Editor’s Introduction: Lutheran Theology and the Relationship between Church and State

[1] If it is true that many people consider it impolite to talk publically about religion or politics, then perhaps no topic is going to be more improper to discuss than the topic of the proper relationship of church and state. Yet, both articles in this issue all call Lutherans to talk publically about their religion, about their political views, and about how the two intersect.

[2] This is a timely topic, not just because of the upcoming election and the several issues before the Supreme Court regarding religious freedom. The top issue in the news in March, 2020 has been the unfolding pandemic of Covid-19. While the government scrambled to put new policies in place to encourage the social distancing urged by the Center of Disease Control, the church was preaching messages of community hope. More than once these included references to Luther’s 1527 sermon Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.  Our faith that teaches us to come together, to eat together, and to touch one another with hands of compassion, at times, feels directly at odds with the words of science and politics that urges us to quarantine the sick and isolate ourselves. There is hope that new technology will let us bridge the gap, allowing us to meet via social media and put educational opportunities, sermons, and services on line. There is more hope that through faith and politics we can work together to promote flourishing lives.

[3] Indeed, this has been and is clearly a time when we need sound public policy and faithful preaching. Now is a time when we realize how important both kingdoms are in caring for ourselves and our neighbors.

[4] This issue publishes two of the papers that were presented before the pandemic at the Lutheran Ethicist Gathering in Washington D.C. this January on the topic of the relationship of church and state. These long and thorough papers include a Korean Lutheran scholar’s theological look at Luther’s view of this relationship and what this means for people today and the ELCA’s Director for Advocacy’s description of the past, present, and future of ELCA advocacy for public policy in this country and abroad.

[5] Myung Su Yang, who was brought to the larger Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics which meets concurrently with the Lutheran Ethicist Gathering as a Global Scholar, provided the audience of both LEG and SCE, and now JLE readers, with a thoughtful summary of Luther’s theology and its unique understanding of the relationship of church and state. Yang’s article serves as a helpful reminder that at base, “For Luther, the state and politics can preserve the world but cannot save one’s soul.” (Yang, Paragraph 11)

[6] Yang’s paper provides a thought-provoking examination of Luther’s views for the scholar who is eager to debate different interpretations of the “two kingdoms” but more importantly reminds all Lutherans in the pews that they are part of a unique tradition that rejects both theocracy and quietism.  In short, Yang says that no policy can turn the Unites States into the New Jerusalem, but policies do affect the day to day lives of citizens. Thus, Yang ends his paper reminding Lutherans, both in Korea and the United States, to reject the urge to sacralize any political office, politician, or policy and, yet, at the same time to engage politically and even to “protest not by physical power but by words which make judgment about what is right and wrong.” (Yang, paragraph 22) These things, Yang suggests, Lutherans can do both as individuals and as a church community, for the “the weapon the church fights with is words clothed with spiritual and moral authority.” (Yang, paragraph 23)

[7] Amy Reumann, Director of Advocacy for the ELCA, brought several ELCA employees in public advocacy to speak with her as she gave a presentation that began with the same Lutheran central theological position highlighted by Yang. Her article, then, quickly moves from the theoretical to the practical providing information of what the ELCA and its predecessor bodies have done, are doing, and hope to do. Readers will find that the ELCA has never been a quietest church. On one hand the ELCA has refused to succumb to “an ethic of triumphalism” which advocates “public policy advocacy built on an understanding of works righteousness.” (Reumann, paragraph 31) And on the other hand, the church continues to play an important role “in forming Christians who understand that their call to follow Jesus includes participation in civic life as a concrete expression of neighbor love.” (Reumann, paragraph 29) Readers will find great hope in Reumann’s description of the current work the ELCA is doing to advocate for policies and structures that can help our neighbors flourish.

[8] Reader’s of this issue of JLE should know that in addition to hearing these two presentations, participants at the Lutheran Ethicists Gathering also heard a paper by Robert Tuttle, professor of religion and law at George Washington University who explained the constitutional framing of the relationship of church and state and how this framing has been nuanced by Supreme Court judgments throughout the years.  He further explained several current issues about this relationship and how they may affect both political and faithful life.

[9] Additionally, participants attended a panel discussion focused on bringing this discussion and its fruits into the contemporary church and society. This panel was convened by Dr. Richard Perry, Professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and included the Reverend Joann Conroy, Chaplain and Chair of the ELCA American Indian Association and Ms. Trinidad Ariztia, Program Director of Migration Policy of the ELCA.

[10] Throughout the Lutheran Ethicist Gathering participants discussed issues important for inclusion in the forthcoming ELCA social statement on the relationship of church and state.  Indeed, as important as these JLE reflections are in themselves given the present social context, they also represent attention by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the questions of government and civic engagement.

[11] In that regard it is important to announce that some fruits from the Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering in January 2020 invite your picking and participation.  At this time and until May 21, 2020 the ELCA’s Draft of a Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement is posted online for downloading and public comment.  It is standard practice in the ELCA to have a period of response to a draft as part of the development of its social teaching documents.  Simply go to https://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages/Government to read and participate.  Information about several forms of feedback can be found there.  So, be informed by these JLE essays and then compare and contrast your insights with the draft of a document that is on its way to becoming a social teaching of the ELCA.  Such participation would surely be urged by the writers of this issue of JLE.

[12] Next year’s Lutheran Ethicist Gathering will be held in January, 2021 in Chicago. The topic will be The 500th Anniversary of Diet of Worms: Passive Resistance, Civility, the Ethics of protest, and Democracy. We are particularly looking for participants under the age of 35. If you are interested in recommending a speaker, presenting a paper, or participating in this meeting in another way, please email the editor at Jennifer.Hockenbery@elca.org. Information about registering for LEG will be available in September on their website and on the website of the Society for Christian Ethics.

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.