The Intersection between Faith and the Public Square: an Anthology of Books
by James Vigan
Here’s a great listing of books to help us navigate how one’s faith embraces a nation’s public square.
Sociologists of religion and ethicists have often branded Lutherans as being rather “quietist” when it comes to involvement in politics. Many pastors and knowledgeable laity will cite Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine in a manner suggesting that church’s proper (and perhaps only) role should be in the kingdom of God and not in the kingdoms of this world.
Perhaps this history and legacy may account for the fact that Lutherans are decidedly underrepresented in the U.S. Congress compared to Lutherans’ position statistically among the population? In the current Congress (the 111th), there are 24 Lutherans representing three different communions (ELCA, LCMS and Wisconsin), while Lutherans represent 4.6 % of all Americans. By contrast, the Episcopal/Anglican communion has 38 members of Congress, though they represent only 1.5% of the population. Presbyterians have 43 members of Congress, while being only 2.7% of the country. Jewish members of Congress number 45, though their numbers in the country are only 1.7%. Roman Catholics comprise 30.1% of the Congress (161 members) though they are only 23.9% of the total population.
Garrison Keillor may be right that all Lutheran children in Lake Wobegon are “above average,” but that doesn’t mean that they are involved in politics or ever plan to run for Congress!
ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, on the other hand, has advocated being a “public church” and seeking to have an influence on public policy through our various advocacy organizations (Lutheran Office on World Community at the U.N.; the ELCA Washington Office; 20 State Public Policy offices working on the state level, and the Office of Corporate Responsibility, with offices in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working on issues from an economic perspective). ELCA bishops are increasingly speaking out at both the state and national levels of public policy making. All ELCA advocacy work is based on our understanding of Scripture, the Confessions, and the various social statements that have been passed by the Churchwide Assemblies or “messages” which have passed the ELCA Church Council.
If you would like to further explore the intersection of faith and public policy, the following are some suggested resources:
Lutheran Voices Series (Augsburg Fortress)
- Public Church: For the Life of the Word. By Cynthia Moe-Lobeda (2004).
- Hunger and poverty in a world of plenty: Give Us This Day: A Lutheran Proposal for Ending World Hunger. By Craig Nessan (2003).
- Foreign affairs: American Destiny and the Calling of the Church. By Paul Wee (2006).
Faith and Politics “Classics”
- Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929 reissued in 1980 with a foreword by Martin Marty). By Reinhold Niebuhr. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990. A journal from Niebuhr’s own time as a parish pastor in Detroit in the 1930s and ‘40s.
- Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics (1932 reissued in 2001 with a foreword by Langdon Gilkey). By Reinhold Niebuhr. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. A work combining political theory and moral discernment.
- Love, Power and Justice. By Paul Tillich. Oxford University Press, 1954.
- On Revolution (1963, reprinted by Penguin Classics, 2006) and Crisis of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. By Hannah Arendt (H.arvest Books, 1972). Arendt is no “knee jerk” liberal. She is, instead, a classic “conservative” (that is, a classical, realist) thinker.
- The Scandal of Evangelical Politics. By Ron Sider. Baker Books, 2008. Sider was formerly the chief lobbyist and spokesperson for Evangelicals for Social Action. Those with a more evangelical or politically conservative approach (or who wish to understand such folks better) will want to read this book.
- The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. By Richard John Neuhaus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmanns, 1986. Father Neuhaus, who recently died, began as a Lutheran pastor who later entered the Roman Catholic priesthood.
- The Transfiguration of Politics. By Paul Lehmann. Harper and Row, 1975. The author examines the question by carefully exegeting four texts: Romans 13:1-10; John 18:33-40; 19:1-16; and Matthew 17:1-8.
For those who wish to find a solid Lutheran grounding for their theology of public engagement in the world, read these works:
- Faith Active in Love. By George Forell, Wipf & Stock, 2000.
- Christians in Society. Luther, the Bible and Social Ethics. By William Lazareth, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
- The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Edited by Karen Bloomquist and John Stumme. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998. The editors present a collection of essays by prominent Lutheran ethicists, including themselves.
- Ethics. By Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Macmillan, 1975.
- Luther’s Works, The Christian in Society, Volume 44 (1966) and Volume 45. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1971.
- The ELCA's Journal of Lutheran Ethics
- The ELCA’s Social Statements and Messages
James Vigen, is president and director of The Luther Institute in Washington, D.C, an affiliate of Gettysburg Seminary and an ELCA Lifelong Learning Center. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners Online.