Lutheran Commentary on the American Political Scene
Editor’s note: The Attached PDF contains four short articles for your reflection regarding Lutheran commentary on the American political scene. These were originally printed shortly following Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States in 2017. We offer them again to you ahead of next week’s midterm elections. The article printed below on this website is the first of these four articles in the attached pdf.
by Various Authors (see attached)
Read the PDF
from LF Spring 2017
Hands for Prayer, Praise, and Service
by John Arthur Nunes
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee;
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
—James W. Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
The recent U.S. presidential election, with all the surprises it entails, prompts self-reflection. I offer here my own reflection as one standing on the missional and marginal edges of my beloved ecclesial mother, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and often enough of American society itself.
Elections exude intoxicating elements—especially when your side wins and the values of your faith are apparently enthroned at the center of power. This drunkenness occurs because people are prone, according to Martin Luther, to make false gods even of otherwise virtuous goods including “power, prestige, family and honor.” There is an allure to worldly thrones that can lure us from the places where God meets us—especially at the altar, the font, and the community
gathered around the word. In this vein, I have found some lc ms pre-election persecution narratives regarding the place of the church vis-àvis government to be incredulous and insubstantial. Is the fact that Lutherans have of late lost power in the center of society tantamount to being under siege? Or is this something more like a costly inconvenience? Such a flagrant claim may sound more like provincialism to the Christian martyrs across the globe who are being murdered for their confession of Jesus as Lord. What some conservative U.S. Christians in the pre-Trump era interpreted as their religious persecution more accurately represents a conflation of losses in privilege. Cultural anxiety over shifting postindustrial economic variables and the seismically shifting racial and ethnic demographic profile of the country are far more at issue.
The election has given the LCMS and its members a chance to revisit these questions. For years prior to the election I contended that the group that constitutes the predominant leadership of the LCMS, namely white Christian males, are not, despite their claims to the contrary, being persecuted in North America. An easy test: when you travel by air, check out who’s sitting in first class and who’s flying the plane; trite, but telling. The surprise election of Donald Trump with his overwhelmingly white and male cabinet appointments verify this contention. As such, the election has destabilized a popular LCMS narrative—that “we” are being persecuted by the culture and the government, as epitomized in the presidency of Barack Obama. One would hope that such a radical destabilization might raise doubts about the validity of that narrative altogether.
This election, moreover, provides a perfect opportunity for the LCMS to continue the path of distinguishing itself from government, rather than suddenly reversing direction and claiming kinship. The church must continue to stand over and against the state, even in the time of Trump, and this time with more intentional differentiation rooted in the Lutheran Confessions. This is particularly critical when the temptation will be to over-affiliate with the victor, a sort of boomerang effect.
To illustrate: recently, while traveling, I was advised by an LCMS layperson that this election of Trump could only have been “a miracle of God. How else could we have won and gotten a Christian back in the White House!” When my quizzical expression—I could summon no words—offered implicit challenge to her comment, she quickly added, “It must be because you’re from New York that you don’t get it.” That’s certainly one possible theory. Another explanation of the mismatch between our reactions is the vast catechetical gap in our pews.
Another illustration. In conversation with a Lutheran deaconess around election time, she declared: “I vote straight pro-life.” To which I replied, “I want to also, but where do you find that, especially if you add to the domain of ‘pro-life’ matters of criminal justice, mass incarceration, and the unequal application of the death penalty?” “I agree with you,” she demurred, “those are injustices. But that’s a left-hand kingdom question. Pro-life is a Christian question.” Her comments represent another urgent catechetical need, not to mention a diaconal one. The vocation of deaconess, a long LCMS tradition, has always protected the sanctity of life in and beyond the womb, involving pro-life and resettlement work.
Prior to last November’s election, many in the LCMS expressed their resignation over the unstoppable evil of the encroaching “liberal-progressive consensus.” The recent formation of the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty in Washington, DC, is an attempt to guard and guide the church through this assault. The Center’s purpose is to counter government intrusion into the life of the church and limits upon its freedoms. It regards recent legislative and judicial developments to infringe upon the confessional Lutheran view of marriage and life and calls for a defensive strategy against “progressive” policies.
This could devolve into mere partisan politics. Or the LCMS could build out from its confessional commitments and use a Center like this to build bridges in a time of social divisiveness and political toxicity. The message should be: “We weren’t aligned with President Obama, and (you may be surprised to discover) we aren’t aligned with President Trump, either. We are aligned with our confession of faith, which calls us to work on behalf of whoever is most vulnerable, whether refugees or the unborn or anyone else in need.”
Vincent Bacote, a professor of theology and ethics at Wheaton College, said in a speech during the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday: “Prior to the recent election, many articulated what seemed to be a liberal-progressive consensus that upon the presumptive election of Hillary Clinton there would be dominance of progressive social, political and cultural policies. The results of the election have revealed that the United States has citizens of many other persuasions who have more voice and influence than was assumed. We are in a country with citizens all across the map, and many of them are no longer hiding in plain sight. Now we have to discern whether there is a new consensus, or instead far more complex polity than recently imagined. 
This framework of reimagining, suggested by Bacote, could lead toward a new consensus within a complex polity. The Lutheran comfort with paradox might be recruited in service to this new consensus, which I believe presages a radical political realignment in the U.S. Indeed, many of us were surprised by the election because we have not been good at imagining what life is like outside of our own little tribe. It is true that our vocations as Christians can not ever be disconnected from the locations where we live, love, work, play, and pray. Even the most urbane cosmopolitans are rooted creatures. But we are also called to employ our sanctified imaginations to think about what it must be like to live, love, and work elsewhere. And not only to imagine it: to follow Jesus in “crossing over to the other side” (Luke 8:22).
Lutherans are at our best when we engage all our sisters and brothers made in the image of God in respectful, faith-filled conversation, avoiding the facile categorizing, superficial name-calling, and dismissive pigeonholing that characterizes too much of our insular echo-chamber culture. Set free by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we can act within our vocations and locations of life to disrupt creatively situations of injustice. We can act to promote the full human flourishing of our families, our local neighborhoods, and global neighborhoods. This kind of creative disruption is purpose-focused, not self-indulgent; strategic and surgical, not random; scalpel-like, not sledgehammer-like; careful, not reckless; prayerful, not self-sufficient; access-opening, not dependency creating; systemic, not atomistic; reformist, not revolutionary; protesting, not rioting; pruning, not chopping off; generative, not destructive; patient, not instantaneous. That’s a catholic formula, good for all people in all places at all times.
Lutherans are also at our best when we continue our confessional course of social reform with modest expectations, prayerful engagement, and deliberate service—not ethically quietist or socially inactive, but practically realistic about the limits of human nature and society. Gary Simpson has rightly observed that Martin Luther “was a gradualist and reformist, rather than a revolutionary, when it came to matters of injustice.” For this reason, the reformer’s theological progeny have prudentially resisted excessive optimism with respect to politically driven social reform of any sort.
For those of us in the LCMS, that might mean that while this putative liberal-progressive consensus is (temporarily) defeated, we should avoid over-investing in the equal and opposite triumphalist, conservative, America-first party. No matter what side we gravitate toward, this is an occasion neither for handwringing in cynical despair nor for high-fiving in victory celebration. We should eschew both vitriolic verbal fisticuffs (like Madonna’s curse-laced, middle-fingering, anti-Trump performance) and the equally shameful altright fist-pumping (“finally, our people are back in power!”).
Instead, let us fold our hands in prayer for the new president and for the future of our country and all the people dwelling in it. Let us lift our hands in praise and thanksgiving for another miraculously peaceful transition of power in our nation. Let us extend our hands in service to our neighbors in need, no matter what their politics might be. Yes, the same hands that pulled the election lever can do all these divine things!
John Arthur Nunes is President of Concordia College–New York.
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1. Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 387.
2. See <www.lcms.org/lutheran-center-for-religious-liberty>.
3. Vincent Bacote, “The Dream We Need to Keep Alive,” speech delivered at Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration in Dubuque, Iowa, January 16, 2017. See <www.dbqschools.org/district/community/facesandvoices/>.
4. Gary Simpson, “Lutheran,” in The Encyclopedia of Global Justice, ed. Deen K. Chatterjee, vol. 2 (New York: Springer, 2011), 668.