Changing Lutheran Perspectives on the Role of Government

[1] Discussion of the role of government is by no means new either in the public press or in church circles. Struggles over the size and work of government, one part of our society’s preoccupation with things political, have been illustrated in the media recently by the activities of the Tea Party and the release of classified documents by Edward Snowden with subsequent challenges to the work of the National Security Agency. Going back several decades to 1979, Allan Carlson, a presenter at a Lutheran consultation on church-state relations that I will discuss later, said, “The past half decade has witnessed an unprecedented increase in the number of rules and regulations issued by federal departments, agencies and bureaus affecting churches and Church-sponsored agencies and schools.”[1] Carlson’s final thought on the effects of changes in the role of government was, “There may be an irreconcilable conflict between the social conscience of churches pursuing justice in a sinful world and the vital interest of churches in preserving an open, pluralistic society. Efforts at finding a means to reconcile their pursuit of justice with their need for a liberal order should command the churches’ highest attention.”[2] He was referring to the dilemma the church faced between, on the one hand​, supporting welfare state reforms or being involved in “divisive public issues” such as abortion, gun control, and amnesty, and on the other hand, suffering government infringement of religious liberty for causes that the church believed in, such as meeting IRS tests for racial non-discrimination in church schools.

[2] In this essay, I will first examine the role of government as Lutherans have historically thought of it, noting especially changes in thinking since the 1960s. When I speak of government, I have in mind primarily government at the national level. Next, I will describe how American Lutherans worked over a period of three decades to formulate their parlance about the interrelated roles of government and church. Third, I will suggest that American Lutherans were inspired by a theoretical understanding of society that was available in the culture of the period and blended this with traditional theology and ethics. Finally, based on a critique of the social theory that Lutherans drew upon to understand the connection between church and government, I will offer a different interpretation of culture that helps to explain the on-going conflicts around the role of government and offers a point of departure for examining the role of government anew.

Lutheran Statements About the Role of Government

[3] While there has been general consistency in certain Lutheran understandings of the role of government since the time of the Reformation, one may see the effects of societal changes. I will review primary formulations from the Reformation period when the Confessions were “born of the struggle of church and state,”[3] to the 1960s and 1970s when government and church were in a different struggle, and finally, to the era of the ELCA when Lutherans have taken note of new things about the role of government.

[4] Augsburg Confession (AC) XVI does not state explicitly the role of government but it groups together “political authority” with “orderly government, laws, and good order” and says that political authority issues laws which Christians have an obligation, albeit a limited obligation, to obey.[4] AC XXVIII states: “Secular power does not protect the soul but, using the sword and physical penalties, it protects the body and goods against external violence.”[5] A little later, it repeats: “…the magistrate protects not minds but bodies and goods…and constrains people….”[6] Protecting and constraining occur via “secular law” that includes “judgments concerning any civil ordinances or contracts.” [7] The making of law is not discussed, but the practice of rendering judgment is understood as part of the legal process.

[5] The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Apology) talks about protection in terms of restraint, and it expands on activities of political authority. Apology IV says, “God wants those who live according to the flesh to be restrained by such civil discipline [i.e. as offered by God’s law], and to preserve it he has given laws, learning, teaching, governments, and penalties.”[8] Apology XVI notes several things that belong to government’s work. For example, Christians may hold office in which they “render verdicts on the basis of imperial laws or other established laws,” “prescribe just punishments,” “enter into legal contracts,” and “take an oath when magistrates require it.”[9] “Public redress, which is made through the office of the judge…is a work of God” and includes “judicial decisions, punishment, wars, and military service.”[10] Magistrates and laws may approve or refrain from approving contracts.[11]

[6] Since Apology XVI alludes to Luther’s and Melanchthon’s writings in expositing the work of the civil realm,[12] it is important to briefly note what Luther says about the work of government. Luther, in his Large Catechism explanation of the Fourth Commandment, compares government to fatherhood in the way that civil authority is like a “father” to “as many people as he has inhabitants, citizens, or subjects.” “Through civil rulers,…, God gives us food, house and home, protection and security, and he preserves us through them.” The work of the temporal power is God’s work. Based on this representation and relationship, Luther says government is owed honor and respect.[13]

[7] In his treatise “Temporal Authority” (1523), Luther says that the temporal authority punishes the wicked, maintains outward peace, and protects the upright.[14] Princes and lords should have a firm grasp of the law, knowing when to apply it strictly or with moderation.[15] A ruler should not seek his own advantage but that of his subjects, using the office to serve, protect, and govern, so that subjects benefit and profit.[16]

[8] In his commentary on Psalm 82 (1530), Luther talks about princely virtues. The first of these was to further the Word of God by securing “justice for those who fear God” and by repressing the godless. A second virtue was administering just laws to prevent the oppression of the poor, wretched, widows and orphans. When a prince, lord, or city has good laws and customs, when things are regulated in an orderly way and order is kept by all people regardless of status, and when the poor, widows, and orphans are not oppressed, this is a “divine hospital,” better than one of wood or stone, because it prevents people from becoming beggars.[17] Luther also directed his commentary on Psalm 101 (1534) to the Christian prince. In it Luther explains that the temporal realm directs people “horizontally toward one another, seeing to it that body, property, honor, wife, child, house, home, and all manner of goods remain in peace and security and are blessed on earth.”[18] Temporal government is “a symbol of true salvation and of [God’s] kingdom in heaven, like a pantomime or a mask.”[19]

[9] We may summarize the role of government in the Reformation era as consisting of protection and preservation, thus extending the work of God and symbolizing God’s eternal rule. The work of temporal government is to maintain peace by protecting people’s physical and economic well-being through making and administering laws in an evenhanded way, adjudicating contracts, rendering judicial decisions, and carrying out punishment or war. In doing so, special consideration must be given to the weak and powerless and on behalf of the godly. Theologically understood, as temporal authority carries out this role, it arouses in people a sense of sin, the first purpose of divine law.[20] The work of government is also to preserve society by ensuring the necessities of life, compelling social and economic interdependency, and preventing people from slipping into a condition of dependency. This is the second purpose of God’s law.

[10] I will now compare these understandings with how the role of government is described in American Lutheran statements beginning in the 1960s. It is important to understand the social canvas against which Lutherans of that era interpreted the role of government. The Lutheran Church in America (LCA) social statement, “Church and State, a Lutheran Perspective” (1966), said that “significant changes…have been emerging in recent years in the organization of society” and then names “pluralistic structure,” “various secularistic philosophies…claiming and receiving equal status socially and before the law,” and “dramatic changes in education and welfare and in concepts of the role of national government in these fields.”[21] That same year, The American Lutheran Church (ALC) issued “Church-State Relations in the USA” and set the scene this way: “Numerous issues affecting church-state relations, the place of religion in public life, and the recognition of deity by government, have entered the arena of public debate.” This had occurred due to “the increased heterogeneity of the American population, the acceptance of religious pluralism, the extension of governmental influence into nearly every phase of life, the need for additional tax revenues, and the difficulties for the churches in meeting the growing demands and complexities of their programs of health, education, and welfare.”[22]

[11] Given this socially complex backdrop, the LCA’s 1966 statement said, “The distinctive mission of the state is to establish civil justice through the maintenance of law and order, the protection of constitutional rights, and the promotion of the general welfare of the total citizenry.” It also said that the state should maintain “an attitude of ‘wholesome neutrality’ toward church bodies in the context of the religious pluralism of our culture….”[23] The statement pronounced the principle of church-state relations in a phrase later to be well-known to all American Lutherans: “…the Lutheran Church in America affirms both institutional separation and functional interaction as the proper relationship between church and state.”[24]

[12] In its 1966 statement, the ALC said that government should steer a course of “benevolent neutrality” in regards to religion.[25] In more expansive terms than the LCA statement, the ALC said: “Government has an obligation to foster a climate conducive to the free exercise of religion, to give equal protection to all religious views, and to express its neutrality in terms of actions the probable consequences of which it has carefully weighed.”[26] Further, “The state is [God’s] instrument for maintaining peace, order, and justice in the community, for protecting the individual’s rights, for enhancing his possibilities for personal development, and thus for promoting the general welfare.” “The church looks to the state to maintain the kind of civil order that assures peace, justice, and responsible freedom.”[27]

[13] The LCA returned to the subject of the role of government in a 1968 statement on “The Church and Social Welfare.” Noting that “governments have rightly assumed increasing responsibility for meeting social need and dealing with its causes,” the statement went on to say that “Justice requires that the state promote the general welfare, further the well-being of every citizen, and secure equal opportunity for full development of all its citizens. This requires that the state provide means for self-fulfillment to those who cannot because of circumstances provide them for themselves.”[28] The ALC in a 1978 statement on “Christian Social Responsibility” did not feel the need to elaborate on the role of government but instead said, “Politics is the process by which people exercise God’s grant of his authority to foster whatever is good and to curb whatever is evil in society.”[29]

[14] To summarize, between the 16th and the 20th century, Lutherans made a leap in their appreciation of the role of government because of changes in the social context. Earlier understandings of the protecting role of government now added: civil justice; the guarding of individual and collective constitutional rights including First Amendment free exercise of religion; and equal protection of all religions. The goals of government protection were peace, justice, and “responsible freedom,” the last being a clear reference to the unrest of the 1960s. Earlier understandings of the preserving role of government now included: enhancing the possibility for individual personal development and the self-fulfillment for people whose circumstances inhibit this. Finally, civil authority no longer should provide for the general welfare out of paternalistic benevolence but because justice requires it.

[15] How do LCA and ALC understandings of the role of government compare to those found in ELCA social policy documents?[30] The foundational social statement, “Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” (1991), is surprisingly parsimonious when it comes to the role of “governing authorities.” It says that God institutes such authorities “to serve the good of society”; consequently, the role of law is to protect “life and liberty” and uphold “the common good.”[31] Subsequent ELCA social statements refer back to traditional themes but draw out their application according to the topic of the social statement as I will illustrate.

[16] The 1995 statement “For Peace in God’s World” speaks of politics as well as government and says that politics, along with culture and economics, are God’s means “to restrain evil and promote the common good.”[32] In this one hears echoes of the two functions of divine law noted in the Confessions. The “aim of all politics is peace.”[33] It is logical that in a statement dealing with peace, the ways in which government carries out its work are considered germane. Thus, in keeping with Lutheran tradition, the statement affirms the use of enforcement, police work, defense, and resistance to aggression but says government should aim for non-coercion, consent by the governed, nonviolence, diplomacy, and deterrence.[34] It says governments should “be accountable to law and people, provide for the participation of all and space for loyal opposition, protect individual and minority rights, and offer processes for conflicts to be resolved without war.”[35] Again, in keeping with the topic, this statement takes note of the changing nature of nation-states and speaks of the effect of international agreements on human rights.[36]

[17] The social statement, “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” (1999), couples a contemporary polemic to the traditional role of government: “Government is intended to serve God’s purposes by limiting or countering narrow economic interests and promoting the common good.”[37] In other references, the statement talks about the expected implications of just governance and policies. For example, it says political institutions, along with others, are “responsible for producing and distributing what is needed for sufficiency for all.”[38] Government and the private sector should “invest in health, education, and infrastructures necessary for sustainable development.”[39] It calls for “government enforcement of regulations against discrimination, exploitative work conditions and labor practices” and for workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively;[40] for public policies dealing with “adequate social security, unemployment insurance, and health care coverage” as well as a fair minimum wage and tax credits for low-paid workers; for government to “provide adequate income assistance and related services for citizens, documented immigrants, and refugees….”; and for governments to monitor private sector practices.[41]

[18] The social statement, “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor” (2003), calls governments both “guarantors of justice and promoters of the general welfare.”[42] In terms of the first responsibility, governments have a role in “ensuring equitable access to health care for all.”[43] This means governments are obligated “to provide leadership and coordination in balancing competing private and social interests” to achieve equitable access.[44] Government should also reimburse promptly and sufficiently social ministry organizations for the services they provide.[45] In terms of the second responsibility, the statement says governments promote the general welfare. Such promotion includes “security, education, and health care,” including “ensuring safe water and food, or preventing and limiting outbreaks of infectious diseases….”[46] It says, “Governments have an obligation to provide or organize” a variety of public health services.[47] Finally, this social statement says the U.S. government has global responsibilities to work with others in securing clean water, sanitation, addressing hunger and infectious disease, respond to disasters, and provide health services to people in poverty.[48]

[19] “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries” (2013) offers the most recent example of the way in which ELCA social statements talk about the role of government. In many respects, this statement is almost entirely about the role of government in one form or another. The work of government is referred to in terms of law, systems, processes, and professionals. In a statement reminiscent of Reformation era descriptions, this statement says that God uses civil government and the criminal justice system “to structure human life and…to provide food, shelter, safety, education and many other material and social benefits.”[49] Effective civil government reduces people’s fear for their person or property by “establishing security” and “contributes to human flourishing through law….”[50] While laws are “to protect the social fabric, to provide for the wider social good and to prevent harm to all,”[51]professionals in the criminal justice system serve “for the purpose of administering justice, maintaining public order and protecting the social fabric.”[52] What is important is not only a criminal justice system and social order but a “just system” with “fair adjudication”[53] and “just order” under governmental institutions.[54]

[20] Summarizing what ELCA social statements say about the role of government, one may say that the lineage of Lutheran understandings is perceptible but less formulaic than in predecessor body statements. The role of government is discussed, sometimes briefly, with an allusion to Two Kingdoms theology, but it is not systematized nor is law-gospel theology applied to the purposes of government. Categories are updated: protection takes the form of ensuring justice, protecting people’s rights, structuring human life, and, using a new term, protecting the “social fabric.” Preservation is seen as promoting the common good or general welfare. Much more attention is devoted to political processes and to involving minorities and people with opposing points of view. Something else that is new is concern for the way the government of the United States now relates to international needs and legal conventions.

Achieving Consensus on the Church’s Relationship to Government

[21] Following World War II, Lutherans in the United States were searching for new ways to comprehend the relationship of church and state. Four attempts were made on the way to arriving at agreement.[55] The first effort was by George Forell, Herman A. Preus, and Jaroslav Pelikan who prepared a paper titled “Toward a Lutheran View of Church and State” for the Seminar on the Church and National Life sponsored by the National Lutheran Council in 1953. The second attempt was by the Commission on Church and State Relations in a Pluralistic Society that began work under the United Lutheran Church in America in 1961 and continued under the LCA in 1963, with one commission member each from the ALC and The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. George Forell provided a point of continuity between the 1953 and 1962 groups.

[22] The 1953 Forell-Preus-Pelikan effort explained clearly the roles of church and state in law-gospel language, and it made a modest attempt to explain how church and state relate, using the word “interpenetration” one time.[56] Moreover, it described the interconnection between church and state in terms of the individual Christian’s life in two realms. The LCA Commission on Church and State in a Pluralistic Society produced “Church and State: A Lutheran Perspective” (1963). This statement’s intent is clear from these words in the Foreword: “Most often the relationship of church and state has been seen in static thought patterns:…. No static or absolutist interpretation is adequate for today.”[57] It was in the 1963 document that the formula “institutional separation and functional interaction” was first used: “We shall defend both the institutional separation and the functional interaction of church and state in the United States and Canada.”[58]

[23] The third and fourth attempts were both sponsored by the Lutheran Council in the USA (LCUSA). In 1968, a consultation was held at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Lutheran Views on the Theological Bases for the Relationship Between the Church and Structures of Society. Thirteen theologians, university professors, a social scientist, and LCUSA staff representing all LCUSA-member denominations said that theological consensus existed on the way the church related to social structures, primarily government. In their report, the emphasis was on the civil use of divine law and Two Kingdoms theology was not articulated. One part of this consensus was “the preferred relationship in the present day” between church and state as “institutional separation and functional interaction.”[59]

[24] The fourth effort was the consultation I referred to in the first paragraph of this essay. In 1979, LCUSA held a consultation in Alexandria, Virginia, that met three days for each of January, February, and March. George Harkins, then LCUSA general secretary, said this consultation was “one of the most important assignments ever given to the council by the participating church bodies.”[60] Its report, “The Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government,” adopted the formula used in the 1963 LCA commission statement, the 1966 LCA social statement “Church and State, a Lutheran Perspective,” and the 1968 LCUSA Chicago consultation, namely, “institutional separation and functional interaction.”

[25] LCA theologian William Lazareth was the only person who served on both the 1963 LCA commission and the 1979 LCUSA consultation.[61] He was also thoroughly familiar with the 1953 paper by Forell, Preus, and Pelikan. Lazareth presented the major theology-ethics paper at the 1979 consultation titled “The Church’s Mission and Ministries Within a Pluralistic Society Governed by a Secular State.”[62] Lazareth said the title of his paper reflected “a movement from ecclesiology through eschatology into sociology.”[63] Lazareth felt that what he had to say about the roles of church and government represented “a consensus on pan-Lutheran political ethics” of “the past three decades,” i.e. the 1950s-1970s, while Lutherans were not of one mind on ministry.[64]

[26] Throughout his nearly 20,000 word paper, Lazareth draws on functional language to describe the church’s mission. For example, “Thus the church is given its twofold social ethical mission in this world. On the one hand, it must perform a prophetic function by calling all of society to account…. On the other hand, it must perform a priestly function by empowering and guiding the social action of Christians….”[65] He also uses it for government: “…all rational persons can achieve a large measure of consensus on the state’s function to establish an order of justice under the ‘laws of nature and nature’s God’….” [66] Or, “The fact that the state discharges a secular function in God’s dispensation should not blind us to its sacred basis and character.”[67] Lazareth also reaches for similar language when discussing the ministry.[68]

[27] While it is interesting to note the functional language that William Lazareth used for the 1979 consultation, what is more important is that the final LCUSA report, “The Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government,” uses similar thought forms and verbiage. Most obvious is the ratifying by LCUSA-member denominations of the language used in 1963, 1966, and 1968: “…, the Lutheran churches advocate a relationship between the churches and the government which may be expressed as ‘institutional separation and functional interaction.’”[69] Less obvious is the way the LCUSA statement talks about the “roles” (i.e. functions) of church and state, the basis on which church and state relate in terms of “interests” (i.e. needs), and the consequences of the “functional interaction” between government and religious bodies.

[28] One may summarize the changes in Lutheran thought about the role of government during the second half of the 20th century in a series of steps. (1) In the Forell-Preus-Pelikan paper of 1953, the role of government is clearly stated but an understanding of the relationship with the church is just beginning to be enunciated. (2) A decade later government influence was beginning to extend into nearly every phase of life and church institutions needed guidance about accepting federal aid. At this point in time, the 1963 LCA commission produced its statement with the phrase “institutional separation and functional interaction.” (3) In 1966, Lutheran denominations played with a variety of words to explain the church-government relationship: “independence of the church,” “integrity of the church,” “freedom to witness,” “flexible cooperation,” and “institutional separation and functional interaction.” (4) By 1968, there was general consensus on using the phrase “institutional separation and functional interaction,” as witnessed by the LCUSA consultation in Chicago. The denominations now realized they needed to figure out how functional interaction applied to federal legislation. (5) Finally, the 1979 LCUSA consultation in Virginia included denominational leaders who adopted the language of “institutional separation and functional interaction” and explained how this understanding applied to eleven pressing issues, all relating to Lutherans’ attempts to be a public church through education, service, and justice.

[29] The period during which American Lutherans tested and adopted a formula phrase for the relationship between church and government–approximately 1964 to 1978–has been called the third great American reformist period of the 20th century, following the Progressive Era and New Deal.[70] It was a time of sweeping rights-based legislation and of addressing poverty.[71] It was also a time of increasing government rule-making and regulation and of 6 to 12 percent inflation. With inflation, private giving to churches declined and church agencies and institutions were forced to seek government funds for services. This, in turn, led to restraint, increasing regulation, and government efforts to find new sources of revenue.

The Role of Government and Functional Theory

[30] Whether or not William Lazareth, one of the most respected and influential American Lutheran theologians of the second half of the 20th century, was cognizant of his use of functional language and its connection to a then-current social theory I cannot tell, but he was well-informed in the area of social ethics. What is more important for the purpose of this essay is that Lazareth, more than anyone else, shaped the thinking and language of 20th century Lutheranism in terms of the way church and state relate. I believe he is primarily responsible for the expression “institutional separation and functional interaction” that is today enshrined in the ELCA constitution.

[31] To speak about the “role” of government as I have throughout this essay is to adopt functional language. Until the 1960s, Lutheran documents did not speak of the purposes of government or of church in functional terms. Why the change? Thanks largely to the work of Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, functionalism as a social theory was in vogue in the 1940s and 1950s as a way of understanding complex connections of autonomous parts of modern society. The theory became part of mainstream culture and words such as “role,” “social systems,” “collectivity,” and “feedback” became popular terms.

[32] According to functionalism, society is an organic whole with various parts, like the parts of a human body, working to maintain other members. Things exist because of human action and its consequences.[72] Things endure because they are “useful.” Social institutions, e.g. government or church, and social phenomena, e.g. politics or religion, are understood in terms of their utility, the needs they address. The 1979 LCUSA consultation said, for instance, the interaction between government and religious bodies “…assists in the maintenance of good order, the protection and extension of civil rights, the establishment of social justice and equality of opportunity, the promotion of the general welfare and the advancement of the dignity of all persons.”[73]

[33] The functionalist theory of Robert Merton, a student of Parsons, was particularly helpful in one dilemma that Lutherans had to deal with in the 1970s. The federal government was pressing Lutherans and other denominations on the relationship of various auxiliaries to the work of the church narrowly understood by the government as a worshiping community. Lutherans were able to appropriate Merton’s distinction between “manifest” and “latent” functions of human behavior to explain how education and service related to the church that worships.

[34] Functionalist social theory came under attack by sociologists in the 1970s. One reason was its ontology. It assumed that society was identical with the nation-state when a more global perspective was coming into being. Church and state were becoming less bounded, purposive, and differentiated and organizations were understood as incorporating components of other organizations. Teleological, consequentialist ways of reasoning were being critiqued. The norm of justice around which there had been growing societal consensus, including in the church, seemed contradicted by functional explanations of practices, such as education or taxes, that worked well for elites but seemed unconscionable for the marginalized. To attribute social functions to crime or poverty did not seem to get at their real causes and virtually endorsed them.

[35] It is convenient to have an aphorism such as “institutional separation and functional interaction” to help us remember and understand the way church and government relate in the contemporary world. The quote from Allan Carlson at the beginning of this paper, however, indicates that by the 1970s the relationship between church and government was tense, not placid. Lazareth himself in his 1979 LCUSA consultation paper says, “If ever persons needed the guidance of the Word of God to face a public crisis, it is now.”[74] He does not explain the nature of the crisis, but he does say “What is desperately needed today is a prophetic counterpart to the priesthood of all believers.”[75] His formula had, however, a built-in limitation.

[36] Functional social theory emphasizes equilibrium, consensus, order, and shared values. It, therefore, blended well with Lazareth’s explanation of Luther’s and the Confessions’ understanding of the Two Kingdoms and Law and Gospel but it failed to offer normative direction during times of great social change, though American Lutherans believed it represented progress when compared to much of European Lutheranism’s experience of relating church and state. As New York City pastor and community activist Heidi Neumark observed in 2010 when asked about the aphorism:

…, I don’t think that [institutional separation and functional interaction] adequately expresses anything, because it’s completely neutral. It doesn’t talk about justice or the role of the church to call upon government. It’s really not very Lutheran because the government should be doing its proper job or we should be engaged in civil disobedience. It doesn’t have any strength to it. …. Certainly there’s institutional separation but our role as a separate institution is not just interaction; it’s interaction with a focus on justice and on the government using its power for the well-being of all people. That’s totally missing to me.[76]

The inherent limitation of “institutional separation and functional interaction” has not disappeared.

A Cultural Point of Departure

[37] Admittedly, since the days of the Revolution, Americans have been suspicious of government. A type of criticism of government, endemic to the second half of the 20th century, different than age-old American resistance to hierarchical authority has been the backdrop for this essay. Clues of this criticism may be seen in changed understandings of the role of government in Lutheran social statements from the 1966 to 2013. As we saw, these documents voice concern for individual and collective constitutional rights, protection for all religions, justice, open political processes, the enhancing of self-fulfillment for disadvantaged groups, minority involvement in decision making, and international needs and conventions.

[38] It would be a mistake to think that this criticism is coherent. The Tea Party and Edward Snowden may represent those who believe there is too much state regulation but they receive push back from those who say there is too little regulation which encourages inequality or lack of security. Contradictions in cultural values are not only seen in contests between conservative and liberal groups. Allan Carlson’s 1970s dilemma that we saw at the beginning of this essay suggested that conflict over cultural values may be experienced within the same denominational tradition as it interacts with government. For Talcott Parsons, culture was assumed to be closed and in a state of equilibrium. The culture of modernity is open, inconsistent, and in flux.[77]

[39] The criticism of the role of government that takes contradictory forms is symptomatic of the cultural construction of nation-states in post World War II world society. It is customary to think of nations and their governments as rational actors responding to various needs and interests, as functionalists thought.[78] An alternative to this realist approach is to see the nation-state as drawing on world cultural models of justice, socioeconomic development, and citizenship because these have elaborate justifications and to do so is universally legitimated.[79]

[40] Contrary to what one might expect of the effects of globalization on nation-states—for example, decreasing size and vitality, we discover that governments do not shrink but in fact expand in structures, bureaucracies, regulations, and revenues. Expansions occurs not because broadening structures, rules, and revenues are necessary but in keeping with world models and the accepted cultural principle that nation-states “are the primary actors charged with identifying and managing those problems on behalf of their societies.”[80]

[41] Where does this leave the discussion about the role of government for the church? There may be cultural inertia, but there is also ongoing and powerful cultural ferment about the role of government, internationally as well as domestically. Nation-states may be culturally accepted as primary actors, but they are not the only accepted actors. Associations, organizations, social movements, scientists, and professionals are also actors engaged in a broad range of rationalized activity nationally and at the world level. The church is part of all of these. One such association that we constitute and that is encouraging cultural ferment is the Lutheran World Federation which issued a discussion resource, “Churches Holding Governments Accountable,” in 2010. This resource improves on the language of the 1960s and 1970s by saying, “Both church and government have their own God-given integrity and freedom to act, and are limited by the other’s integrity and freedom. Therefore, the two institutions should not be confused, nor should one control the other. Yet, the two share overlapping areas of engagement where they properly interact for the sake of the neighbor, including the church’s calling to hold government accountable.”[81]

The normative direction that flows from this understanding of relationship begins to compensate for the weakness of the formulation that made Heidi Neumark uncomfortable.

[42] It is time for American Lutherans to take out the yellowed file folder marked “Nature of Church-Government Relations” in the dusty file drawer labeled “Things We’ve Resolved” and become part of the 21st century conversation on the role of government in culturally-constructed, culturally-open world society.


[1] Allan C. Carlson, “An Analysis of the Reasons for Increased Federal Rule-Making and Regulatory Activity Affecting the Church Community,” a paper presented at the Lutheran Consultation on the Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government, January 15-17, 1979, 76.​

[2] Ibid., 97.

[3] George Forell, Herman A. Preus, and JaroslavPelikan, “Toward a Lutheran View of Church and State,” Lutheran Quarterly V, 3 (August 1953), 280.

[4] The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 48, 50.

[5] Ibid., 92.

[6] Ibid., 93.

[7] Ibid., 92.

[8] Ibid., 124.

[9] Ibid., 231.

[10] Ibid., 232.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 231.

[13] Ibid., 407.

[14] Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed” (1523), in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, ed. Walther I. Brandt (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962) 87, 91.

[15] Ibid., 119.

[16] Ibid., 120.

[17] Martin Luther, Psalm 82, in Luther’s Works, vol. 13, ed. JaroslavPelikan, trans. C. M. Jacobs (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956) 53-54.

[18] Martin Luther, Psalm 101, in Luther’s Works, vol. 13, ed. JaroslavPelikan, trans. Alfred von Rohr Sauer (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956) 197.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Forell, Preus, and Pelikan, 288.

[21] “Church and State: a Lutheran Perspective,” Lutheran Church in America, 1966, 1.

[22] “Church-State Relations in the USA,” The American Lutheran Church, 1966, 1.

[23] LCA, “Church and State,” 2.

[24] Ibid., 1.

[25] ALC, “Church-State Relations,” 2.

[26] Ibid., 3.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “The Church And Social Welfare,” Lutheran Church in America, 1968, 1.

[29] “Christian Social Responsibility,” The American Lutheran Church, 1978, 4.

[30] It should be noted that the ELCA has produced a collection of essays, Church & State: Lutheran Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003) but no social statement on politics or government.

[31] “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1991, 4, 5-6.

[32] “For Peace in God’s World,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1995, 30.

[33] Ibid., 12.

[34] Ibid., 10.

[35] Ibid., 19.

[36] Ibid., 14.

[37] “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1999, 11.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 16.

[40] Ibid., 10.

[41] Ibid., 14.

[42] “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2003, 20.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 11.

[46] Ibid., 19-20.

[47] Ibid., 13.

[48] Ibid., 14.

[49] “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2013, 16.

[50] Ibid., 21.

[51] Ibid., 7.

[52] Ibid., 9.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., 22.

[55] I wish to acknowledge an essay by John R. Stumme, “A Lutheran Tradition on Church and State” (Church & State: Lutheran Perspectives, ed. John R. Stumme and Robert W. Tuttle [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003]) for first making me aware of several of the documents that I cite in this section of the essay. Though Stumme correctly notes the “landmark importance” of the Lutheran Church in America statement Church and State, A Lutheran Perspective (1963), he is incorrect in saying that the first usage of “’Institutional separation and functional interaction’ first appeared in the LCA statement, ‘Church and State: A Lutheran Perspective,’ 1966 (…).” Cf. Endnote 3, 186. The phrase also appeared in the 1963 statement. Cf. Church and State, a Lutheran Perspective: The Interaction of Religion and Law in a Pluralistic Society, Lutheran Church in America, 1963, 36. Unlike Stumme who treats these statements, along with an American Lutheran Church statement of 1966, “as a unity,” I will treat them as distinct steps in the evolution of the church’s thinking, albeit the similarities among them..

[56] Forell, Preus, and Pelikan, 287.

[57] Church and State, a Lutheran Perspective: The Interaction of Religion and Law in a Pluralistic Society, Commission on Church and State Relations in a Pluralistic Society, Lutheran Church in America, 1963, viii.

[58] Ibid., 36; original emphasis.

[59] A Consultation on Lutheran Views on the Theological Basis for the Relationship between the Church and the Structures of Society, Lutheran Council in the USA, 1968, 3.

[60] George F. Harkins, “Goals of the Consultation and the Roles of the LCUSA and the Individual Church Bodies,” Lutheran Consultation on the Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government, January 15-17, 1979, 5.

[61] Lazareth was not part of the 1968 LCUSA Chicago consultation. Albert Huegli, a Missouri Synod educator, was the only person who participated in both the 1968 LCUSA Chicago consultation and the 1979 LCUSA Virginia consultation. In the case of the former, he was on the planning committee and in the case of the latter, he served as consultation chair.

[62] It should be noted that Lazareth’s paper covered the church’s ministries (i.e. episcopal, priestly, diaconal) because LCUSA saw the need to review a Lutheran understanding of the church and to link various ministries, such as chaplaincies and social ministries, to the mission of the church due to specific conflicts then occurring with the federal government.

[63] “NOTES: Lutheran Consultation on the Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government,” January 15-17, 1979, 2.

[64] Ibid.

[65] William H. Lazareth, “The Church’s Mission and Ministries Within a Pluralistic Society Governed by a Secular State,” a paper presented at the Lutheran Consultation on the Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government, January 15-17, 1979, 31, original emphasis.

[66] Ibid., 42.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Lazareth used the words “function, functional, functioning” 85 times in the paper: 68 times in the first part dealing with ministry and 17 times in the second part dealing with eschatology and political ethics. In the second part, he also uses synonyms for “function” such as “role,” “task,” and “mission.”

[69] “The Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government,” A statement with public policy recommendations on church-state issues adopted by the Lutheran Council in the USA, 1979, 2.

[70] Gosta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 175.

[71] Clifford Green, “History in the Service of the Future: Studying Urban Ministry,” in Churches, Cities, and Human Community: Urban Ministry in the United States, 1945-1985, ed Clifford J. Green (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 14-15.

[72] “Function, functionalism,” in A Dictionary of Sociology, ed. John Scott and Gordon Marshall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 233. For additional insights, see Peter Hamilton, “Systems Theory,” The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, ed. Bryan S. Turner (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996), 143-170.

[73] 1979 LCUSA consultation statement, 3.

[74] Lazareth, 22.

[75] Ibid., 32.

[76] Heidi Neumark interview, October 22, 2010.

[77] John Meyer, “World Society and the Nation-State,” World Society: The Writings of John W. Meyer, ed. Georg Krucken and Gili S. Drori (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 197.

[78] This is a “micro-realist” approach. Meyer says a “macro-realist” approach sees “the nation-state as the creature of worldwide systems of economic or political power, exchange, and competition. The nation-state is less a bounded actor, more the occupant of a role defined by world economic and political/military competition.” For the macro-realist, culture is “self-serving hegemonic ideology or repressive false consciousness” and is, therefore, of less interest. Cf. Meyer, 175.

[79] Meyer, 176, 177.

[80] Meyer, 184.

[81] Karen L. Bloomquist, John R. Stumme, and Martin L. Sinaga, “Churches Holding Governments Accountable; A resource for reflection, discussion and action,” (Geneva: The Lutheran World Federation, 2010), 22-23.​​

Leslie F. Weber

Leslie F. Weber retired from serving as associate executive director of the ELCA Church in Society unit in 2011.