Penultimate Answers: Lutheran Theology, Politics, and Dissent

[1] A basic difficulty in the application of Lutheran theological insights to the current political scene is the fundamentally static nature of much of Luther’s thinking about the relationship of state and citizen. That is, Luther’s political writings focus much more narrowly upon the duties and powers of temporal authority in general and the individuals in authority in particular than they did upon the rights and liberties of the citizen within the state itself. In fact, Luther’s dictum that “God lets a knave rule because of the sins of the people” provides evidence of his contention that the government stands in the place of God in shepherding a recalcitrant populace.

[2] Nonetheless, Lutheran theology still has the capacity to challenge. The function of Lutheran theological insights, then, is to establish a proper form of political discourse, one which refuses to give a divine character to the temporal.

[3] To Luther, the state never has more than a penultimate status. It is true, the sword has been established and empowered by God to do his work, but the authority of the state, even in temporal matters, is not and cannot be absolute. It is possible, indeed likely, that government officials will act out of bad faith and self-interest, and therefore, government actions and policies can be manifestly unjust.

[4] This being the case, coupled with the reality of the fact that the conscience of the individual remains operative, the right of civil dissent always exists. To Luther, there is a profound difference between suffering injustice and being quiet about it. In his exposition of John 19, he claims, “We should and shall endure at their [the princes’] hands what they do to us; but we certainly do not intend to be quiet or say, ‘Gracious Lord, you are doing what is right.'”

[5] What this means in terms of Lutheran theology is that the state must always be perceived as an order of creation which is as fallen as all others, and which therefore stands just as thoroughly under the judgment of God as all others. The Lutheran voice is necessary to affirm the penultimate, derivative status of temporal authority, and underscore the legitimate use of political dissent as an expression of the Gospel.

[6] This Lutheran affirmation speaks directly to the current political campaign. More narrowly, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001 have led to an increased emphasis, one might easily say obsession, with homeland security. This has given rise to such questionable pieces of legislation as the Patriot Act, which give the government broad ranging powers to suspend or circumvent basic civil liberties in the interests of national defense. Opponents of these measures have been routinely labeled as naïve or disloyal, or both. Abridgement or suspension of basic human liberties is an act of monumental governmental hubris, and replacing legitimate, well reasoned political discourse with name calling and hair pulling is both unseemly and counter productive.

[7] Luther said a pious ruler is a rare bird, and that they are “usually the worst of knaves on earth. One must constantly expect the worst of them and look for little good from them.” This clear eyed assessment stands as a valuable point of departure for a genuinely Lutheran critique of the political process.