Lutheran ethicist Robert Benne attended the March for Life, which occasioned some interesting reflections on how different Lutheran church bodies approach the abortion controversy.
The Missouri Synod had gathered several hundred with whom we marched. Lutherans for Life—an umbrella organization—provided an additional banner under which another couple hundred marched. However, a stunning realization came to me: I saw not one mainline Protestant banner or organized group. Of course, I could have missed them amid the immensity of the march, but it is safe to say they were not there in any significant mass. That was true for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which more and more resembles mainline liberal Protestantism.
The absence of any trace of the ELCA was no surprise to me. Though it had issued a moderately pro-life social statement in 1991, it has never acted on its statement. It had never produced pro-life literature, joined any pro-life organizations, encouraged local congregations to observe the annual pro-life Sunday (this past year on January 20, right before the march) , promoted participation in state or national marches, nor advocated for pro-life policies in any of its state or national advocacy offices. As far as the ELCA is concerned, there is dead silence on the matter. With that posture in place it is not hard to understand why so few from the ELCA participated in the march.
Moreover, its health insurance coverage allowed abortion to be covered without any conditions attached, a fact that brought forth some protest among pro-life ELCA pastors and laypersons and added to the general discontent with the ELCA.
Though bashful about pro-life issues, the ELCA speaks copiously on a host of issues, about which Christians of good will and intelligence generally disagree. Its pattern of support corresponds with the policies of the Democratic Party, but departs even from that liberal pattern on issues regarding Israel. It has a program called Peace Not Walls that outrageously lectures the Israelis on how they should defend themselves from suicide bombers. (Lutherans of all people should be quiet about these matters given their ambiguous history with the Jews.) Further, the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Hanson joined other liberal Protestants in asking Congress to scrutinize Israel military practices and consider withholding military aid from them.
The Missouri Synod could not be more different. First, it rarely ventures into the public sphere as a church. Second, it wisely limits its public witness to two crucial issues: religious freedom and nascent life. Its most consistent public concern over the years has been the need to guard religious freedom. After all, its pioneers came to this country to escape the coerced union of Reformed and Lutheran congregations in Germany. Further, its schools were threatened by a Nativist movement—including the KKK—that attempted to shut down private schools. Only recently it has won (by a unanimous decision) a case before the Supreme Court (Hosanna vs. Tabor) that preserved the right to continue to hire and fire its parochial school teachers on the basis of its own religious convictions without interference from the government. Its President has also testified against the coercive provisions of Obamacare being applied to church-related social service organizations. This concern for the free exercise of religion also distinguishes it sharply from the ELCA, which has said nothing about these religious freedom issues either domestically or internationally.
Benne, who hails from the ELCA though I believe is involved with the more conservative breakaway group he talks about later, offers some explanations for the difference in the two churches’ stance, citing the ELCA’s quota system in church representation, which gives feminists a huge influence in official church actions. He also cites some incorrect accounts of the Missouri Synod’s schism in the 1970s that “purged” the synod of liberals–political, as well as theological, he claims, though the issues were actually all theological. He goes on to slam the doctrinal “narrowness” of the LCMS, complaining that though he was invited to speak at the pro-life conference sponsored by the LCMS, he couldn’t take communion. He does, though, praise the synod’s approach to public square issues, focusing not on politics broadly but just on the issues of religious freedom and the pro-life cause. From what he says about that newly-formed denomination:
Enter the third church in the tale of three Lutheran bodies. The new North American Lutheran Church, whose Bishop and ecumenical officer were introduced at the Life Ministries Conference, is a church that hopes to avoid the revisionism of the ELCA—with its attendant biased witness in the public sphere—as well as the narrowness of the Missouri Synod in doctrinal matters. The NALC organized soon after the 2009 decisions of the ELCA to jettison traditional Christian sexual ethics. It is trying to be a centrist Lutheran church, perhaps the last hope for such a church in North America. Though it is building cordial relationships with the LCMS, there will be distinct limits as to how far they can proceed. But in the realm of public witness by the church and its laity and associations, the LCMS has it right. The NALC might well emulate its commitment to form its laity and witness publicly on two issues: the protection of nascent life and the exercise of religious freedom. Those are two issues that ought to occupy any serious Christian church.
Do you think concentrating on just those two issues is a good strategy? (As opposed to the ELCA, which comments on just about every political issue, except those two?) Are there other issues that might also deserve a strong activist stand from the church?