Elections, Lutherans, and Ethics: The History of the Church's Involvement in Politics


[1] Elections present a host of questions that pertain to Lutheran involvement in politics.  Given Luther's emphasis on following conscience but the reality of political differences causing undo tension within the church, what exactly should Lutherans do?  An examination of Lutheran history offers potential answers and, at the same time, frustrating ambiguity.

[2] Lutherans historically resisted wholesale support for one side or another regarding political issues or elections, instead encouraging discussion.  Positively, this avoided contentious splits over non-theological issues.  Rather than separating, Lutherans stayed together and dialogued about their differences, an ethical model of how Lutherans can engage controversial subjects without bitter divisions.  For example, the General Synod struggled before the Civil War to maintain Lutheran unity in a denomination just beginning to grapple with Americanization and a continued influx of immigrants.  Although Lutherans did not escape division at a time when the entire nation broke apart, most dialogued about the theology behind slavery and state's rights openly and with one another.  During the Vietnam War, neither the Lutheran Church in America nor the American Lutheran Church issued strong resolutions about the war in their national conventions.  This allowed all sides to voice their opinions without feeling alienated by a one-sided position statement from the church.  Everyone heard a variety of points of view.  Such avoidance especially created a relative silence during the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections, which allowed for an interesting dialogue without anyone feeling that their side had "won" the debate.

[3] But did this provide prophetic leadership?  The positive ethic of maintaining unity and fostering fellowship collided with the ethical obligation to speak out on moral issues.  No better example of this conundrum exists in Lutheran history than with the Franckean Synod of New York prior to the Civil War.  Rather than a staid debate or dialogue, these Lutherans joined abolitionists in a political campaign to outlaw the institution of slavery on the moral ground that it violated Christian teachings.  Rather than concern themselves with worries over tranquility or the separation of church and state, they provided Lutheran prophetic leadership in denouncing slavery as immoral and unethical.  During Vietnam, the interdenominational Lutheran Peace Fellowship contributed the same type of prophetic leadership.  Though relatively small in numbers, this organization loudly denounced the war as immoral and un-American, shunning any attempt to gain members or avoid political topics by appearing neutral, because their conscience drove them to righteous indignation against the war.

[4] So which heritage do Lutherans look to in deciding how to mix religion and politics within the ELCA?  One that emphasizes unity and learning from one another, or one in which conscience prompts the voice regardless of outcome?  Though the above examples do not specifically address political elections, support for political candidates or avoiding a political stance clearly affected each of these matters.  The Franckean Synod openly supported antislavery candidates while Lutheran Peace Fellowship denounced both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon in favor of candidates opposed to the war.  Meanwhile, other Lutherans thought it served the denomination better to work for unity.  Antebellum Lutherans quite often kept away from the subject of slavery in order for northerners and southerners to dialogue.  And, though many in the ALC and LCA held strong convictions about the Vietnam War, few leaders or lay organizations made comment about the 1968 or 1972 elections for fear that they might alienate constituents who needed their guidance.

[5] Other traditions seem to handle this issue with less quandary.  For example, from a theologically and politically liberal point of view, the United Church of Christ (UCC), though a relatively young denomination, campaigns for social justice.  The denomination actively works with the civil rights movement, lobbies in Washington, D.C. on behalf of migrant farm workers, and issues statements against corporate greed and exploitation.  The conservative Southern Baptist Convention offers an alternative model that is nonetheless quite political in nature.  Whether boycotting the Disney Corporation or inviting presidential candidates to their annual conventions, the denomination openly takes political stances.  This included the controversial condemnation of President William Jefferson Clinton during his tumultuous second term.  In both cases, these denominations used their theological beliefs and the power of their numbers to make secular political statements because of their moral and ethical implications.

[6] And times in Lutheran history exist in which the church took political stances boldly and prophetically, too.  For example, most Lutherans ultimately supported the United States during World War I.  True, fighting nativist prejudices against all things German prompted some of this action, including a number of congregations that switched from German to English language services to avoid hostility from the rest of the country.  And it has always been easier to speak with one voice, as Lutherans, regarding topics that find a large majority of supporters, such as World War I and World War II.  But World War I nonetheless represents a political/secular stance taken by Lutherans. 

[7] Additionally, the ALC and LCA made strong statements about the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.  Clearly a political/secular issue, the church bodies also recognized the moral and ethical breakdown that the Nixon administration embodied.  Rather than remain in the background because it might cause dissension between those who backed Nixon and those who castigated him, the churches made relatively strong statements against him and called for Christians to more actively engage in the political realm to protect the nation's democratic process from further deterioration.  In other words, with the nation at an ethical crisis, the churches needed to step forward and remind Americans that ultimately God's law prevails, not secular institutions, no matter how sacred Americans have tried to make them.

[8] More recently, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America spoke out against the death penalty.  The leadership had long questioned this harshest of punishments, but convention delegates and lay members across the country steadily joined them to campaign against it.  Rooted in ethical and theological concerns about the taking of life, the ELCA forcefully took a stance without too much worry over losing members who might not agree with this position.  This recent stance, therefore, demonstrates continued Lutheran activism in the political realm when secular and religious issues commingle, as they often do.  This embodies prophetic leadership from the denomination; rather than conceal deeply felt convictions on crucial moral issues, the church makes its voice heard with the hope of persuading Lutherans, Americans, and politicians to reconsider a practice unethical in its eyes. 

[9] Most recently, Presiding ELCA Bishop Mark S. Hanson sent a letter to both Senator Kerry and President Bush.  It did not endorse either candidate but implored them on the eve of their first presidential debate to change the methodology of their campaigns from using negativity and fear to emphasizing positive discussions about the multitude of problems facing the United States and world today.  Though bipartisan, this letter was prophetic in denouncing how both parties manage their campaigns: Hanson especially reprimanded them for exploiting Americans' fear of terrorism and therefore called for a radical change in presidential electioneering. 

[10] Yet, despite these historic and current activist models, valid concerns keep Lutherans from always speaking out with such conviction.  The American Lutheran landscape is cluttered with factionalism, separate denominations, and theological differences.  This reality fosters a climate of fear among many who do not want further splintering to weaken the Lutheran voice.  Just within the ELCA, a host of political/secular matters mix frequently with theological convictions and threaten harmony within the denomination.  The death penalty discussed above belongs to this category.  Not every member of the ELCA, clergy or laity, agrees with this position.  So the church risks alienating or losing members because of its ethical stance.  The subject of abortion encounters the same dilemma.  Some people within the ELCA see abortion as a moral outrage and want the denomination to denounce it, while others see the ethical problem in terms of a woman's right to choose.  And the church's handling of gay and lesbian rights has already wrought fissures; churches on both sides have left the denomination, with each side asserting that it had a moral and ethical obligation to take the stance that it did. 

[11] Thus, with mainline Protestant denominations struggling with declining memberships and fiscal uncertainty, the church meanders into controversial topics at risk of exacerbating these problems.  If ELCA leaders assert a position on these matters because of ethical convictions, or more pointedly because their conscience demands it, how does this square with their obligation to protect and build the denomination as a whole and to represent all Lutherans, even those who disagree with them?  This especially becomes controversial if their convictions on any of these matters lead to open support for a presidential candidate.  Should a church official, pastor, or lay leader risk the loss of members by openly supporting John Kerry or George Bush?  In other words, ethically speaking, does duty lay with conscience on a particular topic or with stewardship of the church as a whole?

[12] The catch-22 at the heart of this problem, then, resides in the question of what side the ELCA should promote, either as a denomination or as individuals representing the denomination.  Does Lutheran theology regarding conscience require a person to take a stand regardless of the tension it may create, or does stewardship and Lutheran unity take precedence?  One cannot ignore conscience, yet Lutheran Democrats and Republicans should coexist without secular debates splintering the religious body.  And what happens if a Lutheran publicly advocates a candidate on behalf of theologically held convictions regarding one issue, while at the same time supporting the opposite candidate because of a separate issue?  For example, what if one's conscience demands support for Kerry regarding economic social justice but Bush regarding abortion?  As the historical record indicates, Lutheran heritage offers little help in these matters because both activist models and more placid models exist, each with positive and negative consequences. 

[13] American Lutheran history thus does little to answer the question about what the ELCA as a denomination, as a clergy, or as individual lay members should do about the presidential election.  The quagmire of past examples holds true today. 

[14] Delving farther back into Lutheran heritage muddies the waters even more.  Lutherans obviously turn to Martin Luther's life and writings for answers, hoping that his spiritual guidance that continues today can provide answers to this problem.  But which "Luther" applies to the 2004 presidential election?  Supporting an activist construct, Luther forcefully challenged the Holy See's temporal power, going up against not only Catholic hierarchy but the nobility and secular leaders of the time, including their powerful armies.  German princes supported and hid him, thus winning Luther's praise and forever mixing "politics" and "theology."  Luther also insisted that one could not ignore conscience, even if it ultimately proved wrong.  Yet simultaneously Luther left examples that call for caution when religiously entering into the secular realm.  Because of pragmatic concerns for the safety of himself and his followers, and because he needed the German princes on his side, Luther denounced peasant revolts in favor of the elite.  Trying to figure out which comparison to make regarding current U.S. political elections amounts to comparing apples to oranges.

[15] This returns the question to whence it came.  Lutheran heritage, and particularly American Lutheran history, provides answers for both sides of the equation.  The noble ethical model of fostering unity, togetherness, and a safe haven from secular politics within the church collides with the moral obligation to follow conscience, which quite often would necessitate political positions that favor one candidate over another.  It would be easiest to conclude, therefore, that each Lutheran must decide for herself or himself what to do.  Yet this solution buries Lutherans within the political landscape as an irrelevant group of individualists.  And one's conscience may call to lead the denomination to take a firm stance.

[16] I ultimately believe in a utopian ideal that incorporates both models.  Individuals must speak out when conscience demands it.  And the denomination must support its mechanisms that allow for political commentary when morally necessary.  The church and its members have an ethical obligation to activism when secular topics crash into religious matters.  Yet this should not lead to harmful divisions, a civil debate can and should occur within the church on an ongoing basis regarding political and theological issues.  But labeling this proposed model as "utopian" recognizes that this may never happen, thereby continuing the Lutheran debate that has existed for centuries.

[17] The ELCA cannot openly endorse a particular presidential candidate this year, but it must dialogue about the issues.  Individual leaders, pastors, and lay people cannot claim to represent the entire denomination, but individuals must speak their conscience.  Therein lies my hope for the utopian model and the beauty of Lutheranism.

[18] To that end, and to do my part toward this goal, I say vote for John Kerry in November.  I don't have time nor space to outline why I believe this to be the best ethical and moral decision, but I am happy to discuss it further with fellow Lutherans, on both sides of the ledger.



© November 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 11