Review of Burkee’s Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity.

[1] The story of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod begins in reaction to encroaching theological liberalism. In 1839, Martin Stephan brought about 700 Saxons to Missouri to flee the liberal and rationalist developments in Saxony and nearby Prussia. One hundred and thirty years later, these Lutherans were up against the same enemy—this time from within, and this time they chose to fight rather than flee. The details of this more recent story are chronicled in James Burkee’s account of the liberal-conservative controversy in the LCMS that most historians know only by its most notorious episode: the “exile” of forty-five of the fifty seminary professors at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, followed by most of the student body in solidarity, and the formation of Concordia Seminary in Exile (Seminex) in 1974. Although theological language permeated the controversy, Burkee argues that politics steered the course of events.

[2] Like Presbyterians in the 1920s and Southern Baptists in the 1980s, Missouri Lutherans fought an ugly fight against “liberalism” that centered mostly on biblical criticism. But unlike these other battles, Burkee notes, the LCMS controversy belongs squarely in the midst of the turbulent late 1960s. For that reason, the Missouri episode had shades of anti-communism, anti-integration, and anti-ecumenism that other church controversies lacked, at least to this degree. Further, argues Burkee, it was precisely the conflation of political and theological conservative ideologies that explains the success of Missouri’s anti-liberal forces. In their “creative and colorful way,” writes Burkee, conservative propagandists “connected the dots from seminary professor to communist radicals, ‘liberals’ all” (59).

[3] Burkee demonstrates ably how the controversy between liberal (self-styled “moderate”) and conservative camps came to a boil in the late 1960s, as Herman Otten’s grudge against Concordia faculty for refusing him ministerial certification became a crusade against the forces of liberalism in the denomination. In the pages of his muckraking Christian News, Otten waged his war against his enemy, occupying the strange but advantageous position as a denominational insider, pastoring an LCMS congregation, who was not subject to the discipline of the denomination. His project turned into a coalition that succeeded in getting J.A.O. “Jack” Preus elected as president of the denomination in 1969. The relationship between Preus and Otten was always precarious, and Preus was more a political phenom, but not the conservative ideologue that Otten was. While Preus appreciated Otten’s support and ability to sway the public, he often publicly decried Otten’s underhanded tactics. Their stylistic differences ended in an open rift that led to the ouster of Preus from high office in 1981.

[4] As Martin Marty notes in the foreword, “previous histories of this conflict were partisan documents, often based on personal experience” (viii). Among these may be counted Frederick Danker’s No Room in the Brotherhood (1977) and Kurt Marquart’s Anatomy of an Explosion (1977), as well as the more recent memoirs of John Tietjen (1990) and Paul Zimmerman’s narrow A Seminary in Crisis (2007). While James Adams’s journalistic Preus of Missouri and the Great Lutheran Civil War (1977) adopted an air of objectivity, it dealt thinly with the Seminary crisis. As a non-partisan, Burkee pulls no punches on the unethical, duplicitous, and secretive maneuverings that ensured conservative power in the 1970s. The campaign for protecting purity had some very impure elements, claims Burkee. Such elements included an important conservative publication that was given to plagiarism and slander and a denominational president who reportedly entertained extortion as a way to remove troublesome pastors: “get something on them about sex, and tell them to scram” (103). Preus is painted as a political mastermind—meaning he knew exactly what to say to whom, and rarely meant any of it. Otten is painted as a ruthless blackmailer who could not distinguish vengeance from righteousness. The moderates are painted as tactless, naïve, and politically inept. In Lutheran circles, the martyr complex is known as ‘Luther Syndrome,” and Burkee demonstrates that it was the affliction of moderates like “exiled” seminary president John Tietjen as well as conservatives like Otten (152, 8).

[5] While victorious in stemming the tide of liberalism in their denomination, the conservative victors quickly turned to cannibalism. A theme running through the book is “the nature of conservatism,” which to Burkee (despite being a Republican himself) seems always to stand for emotional reactionism, and thus always in need of an enemy (179). As Burkee notes, Preus and Otten did not live on in LCMS politics after 1981, but their tactics of double-talk, manipulation, and fear-mongering did (178).

[6] While the book is laser-focused on the clerical elite of the LCMS, the effects of their battle are felt by LCMS laypersons and other Lutherans. Today’s Missouri laity understands that they represent the “traditional” or “conservative” branch of American Lutheranism, largely as a result of this episode. Seminex eventually merged with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and dispersed faculty to other future-ELCA seminaries. Furthermore, the contingent of about 100,000 estranged LCMS members known as the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches was integral in the merger that formed the ELCA in 1988. With these wider connections in mind, one wonders why Burkee did not spend more time explaining how the Missouri conflict directly altered the shape of American Lutheranism at large.

[7] The critiques to which this account is vulnerable are predictable. For the uninitiated, the swirl of names and committee acronyms quickly becomes dizzying. But Burkee’s efforts to keep the narrative focused on Preus and Otten is an antidote to this historical vertigo. While Burkee handily argues his thesis that the LCMS turmoil was a result of politics more than theology, many readers will wonder whether theology can really be laid aside in Burkee’s manner. Burkee wastes no ink in theological explanations and seems only to mention scriptural inerrancy or Lutheran confessions when they appear in direct quotes. He does not even define “objective justification” when it comes up in the late debate between Preus and claimant to the presidential throne Walter Maier (176). In his relentless pursuit of the chronology, personalities, and details of the decade of LCMS infighting, Burkee neglects to address the wider meaning of this period in LCMS history. For instance, how did this controversy affect the contemporary charismatic renewal movement, which raised related questions of scriptural authority? He frequently notes the parallels of the conservative rise to the growing divide in American society during the McCarthyism and the Civil Rights eras, but it is not clear how this tragic ecclesiastical episode rippled in American history at large. In short, his title writes a check that his book cannot cash; Burkee does not really argue that this was “a conflict that changed American Christianity.” Finally, critical historians will be suspicious of how he casually implicates this bitter controversy in the numerical decline of the LCMS. He may be correct that “in history there are rarely coincidences,” (182) but he has not taken the crucial step from demonstrating correlation to causation. For these flaws, Burkee’s book is a meticulously-documented account of the single most important period in the LCMS since its founding. All historians of American Lutheranism, twentieth century Christianity, and particularly Christian fundamentalism must be aware of this book.

[8] The events in the LCMS during the 1970s were tragic and epochal to those who were involved. From a distance of three decades, however, they appear to wear the costumes of a farce. Lutherans of all stripes—as well as all level-headed Christians—should view the controversy with sadness. Those whom God would have known by their love for one another are most easily described in this account as backbiting and vicious. As many of Burkee’s subjects will read his account, and many of the wounds are still tender, this is not likely to be the last word on the LCMS controversy. But for serious scholars, it will be the first.

Christopher Richmann

Christopher Richmann is a Ph.D. student in religion at Baylor University, and a Synodically Authorized Worship Leader in the Northern-Texas Northern-Louisiana synod, serving St. John Lutheran Church in Gatesville, TX.