Backgrounder: A Lutheran Uprising? Not Likely

June 30, 2015

“Sometimes you just have to look reality in the eye and deny it.” — Garrison Keillor

by Craig Ladwig

(Fort Wayne) — Lutherans are known as apolitical even here where Germanfest is just another summer weekend. So the news was greeted with surprise — or an emotion as close to that as Lutherans allow — when one group’s president issued a politically edged press statement.

Until that moment, you see, some in this fiercely independent Lutheran community didn’t know for sure they had a president. They certainly didn’t imagine he would have a topical opinion. Could it be that in the midst of the current public-policy babel the most somnolent of Lutherans are awakening?

The statement, from the 6,000-congregation Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), was in response to the same-sex marriage ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States. The church president recognized the “inherent and equal value of all people” and the “divinely given dignity of all people, no matter their sexual preference” while reminding us that we are all sinners and that only the “blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all our sins.”

At the same time, he warned that through coercive litigation “governments and popular culture continue to make the central post-modern value of sexual freedom override ‘the free exercise of religion’ enshrined in the Bill of Rights.”

But the overriding concern, according to Mark Oetting, an LCMS member and the owner of a New Haven insurance agency, was made clear: It is that the church never distract from its sole purpose of spreading the gospel. Also, Lutherans today are keenly attuned to Scripture regarding “legitimate authority.” Oetting says that reflects a reexamination of the historic relationship between church and state, not only in Germany in the 1930s but going back to the Peasant Rebellion of Martin Luther’s own time.

Oetting carries a pamphlet, “Render Unto Caesar and Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State.” It explains Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine, which Oetting and others argue is the basis of capitalism and modern economic theory.

That doctrine was what James Madison, principal author of the First Amendment, credited as leading the way to the Constitution’s distinction between the nation’s ecclesiastic and civil spheres, of church and state. Lutherans see themselves as occupying a great middle ground with one leg in heaven and another planted firmly, independently, pragmatically and with a degree of political contrariness here on earth.

So, will Lutherans mass on the Capital Mall, will Republican strategists talk of holding the “Lutheran vote,” will there be announcement of a Lutheran vice presidential nominee, a Lutheran to the Supreme Court?

No, they aren’t interested. The LCMS doesn’t have a lobbyist in Washington and, again, its president almost never speaks on political issues. Instead, the church believes in educating its members and children to live according to Christian principles wherever, whenever and however they enter the public square.

“You can’t stop a bird from flying over your head,” Oetting quotes Martin Luther, “but you can stop it from building a nest in your hair.” That’s about as close to a political philosophy as you’re going to get from these Lutherans.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.

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