avoid the association himself. That is how he is talking now, against his church. And Benne is dishonest by discussing civil religion with no reference to current political context. Many people are not aware of the degree to which the electoral victories of George W. Bush in Texas and the United States have been very strategically calculated by Karl Rove to appeal to religious right voters and the very precise views these voters have concerning public policy on abortion, sex education, public schools, homosexuals, Israel, prayer in schools, foreign affairs, and a host of other matters. These folks have a very specific definition of civil religion and it is associated with one political party which deliberately seeks to use religion as a means to win political victories. When George Bush and religious right leaders use the word “God” it means what they want it to mean, which is to support their particular views on all these matters. This campaign has been so successful these days that it is as if to believe in God is to vote for George Bush and not to do so means you are an atheist and against all religion. God is up for majority vote. This is the reality we face in this country right now and Benne does not speak squarely about it, in fact he is actually promoting it and using the same language. This means he has become himself a political partisan. Now, that is just fine if he would say it clearly, he like all of us are free in our system of government to have different political views. The problem is that Benne is using his position as a teacher of the church to very strongly push a Republican political agenda without being honest about it. As a pastor of the church I disagree completely with the idea that God should be up for a majority vote and especially that God should be associated with a particular political agenda from a negative and strident religious movement. But for Lutherans the situation is even more serious than a mere matter of political opinion. We are talking about God here, we are talking about who God is, we are talking about how to speak of God and knowing God’s will for us and others and the world. We are talking about how we witness to God in public, how we stand up to make an evangelical confession of faith in God. These are very, very serious matters indeed. Religious right leaders trivialize God by associating God with their own narrow political views. This is a form of idolatry. Benne says the “American civil religion” is irrepressible, millions of Americans believe in it, and therefore Lutherans should go along too for the sake of the country. This religion gives the country its “identity” and provides the country motivation to engage in its “mission.” In spite of the fact that this civil religion is a “lowest common denominator” type religion, with no firm content for what is meant by the word “God” Benne says this religion does provide for transcendence beyond the state by which the state can be evaluated according to the will of God. But who is this God? What is the content of God’s will? When the president uses the words “God bless America” it is apparently all right, according to Benne, for each listener to insert his or her own definition of who God is, his or her own content for what God may be requiring of us. Benne seems to be saying any religious language is always beneficial in some way, ignoring completely the first commandment, you shall have no other gods before you. It seems to me I remember something of church history, that when early Christians as adults were baptized one of the things they did was to renounce all other gods. Benne is telling us that whatever god happens to be defined in American civil religion is all right, whatever a particular president might mean by god is all right, it’s good for the country. In this formulation the country itself becomes more important than God and that is idolatry pure and simple.
But it gets worse. Benne says that Lutherans can place their own interpretations on civil religion, that when the president uses the word God it need not mean what the president means, it can mean what Lutherans want it to mean, as if it is not important how a president is defining god. The word god is just a catch-all for whatever definition a hearer wants to place on it. He says for Lutherans “the civil religion is a religion of the First Article. It affirms God the Creator, Sustainer, Command-Giver, and Judge.” It doesn’t make any difference that other hearers will place their own definitions on the language of civil religion, we Lutherans can use our own understandings. Now, for me, this is simply outrageous. It is difficult to believe Benne puts this forward. It is pretty much the Supreme Court definition of God, ceremonial deism, which says that the word god can be used in public life because it doesn’t mean anything specific. How can the people of the country truly be “united,” which Benne says is one of the functions of civil religion, if they are all interpreting God in different ways? It’s because any one interpretation is not important so God is not important; what’s important is uniting the country by any means necessary, including malicious use of civil religion. The president can call the nation to holy war against atheists and believers in other religions in the name of our own national idol, an undefined and generalized “god” of the United States of America. Benne says we Lutherans can participate in this holy war because we think this civil idol is the God of the first article of the Apostles Creed. This is false teaching.
So on the one hand Benne says that the definition of God can be anything anyone wants and on the other hand the God of civil religion is actually the Christian God of the first article. This is hopelessly confusing and illogical. If Benne is serious that Lutherans should worship the God of civil religion as God of the first article then he is promoting a theological heresy concerning the nature of the triune God which cannot be separated into separately acting persons alone. We get the whole God in each of the persons of God and it is completely improper to teach anyone that it is possible to worship just one piece of God. Benne is teaching false doctrine. At any particular moment in history the fact is that politicians who appeal to divine authority have very particular ideas in mind for what constitutes obedience to that authority. History is littered with examples of political leaders who try to use God to legitimize their power over others. When George Bush uses religious language he and the American people know fairly clearly what he is referring to since he has identified himself with a very particular religious expression; he is using God for his political agenda and has been willing to use religious language in a way that is polarizing and dividing the American people and creating a most nasty political climate. It is he and the Republican Party who are doing this, not the Democratic Party. This has been working for Republicans; they are getting elected on the basis of claims to divine authority.
Robert Benne joins in this political use of religion which is a serious compromise of Lutheran faith. Lutherans have a helpful theological tradition about these matters that Benne ignores. Luther taught, indeed, that God acts through government, but it is not necessary for government to acknowledge God for this to occur. The religious right sectarian groups have so committed themselves to the idea of believers’ baptism, that it takes a human decision for God to work, that they see everything through this false doctrine. It is necessary for government to expressly witness to God in their understanding. Lutherans have no such understanding. God is going to do what God does no matter what human beings say or do. It takes no human decision for God to be both righteous and merciful. No civil religion is necessary for God to do what God does.
Furthermore, Luther taught that God works through government in a hidden manner. That is, law requires violence, law is enforced through violence or threat of violence, and God allows law to work to preserve social order, but violence is not a part of the nature of God, one does not come to know God through the work of the state, through law, one comes to know the one true God only through Jesus Christ. That is where God is visible, everywhere else God is hidden. The creator God becomes known only through the preaching of law and gospel in the church; there is no other natural or general revelation of God in all God’s triune fullness. So no president, no political party, no human agency of any kind can claim to represent the divine authority of God in specific terms. Furthermore, Luther taught that Christians are not able to rule with any more wisdom than non-Christians. Christians do not have any special revelation from God that would give them divine authority for their political viewpoints. God has provided everyone with a measure of practical rationality and sense of fairness and justice, with no special religious knowledge, so that society is able to preserve itself from total breakdown. The biblical God judges not on the basis of whether or not God’s name is used in public but on the basis of whether justice is done in human affairs. I cannot here explicate all the fullness of the Lutheran traditional teaching on social ethics and relation of church and state. But I hope these brief comments are enough to show how different it is from civil religion. In fact, we as Lutherans now face a real crisis of confession since we live in a time when so many and such large claims are being made by a religious movement and a political party about their special knowledge of God’s will. I believe that we Lutherans must stand and confess that the religious right has introduced a false gospel, an alien religion, a false teaching into the political context of our nation. Robert Benne were he faithful to the Lutheran heritage could not be promoting a civil religion.
In fact I think that the Lutheran heritage contains insights and understandings which could be very helpful within current political debates. It is very sad Robert Benne has not used his great skills to assist both his church and his country by putting forward that heritage within our current context. He made some very bad decisions those years ago.
Robert Benne has long since abandoned careful thought; he has become a name-caller, a true believer, repeating over and over the same charges against his church. In an article in the neoconservative magazine First Things in November, 2005, he attacks his church again and again to the glee of his neoconservative readers. He doesn’t like the way the church has chosen to elect its representatives to church-wide assemblies which accents laypersons and minorities and doesn’t adequately include theologians such as himself. He denigrates pastors who are theologically trained to preach the Lutheran gospel because they thereby do not reflect the opinions of laypeople, they are “out of touch” with the way the people are thinking. Yes, indeed, the gospel comes from outside the people, it comes from someplace else, a holy place, it comes to us not to support our opinions but to challenge our sin. In this article Benne repeats all these charges again, now within the context of a debate over ordination of gay persons in committed relationships and blessing of same-sex unions.
There he uses the term “progressive” to attack the mood of the August, 2005, Assembly of the ELCA and its leaders. He says a progressive spirit is working in the church so strongly that it will not be long until homosexuals will enjoy ordination and blessings of the church. The word progressive is being used today by people who previously referred to themselves as liberal, so now Benne derisively calls his church progressive as if this were the most terrible thing. If you were to look at talking points of the Republican Party you would see that Benne basically uses these points to criticize his church. But since the Republican Party and the religious right have joined hands it means that any political or religious expression not matching those religious right views must be part of the Democratic platform. It is simplistic either/or thinking. Robert Benne, neoconservativism, and the religious right have intolerably created a divisive political climate within which you must accept their ideas and programs or you are a Marxist, Communist, liberal, secular humanist, or whatever else bad term you can think of. Benne has become a Republican apostle on the religious right. He has given up the Lutheran tradition and this is sad, to say the least.
It is my own view that the church cannot allow itself to be captured or divided by any ideology or political party. The church lives from gospel preaching and teaching based on the Word of God, Jesus Christ, known from holy scripture. The church is made up of all people of all incomes and classes, all racial and ethnic groups, and follows its Lord when it cares for the poor. The church’s political involvements should be based on advocacy for the least of these among us whatever political party is in control. It should be based on wise, thoughtful, careful analysis of the way things are since we live in a very complicated society. But to flippantly call concern for the poor liberal or progressive or Marxist is completely ridiculous Cold War thinking. The main reason the Republican Party should be questioned these days is because it has sought the vote and seeks to govern based on a particular religious expression in today’s culture, the religious right, which does not represent the historic, orthodox understanding of Lutherans or any of the Protestant bodies. It is a sectarian, American version of religion which must be opposed by those maintaining the historic faith. Robert Benne is an extreme partisan; he in essence wants the ELCA to join the Republican Party. For any Lutheran, no matter party affiliation, this is wrong, especially today when we must seek to understand God not within the narrow window of our own national perspective, but within a global context.
And that points to my final criticism of Benne’s article on civil religion. The article does not take into account the pressing fact that today we must understand faith in God not as a civil religion for our own country but through a global perspective which opens us to a God who has created all the heavens and the earth. This is the absolute wrong time to be proposing that Americans believe in their own national god over other nations and other religions. Benne would do well to read a book by Richard Horsley called Jesus and Empire. Horsley suggests that people of faith in this country today are like early Christians in relation to the Roman Empire. We live within the largest military power of the world. Neoconservatives believe that this power should be exercised in the world today to the glory of this country; we should not be one country among other countries, the United States should maintain primacy and dominance over all others. We should not work through the United Nations but we should exercise power unilaterally according to our own national interests alone. And neoconservatives urge that religious faith be used to support and further this goal. Benne does not discuss this neoconservative belief in American empire and therefore is again dishonest about what it means to promote a civil religion.
Benne wants the nation to use the Christian God to justify its use of the military to further its interests no matter what happens to the neighbor God has called us to love. In a talk Benne gave about the Iraq war he said that the ELCA should not speak about the war because religious leaders don’t have the foreign policy expertise of those in the Bush administration. Those experts, of course, are the neoconservatives who espouse the perspective Benne feels is correct, the use of the military to dominate other nations. He doesn’t believe his church has anything helpful to say. I believe such use of God is, again, idolatry. Remember at the beginning of this article I referred to the fact Benne had a personal crisis when he confronted people of faith in Dublin who from their faith were willing to criticize American power in the world. He dedicated himself to defending American virtue. Benne should open his eyes to see that not everything that this country has done or is doing in this world is virtuous and just. One of the primary reasons for that has to do with the role of multi-national corporations in the world today.
The very large blind spot of Benne’s intellectual work, neoconservatism, and the religious right has to do with the power of economic institutions in today’s world. Capitalist ideology as an intellectual construct is used to justify inordinate power of these actual institutions within society. This ideology assumes the classic liberal focus on the rational individual; rationality is understood as a calculation to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. During my time in Chicago and since Benne was preaching the truth of the Chicago school of economics I sat down to read some of their books. I was amazed to read the degree to which neoclassical economics relies on a reductionist pain-pleasure view of human nature. Yhere is no concern here with social bonds, social structures such as the family, or moral values as a basis for making economic decisions. Human beings are pleasure seeking individuals and that’s all. Modern economic institutions try to deliver pleasure to modern individuals and convince them through modern media that it is, indeed, their personal pleasure that they should consider most important. The message is not love the neighbor, the message is to love the self, do what feels good. Benne is concerned about this individualism which comes out of classic liberalism, and so am I. He is concerned to support social institutions such as the family and so am I. Why then does he not see that it is the most powerful institution, American business, that is the primary purveyor of individualism within our culture?
As Benne well knows from works by Daniel Bell such as The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism the result of a focus on individual pleasure-seeking is that it has created an increasingly hedonistic society destructive of traditional social institutions. The problem is that rather than blame the actual source of this drive to hedonism, modern business institutions, he and the religious right and neoconservativism blame people themselves for moral depravity. Such a diagnosis is totally wrong so their solutions are not going to work. New laws about personal behavior having to do with abortion, putting ten commandments on courthouse walls, prohibiting gay marriage, adopting a civil religion, none of these things are going to have anything to do with what the religious right calls social breakdown. It is caused by modern business institutions and the immense power they have in modern communications. With mass marketing through radio and television and other methods business has access to the minds and hearts of young people in ways never before possible. A youth market was created with the new communication methods through which modern business enterprise is able to convince the young to participate in the consumer economy, “do what YOU want to do,” the message says, “be free,” no matter what your parents say. When religious right preachers come along and then blame parents for not providing their children with firm moral values they are missing the boat. Parents are the victims of mass marketing, not the cause. These preachers, of course, want the funding providing by large corporations so they hesitate to criticize them. It is the combination of modern business and social conservatism that provides the base of the Republican Party these days, a most unholy alliance, one that must fail at some point, because the one is the true cause of the problems considered crucial by the other. This is a very large blind spot in the social/economic analysis of the neoconservatives. After a long period of Republican rule in this country very little progress has been made on solving the problems social conservatives are so concerned about. But a great deal has been accomplished on behalf of corporations and the wealthy of the country giving them more wealth and more control over cultural life. Republicans get elected on social issues and then serve the interests of modern business, not parents, not young people, not the middle class, certainly not the poor.
Economics no longer even primarily has to do with production of material goods; it has to do with creating culture, creating personal and social identities, creating beliefs and wants and desires, telling people to gain pleasure through consumption. With corporations in charge of the culture we are marching toward a future of hedonism destructive of social life and local community. Conservatives don’t like that, but they get their money from the corporation so they can’t criticize it, so they blame the so-called liberals. That game cannot work forever but it is working now and Robert Benne is one of the persons playing it. Benne says in his book on democratic capitalism that there is enough distance between economics and politics for each to do its job effectively and that government should not over-regulate the economy. Well, since he wrote his book we have seen the steady increase of influence of corporations over government and politics. It used to be we could say that corporations just tried to minimize government regulation; now we have to say that corporations have been able to literally take over the government to do what the corporations want including direct payments of tax money, not least for military equipment justified among the populace by generating paranoid fear of others. The government of the United States is no longer a government of the people, it is a government of business interests. It is corporations who dominate the media itself; far from being a “liberal media” the media is owned and operated by business. Even politicians have to pay huge amounts to media companies to pay for the ads necessary to get a message to the American people. To raise the money they need they have to receive large contributions from corporations and the wealthy, whether Democrat or Republican.
With these few illustrations I simply want to demonstrate the massive power corporate institutions wield within our contemporary world. The corporations need help in convincing the American people that this power is justified otherwise it would not be allowed. The religious right and neoconservatives have provided that help through their ideological justification. Anyone willing to make an effort to tell the truth is marginalized and castigated or called an elite liberal. And that is what Robert Benne does to his own church.
It is strange that Benne has taken this political posture. Even in his book on democratic capitalism there are parts of it that could be used to support concern for the poor, especially in his discussion of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, not a book usually associated with conservatism. (Benne doesn’t like Rawls book on Political Liberalism since it says classic liberalism of constitutional democracies and its political processes are not designed to address universal religious claims). And in his 1995 book entitled The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century Benne demonstrates that he certainly does know the Lutheran tradition of theology and ethics. But he explicitly says in that book that the church should hesitate to speak in public; the church should be more humble and less ambitious in its engagement with public issues, the church must be careful in its political advocacy. But he is saying that to his church, not to neoconservatism and the religious right or American capitalism. This book reflects careful scholarship; one would wish that Benne was more careful in his own political pronouncements and commitments, such as endorsing the religious right’s goal of creating an official civil religion in the country. I think the use of the word “paradox” is unfortunate, however. This word provides the central organizing concept of the book. Benne says Lutherans believe in a series of paradoxes. I am not here going to discuss all of them. I will just say that the term paradox is not helpful because it raises the issues in terms of intellectual quandaries. It is as if you have to believe two things that are opposites so there you are, stuck. So Lutherans are told you just have to believe what seems a logical contradiction. Take the “paradox” concerning human nature, that we are saints and sinners at the same time. I suggest it is much better to use the term “dialectic” for this so-called paradox. Dialectic refers to two forces in active opposition, not an intellectual quandary. For Martin Luther the internal life of an individual is like a war zone, it is the place where God and the devil are fighting with one another for the soul of the self, reflecting the war among social/economic/political institutions going on in the external world in which both God and the devil are also involved. At one time I give in to the devil and sin, at another time I give in to God in faith, each of these are forces within me at the same time and I am constantly having to choose between the power of the gospel of God’s love (so I can love the neighbor) and the power of the devil to save myself (at the expense of or despite the neighbor). Since I and everyone else too often chooses to side with evil we all need the law of government to preserve us enough so we have a chance to hear the gospel so that we can choose to live according to God’s Spirit of love. This is what Lutherans call the first use of the law. Notice I say the law of government here, not the so-called natural law of the marketplace, the latter is a human construction and one which has only been developed in the last couple hundred years. We need government in human hands, human beings making decisions, to understand Luther here. Luther placed no great salvation in government (“A wise ruler is a rare bird.”) but he did teach that through law God uses government to preserve creation.
I would call the so-called natural law of the market today, in the way it functions as an ideology to justify immoral decisions within economic institutions, an “evil” force in society today, it is the devil tempting those in powerful positions to use that power for their own advantage at the expense of others, and in today’s world, at the expense of the very physical carrying capacity of the earth to sustain human life itself. For Luther God and the devil are not abstract conceptions, they are the most real dialectical forces inside the hearts and minds of individuals and institutional systems. I accept the idea of the free market as a limited economic theory about how economics itself works but I completely reject it as an idea for how politics works, or religion works, or social life works or cultural development works. And, most importantly, the idea of the free market is not just an idea or a theory, it has become a grand ideological justification for business enterprise to do anything it wants to make money without concern to take moral values into account. Because of his commitments to the religious right and neoconservatism Benne is not able to write a book that reveals the degree to which economic ideology has become a way to justify (note the word) decisions and actions by the most powerful actors in today’s world rather than calling these actors and institutions to stand before a holy and righteous God who demands justice and mercy in human affairs. Yes, it is a war going on inside each of us all the time, whether to serve this God or the devil. We are justified only by this God ultimately, not any economic theory or excuse that “the money made me do it.” Robert Benne doesn’t want his church to speak loudly, he believes everything will be all right if we let the powerful make decisions on economic motives to maximize their own self interest, then things will work out the best for all, for the poor and everyone else. This is, of course, capitalistic belief in the invisible hand, taken over by Adam Smith in 1776 from the religious notion of the providence of God. The theory has been helpful in creating modernity, creating wealth, but it has now become a false god, an idol for justifying greed, not the God of justice; it must be named for what it is, especially now that these matters affect the whole world and the future of the earth. Robert Benne is a true believer in this false god. He doesn’t believe there is a religious and moral war going on inside each person between loving God/neighbor and the temptation of the invisible hand to live for one’s own pleasure. At least, he doesn’t want the church to preach this truth. He believes the future comes about by the invisible hand of modern economic theory, not the decisions of human beings. Ethics is not needed in that scheme of things, a strange position for an ethicist, but it matches Benne’s urging that the church should not be speaking up much in public because it’s not really needed, at least his own church.
But Benne wants the neoconservatives to speak up. In the paradox book Benne points to three people he suggests as models of what a public theologian should be, none of them Lutheran, and his real hero is Richard John Neuhaus who had turned away from Lutheranism and is now a Roman Catholic priest. Neuhaus as editor of the neoconservative magazine First Things speaks up quite a bit indeed. The Catholic theologian Garry Wills says in an article in The New York Review of Books that Neuhaus is a favorite in the White House; George Bush calls him “Father Richard.” Let me tell you about Neuhaus. If there is one person who has done the most damage to the public witness of the Protestant churches it is Richard John Neuhaus. He is the Joe McCarthy of the church, seeing a Communist or a Marxist in every corner of the church, another real cold warrior. He gained his notoriety, which he calculated like a political operative, through the Institute for Religion and Democracy by publicly attacking the World Council of Churches in the 1970s because it included representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia was, of course, a Communist nation at the time. He attacked the Protestant churches for supporting liberation movements in poor countries. These were systematic, regular attacks in the public media, designed for maximum public exposure to cause trouble for the Protestant bodies, undercut their legitimacy and credibility in public life and turn laypersons against the leadership. Neuhaus has worked at this for a couple decades. The attacks worked.
Ever since that attack the media has discounted the voice of Protestantism in this country. This is the man Robert Benne lifts up as a great public theologian. Now that the Cold War is over, there is the need to find another enemy, so the Neuhaus organization is going after Protestant bodies for promoting so-called liberal causes such as suggesting that God cares for people who are gay and lesbian. The Cold War really did create mental habits that have been hard to give up for neoconservatives like Benne and Neuhaus. Neuhaus literally built his reputation with such mental habits, name-calling, bearing false witness, trying to literally destroy the church in its Protestant expression. Father Richard has earned his place in the White House the old fashioned Republican way of politics, at least as practiced in the last three decades, destroy the character of your opponent using whatever methods necessary. Benne is proud of him; I think he is despicable. It is Protestant faith and Protestant people who built this country, who built the schools and hospitals and social service agencies and businesses in local communities all across this nation, where businessmen cared for their communities and contributed to the less fortunate. It was Protestant faith that taught people to be responsible, to be fair in their business dealings, to care for others, to go into the world to do what is good and helpful and merciful. It was Protestants who understood themselves as a public church, caring for the whole territory within which they found themselves. We Protestants today should look at Richard John Neuhaus and call him what he is for his attack on Protestantism, for using dirty tricks to gain personal glory, a partisan political hack, since that’s his role now anyway in the White House. God bless his soul. George Bush should listen to those Catholic Bishops who are much more careful in their social, economic, and political perspectives and reject the extremism of Neuhaus.
Any theologian claiming to write today a “public theology” must do so with an eye on the most significant movement of the last decades summarized with the word “globalization.” In the 1970s business enterprise began to go global and that process has exploded since the end of the Cold War especially with the development of small computers linked through Internet technologies. Any theologian working in the United States must realize that he or she is working within a powerful giant on the world stage. Any theologian who takes as a starting point the ideology of neoconservatism, as Robert Benne does, with its goal of national glory and even ultimate empire for the United States over all other countries is one who should be very seriously questioned by anyone who believes in the God who has created all people in all nations, the God who wills peace and justice for the world God loves. These are not small matters of partisan politics and personal importance. They are the reality of the world set before us each day as we wake up to try to love God and neighbor. How should we act responsibly in this now global world? As we saw earlier, such a question is actually not important for Robert Benne. He believes that mysterious economic powers will work everything out automatically. If he is faithful to neoconservatism and Republican policies at the present time then he does not encourage development of anything like world democratic governance. He would oppose strengthening the United Nations so that it could help set rules for the development of the global economy. It is quite amazing to me, I have trouble writing the words I am about to write, but Robert Benne, according to his current political commitments, doesn’t believe in the ordering function of government on the world level even though he says in his paradox book that one of the ways God orders the world is through government. On the world level God works through the mysterious free market, not government where decisions are made by human beings. On that level we should let economic institutions motivated by private profit make their own rules which is essentially what is happening now through the World Trade Organization. Private investors on their own should be the ones to decide where to invest and where to withdraw their money with no guidance, and certainly no taxation, of that process; bankers should control the world with no rules established by any democratic process. This is not responsible public theology, it is faith in a magical market god invented just a couple centuries ago.
Here we face a real irony of history. It was the Protestants who rejected the way magic and mystery were being used by the Catholic Church to control the people and enrich itself in the Reformation. Neither Luther nor John Calvin believed human beings had anything to do with eternal salvation, it is God who saves, but both believed human beings had decisions about loving the neighbor here and now. The religious right turns that around, a human decision determines salvation and God rules mechanistically over the material world. And it is American capitalism that believes in the magical market god and is trying now very energetically to evangelize the world to its belief. When you watch television ads you will see that nearly every ad contains a magical promise, buy this product to find love, buy this one and you will be happy forever. We live in a world where American capitalism is now the most powerful institution and it is doing exactly what the Roman church did in the 16th century, manipulate the people through magic and mysterious powers in order to enrich itself. Any responsible public theology will try to address the reality of the most significant powers of its time and call for responsible decisions before God. It is time for a new Protestant public theology that clearly does so, that appreciates Protestant history, that reaffirms Protestant faith, that celebrates the Protestant spirit for Protestant people, and declares again that God wants justice in human affairs which can only occur when people make decisions to love the neighbor rather than enrich themselves. Robert Benne does not provide such a public theology; he rather attacks his church and all Protestants; he encourages that we believe in the very market god that is dominating the people of this country and the world. I don’t have all the answers about what should be happening in this country or the world. I just know that right now there are few places where civil and informed conversation can take place on these and even more important issues this country faces in the future, such as global warming, energy depletion, environmental degradation, growing disparity between rich and poor. We live in a very highly technical civilization which is like a machine; all the parts have to mesh and keep working in order for human life to be sustained; we no longer live in relation to the grace of nature. It is of utmost importance that politics be a process by which careful governance of a highly integrated technological society can take place. But the religious right and neoconservatism have created a politics of hysterical name-calling rather than deliberative discussion. The word liberal means to respect the views others, to be willing to listen to differences of opinion, to tolerate views not your own, to try to reason things through as best one can with others. If that is what it means we need more of it in the political process. But there is a point at which tolerance of intolerance must be rejected and that point has been reached in our time. Those with concern with tolerance and justice must now speak clearly against those who bring hysterical, extreme intolerance into the public process of politics.
It doesn’t help when people like Robert Benne call people names for suggesting that we should be concerned for the poor of the earth; calling people Marxist and accusing his church of being a bleeding heart liberal is not what is helpful. Marxism has its own gods, it is a deterministic view of history just like capitalism, neither places the focus on the human being as responsible for making ethical decisions. Due to this hostile attitude the political process in the country cannot handle these big questions at the moment; it has nearly totally broken down and become a series of hysterical outbursts and political ads designed to manipulate emotions. Just listen to any of the right wing radio talk shows which preach a simplistic libertarianism and angry populism based on attacks on liberals who are associated with being “weak on defense” and with black folks reflecting within the society a continuing deep racism. The Republican Party, with its cultural resources and electoral power now from the South, has not only been playing the “race card” but it has grounded its electoral victories through a backlash politics against the civil rights movements of the sixties. The result was seen in New Orleans when Katrina struck; thousands of poor black people left behind when it was necessary to evacuate the city. Politics has ignored the reality of black suffering in the cities. That is the legacy of the racism of the last three decades; it is the legacy of neoconservatism, the religious right, the Republican Party, and all those who supported these movements including Robert Benne. We have political debates about ten commandments on courthouse walls while we refuse to love the neighbor by addressing the reality of real suffering people in our cities. We have not been able to come together to talk about any of these matters in a civil way; politics has declined into cultural wars and hostile, hysterical, ridiculous name calling. It is not liberals who have done this, it is the religious right and neoconservatism who have destroyed even the beginning of rational debate and helpful talk in politics.
Robert Benne made his move intellectually to adopt neoconservatism thirty years ago. It was a wrong move; it was a big mistake for him. It is hard for scholars to admit such mistakes after they have built their careers on such intellectual moves. Let’s take a little closer look at neoconservatism to ask why it generates such hostility in the political process. The key figure intellectually is Leo Strauss who taught political philosophy at the University of Chicago for many years. He escaped from Germany in the 1930s. Though Jewish he had not liked the public life of Germany during the Weimar period of constitutional democracy, social instability, moral relativism, sexual libertarianism, diversity in cultural production, all the things neoconservatives say they don’t like about modern culture. He had read Carl Schmitt, a political philosopher who aided Nazism and who taught that the state is defined by its enemies which helped Hitler justify his wars against his neighbors. Conservatives in the German Weimar period yearned for the old monarchy to return social stability and traditional culture. They wanted a strong, bold leader who would rally the country as a whole and raise the confidence of the German people after the loss of World War I. See Robert Erickson’s book, Theologians Under Hitler, for why so many theologians and the church were happy to see the rise of Hitler. Notice here the desire for authoritarian leadership; that is a very key aspect of neoconservatism; these folks were shocked by the rebellion of youth against authority in the 1960s. There is among neoconservatives a sense of loss that something in the past has gone away. I don’t mean to be flippant here, but conservatives in general want to preserve the past, and when something has been lost, as traditional culture has been lost to the modernism and its change agent, the modern corporation, there is a great deal of grieving that takes place, and one of the emotions associated with grieving is anger. I think many neoconservatives are angry, not because of direct injustice so much as because something valuable in the past has been lost. This whole matter deserves more discussion than I can engage in here but I suggest that a politics based on anger over a lost past may be dangerous in a democracy if the solution is seen as a strong, bold leader who promises to return to social structures based on authoritarianism. Neoconservatives like George Bush because he is willing to take big, bold actions such as the war in Iraq and to change Social Security. The problem is that big, bold actions can also be big, bold disasters, especially if they are based on unresolved generalized anger rather than cool and rational deliberation. A second factor involved in our current hostile politics has to do with the method of reading the texts of philosophy characteristic of those in the Straussian tradition. Strauss taught his students to read texts very carefully, so carefully indeed, that these folks can be called “philosophical fundamentalists.” That is, once having very carefully read the text they have confidence that they are the ones who know the truth of the text more so than those not informed by the classic literature of the western philosophic tradition. The bible is not the text for them, of course, it is western political philosophy. Having worked so very hard on these texts neoconservatives come to feel about themselves that they are the ones who know the truth. They are the ones with a secret knowledge not because it is not available to everyone (it is right there in the texts) but because they are the ones who have earned the right to teach this knowledge through their very serious study of the text.
You can see why I call this a fundamentalism. Neoconservatism is not a conspiracy movement, but it is a school of thought that its proponents take very seriously which gives them a strong sense of solidarity with one another. They are not popular within academic settings because their fundamentalism makes them obnoxious to other scholars, so they have trouble getting academic jobs despite their credentials. That’s what most of the big debates are about over claims that higher education is too “liberal” and opposed to “the” conservative viewpoint. The conservative viewpoint these days is a neoconservative viewpoint like the intelligent design theory in science; a very, very small minority, an “elite” in fact, believes they have the truth and have the right to demand that their views receive attention and reward. The Straussian neoconservatives have been able to find many jobs in the various think-tanks and publications that have emerged since the sixties funded by corporations, of course, because the ideology supports the importance of the so-called free market, and they have been able to sell their ideas to the Republican Party. That’s why politics has turned so far to the right these days. Even so, neoconservatives tend to see themselves as a persecuted elite who know the truth, and this, I suggest is a source of such stridency and shrillness in how they present themselves.
Over the years I have been so saddened by Robert Benne’s constant bickering about his church. He has had so much to offer, but again and again goes on the attack. But this is the sort of thing, the style and emotional orientation, that I see in the various neoconservative publications. Benne is a rather mild person, a nice person, in personal relations. But he writes with such fierceness against his church. When he calls teachers of our church who are teaching the Lutheran heritage in social ethics an “elite” it is a classic case of psychological projection; it is Robert Benne who has identified himself with an elite neoconservative group which feels it should be only source of truth and wisdom in our time. One more aspect of the Straussian method of reading texts can be mentioned, one quite esoteric and difficult to comprehend but which is explicitly elitist in a dramatic way. Strauss taught that the greatest classic authors of western philosophy could only be truly understood by the brightest and most intelligent readers. This is because, Strauss taught, there is a hidden text within the text of these authors which only the brightest could decipher. For example, even though an author may speak as if God exists in the plain text, in a sort of subtext, or reading between the lines, the brightest readers will be able to see that the author does not really believe in God, that the plain text is for the general reading public who have a need to believe in God. It would be too dangerous for an author to state plainly that he didn’t believe in God because he could be put to death like Socrates. I am not making this up, Anne Norton’s book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, describes what she learned from her neoconservative teachers. Now, to the degree any particular neoconservative knows about and affirms this esoteric way of reading what is treated as authoritative classic philosophy he or she does not believe in God, certainly not the holy and righteous God revealed in the scripture. The justice this God demands in human affairs is thus not important for these thinkers. Loving God and neighbor are not central to natural law or God’s will for the world. It is the brightest people who know the truth that God does not exist.
But, still, common people need religion so religion is important for neoconservatives, as we have seen. They believe religion is needed to weld the people into a unitary whole, what Peter Berger calls the “sacred canopy,” everyone sharing the same beliefs and same morality so the country can be strong and unified, not troubled by diversity and pluralism and uncertainty. They want to see a civil religion, just as Robert Benne promotes. It doesn’t matter what religion, since God doesn’t really exist anyway, it is the nation itself that is the most important reality, our nation, over against other nations since the nation is defined by its enemies. I find it very difficult how any Lutheran theologian can identify himself with such elitist and, indeed, sacrilegious views. I think this way of thinking is dangerous for the country in its politics; it has led to a hostile style of politics, a justification for lying to the American people because they are not bright enough to know the truth. I am not saying all neoconservatives encourage public lying, but the general idea that only the brightest know secret truth cannot be the basis of a truly democratic society. The idea that the country needs a bold, authoritarian leader rather than a more civil and democratic process of deliberation, makes me very nervous since this group has so much influence in current politics. Maybe Benne doesn’t know what a major mistake he made those years ago by associating himself with this school of thought. Maybe he should reconsider neoconservatism, there are other and better options within intellectual life today. Postmodernism is a word that refers to the most influential intellectual current running through academic circles these days. It is not an intellectual school like the neoconservatives; postmodernism is a catch-all term referring to many different streams of thought in many different disciplines in literature and humanities, language studies, history, and the social sciences. The neoconservatives hate, literally hate the postmodernists.
For the postmodernists question the confidence neoconservatives place in the texts of the whole western philosophic tradition. Postmodernism is a devastating critique of modernity, not from a moral point of view, but by trying to read not texts as absolute but by trying to read what has been and is actually happening in the lives of real people under the regime of modernity and its dominance by economic institutions. It is a critique not only of conservatism but also of classic liberalism and its faith in progress. It questions both Marxism and American capitalism and their claims to truth. I will not here speak more about postmodernism except to say that one of its emphases is particularly significant for Lutherans and Protestants, and that is the importance of language in the construction of social reality. Peter Berger, who is associated with neoconservatives politically, is also one who has contributed to this postmodern theme. Berger talks in one book about the “cardboard” nature of social structures, they are not firm and stable structures but made of cardboard, flimsy, can easily break. The structures are based on language, created by language. Words are what are important in this understanding. When Benne talks in his paradox book about the “orders of creation” as if the structures of social life are part of the divine order external to human action or human language then I wonder if he is not too quickly identifying God with particular forms of social life whereas the bible speaks about many multiple forms of the family, for example. He and the religious right seem fixated on a form of the family that existed in the 1950s. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman speaks of “liquid modernity,” social life today is in a constant process of change. Perhaps the future is open to new forms of social interaction through the way we talk, through the words that create the forms within which we live. This way of talking seems much more suggestive for what needs to happen in the future relative to the changes in store as the United States tries to live in a world with many other nations competing for limited resources. Rather than let the neoconservatives convince us that we have to exert our military strength to maintain our “American way of life” perhaps we should consider inventing some new less energy-intensive ways of being together in community, other than simply trying to offer ourselves to an economy god that requires that we buy more and more and “grow” more and more year after year until everything crashes.
Postmodernism is not a belief system, something we must believe in, it is a way of describing reality which I find to be helpful as a person of faith trying to perceive what is happening in the world today. I think it is a much more honest effort to see what is actually going on in people’s lives. It reveals the panic that exists in the hearts of people today being controlled by machines that threaten at any minute to break apart leaving us stranded with nothing to eat and disconnected. New Orleans may be a sign of more and more catastrophe in the future. How to talk about these matters, how to face them honestly, how to come again to believe that we human beings are the ones responsible for the world God has given to us all, these are ways of talking that can help us rather than having to accept the so-called secret knowledge of the elite neoconservatives about abstract, mysterious forces in control of everything. Protestants know about the importance of language, Lutherans especially. We believe God works through words and the Word. This is the real media of preaching and teaching. So this aspect of postmodernism is quite helpful in a particular way. It makes the world perhaps more open to hear a word that creates a loving community that cares for justice for all. This is the way God works, through our words. We have always believed that, the bible is a book of words, the revelation of God is through words, not Gnostic secret words, but words freely available to all. For Martin Luther it is the gospel words that enter the head and heart and slays the devil in the war zone of the self. I suggest that Robert Benne look more at postmodernism as a conversation partner; it can be more helpful in creating a realistic public theology.
There is perhaps for current culture no issue that more needs some new words creating new social forms than in the area of sexuality. The church is mired in debates over homosexuality only because there is so much confusion and uncertainty about sexual matters in the culture as a whole. That is because the most powerful institution today, American business, through the media and Hollywood, uses sex as a means to sell its many products and promises that sexual acts are the way to achieve ultimate salvation, defined, of course, remember economy theory, as personal pleasure. Rather than focus on this most obvious power in society the neoconservatives and religious right blame, again, the wrong target. They believe it is homosexuals who are responsible for family breakdown and sexual libertarianism.
I am not here going to discuss all the aspects of this debate over homosexuality. I want to focus on something rarely acknowledged. And that is that this debate has become important politically because it wins elections. And it helps build audiences for religious right crusades; it helps fill churches and offering plates. The religious right is commercialized religion, a money driven movement based on generating mass audiences. It has a symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party. Each helps the other and now at the center of it is an attack on one of the most abused groups over many centuries now, homosexuals. It is easy to attack the weakest among us and blame them for the family breakdown actually created by modern economic institutions. The use of religion by a political party to gain electoral victory is bad enough in itself, but what is going on here is also an effort to gain political power by blaming everything on a persecuted minority. That is exactly how Hitler gained power in Germany, blaming Jews and homosexuals and the weakest of that society which justified the most horrendous sin of the 20th century, the holocaust, systematic, efficient killing of millions of human beings. (see Zygmunt Bauman’s book on the holocaust). The Republican Party uses anti-homosexual rhetoric to elect its candidates, no one can deny that today. In the 2004 election the Republican National Committee sent a flyer to people in key states which had two images, one an image of the bible with an “X” over it, the other an image of two gay men kneeling in a marriage ceremony. The message was a vote for Democrats was a vote against the bible and for gay marriage, a vote for Republicans was a vote for the bible and against gay marriage. The bible, containing the gospel of Jesus Christ, the treasure of the church says Martin Luther, containing the revelation of God as a merciful and loving God who forgives our sins, containing the revelation of God as a God who demands justice in human affairs, this bible is trivialized and maliciously used by a political party for purposes of partisan politics. The bible is used to support an attack on a persecuted minority, it is used to generate mob hostility and bring out the vote, it is used to foster a spirit of hatred and intolerance and appeal to the worst forces of bigotry in human beings. The bible teaches us to love God and neighbor, the one different from us; here the bible is used by a political party to hate the neighbor. Any Lutheran or Protestant who is a Republican should send a letter to the Republican Party condemning this terrible misuse of the bible.
But, unfortunately, this is how Robert Benne reads his bible. In his social ethical work he does not make central what is the central theme of the Old Testament which tells the story of a persecuted minority, slaves in Egypt, and how God favored them and acted on their behalf by liberating them from their oppressors, and leading them into a Promised Land. Benne doesn’t like that liberation talk. Rather he focuses on a few verses in Leviticus against homosexual acts and proclaims this is the law of God for all time, the bible is a law book which gives detailed instructions about what we must do as human beings, no matter that he and others ignore other such verses on other matters. Concerning homosexuality these little verses are the highest law of God. This is never how Lutherans have viewed the bible. Martin Luther said that God told Moses one thing but God may be telling him something different. Each of us stands before a holy and righteous God responsible for our practical decisions about how to love the neighbor right now, and no particular law tells us what to do or excuses us from our own responsibility to love the neighbor, the one different from us. The law of God as Jesus tells us is to love the neighbor. Whenever the focus moves to detailed ways by which we are to do that the tendency becomes to try to justify ourselves; about this Lutherans become very wary because we know we are justified through faith in Jesus Christ alone and not by our own works according to any rules or law, even loving the neighbor in a general sense. The apostle Paul tells us clearly as his central message that as Christians we live in the new spirit of Jesus Christ and that spirit is what brings us together and motivates us in relation to others. Exactly the little rules that should guide our community life are secondary and should not be basis of dividing us from one another or others. Anyone reading the book of First Corinthians cannot but see how strongly Paul makes that argument. But for Robert Benne it is the little rules about sexuality that matter, more important than the central message of the Old Testament or the new. Benne is now speaking and leading a movement against homosexuals within the ELCA and against his church. He speaks before groups with names like “Solid Rock Lutherans” and “Word Alone.” These are groups who hate homosexuals so much that they are willing to stake the gospel of Jesus Christ on this issue and leave their church if homosexuals in relationships are allowed to be pastors and have their relationships blessed by the church. These groups are not convinced of the gospel, they are not standing up to confess Jesus Christ in Lutheran evangelical tradition as the solid rock of our faith, they are standing up for the law, and not even the law of God, and certainly not the Word alone, but the little rules by which the church tries to guide its life together within each age. They use the Lutheran heritage to argue that not following a particular little rule makes one an antinomian, against all law and all rules. That is a ridiculous charge; I have here been referring again and again to the law of God, a summary of the ten commandments: love God and neighbor. The only reason the charge is made is that the debate is occurring within a larger political context where it is all right to do and say anything against one’s enemy; call names; attack; homosexuality is so terrible that the society and the church itself should be divided over it.
That’s what Benne does in his First Things article of November, 2005, by talking about a “progressive” spirit in the ELCA; he is saying his church represents the Democratic Party and he wants them to represent the Republican Party under the spell of the religious right. Benne is a partisan politician more than a Lutheran social ethicist. He is trying to further a “party spirit” in the church, just what the apostle Paul warns us against. I do wish Benne would read his bible more carefully. By using little rules against homosexuality in the bible he is like those earlier Southerners who used the bible to justify slavery; it was those Southern racists who especially wanted a literal reading of the scriptures since they believed a literal reading supported their position on slavery. But his is not the way a teacher of the church should teach people to read the bible in the Lutheran tradition. If this way of teaching predominates in the ELCA it will no longer be testifying to its historic faith that the bible is the treasure of the church because it contains the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what the world desperately needs, not little rules.
It is very important for all of us in the church to recognize that our internal debate over homosexuality is occurring within a very divisive political context created by the religious right and neoconservatism. I do not know if these two influences on the Republican Party will continue. There are signs now that they will not, the concepts and rhetoric simply don’t match the realities we face as a country as I have tried to demonstrate in the comments above. Both of them represent a backlash politics against the sixties, against the civil rights movement for black people, against equality for women, against the failure of the United States foreign policy in Vietnam. Backlash politics does not represent the views of the majority of the American people.
The neoconservative movement does not at all represent a very large number of thoughtful people today, especially not within academic institutions (which is why the latter are being attacked today as too liberal). Neoconservatives are true extremists, they want to turn back the clock of social justice since World War II. Robert Benne said in his article on civil rights that he was not a radical like those blacks and others who wanted radical change in society, but he has become a radical indeed, he just turned totally around and joined the other side, the side of business corporations who are seeking to be autonomous from any rules established by the people (now there is antinomianism!), the side of hysterical religious sectarianism, leaving his heart behind. The attack on homosexuals as a persecuted minority has been particularly successful in aiding those with these larger agendas. But we should not let this party spirit determine what we do in the church. We should not allow this spirit to divide the church.
Years ago I noticed a member of my suburban church and his family were not in church one Sunday, then another, then another. Wondering if something had happened in their lives I called and went over to visit. I had not previously mentioned abortion nor homosexuality in any preaching or teaching in the parish. But this day I learned that to avoid these topics was not enough. This member said to me that he could not be part of a church where the pastor did not speak forcefully against abortion and homosexuality. In a three hour conversation I emphasized that Lutherans do not make opinions on social issues a qualification for membership in the church, that we believed in justification by faith alone and we were open to all people. I was not successful. This person sent a letter to my bishop explaining what he wanted. My bishop sent him a letter back saying he might be more comfortable in another church. The member and his family left to join one of the big-box Pentecostal churches in the area. My own church council fully supported my actions. Later when asked what to study in our next series in my weekly bible study class the group wanted to know what the bible said about homosexuality. I asked the fifteen members of the group whether they knew any homosexuals and every person said yes, a brother or sister, an uncle, a neighbor, a friend. Homosexuality was a practical concern in each one of these people’s lives. And not one of them approached the topic with any homophobia.
Benne likes to say his views are “where the people are” in this country; I don’t think so. Yes, there is great confusion and uncertainty about sexuality in this country due not to gay folks but to the way corporate America uses it as mentioned above. The church should do much more helpful teaching about it. In my bible class we did our study but the main point I want to make is that homosexuality is a real practical issue in the lives of people in our churches, not primarily a big political issue. It is the sons and daughters of our church who happen to be gay and lesbian who want to stay in the church and serve this church and be pastors in this church. What should be the spirit by which we approach the issue, the spirit of homophobia carried by the religious right and neoconservatism and the Republican Party for purposes of partisan politics, or the spirit of the one called Jesus Christ who reached out to all even those most despised by society?
The answer for me is perfectly clear based on the Lutheran heritage of theology and practice. Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten has talked about a dictum of Martin Luther: “It is the heart that makes the theologian.” When Luther published his 95 Theses he was not just engaging in intellectual debate. His heart had led him to feel the pain of the people struggling under the strict penitential practices of the Roman Catholic Church at the time causing anguish in their consciences and worry over their eternal salvation, the same anguish he felt during his own time in a monastery. Luther attacked not the people but the institutional church for oppressing the people in its effort to get money to build large cathedrals. Luther attacked the true source of the problem! He preached a gospel of free salvation for all through faith in the grace of a merciful God known in Jesus Christ. It was the complete opposite of what the churchly economics of his day was doing to the people. And it created the Reformation which was, indeed, a most radical shift in society. Large numbers of people were in religious occupations, in monasteries. Luther told people to leave the monastery, go into this secular world and do something helpful for others in the community, love the neighbor. Robert Benne ridicules those who have a heart for the people, for the poor, for those who are persecuted minorities. He says all that is “liberal guilt” and neoconservatives talk about this as only representing bleeding heart liberals. Widely believed today within business circles is the idea that it is the strong that survive, let the weak die. Social Darwinism is still alive and well. It is a matter for laughter for many to recall Bill Clinton’s comments about “feeling your pain” as if such matters of the heart are useless in politics, it is the strong and nasty who survive so it is necessary to play hardball, destroy your opponent. These are the attitudes of those on the right in politics today and this is a huge change from the politics before Ronald Reagan. One of the most influential current Republican lobbyists, Grover Norquist, recently characterized political campaigns at a conference of college Republicans by saying: “There are no rules in a knife fight.” Such is not the historic nature of conservatives, but such antinomianism is the current style. Real conservative Republicans should be appalled for this is the opposite of classic Republic virtues. But this is what our young people are learning from current conservative leaders. This is the party Robert Benne wants the ELCA to reflect in its social statements.
Let me say it clearly: the religious right and neoconservatism represent a total attack on the historic faith of the church, faith in God as demanding justice in human affairs, including economic affairs, and God as the source of salvation known in the suffering love of Jesus Christ. Luther’s theology of the cross is a theology of bleeding heart liberals if they are the only ones willing to see God at work in suffering love and who care for the condition of the poor. We in the ELCA must face the fact that people like Robert Benne have made this a partisan political issue in the church. It is the Republican Party which has adopted a particular religious view with a particular constituency to gain electoral victories. It is the Republican Party which now implicitly and not so implicitly claims it represents the “Christian” view of things. The media play up the old Cold War Republican rhetoric that Democrats support Communists and socialists and atheism and the Republican Party is the party of God and all that is morally correct. The Republican Party has intentionally positioned itself by “branding” itself in this way and by destroying its opponent through the use of falsehood and what I call intentional public lying. This works in a culture defined so much through the mass media. But when religion is used in this way any honest and faithful person, and especially one of the Lutheran faith, must seriously raise questions. Rather than raise questions Robert Benne has joined the Republican attack calling his church liberal and progressive, using the catch-words of contemporary politics. It really is shameful, but more than that it is an attack on the substance of the Lutheran theological heritage as we have seen.
Pastors, bishops, and teachers of the ELCA are being more challenged today on matters of fundamental faith than ever before in the history of Lutheranism in the United States. It is a political assault on our church. To some degree it is coming from within the church through such groups as Word Alone and Solid Rock Lutherans. They claim they are the ones who are “confessional” Lutherans, standing up for the faith. But they are not making a true evangelical confession to Jesus Christ as Lord, they represent the views and interests of a political party in our church. I would like to be at one of the meetings of these groups and ask how many of them vote Republican. But whether or not they are Republicans in name they represent the views of a partisan political assault against our church. That is the language Benne himself uses as I have tried to show throughout this document; those are the views he champions against his church. The pastors, bishops, and teachers of this church must not sit back and allow this assault to gain force. We can no longer tolerate such false teaching as if it represents a legitimate minority view among our members. It must be courageously and intentionally opposed at every opportunity, in personal conversation, in meetings wherever faithful Lutherans gather, in conferences and assemblies, in preaching and teaching wherever it occurs. Our faith is at stake.
We Lutherans have a very important historical experience from which we can learn very significant lessons about the relation of church and state and the dangers that can arise within the political process not only for our country but most importantly for our faith. That is the experience of the church in Nazi Germany. When I was a college student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, my church leaders and teachers in the then American Lutheran Church (ALC) sponsored for some of us a lecture by Franklin Littell on the crisis of faith in Germany in the 1930s. It has led me to have a life long interest in this most difficult moment in the life of the church in a country which was the birthplace of Lutheranism. It is important, in my view, to give more credence to interpretative intellectual work that draws on actual historical experience than abstract philosophical speculation. I am not in principle opposed to the latter. But Benne places such high emphasis on his speculations from what he calls “empirical” economic theory as the source of truth that he can miss the importance of interpretation of actual historical events. The latter, of course, cannot be proven mathematically. But to require mathematical sources for truth leaves out anything which cannot be counted so such methods are automatically conservative, that is, they can only account for relatively recent short-term history, within time-frames limited to periods of mathematical certainty. I do not believe any public theology can be legitimate today without taking into account the history of Hitler’s Germany. We must be willing to examine the dynamics by which Hitler rose to power and become concerned if we see similar dynamics occurring within our own political climate.
I will summarize what I have written above by discussing six factors involved in Hitler’s rise to power. First was the desire among many Germans for a bold, authoritarian leader who would return social and economic stability to Germany, who would combat the purported ills of modernity caused by constitutional democracy during the Weimar Period. This is the same type of social analysis put forward by the religious right and neoconservatives. Conservatives classically have supported centralized authority; to be a conservative during the Revolutionary War was to support King George and oppose the Declaration of Independence, for example. Despite that neoconservatives today claim they desire to spread democracy around the world, the fact is that they do not place much faith in democracy and the limited “liberal” government process of checks and balances. The administration of George W. Bush is currently seeking inordinate power for the executive branch, urged on by neoconservative publications. Persons may differ on when the president has too much or too little power, but it is rather strange that many conservatives who have historically voted for limited government are now finding they have elected a president who is centralizing more and more increasing power in his office, power even over the congressional branch and the judicial branch. If the policies of such a powerful president are wrong massive disaster is more likely to face all of us in the future. And there is a possibility that terrorism will cause such fear and insecurity that the American people will demand a monarchial type of ruler to protect them. It is chilling to read the title of a decree of Hitler just after he came to power in 1933: “Decree for the Protection of the People and the State.” The first item in the decree suspends individual liberties. Next time you hear a president claim he needs more power to protect the American people remember these words.
Secondly, I mentioned the use of a persecuted minority upon which to blame social breakdown. The chosen scapegoat for the religious right has been homosexual persons who, it is claimed, are a threat to the family, which is simply not a rational analysis of the social process. Homosexuals are looking for more stable and responsible ways to enter into relationships with one another; if anything gay marriage is really a pro-family agenda. But whatever one thinks about the morality of homosexual acts, it is very dangerous when a political party uses hatred of a minority as a way to win elections. If Republicans would be willing to get themselves elected on the basis of their economic and tax policies, their environmental and energy policies, then I would not be so concerned. But to get themselves elected they need to foment hatred for homosexuals. The 2004 presidential election turned on this very issue according to many observers. This looks very much like what happened in Hitler’s Germany, though Hitler attacked both Jews and homosexuals, and we all should seriously ponder that fact and ask what the church should do about it.
The third factor in Hitler’s rise to power had to do with race. He appealed to the superiority of the Arian race to justify dominance over those he considered weak and less important. In the United States it is no longer acceptable to use racist language in public. When Rush Limbaugh last year tried a stint at sports broadcasting to a broad, nation-wide audience he used race as a factor in his analysis which created a furor and he quickly resigned. I watched him give a talk a few days later and heard him say that he quit because he had built up a radio audience with whom he was “comfortable” in his speech. Exactly. His radio audience accepts race as a key factor in his political analysis and his constant, berating attack on liberals and Democrats. The Democratic Party is associated with the interests of black people as we discussed above and this continues to be a major factor in politics today. I know that most readers of this article will be white people and I know that none of us white people like to be accused of racism. And yet, as a white person who has lived and worked in black communities for a couple decades I know that I still have racist attitudes in my bones. It is best to admit it, and then try to not let it be a factor in how we vote or align ourselves politically. To the degree that we white, western, European people believe we are superior, a belief that is very deep in our bones, indeed, going back even to the “discovery” of the New World and the doctrine of manifest destiny in our foreign policy, we now as a country face a global situation which requires more modesty and honesty in our understanding of ourselves. This matter is truly extremely important in our time. Religious nationalism that claims that God is only on the side of white Americans in a quest to dominate the world is a doctrine which must be completely repudiated by anyone who calls upon the name of the one true God who created the whole earth and loves all peoples.
Religious nationalism is a fourth factor in Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler tried to use the church for his own purposes just as the Republican Party is using the religious right for its own purposes as discussed above. The doctrines of racial superiority and persecution of Jews were melded with Christian doctrines of the sovereignty of God to create a “German Christianity” as a civil religion which demoted Jesus to a minor figure because he was a Jew. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the very few who spoke out clearly against this state religion, even on the radio. The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church declared that Jesus was Lord, not Hitler, not the state, not the law which was being used by Hitler to oppress people rather than preserve them. Robert Benne has called for a state religion for the United States. He has defined that religion as one which should include a definition of God as understood in only the first article of the Apostles Creed, essentially. This is God without Jesus, without the Holy Spirit, this is not the triune God. This is an effort to create an “American Christianity.” I am sure that Robert Benne does not want to contribute to the rise into power of such a one as Adolph Hitler in the United States. But if we create in this country an American Christianity that rejects Jesus as Lord how exactly are we being faithful to the orthodox and historic doctrines of our church? The sects and groupings of the religious right do not share the ecclesial history of Lutherans which transcends the short history of the United States, they are an Americanized religion. Religious right pastors have not been trained in orthodox Christian faith, they don’t read the books, they don’t feel doctrine is important; what’s important for them is their faith in a religious marketplace, preach whatever generates large audiences, preach American civil religion. They are preaching religious nationalism. Without a strong ecclesial history the religious right is putting forth an American Christianity exactly at the time that the world does not need another false fundamentalism to justify the use of military violence, the kind of thing that happened in Germany. For the life of me, as I write this, I have trouble comprehending how Robert Benne can place himself in this company.
The fifth factor has to do with corporate business institutions. People are often confused about the title of Hitler’s movement because it was called national socialism from which the term Nazi was derived. But there were many political parties in Germany at the time and the “socialism” aspect of Hitler’s party was less important than his willingness to use violence within the political process which is one of the reasons his politics is called fascism. See an even-handed account of this process in Richard J. Evans 2004 book, The Coming of the Third Reich. Hitler was only the 55th member of the Nazi party and after taking power he banned both the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party and other socialists. Hitler created working relationships with German industry to provide the weapons needed to wage his military campaigns. And his centralized leadership was able to turn Germany’s economy around to provide food on the table for common people, which is one of the reasons they supported him. Capitalism can work quite well in dictatorships, as we see today in China. In the United States we now see closer and closer working relationships between government and business not only in industries providing military equipment but in all industries. Business likes to claim it functions in a free market, and Robert Benne justifies this in his works, but the fact is that corporations are a creature of the government and function within the rules established through the democratic process. Unfortunately, today so-called private business completely dominates the political and governing process. As we saw in Chicago black communities the rules are often rigged to the advantage of those already possessing property and money. Rather than look at these obvious realities the neoconservatives and the religious right argue in highly abstract terms and accuse anyone who critiques what business is doing of being a socialist. This has been a habit of Robert Benne too from quite early in his career, name-calling. The conflation of business and government has become so strong today that I am uncertain if there are any forces that could successfully address issues of social and economic justice. This should be of major concern for any person or church who confesses faith in the holy and righteous God who demands justice as revealed in the scriptures. Robert Benne attacks his church when it tries to make such a witness.
The sixth factor in the rise of Hitler is the use of mass hysteria. Hitler was able to rise in his political party because of his use of language, his oration. And it is known that he was able to create a kind of mass hypnosis among very large public gatherings. Hitler was not well educated, but he had a gift for persuading people through words. Throughout this article I have referred to “hysterical” beliefs especially as created by the primary methodology of the religious right, mass audiences either in large crusades such as Billy Graham type assemblies, or through television where the preacher has access to the minds and hearts of individuals. Through these mass gatherings relatively uneducated preachers untrained in the full history of the orthodox faith of the church can become stars and celebrities and mesmerize their audiences with words whether or not these are real law and gospel words. Robert Benne likes to refer again and again to the fact that millions of Americans believe in the civil religion these preachers are preaching and he thinks that he is not an elite because he has these people in mind as he writes his books and articles. But we must remember that large numbers of people believed in the words shouted by Adolph Hitler and we now know that these words created the worst horror imaginable not only for those destroyed in the holocaust but for all the German people and for Germany as a nation. What words are preached makes a difference!
I question whether the words preached in the mass assemblies of the religious right are not creating more mass hysteria than true Christian faith in a God of mercy and justice for all. The biblical doctrine of inerrancy allows these preachers to preach anything they want, every word of the bible is equally absolute and the preacher can pick and choose the verses that match the preacher’s already-chosen ideology without having to do the real and hard work of biblical study, without having to distinguish carefully between law and gospel as Lutheran pastors are trained to do. And I suggest the worship style of the religious right in mass assemblies in the so-called big-box churches promotes mass hysteria among individuals rather than the formation of the people of God as a faithful community which occurs through more liturgical practices such as in the ELCA. I realize to say this is to raise a large issue among us as Lutherans and Protestants, but I want to mention it so that we can think together about the fact that it is not just what we worship but how we worship that has real political implications. Robert Benne says that some large congregations are threatening to leave the ELCA if homosexuals are ordained or their relationships blessed. Well, if those congregations have taken on the content and worship style of the religious right then perhaps we should ask if they remain Lutheran in the first place. Great as the danger is to democracy of the mass hysteria generated by the religious right there is an even greater danger from the development of the mass media over the last fifty years, especially television. People are spending immense amounts of time every day in front of the television set. Never before in history have the minds of so many human beings been able to be influenced by so few.
This phenomenon deserves full attention in any public theology, but I will here point to just one key matter. The events of September 11, 2001, melded the hearts and minds of Americans together in a common sense of insecurity and fear of unknown attackers. Robert Benne refers to 9/11 as causing a “veritable explosion of civil religion” as if it fostered a positive spirit among the people. I have a more sober concern. This experience demonstrates how mass hysteria can create the conditions by which extreme national centralized power can be authorized and exercised. It is in the crowd, in the lynch mob, in the mass vengeance of a wounded people that we are able to see the very face of horrendous evil. It is the crowd yelling at the time of the trial of Jesus, “Crucify him, crucify him.” Rulers who need to appeal to such hysteria in order to monopolize power over people are very dangerous to the entire democratic ethos. Neoconservatives like to think of themselves as realists and liberals as idealists trying to create a perfect society, but my reading of the neoconservatives leads me to say the opposite, the neoconservatives are idealists, even utopian, neither they nor many liberals are able to consider the true depths of evil that is possible within the human being and human society.
One of the important reasons to remember what happened in Nazi Germany is to face the depths of evil that occurred there so that we will avoid simplistic idealism, so that we might be able to learn as much as possible about how to avoid that evil. It seems to me that Robert Benne, religious right preachers, and the neoconservatives, trivialize evil. A responsible public theology should not do so. A responsible public theology would point to what is the greatest danger in the world today, danger for others and danger for us in this country: the use of mass hysteria to justify continuing irrational use of the massive military power of the United States against other countries for purposes of American empire. This is just what Hitler did in Germany. It destroyed Germany. It will severely weaken if not destroy the United States, at least as the democracy we now enjoy. But this is the direction a current politics of fear is taking us spurred on by neoconservatives such as Robert Benne.
The mainline Protestant churches including the ELCA, the very churches Robert Benne has been attacking now for thirty years, are the very ones who have been willing to confront and learn from the historical experience of Hitler’s Germany. I believe that is why they are willing to stand and criticize their own country when they see things happening that seem to correspond to some degree to the six factors I have listed above. We in the mainline church have especially learned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that a mark of the true church is to stand with those most persecuted, stand with those who are poor, stand with those otherwise despised by a society, just as Jesus did. It is against such a commitment to which Robert Benne has dedicated his career in his nearly irrational rejection of any form of liberation theology. That was a very big mistake he made those years ago when he refused to let his heart care for the poor anymore.
I believe the people in this country are desperately searching for something more than a politics of division and hostility, something more than mass hysteria, something more than angry words against enemies. They are looking for some hope, some words of forgiveness, some words proclaiming that the powers of evil have finally been ultimately broken and defeated. They are looking for the cross of Jesus Christ and for Easter faith. We need to intentionally oppose the assault on our church from people like Robert Benne. But we are also able to aggressively engage in outreach and witness to the true faith for which I believe people in the United States are hungry. They are looking for a church that is not preaching partisan extremism, that is not preaching false gospels of national idolatry and American empire and economic ideology, that is not using the bible as a weapon to slay the poor and despised.
We must not retreat from politics; we must engage, not on the side of extremism of either the Republican or Democratic parties, but in efforts to change both parties so they make justice for all an actual priority in their perspectives in different ways. There are not just two sides in politics, there is a third side, the side of a holy and righteous God of justice, the side of Jesus Christ who indeed cared for the poor, the side of a Holy Comforter who nurtures and sustains the pure in heart. As we enter politics others will call us names, like Robert Benne does, but that will not matter for we know whose side we are on. Both political parties are strongly influenced by the interests of wealth and large business institutions more than the needs and interests of the poor or the working class or even the middle class. I once had a conversation with the president of a large accounting firm which handled the finances of major corporations. He joked that there are two kinds of people, the takers and the takees. He said he wanted to be a taker! Money is mathematics and this accounting executive was revealing more than he knew in his joke. This is the mental orientation prevalent within powerful leaders of business today, two kinds of people, two sides to politics. Well there is a third side, the side I call the “givers”, the ones who know they are rich in all the gifts that God has given to them, rich in faith, rich in compassion and mercy, and who are willing to give of themselves to others freely because they know a God who loves them and wants them to love the neighbor. We in the church can be Givers, people who give of ourselves by entering into the tough world of politics to advocate on the side of those without power and authority.
As for Robert Benne I would ask him to follow his own heart and change his head, to make another big turn in his intellectual life, to see what is wrong with the sectarianism of the religious right and the false analysis of neoconservatism, to return to become a real and honest teacher in his church. It is not necessary to join the extremes of neoconservatism and sectarianism to affirm a limited capitalism as good for the country and the world. We desperately need good teachers today, teachers in the church and good public teachers grounded in their faith in the one true God, not in ideology or political movements. I ask Benne to study Lutheran tradition with a new heart, read the bible much more carefully, sever ties with those engaged in hysterical partisan politics, and serve his church. If Robert Benne will not change his mind then I ask that he leave the church now rather than wait until it does more of what he dislikes. As my bishop said, he will feel more comfortable in another church such as the Southern Baptists who are pushing for civil religion and attacking gay people. In fact, Benne has already moved South. He left the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to go to a southern university in a cultural climate influenced by the Southern Baptists. This is the realm within which the religious right began, in opposition to racial justice, and from where it gets it strongest support. So if this is what Benne continues to believe then he is no longer Lutheran and he should leave his church rather than just snipe at it over and over and over again.
Somehow, some way we need to call wrong thinking what it is, wrong, and in Benne’s case very hurtful to the outreach, the mission, the very witness of the church. The underlying issue here is the people in the church who are Republicans. If Republican members of our church place their party and its adoption of an alien form of religious faith, sectarian revivalism, above their own Lutheran faith, as Benne does in his call for a civil religion, then we have a very serious evangelical issue of faith confession, indeed. I would say the same of the Democratic Party if it in effect adopted an official civil religion. It is not the Democratic Party which is forcing the extremes as the options, it is the Republican Party; that is the fact of the matter. Republican Lutherans should be encouraged to change their party by rejecting the influence of the religious right.
The ELCA is not a church of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party nor of the religious right nor of any ideology or institutional structure; it is a Church of the God who wants justice in the world and whose heart is so filled with love as to send Jesus Christ to die for all; it is a church alive in the power of the Spirit of that God. It is sad that the career of Robert Benne has failed to witness to this God beyond politics, terribly sad.
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