Evangelical Lutherans: Pope is Antichrist, Okay Guy

In yesterday’s Atlantic, Joshua Green reports that the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, which Michelle Bachmann attended for many years, teaches that the papacy is the Antichrist.

Let me be the first to say, “Whatever.” The doctrine isn’t nearly as threatening as it sounds. To Green’s credit, he took the trouble to call synod communications director Joel Hochmuth, who explained it in fairly palatable terms:

“Some people have this vision of a little devil running around with horns and red pointy ears. Luther was clear that by ‘Antichrist’ [he meant] anybody who puts himself up in place of Christ. Luther never bought the idea of the Pope being God’s voice in today’s world. He believed Scripture is God’s word.” Hochmuth hastened to add that despite the lengthy doctrinal statement, the belief that the Pope is the Antichrist “has never been one of our driving principles.”

In other words, even if Bachmann buys the Evangelical Lutheran line, it’s not likely she’ll recall the U.S. ambassador from the Vatican or expel the Apostolic Nuncio. There’s no evidence the church’s theology has given rise to conspiracy theories of the Vatican-created-Islam or Jesuits-manned-Auschwitz variety.

Make no mistake: I am no fan of Michelle Bachmann. But I like false outrage even less. Something tells me that few of the people making the most of this story will be acting for the sake of the papacy’s good name. In his article, Green drops hints of a much likelier motive when he mentions the hard time President Obama caught for his association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. If that was tit, this is tat. In this blogger’s humble opinion, two Wrights don’t make a right.

Wishing that the media would preoccupy themselves less with candidates’ religious affiliations is about as facile, and as futile, as wishing everyone would be nicer to each other and smile more. But I’m still going to lay out my reasons. First, it leads to misunderstandings far more often than to understanding. Very few people are equipped to think in theological terms — certainly I’m not. For that reason, reporting almost always dwells on the bizarre and exotic

Consider the time an African-born pastor was recorded praying that Sarah Palin be protected against witchcraft. The buzz went: what a rube! Any Holy Ghost Father could have pointed out that many Africans consider witchcraft as palpable and ubiquitous a force as gravity. As far as the pastor was concerned, omitting it from the petition would have been a dangerous oversight. Should Palin have interrupted him to explain that we do things differently ’round here? But those arguments only persuade people who have a head for the stuff to begin with.

To the uninitiated, theological jargon is the sworn enemy of good PR. Nose around in anyone’s religion long enough, and you’re sure to find something that offends you, or strikes you as completely insane. Catholics saw this happen to our own Church last summer, when the Vatican placed pedophilia and ordaining women on the same list of new delicta graviora. To those who could squeeze themselves into the box of canon-legal thinking, it made sense. The other 6 billion inhabitants of planet earth took it as evidence that the Church despises women.

The logic of looking for smoking guns in the doctrine of a candidate’s church relies on the assumption that the candidate has read the owner’s manual from cover to cover. As anyone who’s ever complained about poor catechesis should know, that’s a dangerous assumption. Submitting to her husband is part of Bachmann’s daily life, so we should expect her to speak with real facility on theory and practice. The papacy is not part of her daily life; we should no more expect her to explain or justify the Evangelical Lutheran attitude toward it than I would expect myself to hold forth on the filioque clause.

There is something insidious about the idea that the church a candidate attends offers a more reliable picture of his motives and principles than his actual track record. It feeds suspicions that he — or she — has been an outlier for all these years, cleverly concealing his true agenda until he’s landed the ultimate prize. This can be hard to help doing when a candidate’s history of public service is short enough him to render him a genuine enigma. This was true of Obama in 2008, and look at the result: either Islam or the Reverend Wright (take your pick) makes a great episode in the whole America-hating, whitey-hating, Anglophobic grandson of a Mau Mau narrative by which Obama’s worst critics continue to define him.

But what to do when a candidate places her faith at the top of her resume? Bachmann certainly does that — most recently by signing the Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family, which purports to take its inspiration from “Jewish and Christian Scripture” and “Natural Law,” among other sources. Well, don’t take your eye off the ball, is all I can say. A florid, sprawling document, calling for everything from “downsizing government” to limits on the “intrusively intimate commingling among attracteds” in the armed forces, the Marriage Vow says plenty in its own right. It needs no help from Luther or even Jesus to explain itself. Besides, there’s no Koine word for “wingnut.”

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  • manny

    So when Christ tells Peter that He will build His church upon him, the rock, (Matthew 16:18) was Christ establishing the anti-Christ? That protestant line is a bunch of hog wash. It’s about time they in the spirit of ecumenical cooperation, they drop that nonsense.

  • http://www.ramblingfollower.blogspot.com Rambling Follower

    Luther believed Scripture is God’s Word?
    After he rewrote it.

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  • Silvermoonsc

    “intrusively intimate commingling among attracteds”…?? WTF??? Anyone who can even write that phrase, much less sign a document including it, is an idiot.

    Who even thinks like that…?? How friggin’ uptight can people get? This is a burning issue in America — that someone might put up a unisex restroom? And can we realistically define “attracteds”, please — because I’m pretty sure no one on any team is attracted in any way to the people who are usually making the most noise about this nonsense. Wishful thinking on their part, methinks. Kind of like all the nuts around here who show up naked to everything. Flip sides of the same coin: desperate losers who feverishly imagine everyone wants to see them nekkid…

    Michelle Bachmann is dumber than a box of rocks, and a complete loon. And she really, really needs to lay off the Botox. She’s bovine-looking enough without paralyzing the upper half of her face. She’s beginning to make Dana Perino look almost alive.

    Seriously, playing the religion card is not going to help any candidate in 2012, nor is excavating some bizarre religious skeleton from another candidate’s closet going to play well. It’s all about the numbers this time around.

  • Martha

    And apparently she’s not even a member of that church anymore, so the story really should be entitled “Her former church shares a belief held by many Protestants during the Reformation and a sizeable minority even to this day”.

    I don’t know the woman or anything about American politics and how she fits in, but really – I do not get the impression that this gentleman who wrote the article is a fervent daily communicant and member of the Legion of Mary, for instance, and I’m quite willing to bet he has a view of Catholic teachings and the Pope’s insistence on Tradition that is some kind of secular version of similar disapproval.

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  • Anonymous

    Who thinks like that? The “small government” crowd who really just want to use the government to force everyone to live under their morals.

  • Anonymous

    “It needs no help from Luther or even Jesus to explain itself. Besides, there’s no Koine word for “wingnut.” Brilliantly put Max!

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  • Anonymous

    Let’s be clear. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) does not hold this view. We are the largest Lutheran body in the USA. What you label as Evangelical Lutherans are actually Wisconsin Synod (WELS) a much smaller, ultra-conservative denomination

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Valerie-Bobincheck/1714020397 Valerie Bobincheck

    I have little faith in someone who argues w/ the devil while sitting on the toilet (and throwing shit i.e. sheiss at one another). Ref:”Sammtiche Schriften; writings of Martin Luther, Halle, Germany, 1847 from “A World Lit Only by Fire”, William Manchester.

  • Anonymous

    That seems to be an unfortunate comment; so uncharitable. Many posit that were Luther alive today, accord could have been reached, things might have been different. At least that is how many see it. That book also has a point of view that is not always church friendly – any church.

  • Anonymous

    ” Very few people are equipped to think in theological terms…To the uninitiated, theological jargon is the sworn enemy of good PR. Nose around in anyone’s religion long enough, and you’re sure to find something that offends you, or strikes you as completely insane. The logic of looking for smoking guns in the doctrine of a candidate’s church relies on the assumption that the candidate has read the owner’s manual from cover to cover.”

    AMEN and AMEN! What frustrated me during the Rev. Wright affair were all the people talking about him and his church, yet they didn’t truly understand liberation theology nor had never spent any time in a church that taught it. Many were ignorant of the fact that there are many strains in that branch of theological thought as in any other.

  • LCMS observer

    What some label as “ultra-conservative” or “wingnut” is really having the cojones to stick to belief in something rather than cave to media/cultural pressure. ELCA Lutherans along with many other “main-stream” denominations have so watered down their beliefs, as to take regular votes on whether to dump something from the Bible because that’s the “loving” thing to do. I admire the WELS for at least standing by the Bible and maintaining a belief system even if it is bad “PR”.

  • Hisman

    Manny, your assertion about the meaning of Matthew 16:18 is not supported by Scripture. None of the books of the NT (the record of the life of the early church) ascribe any kind of superiority of Peter. Several passages argue strongly against it. In Galatinas 2:11-14, Paul opposed Peter to his face and called him a hypocrite. Acts Chapter 15 discusses the Jerusalem Council. There is no indication that Peter was anything other than one of the participants. James appears to make the closest thing to an authoritative statement. The NT is full of references to “the Apostles” “the prophets” “elders” etc. but there is NO mention of any one individual being above the others. Even in Peter’s epistles there is no suggestion that he considered himself above the other apostles. In his letter to the Romans, Chapter 16, Paul greets 26 people by name — Peter is not among them. Either Peter wasn’t in Rome, or he was at best the 27th most noteworthy christian in Rome. In 2 Corinthians 12:11 Paul asserted that he was not inferior to any of the other Apostles.
    In Matthew 16:18, Jesus affirms that Peter got it right, Peter’s confession of faith “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is “the rock” not Peter himself. It wasn’t until several centuries after Peter died that the bishop of Rome was “promoted” above the other bishops and that was done by the Emperor, most likely for political reasons.