Okay, now that I have emoted sufficiently, we can move on. Luther was featured in TNR because Newt Gingrich's third wife, Callista, is a graduate of Luther College. I do not know if she is a cradle Lutheran, but the author of this TNR blog decided to visit Luther and consider the implications of the Luther connection for Newt's bid for the presidency (if I am not mistaken, Newt himself was actually born into the Lutheran church and is now a Roman Catholic).
Of course, all of this is precipitated by the Iowa caucuses, when suddenly Iowa and all things Iowa rises to national prominence. I'm cool with that.
Before getting to the Luther connection per se, just a word about Newt himself. Of course there are plenty of scandals around him. He is dubious on many levels. On the other hand, I have to say I remember his time as speaker of the House fondly, in the same way I remember Bill Clinton fondly. It was a time when bi-partisan politics actually got things done. As a friend recently wrote, "Gingrich is the reason why a lot of moderates remember the Clinton era fondly. Not because of the Lewinsky/impeachment debacle - but because of how Clinton and a republican legislature worked together to produce truly centrist policy. That was probably the last time there was any real consensus in American politics leaving aside the 9/11 response." Yes.
Now moving on to the article itself. The author of the TNR blog, Alec MacGillis, is to be commended for doing his homework. He researched Luther (a little) and spoke to actual graduates of our college.
However, his assumptions about what a religious college must be like miss the mark widely, in the same way so much of contemporary journalism misunderstands "our" brand of Christianity. Here's an important paragraph in his blog that illustrates the point:
Now, I know what you might be thinking: a school called Luther College in small-town Iowa, the alma mater of Mrs. Newt Gingrich…this must be a pretty conservative place. Well, you would be wrong. As I discovered when I visited during the 2008 campaign, Decorah and Luther College are veritably hippy-dippy by the standards of middle America. Decorah itself is a lovely town whose thriving Main Street, with its hipster coffee shops and natural-foods grocery, might be mistaken as being somewhere in western Massachusetts. And Luther, while affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is far closer in spirit to Oberlin than to Bob Jones. One clue: Its Web site plays up its “sustainability” regime, which includes a “personal composting program,” “free winter bike storage” and an “energy conservation pledge.” There was a strong Obama chapter on campus for the Iowa caucuses in 2007 and the candidate drew a big crowd in Decorah during a visit in the fall of 2007.
My reactions. 1) It would never occur to me that a Lutheran college in a small town in Iowa would be conservative (loaded word, yes, but I think we know what he means). This is to misperceive both Iowa as a state, and Lutheranism in particular. 2) Wherever did he get the impression that a school affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America would be more like Bob Jones than Oberlin? The only way you could assume that is via this logical fallacy: the most vocal Christians in America are religious conservatives, therefore all Christians of whatever stripe are conservative in that same way.
This is simply one more example in a long list of examples of Lutherans and Christians like us "hiding in plain sight" (for another example, note the recent essay in The Atlantic about Norman Borlaug as the "forgotten benefactor of humanity": he's so Lutheran he saved perhaps 1 billion lives and most people don't know who he is).
I think it would surprise most of our culture to think that the kind of place Luther College is arises precisely out of its faith. Liberal arts colleges are precisely the kinds of things that arise in Lutheran contexts, just like universities are the kinds of places that arise where Thomism holds sway (but that's a whole other topic).
Another friend and graduate of Luther who does not profess Lutheranism and Christianity as his own faith tradition says, " I can confirm that nearly everyone I know would both a) be shocked by the idea that such a great school could be connected in any way to the Lutheran tradition and b) assume that what is great about Luther, then, survives somehow in spite of that connection. I've gotten some surprised looks when my undergraduate school has come up in conversation." He then goes on to say (and this pleases me), "Clint, I actually think that what's great about Luther survives precisely because of the connection to the Lutheran tradition too!"
How so, readers may ask. Well, look above at what the blogger lists as his surprises about how Luther College is. It plays up sustainability (the ELCA has multiple social statements on this very topic, including our recent genetics social statement, and a statement on vocation, "Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All." There is a strong Obama chapter on campus. Indeed. Both college Democrats and college Republicans were strong groups at Luther when I attended there, because Lutherans (of the ELCA persuasion anyway), tend to be open to a wide range of carefully reasoned political positions, and don't see "difference" as a problem even within the same church or community. Our confessionalism allows us to be open and centered at the same time. This is pluralism at its best.
Here is the most disappointing paragraph:
“Of course, the Lutheran tradition played a role, but it was not central to the Luther experience. In the Center for Life and Faith we listened to a wide range of amazing artists and intellectuals from around the globe. There was also vibrant social and political activism alongside a free and rigorous academic spirit and pursuit, and faculty and students who have been eager to engage with pressing issues facing America and the world, including social justice issues, racism, minority rights, and global inequality.
I'm a cradle Lutheran. I've always known that Lutheranism is a global church, and beautiful music has always been integral to who we are as a church. Lutherans have been a group committed to a rigorous academic spirit (and a free one at that) ever since our inception. We are a church that engages pressing social issues, often to our own detriment, regularly and frequently. We have organized some of the largest social service organizations in our nation. Luther is a school with daily chapel and weekly Eucharist, a vibrant campus ministry, and so on. The fact that the blogger does not know this is disappointing, to say the least.
But I don't blame him at all. I blame myself. I blame us. If a blogger at TNR doesn't know the Lutheran tradition as a vital and public and vibrant movement within U.S. Christianity, we only have ourselves to blame for that. I repent. I'm sorry. Please, will you read my blog? I'm trying my best, and I'll try harder.
Perhaps "hiding in plain sight" is precisely another mark of Lutheranism. Like yeast that leavens the whole loaf, Lutherans just go about the business of starting schools, building hospitals, winning Nobel peace prizes, feeding billions of people, for no better reason than that is what it means to be fully human as a Christian in the world. No need to label and gain attention. In that way Lutherans are a lot like Iowans.