D R A F T

A couple of resources that are right down my alley as I struggle with the conceptual framework for an expanded study of how Swedish immigrant churches in Chicago and the upper Midwest adapted in the 1850s to an essentially Protestant American culture where churches were voluntary associations not supported by the government.

One, ELCA’s social statement Government and Civic Engagement in the United States: Discipleship in a Democracy, is very up to-to-date. (A PDF file is available online.) It was adopted unanimously by the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on June 24, 2020. And Michael Cooper-White, president emeritus of Gettysburg (now United) Lutheran Seminary and director of Lutheran formation at Union Theological Seminary, wrote a summary that appeared in October issue of Living Lutheran magazine.

(Note to self: I didn’t know about it until now. Maybe we should subscribe, since we aren’t picking up the monthly ink-on-paper issue at church these days; maybe it’ll invoke Murphy’s law if we do, and it’ll bring the damn pandemic to a close.)

The other was a survey of Lutheran attitudes toward government by Leslie F. Weber. who worked with ELCA’s committees in formulating policies toward government and studied the policy statements of its predecessor synods from 1950 till their merger into ELCA in 1988. It has a valuable summary of what Luther said about the issue, and where he said it, as well as the 20th-century statements.

Both articles are too long and detailed to summarize here. So instead I’ll just use this as a portal while I print them out so I can read, mark, learn and inwardly digest in dead-tree format.

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Michael Cooper-White, “Discipleship in a democracy: How should Lutherans be involved in politics?” Living Lutheran, Oct. 9, 2020 https://www.livinglutheran.org/2020/10/discipleship-in-a-democracy/.

Cooper-White explains how the social statement came about:

Prompted by increasing polarization over the appropriate role of government and by the conflict such divisions are causing in congregations, the Minneapolis Area Synod brought to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly a memorial “to initiate the development of a social statement on the role of government, the nature of civic engagement, and the relationship of church and state.” 

The synod’s bishop, Ann Svennungsen, expressed her conviction that “one of the great crises currently facing the United States is the role of government.” The ELCA, she said, “could contribute to the political landscape of the country with a social statement on this topic.” 

Another who urged offering guidance to the church was Gladys Moore, a pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Summit, N.J. Moore said the urgency she felt last year has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the anguished cries for racial justice across the country. The church, she said, can “provide guidance about how and why, in service to the gospel, we Lutherans approach our civic responsibilities, especially when the gospel message so clearly flies in the face of an unjust society.” 

Recognizing that a social statement takes years to develop, Moore and others argued last year in favor of a social message, which could be issued in less than a year by action of the ELCA Church Council. In the end, nearly 900 assembly voting members decided that doing both would be wise. 

The council then fast-tracked the message’s development so ELCA members could benefit from their church’s advice prior to the 2020 national elections. 

A couple of snippets. Here’s one:

Views on government vary widely in the United States and have changed dramatically over the past half-century. The social message names “a spirit of broad dissatisfaction, mistrust, protest, and even contempt of government in the United States.” It cites a Pew Research Center survey that revealed “the percentage of U.S. citizens who trust the federal government to do what is right … fell steadily from 77% in 1964 to 17% in 2019.” 

Regardless of which party controls the White House or other branches of government, research shows that confidence has continued to erode.     

In the face of such widespread antipathy toward government, the social message declares that Lutherans should recall biblical and Lutheran confessional principles reminding us that law and government are gifts from God for the ordering of creation. “God intends for government to protect society and to enable it to flourish,” the message asserts. Responsible citizenship is “a calling from God” to each of us.   

And another, which harkens back to Luther and gives a framework for thinking about how the church and government carry out “God’s “stewardship in the world.” Without looking into it at all, I suspect this might give a context for understanding the emerging folk church paternalism of the state-supported Church of Sweden in the mid-19th century:

In some areas the church is beyond the reach of the law, but in many other aspects, our communal practices and individual behaviors fall within what Luther and others have referred to as the work of “God’s left hand.”   

The “two hands” (or “two kingdoms”) teaching, explained in detail by the social message, holds that God cares for creation in two ways, through law and gospel. With the right hand, God governs by grace and gospel, extending mercy as a gift. With the left hand, God carries out his stewardship in the world by means of law and government. The social message sets forth the ELCA’s teaching on these matters, helping church members become more faithful in their Christian discipleship and responsible citizenship.   

In assessing government’s effectiveness, the message declares, one question dominates all others: “Is the neighbor being served?” The message offers 14 guidelines to help members answer that question and navigate the complex interrelationships of church and state, government and civic engagement.   

Faithful disciples of Jesus, the message concludes, understand “that energetic civic engagement is part of their baptismal vocation. … The ELCA holds to the biblical idea (Jeremiah 29:7) that God calls God’s people to be active citizens and to ensure that everyone benefits from the good of government.” 

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Leslie F. Weber. “Changing Lutheran Perspectives on the Role of Government,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, March 1, 2014 https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/52.

Weber retired from serving as associate executive director of the ELCA Church in Society unit in 2011. He set out the scope of his article as follows:                  

[2] In this essay, I will first examine the role of government as Lutherans have historically thought of it, noting especially changes in thinking since the 1960s.  When I speak of government, I have in mind primarily government at the national level. Next, I will describe how American Lutherans worked over a period of three decades to formulate their parlance about the interrelated roles of government and church.  Third, I will suggest that American Lutherans were inspired by a theoretical understanding of society that was available in the culture of the period and blended this with traditional theology and ethics.  Finally, based on a critique of the social theory that Lutherans drew upon to understand the connection between church and government, I will offer a different interpretation of culture that helps to explain the on-going conflicts around the role of government and offers a point of departure for examining the role of government anew. 

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