Shameless self-promotion: Bachmann and the pope

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about nothing other than the media coverage of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s former church body. Ever since the first piece on Bachmann’s former Lutheran affiliation came out last week, I’ve been asked to speak and write about it for various media outlets. (I’m Lutheran.) My favorite radio interview included the host kindly suggesting that Lutherans didn’t really believe anything negative about the Papacy and me responding, “No! We totally do!”

We’ve obviously had several posts on the matter here at GetReligion:

* Are you now or have you ever been a Lutheran

* Is Bachmann the media’s Antichrist?

* More breaking news from 1537

And all of this has led me to seriously reconsider my desire that confessional Protestants get more media coverage. If this is what the media does in its first encounter with us, I think I’ll just be glad that we are largely ignored by a press more interested in politics than theology.

So for Crossroads, we talked about media mis-steps in how they cover politician’s religious lives. I think that candidate’s religious views and motivations should be explored, but I think the press could really use some training in how to do it. I know of only two reporters, for instance, who have even visited Bachmann’s former church and when they did, they immediately noticed that the religious rhetoric of the candidate didn’t quite match the liturgy or preaching of the Lutheran service. But how many reporters are willing to take the time to do something like that? We spoke a bit about similarities between this Antichrist incident and media coverage of President Obama’s former congregation, too.

I also wrote something for the Wall Street Journal‘s Houses of Worship column today. The editors there truly are the best I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, and they always make me sound much smarter and more winsome than I am. But as the piece was cut for length, they removed my humor. I suppose I should concede that none of my pop culture references really advanced the argument, but I want to make sure I highlight here how The Onion once made fun of religious tolerance in the Midwest by joking about peace talks breaking down after “a 24-hour period of rioting, during which rival Wisconsin Synod [Lutheran], Episcopalian and Presbyterian factions clashed violently, leaving four dead and dozens injured.” I couldn’t stop thinking about that last week when this story broke.

Here’s how the piece began:

American political reporters aren’t known for their vocal support of Roman Catholic teachings. But when they discovered recently that Minnesota Congresswoman and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was once a Lutheran, they began defending the papacy as if they were the Vatican’s own Swiss Guard. They asked with concern, could Catholics even vote for a former Lutheran?

Ms. Bachmann’s former church, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, hasn’t followed the mainline Protestant church practice of regularly revising its doctrines. The Lutheran confessions, or statements of faith, are found in the Book of Concord, first published in 1580. They explain the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. Accordingly, they don’t believe the pope’s authority comes from God.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with the Reformation, but it hit the press hard. “Michele Bachmann leaves church accused of anti-Catholic bias,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The Atlantic Monthly: “Michele Bachmann’s Church Says the Pope Is the Antichrist.” From the Washington Post, we learned that the Lutheran Confessions use “unfortunate wording.”

And here’s how it ended:

Some Lutheran church bodies have said that the teachings on the papacy were true at the time they were written but are no longer in effect. Certainly the original historical context is key, when the memory of popes who had abused indulgences, murdered rivals, launched wars and squandered church resources was fresher. Today, Lutherans still hold that the office represents an unbiblical authority to speak unilaterally for the church.

And yet the current pope, Benedict XVI, is particularly close to the Lutherans. As his biographer John Allen has written, the Lutherans are to Pope Benedict what the Orthodox were to his predecessor John Paul: “the separated brethren he knows best, and for whom he has the greatest natural affinity.” Indeed, far from the sectarian battles that reporters may envision, the fact is that confessional Lutherans and Pope Benedict are partners in the battle against what he has called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Catholics and Lutherans know where they disagree and why. They’ll be forgiven for taking a pass on the media’s new interest in resolving their disputes.

Until our Midwest Peace Talks break down, that is.

Print Friendly

  • Dan Andriacco

    Thanks for the paragraph about B-16 and the Lutherans. I wasn’t familiar with the John Allen observation, but I remember reading somewhere that as a theologian Joseph Ratzinger once said the Second Vatican Council should have paid more attention to the theology of Martin Luther. I also know that as head of the CDF he was a major force in the Catholic-Luther statement some years ago.

  • Dan

    Very well done.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    Nicely handled, Mollie. Nobody could have done it better. Thanks.

    For a Lutheran, the whole kerfluffle really does add some perspective to press coverage of other church bodies. If reporters can make such a big deal out of a few lines from the Smalcald Articles, particularly without examining their actual context in the document, then virtually nothing one reads seems likely to be reliable.

    Naturally, Lutherans deny that the pope’s authority is by divine right, and consider the contrary assertion contrary to the Gospel — or, in Biblical language, antichrist. Otherwise, there would be no Lutherans. (And, needless to say, a significant number of the world’s Christians share this view, even if they phrase it differently).

    So what shocking revelation comes next? That Calvinists believe all people are born sinners?

  • Tyson K

    Mollie, as another LCMS Lutheran, I have to say I feel the same way about thinking twice about whether we want press coverage. I’ve often wondered what the coverage relating to religion would be like if an LCMS Lutheran was running for high public office and that faith became an issue. As Michele Bachmann became a more and more prominent public figure, and I learned she was a WELS member (at least, I thought so at the time, but apparently she’s not anymore) I thought we might actually find out. And now, with the way things have gone…. yeah, I’m glad to just be ignored.


    I know of only two reporters, for instance, who have even visited Bachmann’s former church and when they did, they immediately noticed that the religious rhetoric of the candidate didn’t quite match the liturgy or preaching of the Lutheran service.

    Did these journalists actually write stories based on these experiences? I’d be very interested in reading them if you know of them or have links.

  • Martha

    “Until our Midwest Peace Talks break down, that is.”

    I’m stockpiling the indulgences even as we speak, Mollie ;-)

  • Lee Ann Schroeder

    Read your artical in the Wall Street Journal today. Thank you for your in depth and fair exposition of confessional Lutheranism. Don’t see that very often in the secular press. Thanks also for including my brother-in-law Mark Schroeder’s coments. You complemented each other very well.

  • Julia

    On Friday September 23, while in Germany, Benedict will take part in a celebration of Luther’s thought and give a speech.

    The Pope will then move on to Erfurt, in Thuringia, to visit the places where Martin Luther lived. After visiting the Cathedral of Santa Maria, he will meet with representatives of the Council of the Evangelical Church; he will then participate in an ecumenical celebration in the Church of the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt.

    On Sept. 23, Pope Benedict XVI will make his first visit to the medieval town of Erfurt in eastern Germany, a town associated with Martin Luther and the Reformation. With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaching in 2017, the Pope is flying in to the German Federal State of Thuringia. In Erfurt, the state capital, he will meet with leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church at the Augustinian monastery where Martin Luther entered the Mendicant order in 1505. Today, the former monastery is a spiritual hub for Protestant life in the region.

    The Pope has cited the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as a chance for Roman Catholics and Lutherans to “join in a worldwide ecumenical commemoration,” with time to request “forgiveness for the injustices done to one another and for the guilt of division”

    I don’t think a Pope has ever been an official participant in a Lutheran event. I wonder how the press will cover it.

  • tmatt

    Is the WSJ link in the post?

  • Mollie

    Whoops. Now it is. And here it is again.