Urgently Needed: Some Lutheran Accents in American Political Life

[1] Coincidentally, the U.S. election comes just two days after the 5th anniversary of the signing by the Catholic and Lutheran churches of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, when we witnessed the potential of theological doctrine to bring together and reconcile forces that had been divided for nearly 500 years. In stark contrast, underlying much of the current U.S. political rhetoric -to which both parties contribute — are religious assumptions and symbols being used for political interests in ways that divide and pit those who self-righteously assume they are on God’s side against the forces of “evil.” Americans may decry the ways religious symbols are manipulated for political purposes by radical Muslims, without realizing how more subtle Christian versions of this are occurring in their very midst.

[2] Seldom have distinctively Lutheran theological accents been more urgently needed in public life. I point here briefly to three: the cross, sin, and the calling of government.

An epistemology of the cross is needed to unmask what is really going on — from the perspective of those suffering, excluded and silenced — in contrast to the carefully packaged political rhetoric and virtual realities of what is “true.” Those conceptions of what is true have become the laughingstock of much of the rest of the world, who are utterly amazed that much of the American populace can be so fooled when lies are set forth as “truth” and truth as “lies.” Political mantras are repeated so often that they are uncritically accepted as truths. How totally different are the words of Jesus: “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).

Defining reality in clear-cut, dualistic terms of good vs. evil overlooks the all-pervasive presence of sin. What seems to matter politically today is who is more macho, brave, decisive in fighting evil. Thus, the sins of hubris and infallibility loom large. “Greatness is one thing; infallibility another; an insistence on both is galling.” Fallibility, ambiguity and paradox, which are inherent in a Lutheran reading of reality, may not play well in political campaigning, but need to be acknowledged in political life, especially when the main outcome of the “war on terrorism” is that the world is becoming more dangerous.

From a “two kingdoms” perspective, Lutherans must resist attempts to “christianize” government and instead, hold its elected leaders accountable for assuring that the common good of all is served, especially those most vulnerable. This particularly calls for assessing the effects of actual and proposed policies on those within its borders, but it cannot stop there. The scope of “neighbor love” that is central in a Lutheran ethic cannot be limited by political borders, especially in the face of massive forces of globalization. The devastating effects American imperial power is having on the rest of God’s created world cannot be ignored.

[3] Faithful preaching and witnessing in these critical days needs to build on these and other insights from our Lutheran confessional tradition.

Karen L. Bloomquist

Karen Bloomquist, ordained in 1974, has served as pastor of Lutheran congregations in CA, NYC, WA, and after completing her PhD at Union in NY, has been on faculties in Chicago, Dubuque and Berkeley, as well as director of departments in the ELCA and the LWF.  She also has taught at seminaries throughout the world, and has authored or edited many publications. She currently is a theologian-at-large, and lives in  both WA and CA.