Lutheran Tradition and Politics

[1] The two-realm teaching in Lutheran social ethics is something quite different from the notion of separation of church and state as it has evolved in the United States political tradition. It is Luther’s attempt to translate his law and gospel distinction to the public realm featuring the complex life of society – the province of government, commerce, and cultural life. For Luther, law is the common coin by which corporate life is governed and facilitated, in contrast to the realm of gospel marked by the gentle persuasion of love rather than the coercion of legal action.

[2] This theological distinction in Luther, however, has some weighty implications for the political principle that we tend to describe in terms of church-state separation. Both recognize that political power and authority are not to be placed in the hands of those whose exercise of that power is intended to serve religious interests. For Luther the challenge came from a politically powerful church, while for us today the challenge comes from religious zealots who seek to manipulate government in ways that serve their religious and ideological goals. In both cases the fallacy is blatant: The gospel is not served by the exercise of coercion that would impose it on society.

[3] This Lutheran stance speaks directly to the current political campaign. What we have been witnessing in recent years is a concerted effort on the part of a segment of Christians – “The Religious Right” – to gain control of the Republican Party as an instrument to enact those laws and policies that they believe serve their religious interests. Thus they forsake the historic role of religious people as participants in the public forum, seeking quite properly to influence public policy in ways that serve the common good. Instead, they are intent on exercising political authority by identifying their beliefs and goals with a political party on whom they rely to execute the necessary laws. Their social agenda, clothed in the language of “values” and reflecting a conservative ideology, has been written quite explicitly into the Republican platform. They have become “religious partisans” on behalf of a political party, a situation that our heritage as Lutherans would lead us to repudiate.

[4] The situation in regard to the Democratic Party is quite different. Its liberal ideology has sharpened the Party’s appreciation of the importance of church-state separation, but too often this has made Democrats blind to the importance of religion for the health and well-being of the body politic. The potential problems posed by religious players on the political scene make Democrats defensive, often leading to a failure to ask what appropriate role they might play. Too often Democrats have even failed to recognize and acknowledge those biblical themes that give theological and moral support to classic liberal concerns: Social justice, an inclusive society, and equal opportunity extended to even the poorest among us. Our Lutheran heritage would challenge the Democratic Party for its failure to recognize the legitimate role of religious advocates and what they can contribute to the welfare of the nation.

[5] The cardinal danger is that whenever religion is mixed with politics it becomes a means to an end; it is transformed into an ideology subservient to political interests. But religious themes can also have a humanizing effect, lifting up imperatives that hold us all accountable on behalf of the common good, particularly those who wield political power. In recognizing that God is sovereign in the public life of the nation, the Lutheran tradition can speak forcefully to both of these possibilities.

Paul T. Jersild

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Jersild is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina