Monday, July 18, 2011

Michele Bachmann Is (Was) a Lutheran

In all likelihood, you know that Michele Bachmann is a prominent Republican presidential candidate of the Tea Party variety. Like most presidential candidates these days of whatever political persuasion, she is fighting to Reclaim America. In fact, she spells out her principled position on the front page of her campaign web site, so I quote it here:

Michele Bachmann is a principled reformer who holds an unwavering commitment to the conservative values that helped her succeed as a small business owner, a U.S. tax attorney, a state and federal lawmaker, and a wife and mother. She is a Constitutional conservative who understands that our Founding Fathers established a federal government to preserve and protect the nation while fostering an environment where dreams could flourish. It is Michele's single greatest calling in public service to ensure that the liberties enshrined in our founding documents are handed down from this generation to the next.
What she doesn't mention on her web site, but has come up frequently in the news, is that she is also (or at least was until recently) a Lutheran, member of Salem Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Wisconsin (denominational affiliation: Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod--or WELS). In this post, I don't intend to address her political position per se. If you read my blog regularly, you likely have some guesses as to where I fall in comparison to her position.

What I do want to write about is the significance of her Lutheranism, and her transition away from it, because I think that's worth remarking.

Lutherans are not often in the national spotlight. There are probably a host of reasons for this, some good and some bad. On the good side, we don't think being famous is necessary in order to be of service to the kingdom of God, so Lutherans often quietly just get the work done that needs doing, especially as it relates to social service (think of the very large social service agencies we're famous for-- Lutheran Social Service, Lutheran Services of America, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Lutheran World Relief, among others. On the bad side, well, we aren't always spectacular at even telling anyone that we are Lutheran or what that signifies.

Bachmann's Lutheranism has come into the spotlight as it relates to her ties to, specifically, the WELS tradition. WELS are our very conservative brothers and sisters in Christ. I myself am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Now that I live in the south, I frequently have to explain to folks who haven't heard of Lutherans what the differences are between the various Lutheran denominations. This is always a tedious experience for the hearers. By the time I get done with my long explanation, their eyes have glazed over. I talk about the ethnic specific origins of many branches of Lutheranism, talk about the history of migration to North America, and mention the distinctions between differing methods of biblical interpretation that lead us to our different positions. Sometimes I throw in the joke my old college president used to tell, that he studied the history of mergers of Lutheran denominations in the 20th century, and after all six of the main denominations merged and the dust cleared, they had finally gotten the number of denominations down to nine!

But back to the point. Simply put, Michele's brand of Lutheranism matches her brand of politics. Both are socially conservative in their leanings. Michele first came to the spotlight because of her advocacy of a marriage amendment in Minnesota that would define marriage constitutionally as being solely between a man and a woman. Similarly, her originist approach to the founding documents of our nation are not unlike the approach to biblical interpretation her denomination espouses. In the best sense of the term, that approach can be called "fundamentalist."

More recently, questions were raised about the WELS anti-catholic stance. Here the topic gets a bit more tricky. Bachmann has distanced herself from any intimations of anti-catholic bias. She's wise to do so, since that is a very large block of voters. But I think she also probably may not have known or been familiar with the origins of the anti-papist stance Lutherans took during and following the Reformation, and then sustained well past the overdue date. A recent newspaper article in the Washington Post tried to trace the genealogy of the WELS claim that the papacy is the anti-Christ, only somewhat successfully (many newspapers often have a lot of trouble getting theology right--it's unfamiliar territory for them).

So here's my attempt. The Reformers did see the papacy of its day as the anti-Christ, and labeled it as such. Lutherans for centuries continued to label the papacy as the anti-Christ, and for a very specific reason. Central to Lutheran theology is the assertion that if any person or organization undermines the doctrine of salvation by faith alone apart from the works of the law, and especially if that person or organization does so under the auspices or in the name of Christ, that person or organization is, in a very clear way, functioning as the anti-christ. Why? Because in the name of Christ it is preaching a gospel exactly opposite of the gospel of Christ.

WELS theologians and I would likely differ today on who or what to label the anti-christ, but we wouldn't differ on the idea that we need to try and pay attention to the times and places where Christ is attacked and undermined by those who, in his very name, proclaim something other than who he is.

If WELS wanted to confess this position to the press, I think they'd be better served simply saying that their church tries to be attentive to idolatry and evil in the world, and that sometimes they are concerned that idolatry and evil crop up (perhaps they especially crop up) in places that claim to be good and religious. In its best form, this is a hermeneutics of suspicion Lutherans rightfully cultivate. However, because WELS is so committed to the historical manifestations of Lutheran confessional theology, and the maintenance of those confessions today virtually verbatim, I doubt they would have the wiggle room to say something more nuanced or "of the day."

Now back to Bachmann. Six days before she declared her candidacy for president, she verbally requested to leave the WELS church where they had been members but had not attended for over two years. She did not request a transfer to a different church.

This leaves in question, at least in part, what Bachmann's religious commitments are these days. It also goes to show that, once you're campaigning for president, being Lutheran may be more of a hindrance than a help. She'll be much better served (from a vote gathering perspective) participating in a loose confederation of conservative bible believing churches than a specifically confessional conservative bible believing denomination. That's the religious landscape we live in today.

My hope in all of this is twofold. First, if the press continues to trumpet this topic, I hope they do the WELS the honor of getting their faith right and representing it in a fair and honest way. Second, I hope that political candidates of whatever persuasion can get a fair hearing precisely as the kind of religious persons they are. It's tiresome to me that candidates for president have to leave the peculiarity of their traditions in order to join whitewashed American religiosity. Praise God for candidates who are obviously Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or Lutheran. Martin Luther famously quipped that he'd rather have a good Turk than a bad Christian as his sovereign. I couldn't agree more, and I hope a strength of our political system is that you can run for public office precisely out of whatever religious tradition shapes and forms you. Isn't that what freedom of religion is all about?


  1. Bachmann uses her religion as a tool of domination, particularly against LGBTQ people. Whatever it may be, Lutheran or otherwise, her religious freedom should not be her sword and buckler to carve up the Constitution any way she sees fit. She uses people in the name of Jesus for her political gain, and I couldn't agree more that that is a *weakness* of our political system.

  2. I agree that if it is used as a tool for domination, then the checks and balances of our political system, and our freedom to speak against her, are important parts of what democracy looks like. I disagree wholeheartedly with her views regarding the LGBTQ community (I myself support the opportunity for marriage for same-sex couples), but I also support her freedom to have such views and articulate them in the public and political realm, even while vehemently disagreeing with them.

  3. Eugene A. Koene3:47 PM

    Great article, good analysis. One factor that is often overlooked in discussions of Luther/Lutheranism on the papacy as "Antichrist" is that this identification was by no means original with Luther. Throughout the mediaeval period, there were voices and would-be reformers WITHIN the Roman Catholic Church itself, who spoke of the papacy in this way, due to the many corruptions and venal abuse of power of numerous popes. So Luther was standing in a long tradition, though his particular point was that the Gospel of God's free grace was being suppressed. Every denomination stemming from the Protestant Reformation made similar assertions in their early history, also enshrining it in their confessional documents (see also the "Epistle Dedicatory" to the King James Version of the Bible). The WELS of course adheres strictly to the letter of the Lutheran Confessions in this matter, and this doctrine is also still "on the books" in the much larger LCMS. I have even known it to be espoused by individual pastors in the ELCA. I think the truth here is much as this blogger has expressed it. All institutional expressions of the empirical Christian Church are subject to the danger of losing sight of the Gospel and of a cross-centered theology, and to that degree becoming "antichrist."

  4. Pastor Schnekloth,

    Your reasoned and temperate voice on this subject could do good work over here: