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Public Theology: II. Lutheran Political Ethics in the New Protestantism
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II. Lutheran Political Ethics in the New Protestantism
Protestants now face a new historical situation. It can be helpful to speak about ethics to come to understand that new situation.

By Ed Knudson

This is the second of the prepared presentations for the adult forum at Augustana Lutheran Church.

The term "political ethics" may not be as familiar as the phrase "medical ethics" but I think it has become important to think more clearly about how it is that we in the church approach and engage the whole question of politics in our time. Medical ethics has developed as a field of study to address the many questions of what is right and wrong in the use of ever-new types of medical technology. Rather than fighting over different absolute views of what is right and wrong, the term "ethics" refers to an effort to step back to think and discuss different approaches and assumptions to moral questions. It happens that Lutherans have a rather distinctive approach to political ethics which I believe can be very helpful at this moment in history for all Protestants. That's why I put in the title of this presentation "the New Protestantism." I mean to talk about Lutheran political ethics as a contribution to a larger project of formulating a new Protestant understanding of what political engagement means for the church today.

This task has become urgent in our time. That is because a new false form of Protestantism has emerged in this country over the last years that is no longer in the Reformation tradition, what we termed last session the "religious right" or "religious fundamentalists." One of the political parties in this country has made the religious right its own religious-political expression. That is, the base constituency of the Republican Party is now made up of religious fundamentalists claiming the "Christian" label. That means that Republican politicians rely primarily on the votes of so-called "Christians" to gain elective office. I believe that this has resulted in a terrible irrational skewing of the political process to the degree that the country itself is having a very difficult time making political decisions actually good for the country as a whole. And religious fundamentalists have become so involved in politics that they are foresaking the historic Protestant public witness on many moral matters. I summarize this by saying they have become an Americanized, politicized, commercialized aberation of historic Christian faith. It is no longer good to ignore this development.

The New Protestantism should be formulated partly explicitly over-against this religious right. If Protestants do not begin to put together a clear understanding of political ethics members of our local congregations will not have the advantage of help from their church in making decisions about political matters, and the field will be left to the religious right to define in its terms, rather than the history of Protestantism itself.

Backlash Politics since the 1960s

And that history is critically informed by the most important single event in the history of the country, the civil war in the 1860s. When I use this word "event" I don't mean just another happening, I mean a crucial event which defines everything that comes after it. You and I continue to live in the wake of the event of the civil war and it continues to define political attitudes and orientations and movements in the public consciousness. The Protestant churches were divided during this period by different views toward slavery; the bible was used to justify slavery as a God-given institution. For one hundred years after the civil war the white South was able to maintain control of black people through Jim Crow laws and strict segregation of the races. It was only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King and others that the United States passed laws outlawing segregation. The federal government sent its agencies into the South to force white people to change their ways and their laws, to change the public space of the South, to change what it was right and good to do "out in public". That's why to this day the white South hates the federal government; that's why politicians coming from the white South even today speak of government as if it is evil incarnate.

And the churches that make up the "religious right" have their origins in the South, the Southern Baptists and the Pentecostals. Billy Graham is a Southern Baptist. The television preachers such at Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell come out of the South. The organizational origins of the religious right come from efforts of white churches sponsoring segregated private schools to organize themselves to fight against the Internal Revenue Service concerning non-profit status. In fact, the primary energy and underlying motivation of the entire religious right and now Republican politics constitutes a backlash against the gains of black people in the 1960s.

And this is combined with a rejection of the movement for equality of women in society. The entire anti-abortion movement is not really about abortion as a moral issue, it is against the idea that women should be free to participate in society as they choose and desire. That's what is meant by "family values," that women should stay home and take care of the family, not enjoy the benefits of participation in the larger society.

And there is another aspect of this that has to do with economic philosophy. When I was in the seminary in 1964 in St. Paul, Minnesota, I had a chance at Christmas vacation to travel to the state of Mississippi to help with the voter registration drives among black people that were happening at the time. This was a life-changing experience. I began to see and feel the world as it is experienced by black people, I saw the world from the bottom up so to speak. And I came to understand better that the definitions of right and wrong, the questions of ethics, have a lot to do with one's social location, the social place in the world from which one is viewing the world. One Sunday when I was there I went to a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. During the coffee hour, when I said I was there helping register people to vote, I was told that it was only the Communists who were doing that. It was Communists from the North who were coming down to disrupt the social structure of the South. If that sounds strange, remember that even J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI believed that Martin Luther King was influenced by Communists and carried on active surveillance of him for several years.

I would like to use the phrase "hysterical anti-Communism" to refer to this set of beliefs coming out of the South and promulgated to this day by southern religion. In the late 1980s I was given a pamphlet by a member of my congregation at the time; he said it was an example of the type of views he thought we should promote in our congregation. I paged through the pamphlet and saw it was one article after another about the evils of Communism and the Soviet Union. In the middle was one page saying that if this pamphlet helps the reader accept Jesus Christ into his heart that he should money to Jimmy Swaggart ministries. Swaggart was a popular television preacher at the time, until he was caught visiting prostitutes.

Billy Graham, of course, got his start in the 1950s in California preaching anti-Communism. He said Russia would send nuclear bombs over New York and Los Angeles if America did not turn to Christ. This association of anti-Communism with Christian salvation is, of course, idolatry. One can reject Communism as an economic philosophy but when it is raised to the level of justification of the use of nuclear weapons I call it "hysterical anti-Communism." And there is an emerging Republican politician seeking to be president who is again using this kind of language, Ted Cruz, whose Cuban father is a "born again" Christian and has associated President Obama with Castro because he says the Affordable Care Act is socialized medicine.

I hope this discussion helps you understand why I say that historical interpretation is crucial for ethics, for the determination of what is right and wrong, good and bad, real or unreal, out there in the public world. In fact, I would say it is not a bad definition of "politics" that it is a contest of interpretations, or stories, of history. It is important to tell the truth about history.

The Lutheran Approach to Politics

OK, what about Martin Luther can we say about all this? First, let us notice his social location: He was, like Jesus, a teacher. And, like Jesus, he associated with sinners. Remember that last time we spoke of Luther in solidarity with regular folks at the bottom of the hierarchy of the Roman Church, the ones who were trying to do all the good works necessary to get into heaven. He thought the church was terrorizing the inner consciousness of the people. From the bible he sees that the gospel is the good news of God's salvation apart from good works through the work of Christ on the cross. So in the very structure of Luther's primary thinking we see the goal of the spiritual liberation of the people against the oppressive hierarchy of the church. Since the church was such a significant dominating institution of the time, Luther's preaching resulted in widespread social change in the Reformation. People left religious occupations, the clergy got married, monks went to work in the secular community, the liberating word spread throughout Europe creating the Protestant churches.

Concerning social questions Luther was himself conservative. He was a medieval man in believing that social structures should not be changed, people must serve the neighbor from within whatever social "station" they had been given. He said some terrible things about Jews which the ELCA has officially rejected. He counseled against the peasants in what is known as the peasant uprisings of the time. I wonder if that is partially because he had already been responsible for such drastic change related to the church.

Both Luther and John Calvin taught that government was instituted by God for the good order of the community. Therefore the wholly anti-government rhetoric of right wing politicians is not part of the Protestant heritage. Luther taught what was is known as the "two kingdoms" doctrine, that God rules all through government based on law, and the church through the gospel. But he says God uses government in a hidden way, that is, one can not come to know the true nature of God through government because the law finally relies on coercive violence (the sword) and God is not violence but love. One comes to know God as love through the preaching of the gospel received in the inner consciousness; this completely changes the status of the person from unworthy sinner to redeemed child of God, no matter the external social/political structures within which the person must live.

During the Nazi era in Germany the two kingdoms theory was used by some Germans to excuse themselves from responsibility for the actions of the German state. The church as a whole failed to take a strong stand against the anti-Jewish actions of Hitler. A group called the Confessing Church did organize itself but it was repressed by the Nazis. Hitler tried to take over the church and those who went along with this were called "German Christians," the implication being that they made their ethnic-national identity more important than their faith in a God who has created all nations. This is a major danger in much of the religious right in this country today when they place their faith in America as a "Christian nation" or "exceptional country" rather than understanding the United States as one nation among all the nations all of whom are loved by the God who created the entire world. Since so many Lutherans lived in Germany the experience of the church in that country has been very significant in Lutheran social ethics, and should remain so.

One theologian has become particularly important because of his public witness against Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His ideas have become significant in helping Lutherans to determine when it may be necessary to oppose the state even though the state is the means by which God orders the world. And that is if the state systematically attacks the least powerful among us, such as what the status of Jews became in the Nazi era. The Nazi "total solution" of absolute exclusion of Jews from the community violated the will of God for Bonhoeffer and this gives us an important principle for our time. Racial policies in this country have had the purpose of excluding whole groups of people from full participation in the life of the community. Any politics of racial exclusion should be rejected by any Lutheran or Christian. The continuing Southern cultural dominance in the Republican Party at this time should raise a particular alarm for all people. The backlash politics I talked about earlier must be clearly recognized and rejected. In allowing itself to become associated with backlash politics the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, has separated itself from its own origins. Here is a project for those of you who want to redeem the Republican Party to play a positive role in current politics!

Now, concerning the use of reason in human affairs, Luther is greatly misunderstood. He called reason the devil's whore when it is used to try to calculate God's favor or prove to one's self that one is worthy of salvation. Luther was against what is called natural theology, human speculation on who God is and what God does. So he was fiercely opposed to Aristotle who engaged in much such speculation, and to Thomas Acquinas who argues in Aristotelian categories which rejects contradictions. There are lots of contradictions in Luther's theology because he is speaking of connections of human and divine realities. Luther believed the gospel is an announcement of what God has done in Christ. It is not something a person can conjure up from within themelves through meditation or other human methods. We need to hear this announcement from outside ourselves, from some preacher, either in church or otherwise, and from this hearing comes faith. We can not know the true God from our own intellectual works. We must be in the presence of the "living word". Words are the way God gets to us. That's why it is so important to say gospel words to others as much as we can.

But about the use of reason in human affairs, Luther was all for it. Reason is what we use to see and know how to serve the neighbor. Reason can be used to determine the best ordering of the community, and Luther hopes a good ruler will use reason to make for justice. Though he did not have high confidence in such rulers (a wise ruler is a rare bird), he spent great parts of his life, especially later, providing counsel on practical community issues. He supported public schools, paid for by the whole community, rather than just religious schools sponsored by the church. And Lutherans following him have placed a high value on education at all levels, including higher education, consider all the colleges Lutherans have created in this country. We have also created hospitals and social service agencies here and around the world. Luther believed greatly in the use of reason in human affairs and in that sense also helped turn the church from an exclusive focus on heaven to a concern for real people on the earth God loves. Next week we will talk about how Lutherans support the role of science in helping to serve others.

There is one particularly important way that Lutherans are different from Calvinists in terms of the relation of church and state. John Calvin believed that the bible was useful not only as the source of the good news of the gospel but also for very specific rules and practices for how to organize society. Calvin was a lawyer and eventually gained great power in Geneva in Switzerland. He set his followers to work searching the bible for help in building the sewer system of the city, believe it or not. This idea influenced the Puritans, for example, who wanted to create a perfect society in this country based on the scripture. There have been lots of efforts like this. Even today there is great influence among the religious right of the teachings of those called "Dominionists", who believe God has given Christians the right to have dominion over everyone on earth; Christians should rule the world. This includes support for military conquest and holy war. The father of Ted Cruz has been influenced by exactly this sort of thinking and it is terribly dangerous for this country.

Luther rejected this way of thinking in three ways.
  1. First, he did not give such a high purpose to Old Testament law that it could be used in his time as a way to order the world. God had given that law to Israel, God may be saying something else to him, Luther believed.

  2. Second, God has given the gift of reason to everyone, not just Christians, so there can be a wise ruler who is not Christian. Justice, the awareness of the demand for justice, is not exclusive of Christianity, but something present in all people in all places. God is a God of justice but it not only Christians who know the specifics of exactly what makes for justice in human affairs.

  3. Third, Luther taught that human beings are basically sinful and do not escape their sinful condition after they become Christians. They remain both saints and sinners. Luther was no utopian in any way. Government is needed to keep human beings in line so they don't end up killing one another, but no government can create a perfect society. Yes, we are given a natural sense of right and wrong, the conscience, but it is clouded by sin.
What I have just discussed about the differences between Luther and Calvin are issues that can be discussed as a political ethical position for a New Protestantism is formulated. But it is very important to realize that both Luther and Calvin believed Christians have a responsibility to work within and participate in state structures seeking to provide order and justice in the community. Christians could serve in governmental functions, including roles of police and the military using the sword of violence for purposes of keeping the peace. This can be part of their vocation in the world.

There was another group emerging out of the Reformation called the Anabaptists which include Mennonites and the Church of the Brethern. The name comes from the Greek word "ana" meaning "again". The groups rejected infant baptism so called for believers to be rebaptized as adults if they had been baptized as infants. Groups from this tradition are often called "peace churches" today because they reject the idea that Christians can engage in any violent functions of the state. I believe these churches have done outstanding work over the years, along with Quakers, in promoting peaceful solutions to conflict situations. And this has become particularly important in the current situation in the United States which has built a massive national security state including both military forces and surveillance systems which spy on the American people as well as leaders and populations of other countries around the world. Ever since the Vietnam war the several Protestant denominations have especially begun to seriously question military solutions to global problems.

A New Era of History

And this illustrates one of the problems with a principle-based ethical system. People often brag they are going to "stick with their principles" in politics, but rarely is this the case, because principles always have to be applied to particular situations and situations are always changing in the ongoingness of the historical process. It may be a principle that Lutherans may serve in the military to protect the innocent but what if a state is forming itself into a permanent war machine? What if a state has, like the United States, incorporated military spending and infrastructure into the basic economic structure of the society? Such a state is no longer dedicated to protection of the innocent but has become dedicated to a permanent state of war. Can Lutherans ethically serve in the military of such a state? I say no. Should Lutherans in Germany agreed to fight in Hitler's wars? I say no. Should Lutherans have worked as guards and workers in concentration camps which used modern mechanical systems to systematically kill certain human beings? I say no.

Even as I say no in these situations I realize that you, my fellow Lutheran or Protestant, may say yes. You may judge your ethical responsibility before God differently than I do but we can both be members of the same church because we are united by the love of Christ not our views on political issues. We are both sinners as we approach the communion table together.

That is, I used to say this sort of thing; most of my ministry over the past fifty years I said this kind of thing. Most of the Protestant churches said this kind of thing through the 20th century, we are united in Christ and can differ on social-political questions and still be in the same church. And over these years we have observed the continuing decline of the mainline Protestant churches. People are less and less interested in what we say, maybe because we aren't saying much of anything.

One thing about Luther: he didn't try to stand outside the the fight; he didn't try to avoid the fray; he wasn't afraid of conflict. He wasn't afraid to preach the truth as he understood it in spite of the fact that it challenged the most powerful figures and structures of his time. It used to be that Lutherans tried to moderate Luther, take off his edge; I believe we need to now remember the radical Luther.

Consider this development: the institutions created by Protestants have spun off to become independent of any religious authority. The modern corporation, in-so-far-as it was inspired by Protestants, has long since rejected any influence of moral authority from religious sources; economic actors have reduced their thinking process to just one calculation, the calculation of profit is for profit's sake and no other. No consideration of the long term future, no concern for the physical environment, no sympathy to the victims to industrial development, no concern at all for the poor, in fact they are viewed as moochers and the wretched of the earth.

Consider hospitals; Lutherans created hospitals for healing ministry following the example of Jesus, but now they have become separate institutions funded substantially by the state and related to their religious origins only by nostalgia. The same can be said of most of the Lutheran colleges, they are Lutheran in name only. And the same is true of social services which receive nearly their entire funding from the state and base their professional practice on bodies of knowledge which discount any role for theological reflection.

So, one way to talk about this is to say that we are now living in a rather different world, a post-modern world some say, a stage away from the modern period of industrial development. Now we live in the information age, based on technical innovation in communication. Whatever we call it very, very big changes have occurred which have basically left the churches sitting over there on the sidelines with little to say and no real chance of saying it.

The situation the church faces today is exhibited in a book by Lutheran social ethicist, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, of Seattle University. Just ponder the meaning of the name of the book: Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation. The author is writing of political-economic structures of the United States which are here characterized as "structural evil." One is no longer called to work within and contribute to these structures, but our life vocation must be to "resist" them. This constitutes a virtual revolution in Lutheran public theology, a complete turn-around from the old social ethics of modernism. This is the main orientation of those writing prophetic public theology today.

Based on this orientation the local church must become a place for persistant prophetic criticism of current political-economic actors and strucutures and a means of redemption from those structures. It should no longer be a place that celebrates or glorifies oppressive social systems, it should no longer try to be neutral in politics as if a very real war is not going on, it should no longer sit quiet as the wealthy few manipulate the many poor, it should get its bearings from an interpretation of history based on the fundamental faith of the Hebrew prophets and the prophet named Jesus.

See you next week.

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Date Added: 11/2/2013 Date Revised: 11/2/2013 5:00:55 PM

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