Editor’s Introduction: December 2022/January 2023 Civic Engagement and the Relationship of Church and State

[1] The 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly authorized the development of an ELCA social statement on government, civic engagement and the relationship of church and state as a means to probe for shared convictions and establish this church’s comprehensive teaching. The ELCA task force has been at work since October of 2020 in forums of listening to ELCA members and learning from specialists on the breadth of topics involved.  The task force asked the Journal of Lutheran Ethics to invite and publish essays that lift up theological and biblical resources that help the work of establishing the ELCA’s comprehensive teaching. This month’s issue contains four essays that I hope might not only inform such a social statement, but also, engage readers in the church and academy to think constructively about the relationship of faith and citizenship in the United States.

[2]  The first essay, by Ronald T. Michener discusses virtuous disagreement, giving practical advice from a wide variety of scholars and ethicists, on how to cultivate virtues that allow one to engage in the important task of listening and speaking to those with whom one disagrees. The virtues he names and defines include open-mindedness, humility, courage, tolerance, hospitality, and friendship. Michener’s essay provides readers a helpful tool kit for the necessary work of conversation among citizens in society and among parishioners in church.  I would add that with this scholarly and practical essay, Michener also delivers a foundation for hope that hospitable and friendly discourse is possible and fruitful.

[3] Having been inspired by this foundational hope and outfitted with virtues that make constructive conversation possible, the reader will find the second essay, by Marie Failinger, to be a helpful primer on the important roles one plays as both a citizen and a parishioner according to Lutheran theological principles. While one’s faith guides and fortifies one’s work as a citizen to care for one’s neighbors and the common good, the importance of recognizing the value of secular law in such work helps Lutherans avoid a dangerous kind of theocratic nationalism.

[4] The tension referenced by Failinger in her essay, the tension between the desire to strive to make God’s justice “roll down like waters” and the knowledge of the brokenness of  the world, is the theme of Thomas Johnston’s essay, “The Paradoxical Vision.”  Johnston helpfully explains the argument behind the critiques of the ELCA’s social theology by theologian Robert Benne in order to help readers consider deeply the importance of holding both the commandment to do justice and the humility to acknowledge that human beings cannot create a justifying secular law. Johnston’s essay moves beyond the critique to offer his own understanding of what is most valuable in several of the ELCA’s social statements on political topics such as the death penalty and abortion, noting that these statements do in fact note the very paradox and difficulty that Benne wishes to be upheld.

[5] The final essay, by Norma Cook Everist, asks important questions and makes valuable recommendations for the social statement on faith and civic life. Demonstrating the virtues that Michener named in his essay, building on the theology explained by Failinger, and embracing the paradox explained by Benne through Johnson, Everist openly and humbly asks readers to consider deeply the question: “What is our role as the ELCA, one faith community among many, to preserve the nation for the good of all?” Her essay explains the importance in framing the question this way as she names what is at stake right now in the United States and poses some tenets that we might hold as we seek to move forward with answers.

[6] These essays, published just a few weeks after the mid-term elections, hope to inspire not only the task force creating the new social statement but also readers as they think about how they will continue to move as faithful members of church communities working for the common good of citizens in secular society.

[7] The next issue of JLE will focus on a specific topic within this same framework, namely that of Lutheran responses post-Roe in accord with the ELCA’s position from its social statement on Abortion.  Thoughtful and provocative essays from diverse perspectives are invited to be submitted by December 20th.







Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.