Friday, August 12, 2005

Conservatives, Confessionals, and the Sanctity of the State

A reader recently (actually a while ago, but I’ve been busy) sent me a query as to what I thought about the whole phenomenon of interfaith worship. Since Indiana University is currently advertising "Baccalaureate: An Interfaith Ceremony" for this Friday (judging from the symbols on the poster, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism will be represented in that order), I thought today would be an opportune time to address the issue. (My apologies for running on at the mouth; it’s a bad habit of mine, but cutting it down to size would take even more time.)

Of course interfaith and Lutheran immediately brings up Benke and Yankee Stadium. I don’t want to go over the details one more time, except to notice a paradox: while Benke was resoundingly vindicated by the Synodical convention last summer, the long-feared immediate slide into apostasy in the LCMS hasn’t happened (yet). In fact on a key procedural vote, as Bunnie Diehl has noticed, the victorious party’s plan to centralize power was defeated by a wide margin. Perhaps this is just "second term" blues (like President Bush’s current woes), but I think it points up how the doctrine of the nature of God was not the central issue in the debate.

I am not trying to defend one side or another in this conflict, but just trying to analyze why in all the argument, the two sides had no comprehension of each other. Why has the post-synodical convention situation turned out so differently from what the confessionals expected? Why were the confessionals were able to dominate the LCMS "commentariat" so effectively (especially on-line, where opinion was overwhelmingly against Benke) while the grassroots ended up so decisively on the other side? I believe, the real difference had less to do with differing views of God than with differing views of the state and the nation. (Note, I am not talking about Benke personally, but the bulk of his defenders.) While some of the conservatives may have had a less than Lutheran conception of God, some of the confessionals had, I believe, a less than Lutheran notion of the state. And the issue of the sanctity of the state is the key to why the confessionals lost so bad.

By and large, the confessionals are the party of the intellectuals in the LCMS. It is my belief (again not backed up directly by surveys, but I think well-founded) that intellectuals in general are far more willing to accept a "naked public square" than non-intellectuals. By "naked public square" I mean the libertarian/liberal side on the gamut of issues connected with the public assertion of moral values: pledge of allegiance, flag burning, prayer in public functions, shock art, desecration of community symbols, freedom for speech that insults publicly held values, consideration of controversial issues in schools, prostitution, unnatural sexual practices, toleration of homosexuality, and so on. (A "moral" issue here can be defined as one with no immediately obvious victim, the so-called "victimless crimes." For this reason abortion and euthanasia are not included - - they work differently.) One of the most important constants in political/religious life today is that the more years you spend in school, the more you’ll agree with the ACLU on these issues. Another important constant is that the "commentariat", being dominated by highly educated people, is grossly out of touch with the less educated public on all of these issues. As a result whenever any of these issues actually goes up for vote, the commentariat is as a rule both appalled and genuinely surprised by the results. The liberal/libertarian viewpoint can only prevail by keeping the issues out of the public eye and off the ballot (as with the death penalty in Europe, for example).

I see in the LCMS’s conservative party a viewpoint well in line with the common Protestant belief in American government and its symbols as worthy of great respect and reverence. "God and country" is still a meaningful phrase to them and they believe that religion has been unfairly excluded from public life. Most probably feel that American government is a particularly good one, at least before the "liberals" got ahold of it. This reverence for the government is part also of a feeling that our community life is also (in some sense) sanctified and should be blessed by the consolations and rituals of religion. (More on what that word "religion" is allowed to mean in a bit.)

By contrast I find in many of the most vehement and articulate members of the LCMS's confessional party a strongly felt libertarian or oppositional stance toward the American government. By "libertarian or oppositional stance" I mean denial that the speaker has any obligation to feel respectfully toward (in thought or word) the actually existing American government and its officers: if they do well in my eyes I will speak well of them, and if they do badly in my eyes I am free to ridicule them. Both strongly reject any ceremonies of respect and reverence toward the American government, being suspicious of even the slightest whiff of incense about the state. Libertarians extend this suspicion of the state to all states, while oppositionals focus on the American state as a particularly nasty and/or immoral nation to which they feel they do not really belong. A big part of the difference is one of temperament: oppositionals have a disillusioned bitterness about their contempt that shows in their heart they wished to have a true state they can respect as divinely ordained, while liberatarians have a more cheerful and optimistic contempt that can easily coexist with an appreciation of American government as still among the most limited in the world.

The big problem with the conservatives is unwillingness to face up to what evolving church-state doctrine has really mandated: that no religious community be given (or even seem to be given) the imprimatur of the state as being more honorable than any other. What this means is the exclusion of Christianity from public functions except on a basis of being one of many equally respected and honored religions. (Respect/honor, not truth, is the key word here - - and I don’t mean this in any bitter or cynical way. The state is formally incapable of deciding religious truth, but it can and does apportion respect and honor.) Nor have they faced up to the fact that the American people really do general see as offensive and anti-American blatantly sectarian appeals in the public square ("vote for me because I’m Lutheran like you!"; "Let’s put this Congress on record that Christ is the only way to salvation!" or even the more subtle "Only a generous foreign aid program is compatible with our Christian values," etc.). Of course there is still debate over what is or is not sectarian. Conservatives (both in the LCMS sense and in the American political sense) generally hold to the pre-1947 definition of "sectarian" as meaning any belief that is a "distinctive" of a particular religious body or family of bodies. Thus "God is the author of our liberties" is not sectarian, but "Jesus Christ is the Son of God" is. Modern constitutional doctrine holds however, that both are equally sectarian, since sectarian is defined as any specific belief or position on religious issues. In practice, politicians as persons seem to be held only to the older standard (hence all the uncontroversial "God bless you’s" from the podium), while in their official acts, the newer stricter standard applies. But even this looser "non-sectarian" standard means one thing when the "sects" represented in one’s county are Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Catholic, and quite another when the sects represented are: non-denominational Christian church, Catholic, Jewish, Episcopal, Santeria, Muslim mosque, and Hindu temple. The former is compatible with only Christians being represented in prayer services for civic events. The latter is not.

Of course LCMS’s conservatives aren’t the only ones to not face up to this problem. Daniel Preuss wrote an essay on the theme "How Can We Give a Witness for Jesus Christ in the Public Square While Avoiding the Errors of Unionism and Syncretism?," but getting to the end of it, there was in fact no answer to the question he posed, only an assertion that our message must be the uniqueness of Christ. At no point does he address that fact that even by the old definition of "sectarianism" stressing such uniqueness in the public square (as opposed to in clearly religious space, such as church, or in private space, such as conversations between family and friends), would be generally viewed by most Americans, indeed most LCMS Christians, as tactless and inappropriate, and in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the constitution. (Some of course find such doctrine offensive anywhere, but as of yet they command neither legal doctrine, nor public opinion.)

The big problem with the confessionals is their claim that Luther’s "two kingdom" doctrine allows or indeed mandates either the doctrine of libertarianism or else a bitter oppositional contempt for a government that allows public talk of a "generic" God but refuses to clearly confess Christ as Lord. Libertarians have a hard time explaining Luther’s well known welcome of the German civil authorities in promoting Lutheran doctrine, while opponents of "civic religion" pass over Luther’s belief that external compliance with the first table of the ten commandments to be legitimately enforceable by the state. Indeed as Pastor Humann has pointed out, in place of Luther’s earlier formulation of "two kingdoms" theory one should really rather speak of his "three kingdoms" of church, family, and state. In contrast to the common assumption that Luther promulgated the "two kingdoms" theory so as to prevent us from giving treating the state as a sacred institution, he believe all three of these offices - - priest, marriage, and civil government - - to be "holy orders and true religious institutions." In light of the Larger Catechism’s clear identification of government authority with paternal authority, and Luther’s statement that "it is our duty to honor [government officials] and to esteem them great as the dearest treasure and the most precious jewel upon earth," it seems hard to find any valid Lutheran objection to the pledge of allegiance, or other forms of symbolic honor, let alone warrant for the attitude that government should be treated with grudging tolerance as a "necessary evil." Just as the fourth commandment has no "escape clause" that allows us to avoid publicly honoring our parents if they are not Christian, just so, it has no "escape clause" that allows us to avoid publicly honoring our government if it is non-Christian or even worse, appears to confess a "generic God." It might be a surprise to many but in Lutheran doctrine, matrimony and government are on the same footing as far as sanctity goes.

So where does this leave us? Let us say another terrible event like 9/11 might happen again (which the good Lord avert!). The following things would remain true:

Most Lutherans in the pews and most pastors would feel that in a time of public tragedy, the Christian religion should be there publicly to recognize the sanctity of the community and state as part of God’s natural order. This would be in itself little more controversial for them than a pastor being there to recognize the sanctity of marriage in a wedding.

Most highly educated Lutherans would find this desire to sanctify the civic community and state either incomprehensible or pernicious. As a result, they would naturally see in the desire of the average Lutheran to recognize the sanctity of the civic community as some incipient lurch into universalism, civic religion, and rejection of Christ.The custodians of the public space would insist that any involvement of Christian pastors be on a non-sectarian basis, granting equal honor to all religious communities. And since the public event in question would affect people without regard to religion, the vast majority of Americans (including the vast majority of Lutherans) would find this demand legitimate in theory, without ever thinking consciously that it really means including Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs on an equal basis.

And the LCMS would be torn apart all over again.

Originally posted at Here We Stand