Lutherans and the Political Challenges of 2016

An Unprecedented Dilemma

[1] Most of my conservative Lutheran friends say that either they will simply not vote for any of the presidential candidates this year or they will write in someone they know cannot win.  A few will “hold their noses” and vote for the Republican candidate.  Even my liberal Lutheran friends are reluctant to vote for the Democratic candidate, though some will also “hold their noses.”  Their personal reluctance is mirrored in the high disapproval ratings borne by both major candidates. This is an unprecedented situation in my life time.

[2] There are plenty of secular sources to which we can turn to understand this situation, but I have been asked to shed some theological-ethical light on how Lutheran Christians might think and act politically in this highly unusual time.  I will draw upon the previous writing I have done in two books I have written that explore the interface between Christianity and politics:  The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Fortress, 1995); and Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] The first thing to note is that my friends employ the core beliefs of their Christian faith in their political judgments.  There is no separation between religious convictions and secular politics.  For some their non-voting is an indirect political statement, a protest.  For others their voting is a more direct statement.   At any rate, all of them are trying mightily to relate their religion and their politics in a constructive way.  Consciences are heavy.

The Fallacy of Separating Religion and Politics

[4] This is contrasted with various sorts of sectarian Christianity that see politics so permeated by evil that Christians should not involve themselves in any way.  Some Lutheran traditions in the past have had this sectarian tinge.  They have viewed politics so cynically that the most they could ask of the government is to keep order.   My friends’ efforts to relate Christianity and politics constructively are also contrasted with those Christians who simply see no relation between their faith and political life.  Sunday does not connect with Monday.  They celebrate love on Sunday but vote their self-interest on voting day.

[5] This sort of religious “separationism” is also promoted by a new kind of secularism that views the public expression of religiously-based moral values as retrograde and dangerous.  These “secular progressives” confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of church and politics.  They believe religion should remain a private hobby that should be dropped when Christians enter the political sphere.  Some seem willing to regulate or even prohibit legally the public expression of religiously-based moral and political values, a frightening possibility.  Presently, it seems to me, they use the social media to shame Christians into silence.  Conservative Christians are particularly worried about such a prospect, partly because they fear punitive legal actions will be taken against them for their public resistance to many facets of the sexual revolution.

[6] These versions of “separationism” are wrong historically, constitutionally, and theologically.  Historically, American history is replete with religious individuals and groups (churches and religious voluntary associations) expressing their political will in reform movements of various sorts. One cannot think of the American revolution, anti-slavery initiatives, prohibition (a foolish intervention), and the civil rights movement without serious religious involvement.  The effective pro-life movement is a recent example of such involvement.  Constitutionally, the First Amendment guarantees not only freedom to assemble and worship, but the “free exercise of religion,” which certainly includes the political expression of religiously-based moral values.  In the early days of the republic, Christians, including Lutherans, thought religious freedom a divine blessing that would enable them to “evangelize and Christianize” America.  Theologically, Christians have a calling to be good citizens, which means conscientious participation in the political process.  They are to hold the government accountable to God’s law, which fosters both order and justice.  God is active and sovereign over the public sphere (his left-hand reign) so Christians must be obedient there as well as in private life.  There can be no separation of religion and politics.

The Fallacy of Fusing Religion and Politics

[7] My anguished friends obviously avoid another theological pitfall:  the fusion of religion and politics.  Such fusion is not even a temptation because they find the current political candidates and their ideologies so distant from their religious commitments that they are reluctant to vote for them, let alone identify unduly with them.  But such a sharp distinction has not always been the case.   A great danger in the history of Christianity has been to fuse Christian belief with a particular political figure or program.  We had the Holy Roman Empire, which, though producing some great good, finally revealed the corruption that results when Christianity is too involved in power. Lutherans in the Scandinavian countries fused the Christian cause with the national causes of St. Olaf and Gustavus Adolphus.  (Neither of those Lutheran saints shrunk from claiming that God was on their side.)  A more recent and more horrid example was the attempt by the “German Christians” to fuse Christianity with the Nazi movement.  Such fusion religionizes politics and politicizes religion, a process dangerous to both.

[8] To give redemptive power to politics is a forbidden move for Lutherans.  Only Christ can save; never politics.  Political messianism in its two great incarnations of the 20th century—Nazism and Communism—led to the slaughter of millions.  On the other hand, politicizing the church’s message destroys the transcendent character of the Gospel by merging it with mundane and partisan human actions.  Such fusion destroys the universality and radicality of the Gospel by turning it into a partisan political instrument.  It turns the Gospel into the Law and the Law into the Gospel.

The Current Situation

[9] This fusion is unlikely to happen in the current election.  Given their high disapproval ratings, few will mistake Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for a political messiah, though their hardcore supporters will tend in that direction.  The hardcore supporters of Trump tend to see him as a “strong man” in an almost social-Darwinist sense who will “make America great again.”  Hardcore supporters of Clinton see her as the bearer of the sacred cause of justice for women and minorities.  The vast majority of voters seem far less enthused about either.

[10] But a softer and more likely kind of fusion is taking place between liberal forms of religion and members of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, sometimes called “secular progressives,” on the one hand, and the Religious Right and members of the Far Right of the Republican Party, on the other.  Both forms of fusion engage in what I call “straight-line thinking,” by which I mean they draw a straight line from core Christian convictions to a particular political candidate or a public policy.  They think it obvious that the Bible and/or Christian teaching moves smoothly from the Christian commitment to justice for all, a core Christian value, to a specific candidate, the platform of a political party, or a particular public policy.  But it is not that simple.   In the vast majority of cases the route from the core to political judgments is far more jagged and complex, something I will address shortly.

[11] It is far less worrisome for individuals and voluntary associations to think and act in that “straight-line” fashion than it is for churches, which claim in some sense to articulate the will of God.  If churches or their ecumenical agencies participate in this soft fusion, it seems to me they soon are viewed as one more interest group among others, their only dubious claim to authority being that they overlay their political convictions with a thin religious gloss.  They are eventually seen as essentially political actors and even their religious supporters tend to lose interest.  Why not exert your politics directly rather than go through quasi-political agencies?  Such lack of interest and support,  in my perspective, have resulted in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches becoming shadows of their earlier selves.  They were too fused with liberal politics.  On the Right, the Moral Majority is long gone.

[12] A similar fate would likely be visited upon the mainline liberal churches—including the ELCA—if their laity paid much attention to their advocacy offices or the resolutions of their synods and national assemblies.   Those offices and resolutions are far more liberal than their church constituencies and generally track the policies of the left-wing of the Democratic Party.  To their shame they have refused to resist the abortion agenda of the “secular progressives,” an agenda which the future may consider one of the moral abominations of our era.

[13] Among the churches of the Religious Right—whose laity are generally more attuned to their churches’ political efforts—there has lately been growing reluctance to fuse conservative Christianity with conservative political causes.  Russell Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is more circumspect than his predecessor.   Evangelicals are increasingly divided politically.  Yet, a number of fundamentalist and evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., have made embarrassing endorsements of Donald Trump.  Their only saving grace is that they are not claiming to speak for the church itself.

Counsels for Individual Lutherans

[14] How, then ought Lutherans exercise their vocations as citizens, first as individual Christians and then as the church?   First, let’s examine some admonitions for individual Lutherans.  As conscientious Lutheran citizens we should:   

1.      Employ core Christian convictions as we make up our minds about political candidates and policies.  Don’t separate the two but rather heed them in our “critical participation” in the political process.  This goes counter to two false alternatives operating in the current political scene.  One assumes that contemporary politics is so degraded the best thing to do is withdraw from participation.  This route, however, abjures political responsibility.  If we can’t vote for a presidential candidate, we should support and vote for senators or representatives.  The other false alternative is simply to follow our narrow self-interest and forget the Christian summons to love our neighbor. Certainly self-interest is legitimately expressed in political life but for the Christian it must be tempered and expanded by Christian values.

2.      Don’t fuse our core convictions with any political figure, party, or program.  Christian norms of love and justice transcend all of them.  As I noted above, fusion is unlikely in this election cycle, though for the small minority of extremely avid supporters of either candidate there is the temptation toward what could be called “negative fusion.”  In this case the opposing candidate and his or her political program is so negatively perceived that they are fused with evil.  They are demonized.  Such is not an unlikely sort of fusion in a campaign full of invective and extreme statements.  And like positive fusion, negative fusion can lead to violence in such a polarized political milieu.  Both fusions should be resisted by Christians.

3.      Do make discriminating decisions.  Vote—or refuse to vote—our conscience informed in part by Christian conviction.  I say “in part” because I believe that many other factors are involved in coming to a political decision.  We should be honest and admit that those factors affect our decisions.  Let me list some of those factors:  self-interest; enlightened self-interest; the traditional political convictions of your race, class, sex, ethnic group, or family; the political culture of your region or locality; your political philosophy and its conception of justice; your ordering of the principles of justice; your temperament; your peer group (very important indeed!); your religious tradition and the intensity of your commitment to it; the sources from which you draw to understand the political world, and how you read the current situation.  So, moving from core Christian convictions though this morass of impinging factors is a complex and jagged matter.  Christians of good will and intelligence disagree with each of the many steps from the core to political judgment.  Nevertheless, Christians who take their vocation as citizens seriously are called to make that journey.  We are to come to the best judgments we can and act, both individually and through our voluntary associations.

4.      Exercise humility.  In view of the complexity I have just outlined, we should “cut each other plenty of slack” in the assessment of each other’s political judgments.  We should be able to come to different political judgments without fracturing Christian friendship or conversation.  Too often in our polarized world political disagreement leads to the withdrawal from contact or conversation with political opponents.  Christians should have enough humility about their political choices to engage others constructively.  Further, it adds to our humility when we remember our unearned blessing to be in a country where political options are not a life or death matter, as they are in totalitarian or violence-ravaged countries.  We can afford to be on different sides, which is indeed the mark of a relatively good and stable society.

5.      Realize that political complexity does not obliterate limits that Christians must observe.  There are political figures and programs that are so flawed and/or wicked that Christians simply cannot go there.  They are outside the orbit of moral permissibility and must be resisted vigorously.  But where to draw the line?  That is difficult.  My conservative Lutheran friends who cannot vote for Trump are not ready to escalate their opinions to a status confessionis level.  That is, while they cannot go there, they do not believe that a Christian who votes for Trump is no longer a Christian.  The Trump voter may be foolish or deluded or uniformed, but he is not intentionally complicit with overt evil.  They may think the same about Christians who vote for Clinton.  Perhaps there are liberal Christians who think similarly about voting for Clinton.


[15] A case for serious Christian resistance to a candidate or program can be called for, I believe, only when there is a direct and systematic denial of the principles and processes of our constitutional democracy, which would of course include the Amendments to the Constitution.  Further, its ideology would have to be thoroughly anti-Christian: racist, xenophobic, warlike, brutal, messianic….in short, idolatrous.  Such characteristics are not always obvious; dangerous movements often clothe their appeal in rhetoric familiar and attractive to the ordinary populace.  Let us hope and pray that we as American Christians can recognize such dangers when they do arise, but yet have enough wisdom not to “cry wolf” when we merely disagree strongly with a legitimate candidate or program.


Counsels for Lutheran Churches

[16] What about the Lutheran churches?  What should guide them in this bizarre political situation.


1.       They should principally rely on indirect ways to influence political life.  If the church is really the church, those formed by its Gospel message will possess core convictions that will guide their political decisions.  Serious lay persons will be committed to the dignity and value of each person created in the image of God, and they will prize just behavior and policies based on that fundamental Christian commitment.   A vibrant church will produce laity who will take those values into the public sphere; it may even produce politicians with such convictions.  The church can also enable its laity to “critically participate” in the political process by teaching the Lutheran doctrine of vocation:  that we are called to be good citizens thinking through and acting out our core Christian convictions in the public realm.  It can even help Christians make Sunday-Monday connections by discussing political issues in the light of Christian teaching in its adult forums, though it must be open to differing Christian trajectories from core to policy.  Pastors can preach sermons emphasizing how the Gospel leads to core moral convictions and how those relate first to private Christian behavior and then to political issues of the day, but they should refrain from drawing a straight line to specific candidates or policies.  For those Christians really “turned on” to specific Christian political causes, pastors can suggest Christian voluntary associations that correspond with their convictions.  For example, pro-life Christians can be shunted to “Lutherans for Life;” those concerned about war and peace to “Lutheran Peace Fellowship.”


2.      They should employ sparingly more direct ways to influence political life.  Direct ways include the effort to be the “social conscience” of society.  Social statements and pronouncements of the Protestant Churches and their leaders are examples of this approach.  (In some cases such instruments are directed mainly to the members of those churches, which then become indirect ways to influence the political sphere.)  Bishops’ letters and Papal Encyclicals are examples from the Catholic side.

[17] While Catholic statements do seem to attract the attention of political actors, those by Protestants have little effect for a number of reasons.  One is that they are too frequent from too many sources that contradict each other.  Another is that they seem to be fused with the political predilections of the agencies and leaders who make them, which robs them of any religious authority.

[18] A wise church makes such public statements rarely and on the most serious of issues.  And then it is better to call attention to those issues than to opt for specific policies to address them.  The most noble examples of this “social conscience” approach have historically occurred when the church simply says “no” to a wicked public policy or program, especially when no one else in the society is raising an alarm.  Let us hope we have the wisdom and courage of a Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church to say the kind of “no” they said when the Nazis began their reign with wicked policies toward the Jews.

[19] Another direct way that churches try to influence political life is through their advocacy offices.  They try to rouse church members to contact their political representatives to put pressure on them to vote for specific policies.  Such efforts suffer many of the same weaknesses mentioned above: they are viewed by many as instances of the unconscious fusion of religion with the politics of the advocates.  Their “straight-line thinking” seems obvious to these critics. 

[20] It is better for the church to speak and act politically only when it really has to.  Political debate in this country is vigorous; many individual Christians robustly express their views on the issues and candidates of this 2016 election.  Christian voluntary associations raise their voices.  Public interventions by the church would run the dangers of the sort of fusions mentioned above, adding to an already polarized situation.  I can think of few if any churches that transcend such fusion enough to be granted genuine religious authority by their own members, let alone by society in general.

Speaking out

[21] If the church is to speak directly at this time, it should focus on calling attention to worrisome trends rather than endorsing particular policies.  As I see them, these trends are:  a xenophobia that can dehumanize immigrants, especially Muslims; a strident secularism that attempts to extinguish the free exercise of religion in public life if it dissents from the “progressive” agenda, especially on sexuality issues; the plight of the working poor who have been “left-behind” in the transition to a high-tech economy; and, above all, an unraveling culture wherein basic institutions—marriage, family, church, school—are under great stress.

[22] It may be a melancholy truth that the combination of high affluence and unfettered human freedom leads to the deterioration of the cultural values of a society.  I believe we are in that process now.  We are perhaps getting the politics we deserve. Orthodox Christianity is now counter-cultural; it is being whittled down to a disciplined community of faith that can again be salt and leaven. What an opportunity for the church to renew a society at its roots, not by political agitation but by the proclamation of the whole Gospel.  Then moral regeneration and political health will follow.  Or perhaps persecution.


Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.

Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​

 © October​ 2016
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 16, Issue 8