Review of Good and Bad Ways of Thinking About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne

…a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him.
– Thomas Carlyle, 1795–1881

[1] An impression I have of some of today’s newest Lutheran seminary graduates, and also of some rather seasoned Lutheran clergy, is that of relative indifference toward the nearly half-millennium old Lutheran heritage: i.e., towards Luther himself and his theology, and towards the Lutheran Confessions. Sometimes this is expressed as outright hostility and rejection, sometimes the antipathy is only implied by a dismissive attitude toward key Lutheran concepts. But, much too often for comfort, I encounter the attitude that this hoary tradition Good and Bad Ways of Thinking About Religion and Politics by Robert Bennestemming from the sixteenth century represents for the modern Lutheran not merely an outmoded reliquary of the past, but that it could literally become an obstacle to performing one’s duties as correct-thinking clergy in this post-modern world. After all, goes the argument, we are beset with more than the care of souls; there is the ever-present problem of rescuing society from its many and varied sins and dysfunctions, and what is seen as a prissy antiquarianism can be a diversion from the problems to hand.

[2] It is worth pondering that Martin Luther himself seems to have anticipated such an attitude and addressed himself to it. In his longer preface to The Large Catechism, he presents a rather lively and pointed apologetic in favor of pastors regularly spending time in meditation and teaching on what many in his day saw as the “childish and silly things” of The Catechism — i.e., the Ten Commandments, the Creed, etc. (For those unacquainted with Reformation history, it will have to suffice to say that Luther himself did this, even though he had a rather demanding schedule.)1 Identifying the spiritual sin of pride as the root of our human dysfunctions, Luther begged clergy not to be so concerned with adopting the correct thinking of the day, nor to busying themselves with reading the latest theologies in order to become “doctors above all doctors,” but instead to tend to the basics of the faith: “What they need is to become children and begin learning the ABCs, which they think they have outgrown long ago.”2

[3] Bob Benne, Professor Emeritus in Lutheran Ethics at Roanoke College, has spent his career calling Lutherans back to their historic roots, and enabling them to connect the dots with current issues by doggedly reminding them of their theological ABCs.3 In a small, very readable monograph, Good and Bad ways to Think about Religion and Politics, he both affirms the vital importance of the Lutheran heritage for surviving the corrosive effects of modern culture, and makes a coherent case for the “proper” relation between faith and politics. In this way he assumes the correctness of Thomas Carlyle’s judgment that religion is the central element in forming the character and the mind of the individual and, at the same time, affirming Luther’s conviction that what is most needed in every age is not clever novelty but faithful recapitulation of the Great Tradition’s chief treasure — the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

[4] Benne places Christian Faith at the forefront of the individual’s many constituting elements in the formation of a philosophy of life — or a political program. And, in contradistinction to the prevailing winds in academia and culture, in this book he is willing to argue that classical Christian Faith, especially the kind with a Lutheran blik, is the most adequate framework for thinking rightly about the relation between religion and a philosophy of governance. Hopefully, you already are gaining an insight into just how unique and necessary this book is within today’s intellectual climate.

Why This Book?
[5] In the Federalist Papers, No. 51, James Madison muses: But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”4 This grounding of our nation upon, first, the Founding Fathers’ understanding of a natural law ordering the affairs of humanity; and, second, upon their fundamental assumption that governmental power must be circumscribed by the sovereignty of God, has become in our day a contentious claim, one continually up for debate and requiring to be decided anew by each generation. That is why today’s culture wars are so crucial to our civic life, and precisely why this particular book is needed in both the Pastor’s library and the academic’s reading list.

[6] Drawing upon some 45+ years of teaching the Christian Faith to young minds, and sensitively engaging their prejudices, assumptions, perspectives and complaints, Benne is able to address the post-modernist pose of acute relativism and radical doubt with mature answers from the heart of the Church’s tradition. More, he is deeply immersed in the roiled waters of current debate over the role of religion in the naked public square. In the Introduction, Benne puts his commitments up front for all to see. He admits that a Christian world-view is out of favor with the trend-setters, indeed that such a perspective is, in many quarters, considered woefully out of date. In the midst of such skeptical precincts, religion is either thought to be a waning superstition or a matter of private opinion, but not the stuff on which a public philosophy can be erected. Benne, however, stands opposite such biases with an unabashed contrariness: “I am so bold as to think that the Christian tradition from which I write — the Lutheran tradition — offers such a better way.”5 If Benne is correct about Lutheranism’s irreplaceable perspective, then this book indeed is sorely needed today.

How, Then, Should We Think?
[7] One side in the on-going debate over religion and politics claims that religious faith has no legitimate role to play in the public square, especially when sensitive issues of the common good are being decided. These partisans of a naked public square Benne describes as the “separationists.” They range in philosophy and politics from militant secularists and the ACLU at one end to the Mennonites and George Will on the other! The point is that they agree on a separation of religious insights, values, or moral reasoning from the arena of public debate concerning our civic good, either because they want to keep the political realm free of subversion from religion and “superstition” or because they want no contamination of the church by a totally corrupt society. Such extreme separationists are horrified either by the prospect of a Martin Luther King, Jr. using Christian themes and categories in his denunciation of 1950s-style American apartheid, or of a Moral Majority type of Christian trying to make America more nearly conformed to the gospel’s demand for righteousness and purity.

[8] The opposite end of the religion and politics debate is occupied by the “fusionists,” Christians who are so convinced that the divine will for society is clearly revealed in Scripture that they have completely fused their Christian beliefs with their political philosophy. They, too, come in two forms: those who want either a politicized religion, or those advocating a religionized politics. The former group has reduced religious claims to this-worldly dynamics, offering salvation only to those who share the same political views. (Sometimes, it seems like this is the view of the mainline Protestant denominations.) The latter group elevates mere worldly concerns to the status of ultimacy — ending with some version of the Marxian dream. (Roman Catholic “liberation theologians” come to mind.)

[9] Benne believes both sides suffer from a lack of perspective — i.e. they lack a vantage point from which to attain a “critical engagement” on the burning moral questions of the moment — and this is something that the Lutheran heritage uniquely offers. What, you ask, is this essential perspective provided by the Lutheran tradition? Benne summarizes the Great Tradition of the Christian Church by distinguishing a set of nearly universal core beliefs from the politically relevant principles arising out of those core beliefs, and further differentiates that core and those principles from third-level “conditioning factors” which impact how we see the world.

[10] The core beliefs provide the heart and soul of the Faith: i.e., they consist in the proclamation of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus as the once-for-all-time, saving event in history for a human race that is otherwise helplessly in the grip of demonic forces. This gospel of what God has done within history through his Son, Jesus Christ, is Christianity’s irreducible and non-negotiable truth. This core stresses God’s initiative with a fallen humanity as the primary reality having to do with being human, and places man’s feeble response to the divine initiative in a poor second place. This core belief in Christ’s first advent in lowliness and His prospective triumphal return takes precedence over any human social program, philosophy or political agenda in the Church’s preaching, teaching, and missionary activity.

[11] The core of the gospel contains the seeds of an entire world-view. It sees the world not as the chance by-product of a blind evolutionary process, but the purposeful handiwork of an Almighty God. While not itself to be worshipped, creation is viewed as infinitely good, and having a telos or purpose. In concert with this lofty view of the created order, humankind is envisioned as fashioned for a purpose and having a destiny and possessing an infinite worth. Nevertheless this creature, man, is decidedly imperfect, absolutely imperfectible in this life, and falling incredibly short of his ultimate “end” while part of the human drama unfolding in this world.

[12] Concomitant with this Christian world-view stemming from the core is the central anthropological insight that man, though no longer doomed by sin, remains marked by self-love and all his actions are irremediably tainted by it. This universality of human sinfulness is much more profound than merely a grasp of human frailty or finitude; it guarantees that the very best-intentioned human efforts will always be marred with corruption — all the more so when they are combined with others in society.

[13] The political implications of this core belief are staggering. First of all, it means that a person’s “worldview,” his\her outlook on life, is defined and decisively shaped by this core insight into God and ‘man’. The striking implication for the church’s mission and talk should be an overwhelming sense of the Christian’s life as acted out on two planes: she has one foot in this world, and one in the next. She also lives by both law and gospel. That is, the church’s duty is not only to speak of the generosity and kindness of the Lord, but to deal honestly with the wrath of God against sin in all its dimensions. It means that Christianity is not primarily a religion of moral achievement but of divine salvation of a fallen human race. And it makes clear that the Faith is “first of all not a political religion; it is about God’s action in Christ, not ours.”6

[14] Benne proceeds, in the span of sixteen pages, to clarify three politically relevant principles from Christianity’s core beliefs. Acknowledging that persons of intelligence and good will — even fellow Christians (!) can disagree about the exact nature and extent of these principles for governance, these insights will stand the believer in good stead as he/she tries to implement Christian motives in a largely secularist realm. They are: humans seen as exalted, but fallen; a recognition of the qualitative distinction between God’s salvation and all human efforts; an understanding of the imperative of the believer serving others as one lives out baptism in this world.

[15] In these chapters, Benne the teacher of the church’s ancient tradition comes to the forefront. We see here the college professor’s logic and systematic thoroughness in attempting to guide his readers in the application of core religious principles to concrete public policies. Benne shines in asserting the public nature of Christian truth. This gospel is not a matter of a private conviction about a personal inner feeling of a believer, something to be cherished but having no general significance. Rather, the Faith — a la Benne — is a claim about the intervening act of God in the history of the universe, a most public event that has historical and public significance.

[16] In short, through this book Benne is addressing all in our multi-cultural society who hope to think clearly and honestly about the role of religion in the public sphere, without reducing faith to mere politics or withdrawing the church into a religious ghetto. And, from my vantage-point, he has made a cogent case for the position that the Lutheran heritage uniquely offers an indispensable insight on the relation of faith and politics — an insight sorely needed in our age. “It has an approach to faith and politics that has scarcely been heard in the larger public debate about the relation of religion and politics.”7

Why Am I Left Unsatisfied?
[17] This is an excellent little book, extremely valuable for use in college classroom or Sunday Church School, Inquirers’ Classes for adults or Catechism classes for youth, and an invaluable guide and resource for preaching. My one criticism plays off its strength: it is so compact, so concise that the reader is left hungering for more. It would have added immeasurably if this book had been larger, including not only footnotes for the scholar, but also a bibliography and an index. One can only hope that Benne will use this brief overview as the outline for a more comprehensive study of this subject, one that ideally would take on more explicitly and in depth such issues as law/gospel, the two-fold rule of God in this world, and whether one can hold both a Lutheran perspective on the relativity of all human achievements and a belief in American exceptionalism. But, for now, this is a must-read.


1. My favorite biographies of Luther, in order: Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era: 1500–1650, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1954); R.H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, (New York and Nashville, TN, 1950); and Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (N.Y., London, et al: Image Books, 1992.)

2. “The Large Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther”, in The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p.359.

3. Two Benne books are essential for any pastor’s study or for any religion professor’s students: The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995); and Ordinary Saints: An Introduction to the Christian Life, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.) Both books seek to enable theology to “speak persuasively to an educated public without sacrificing its own integrity.” [Paradoxical Vision, p.1.]

4. Selections from the Federalist: A Commentary On the Constitution of the United States, edited by Henry Steele Commager, (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949), p.86.

5. Robert Benne, Good and Bad ways to Think about Religion and Politics, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 1.

6. Ibid., p.41.

7. Robert Benne, Good and Bad ways to Think about Religion and Politics, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p.1.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.