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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