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Public Theology: Missouri Synod Lutheran Leader Disgraces Himself in Public
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Missouri Synod Lutheran Leader Disgraces Himself in Public
The Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, appears before a House committee set up to attack Obama on false grounds of religious freedom. No women allowed.

By Ed Knudson

As a Lutheran pastor I have a great deal of respect for my bishop, Mark Hanson, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America(ELCA). He was probably not asked and probably would not have attended the politically-motivated hearing of the House Oversight Committee on February 16, 2012.

But the president of another Lutheran body in the United States, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, did attend the sham hearing. And in so doing he disgraced himself and the faith he represents. President Matthew C. Harrison is the second person from the left in the photo below.

This photo has become an iconic image in the media for what it says about this hearing and its political motivations. No women are present even though the hearing concerned the availability of contraception services in health care plans. The Democrats who are women were so upset with this they walked out of the hearing, making lots of news. But Representative Darrell Issa (R, California), chair of the hearing, claimed that the purpose was not to discuss contraception but religious freedom. So a Roman Catholic bishop, a couple Southern Baptists, and an orthodox Jew had been asked to offer testimony in addition to President Harrison. A second panel included representatives from other conservative institutions including two women. There were no leaders of mainline Protestantism at the hearing, none. That's one big reason this can be called a "sham hearing" with no interest in actually receiving testimony from a broad cross-section of religious opinion. But President Harrison was there, looking uncomfortable.

Chairman Issa titled the hearing thusly: "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion & Freedom of Conscience." It is completely obvious from this title what the hearing was supposed to do, attack President Obama. The hearing was held only because the Catholic Bishops have been working since last fall to mount a campaign against the Obama administration about the contraception guidelines. Think about this now: the bishops are engaged in a political power play. The bishops are concerned with contraception, but they know that their own members use contraceptives and they are popular among all American women, so they cannot be seen to be against contraception. They decide to argue on the basis of a deeply felt value among Americans, religious freedom. They do this for political purposes. And so the Republican members of the House of Representatives see that this is a strong argument against the Obama administration in general and decide to hold a hearing with the above title. It's as if the Catholic bishops have made a conscious decision to join the Republican Party, which indeed, is what I believe they are doing. The base of the Republican Party is now the "religious right" which has been organizing over the past several decades precisely against the whole movement for women's freedom which has been so successful in changing the condition and status of women in society. The House of Respresentatives is now controlled by very extreme Republicans and called this hearing to try to embarrass and intimidate the Obama administration in the eyes of the public. President Harrison joined the party too, looking uncomfortable sitting right there in public.

He even expressly said he didn't want to be there: "I'd rather not be here, frankly." Lutherans are not known for their willingness to stand up in public for the law. They take seriously the distinction between law and gospel. Harrison even said that "our task is to proclaim..." the gospel and that's what Lutherans did in the 16th century when they stood before public authorities. That's what the term "evangelical" means, in fact, contrary to the way the word is used in the media today to refer to ravings of the religious right. But there he was, President Harrison, seemingly affirming an effort of the Roman Catholic Church and the Republican Party to interpret "the law" in such a way as to be detrimental to the lives of women in society.

Harrison even said things in his testimony which are correct understandings of the Lutheran approach to public issues but which put him outside the purpose of this hearing and must have made him uncomfortable. He said directly that the Missouri Synod hasn't "the slightest intent to Christianize the government." Well, all right, that is definitely what Lutherans teach. But in so doing Lutherans do not join into the entire effort of the religious right to create a "Christian nation". Many of the Republicans on this committee must have wondered about that statement. This is not the framework of "religion against terrible secularism" that is used in the rhetoric of both Catholic Bishops and the religious right today.

Harrison even quoted something attributed to Martin Luther, a quote I have never been able to find in his writings but one which does express his approach to public governance. "Martin Luther famously quipped one time, 'I'd rather have a smart Turk than a stupid Christian governing me.'" Wow! Think about that one for a while. It is real human beings who govern, and wisdom is available to all, not just Christians. This Lutheran notion again destroys the whole framework of religion against secularism, we good religious folks against the secular heathens. This view puts Lutherans outside a hearing established to promote a false "religious freedom" but there was Harrison, sitting there among people with views opposed to his own. No wonder he was uncomfortable. His presence was a disgrace to his views.

Harrison went on to state another key Lutheran idea: "We confess that there are two realms, the church and the state. They shouldn't be mixed - the church is governed by the Word of God, the state by natural law and reason, the Constitution." This supports a traditional notion in this country, the separation of church and state. But those who support this idea today are called "liberal" and those who are "conservative" are those religious right leaders and Republicans who want to "Christianize" the government, who want to use the power of the government to implement the doctrines of the church, which is what the Catholic Bishops want to do in this debate over contraception. By making this comment about not mixing church and state Harrison is saying explicitly he does not agree with the views of many of those Republican congressmen at the hearing, but there he was still looking uncomfortable.

Harrison was asked during the question period whether he supported the new health care bill of the Obama administration. He said his church had not taken a position on that, again contradicting a primary purpose of the hearing, to provide Republicans an opportunity to attack that legislation. The new health care bill will provide health insurance to thirty-two million people who now don't have it, often poor working people, some of whom are probably women of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, some of whom again may work in Catholic hospitals. The lives of all these people, and women, are important, one would assume for those of us in the church who speak of the sacredness of life. Harrison had no authority from his church to speak against this bill, but there he was willing to place himself in the company of those who are against providing healing and medical services to a very large segment of the American people, some of whom are women in his own church.

He was also asked by a Republican congressman whether a Lutheran owner of a car dealership should be forced by the government to provide health insurance which includes birth control. Notice carefully the question. Republicans are now trying to push legislation that would allow any employer, not just religious organizations, to exclude birth control or any other service to which the employer has a moral concern. Such legislation would put employers rather than the government in charge of determining what medical services are provided in health insurance programs. It is a Republican effort to undermine the whole health care bill under the philosophy that government can do no good. There sits President Harrison faced with a complex political question with all sorts of implications for the very future of the United States, political philosophy, and how government treats its people. He refused to answer the question, saying that the Missouri Synod is composed of both Republicans and Democrats, a very unsatisfactory answer for those Republicans who had called the hearing explicitly to support attacks on the health care bill. I'm glad that Harrison answered the question that way. He was a faithful interpreter of Lutheran social ethics. It's just that I wonder what he was really doing there in the first place.

The hearing was called to try to demonstrate that the Obama administration was opposed to "religious freedom" in the promulgation of the birth control regulations. Women chosen by Democrats were not allowed to testify because Chairman Issa said the topic was religious freedom not birth control. So only those who agreed to use the language of religious freedom were allowed to testify. I suppose that committee staff had made that clear to President Harrison and so he had to have agreed that he would participate in what is really a sham hearing. Now, think about the politics involved here. Even church leaders have to be somewhat savy about the political implications of their words and actions. The Catholic journalist E. J. Dionne has said, correctly in my view, that if the focus in this whole public debate is on religious freedom then the Republicans will win. But if the focus turns toward birth control then Democrats will win because such huge majorities of women actually use and receive benefits from drugs involved with birth control. And that's why the Catholic bishops were thinking strategically and politically when they decided to try to focus the debate on religious freedom. It is an effort on the part of the bishops to distort the political discourse of the country for their own political purposes which is to use the power of government to deny women working in their institutions, thousands of women not all of whom are Catholic in institutions funded greatly through federal money, access to birth control. President Harrison joined in this effort to distort fair political discourse.

His stated purpose for being there is this: "I'm here to express our deepest distress over the HHS provisions. We are religiously opposed to supporting abortion-causing drugs." It's not about birth control in general, Lutherans are not opposed in principle to that as is the Catholic hierarchy (though the vast majority of Catholic women use birth control in direct definance of their church). Harrison says he "religiously opposed" as if religion is the biggest issue, but it is clear that he wants religious freedom for himself. It is not really about religious freedom for women, it's about institutional control of women by religious sytems of hierarchial authority which are trying to use the coercive power of government to deny access of women to birth control methods they themselves may choose for themselves based on what they themselves determine is best for themselves and the life of their family and loved ones. The federal government through the Department of Health and Human Services has determined that preventive health provisions for women include birth control based on the best science available. The idea is that the government should use "reason" (not religious faith) to determine what is best for the "life" of women. To be "pro-life" should really be to support this effort of government which may well significantly reduce the number of abortions in the country as well. But for President Harrison it's all about abortion to which he is "religiously opposed." More specifically, he is against "abortion-causing drugs."

So it's really about a definition of abortion. President Harrison has adopted as his own the idea that life in all its fullness begins absolutely at the moment of conception and that all drugs used to interfere with the biological process after that moment constitute an abortion which is defined as a killing of a human life. Let us call that one moment the magic moment theory, for those who believe this way indeed make this moment of conception into a kind of magic. They worship this moment and lift it into the realm of absolute certainty. Despite the fact that he doesn't want to be at this hearing and even though his own Lutheran beliefs do not correspond to those calling this hearing, President Harrison is at this hearing because he believes in the magic moment of conception. And on this basis he is willing to join Catholic bishops in their campaign against the president of the United States and against health care provisions that may well benefit the lives and families of millions of American citizens including women of his own church.

This magic moment theory is indeed powerful if a person decides to believe it. After a few practical examples of the consequences of thinking this way I will show why there are no biblical or theological reasons to support the magic moment theory, especially from the Lutheran heritage.

The Missouri Synod includes a lot of schools. The ELCA has tended to encourage parents to participate in public schools and work for better education for all students, but the Missouri Synod has chosen to create its own schools so it hires a lot of people. Harrison says the Missouri Synod self-insures 50,000 people. So he has to be thinking all the time about what is best for their health and welfare, how can he provide the best health care insurance for the least cost. The HHS provisions for birth control are based on reason and science from the Institute for Medicine, which includes the fact that covering birth control is less costly than otherwise because it saves costs for child birth and the many, many health complications that can arise in that process which insurance plans would have to pay for. So there is a very real practical economic calculation in this matter as well. Providing free birth control to women can reduce the over-all costs of health care insurance, even the "self-insurance" claimed by President Harrison. But for him this doesn't make any difference, he believes in the magic moment, he doesn't care about what may save his church some money, he believes the government is violating his conscience by requiring free birth control for women. The government should not be making a utilitarian calculation about money, money is not important, what's important is the magic moment which trumps all other considerations, even the health and welfare of the women who work in his schools.

I have a word for this, it is irrational. Harrison would be derelict in his duties as an administrator if he did not exercise cold, calculating reasoning in how he designs and administers the health insurance system for his church, getting the most benefits for the least costs. He has already admitted that government should be based on reason. But he introduces an element of irrationality into the system with his belief in the magic moment of conception, an element that will cost taxpayers more. In this case the church wants taxpayers to pay more for health care because of an irrational belief. That is not a responsible way for the church to relate to society. Harrison may want his church to be completely separate from society, the Missouri Synod tends in that direction with its own schools, but as long as government is so heavily involved in funding health care it is completely irresponsible of the church to expect the rest of society to pay more for health care due to an irrational belief.

But it is not just on the system level that the belief is irrational, it is also on the practical personal level. Imagine a younger single school teacher in a Missouri Synod school who is raped creating the possibility of a pregnancy. The magic moment belief would call for her not to have access to drugs interfering with the biological process. The language of the magic moment belief would be that if she took such a drug she would be "killing her own child." Underlying the belief is that God is at work in this biological process at that magic moment. So President Harrison believes that God is active in the act of rape and he believes this so much that it is a terrible violation of his conscience for the government to "force" him to provide access to abortive drugs for this young teacher. It is no wonder so many people refuse to believe what the church is saying, it is completely irrational. God's acts cannot be reduced to the happenstance of a biological moment.

Should President Harrison be the one to decide for this young teacher what is proper and ethical according to her faith and relationship with God? Is her religious freedom of no concern here? The government is not forcing her to take an abortive drug, it is just making the option available should she so choose. Does President Harrison have any idea of what it means to force a single women to have a baby, what it means for her decisions about her vocation and the meaning of her life? Can it be that President Harrison's belief in the magic moment of conception should trump all other considerations of right and wrong? No, it is entirely irrational.

The fact is that biology is not perfect. Creation is broken. All kinds of bad stuff happens in the whole process of fertilization and gestation of a human fetus as well as the social relationships surrounding the act of sex. I commend to the reader the ELCA social statement on abortion. It places the whole question of abortion in the context of the doctrine of original sin, still a quite important doctrine for Lutherans. Those who believe in the magic moment ignore this fact, the whole creation is broken as the Apostle Paul says. To pick out one moment as the absolute perfect beginning of life and orientating all one's thinking around this point is an act of sentimental naturalism, not Christian and especially not Lutheran faith. For several years I was a member of the Bio-ethics Committee at Emanuel Hospital in Portland, Oregon. There I saw in case after case how wrong the biological process can go with devastating consequences for young mothers and fathers both in their family life as well as their vocational commitments. I believe it is the heighth of irrationality and self-rightousness to claim that there is a perfect point when "life" becomes sacred and that all other considerations of life are ignored.

I went to the Missouri Synod website to see if there is documentation there for President Harrison's views on abortion. One page called Life Library - Abortion has assembled items on abortion for readers. But there is no item here which gives an official position of the church adopted by the gathered members and pastors of the synod. There is no item which provides what would be understood as a credible theological understanding based on Lutheran doctrine. The most complete presentation is a very helpful 1973 article by John W. Klotz on the history of abortion teaching in the church and the new Supreme Court ruling. But nowhere in this article does Klotz present the magic moment theory nor does he attack the Supreme Court for its ruling. President Harrison seemingly has no substantial theological or biblical accounting for his belief in the magic moment.

Most of the items on the website are in the category I call "sentimental naturalism" or they proceed by a too simple equation between life as a gift of God and that consequently abortion is evil. There needs to be a little logic connecting these two ideas. That is, I may say "all automobiles have four wheels" but from that it is ridiculous to argue "you must buy a Ford," there is no logic between these two ideas. So to say "all life comes from God" is absolutely an understanding of Christian faith, but it does not automatically follow to say in a specific case "you must not have an abortion." But this is what people say who believe in the magic moment and they are willing to use the full language of faith to then claim that anyone who does not accept this illogic is a terrible baby killer, that they are against the light of Christ, that they are following Satan. Lutherans have no basis in their biblical and theological heritage to be arguing like this.

The magic moment believers will insist that it is science that reveals that the moment of conception is the beginning of life. But no serious theologican would so argue. This is where Republican politicians have distorted religious understandings, it is they who keep repeating this claim, that science demonstrates the truth of the magic moment. Science cannot tell us when God acts. The same people who say we should accept that science proves a religious idea that life begins at conception are often those who reject science when it comes to evolution.

And there is nothing in the bible about abortion. The bible writers knew nothing about modern biology. It is only since biology has been able to detail the process of reproduction that the idea was possible that everything turns on the magic moment. In other words this is a modern idea. The church has indeed been opposed to indiscriminate abortion from ancient times, it upholds and promotes the notion of the infinite value of each human life including children, but that does not lead logically to the idea of the magic moment.

This is true even of the important document of the Catholic Church, the Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae by Paul VI in 1968. This is where the pope outlaws abortion and all contraception except the "natural method" of birth control. In many and various ways the document states the faith of the church that life is sacred and who among Christians can disagree with that. Its speaks of the significance of marriage and responsible parenthood in helpful ways. But then it starts making very large claims from "natural law" and here is where Lutheran theology raises questions. Martin Luther was much more suspicious about any natural theology, that we can argue from nature about God, and though he accepted natural law as a sort of conscience he believed it was clouded by sin and not always reliable. But Humanae Vitae makes very large claims about the authority of the pope to determine what makes for natural law: "The teaching of the Church regarding the proper regulation of birth is a promulgation of the law of God Himself." The problem is there is nowhere in this document any clear logic that connects the general belief in the sacredness of life with the specific prohibitions against either contraceptives or abortion. There is just the statement of the pope's authority and for the sake of unity in the church everyone should agree with it.

For Lutherans, of course, this is not an adequate basis for its ethical teachings; we want to respect the pope but by no means does that mean he represents ultimate authority for us. President Harrison says in his statement that "we stand with our friends in the Catholic Church" but the members of his church would be quite surprised to hear if this meant acceptance of the pope's authority in all matters of natural law. President Harrison cannot believe in the magic moment because the pope says so. In fact there is no biblical or theological basis for his view. He is disgracing himself in public by his participation in this hearing called by Republicans to embarrass President Obama.

So why has abortion become such a huge topic over the last decades? Why are otherwise thoughtful people willing to believe in the magic moment? In fact, why are the Catholic bishops making such a big deal about this right now? In Italy, for example, the home of the papacy, the pope has given up trying to get laws against abortion passed. But now in this country the bishops are ready to fight. President Harrison joins in and says "We fought for a free conscience in this country, and we won't give it up without a fight." Strong language, but he has no basis for it except his belief in the magic moment theory. What is behind all of this?

It is politics. It is backlash politics. It is backlash against the successes of the women's liberation movement. Women received legal access to birth control by a court action in 1936. They received equal rights in the civil rights bills of the 1960s. They themselves through their own work and persistance have changed relations between male and female in families and society, in business and economy, in government and polity. This is probably the biggest social change of the 20th century along with the freedom of black people in the North and from segregation in the South. This was a massive change in the South as the federal government forced the South through law to change its ways of segregation and Southern politicians have been fighting against it ever since. After the civil rights legislation of the 1960s the Republican Party soon became the party of the South. The Southern Baptist Convention is the primary force of the religious right. The South hates the Supreme Court for its 1954 decision calling for integration in public schools. With the 1973 decision on abortion of the Supreme Court political and religious leaders believed they had found an issue against which they could organize a moral purity movement against federal institutions. Abortion is a handy political football to play against those who forced them to change their ways of segregation and to change the traditional pattern of the relations of the sexes. So abortion is all about backlash politics.

The Catholic bishops are kicking up their heels today over abortion because they sense a political opportunity, they are trying to ride the wave of the backlash politics of the religious right. I believe this is despicable and disgraceful and beneath the dignity of the Roman Catholic Church. And I think it is disgraceful for the president of the Missouri Synod to associate himself with such a negative and spiteful movement. Republican politicians should be elected or not elected based on their political philosophy and what they propose for the future of the country, not on theology, not on religious irrationality, not on the basis of a very false notion of a magic moment in the process of reproduction. The religious right and now the Catholic bishops are debasing and distorting the language of political discourse by introducing their false claim to be champions of religious freedom. They are distorting public debate from more important national issues. They are trying to cynically influence politics in ways harmful to the freedom of religion for real people including those who work in or are served by the institutions they administer, greatly funded by federal dollars, within a complex society.

In fact, if they continue in this mode, it will be necessary for Americans to conclude that the hierarchial authority of the Roman Catholic Church has become threatening to the very democracy of this country. One of the current Republican candidates for president is a Roman Catholic, Rick Santorum, who in last couple days said that Barack Obama, a mainline Protestant who came to Christian faith through a congregation of the United Church of Christ, is governing based on a "phony theology". It may be that the bishops have decided they would like to have one of their own as president. Everything they are doing right now clearly reveals that they want to cooperate with Republicans in attacking the president. This is disgraceful. President Harrison should not be a part of it.


Here are the names of those in the above photo:

From left, Reverend William E. Lori, Roman Catholic Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, President, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, C. Ben Mitchell, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy Union University, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Director Straus Center of Torah and Western Thought, Yeshiva University and Craig Mitchell, Associate Professor of Ethics of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Carolyn Kaster - AP)

For more on the hearing see: statements of religious leaders

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Date Added: 2/17/2012 Date Revised: 2/20/2012 5:06:20 PM

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