Friday, December 16, 2011

Newt Among the Lutherans

Recording here today a bit of alma mater pride, as Luther College was featured in an article in perhaps my favorite news rag, The New Republic. Disregard, for a moment, the only reason Luther actually gained the attention of TNR, and instead rejoice with me that my tiny college in Northeast Iowa was featured in this august magazine.

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.


  1. Kathy4:17 PM

    From Wikipedia, "Callista Gingrich" --

    Gingrich married former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on August 18, 2000.[3] In 1999, Callista testified that the couple had begun a romantic relationship in 1993, while Newt was still married.[15] Callista, who is a lifelong Catholic, who attended an Evangelical Lutheran college, was instrumental in her husband's conversion to Catholicism in 2009.[2] The Gingriches currently live in McLean, Virginia.

  2. Anonymous5:12 PM

    Marvelously well put.

    Lutherans are just plain too modest. I think this is so great that I might just... tell somebody... or maybe not... but I'll think about it. - Rich Melheim

  3. I know a Humble Walk Lutheran Church, but perhaps someone should name a new mission start "Modest Lutheran." :)

  4. I wish we Lutherans would stop being so modest and shout from the highest Mountains and rooftops the ever-loving, all-encompassing GRACE of God through Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit so all the world would know...

  5. Eugene A. Koene8:13 PM

    It's sad, but I think it's that word "Evangelical" in our title that throws these reporters off the track, making them think a Lutheran college would be akin to Bob Jones or Oral Roberts ...reclaiming that word for ourselves is almost as difficult as reclaiming "Catholic" ...

  6. True. Imagine what people would assume if our denomination were called Catholic Lutheran Church of America?

  7. Gordon Straw10:18 PM

    I remember, in the months before the inauguration of the ELCA, there was a movement to come up with a denominational name that Martin Luther might approve. The name, Evangelical Catholic Church in America, was suggested. Imagine.... Doubly problematic for journalists (and many others).

  8. I like how in some countries it is the "Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovakia" or the name of the country in which the church is located. That's helpful both doctrinally and geographically.

  9. Anonymous12:10 AM

    The author of the blog speaks of "us" Lutherans as a monolithic group, when in reality the Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod, and Evangelical Lutheran Synod (to name a few other Lutheran bodies in the US) tend toward social conservatism and would certainly not fit the "hippy dippy" description of Luther College used by the New Republic article author. As for the ELCA -- it, too, is split over a variety of doctrinal and social issues; many of its members are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, for example. As a progressive student at Luther in the late 70s, I encountered conservatism in several of my fellow students. That may have changed at Luther, but it is a fallacy to paint Lutherans with such a broad brush stroke, denying the conservative elements that remain within the Lutheran Church around the world.

  10. Hearing about the strength of the Luther experience made me think of my St Olaf days. Makes me think all of our ELCA schools are pretty darn good. Wonder what or who else we're missing? It's unfortunate that a humble nature has a way of coming out in an almost ashamed kind of way.

  11. Thank you Anonymous for reminding us of the diversity with Lutheranism. You are right, I was speaking out my own experience and on behalf (to a certain extent) of the ELCA. I tried to use illustrations that apply primarily to the ELCA and its social statement.

  12. Clint - there is a Lutheran-college-attending Nobel prize winner out there that you can add to the ranks of Norman B. Daniel Tsui received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1998. He attended Augustana College in Rock Island.

    Here is an excerpt from his biography page on the Nobel site:

    "In late spring the next year, I received the surprising good news from the United States that I was admitted with a full scholarship to my church pastor's Lutheran alma mater, Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. I arrived on campus right after Labor Day 1958, and there spent the best three years of my life. It was there that I had for the first time the leisure to wrestle with my Lutheran faith and to think through and make some sense out of my life experience. In Hong Kong, I was always extremely busy as a scholarship student, heavily involved with church activities and responsibilities, and worn-out from long distance daily commuting. Here, I was free to read, to learn and to think through things at my own pace."

  13. with reference to the paragraph you cite as being most disappointing, I agree wholeheartedly. When I was a child, I may not have been able to articulate the historical and theological reason us evangelicals split with the Roman church 500 years ago. However, I would have said that what is central to being Lutheran is exactly the things he experienced. I read that paragraph and thought "no, you've just defined WHY the Lutheran tradition IS central to the Luther College experience." silly man.

  14. Thanks for a great article. I am not a "cradle Lutheran" but was invited to renew my faith life at a Lutheran Campus Ministry. I love Lutherans because (for the most part) I found the people loving and open to different people. But once I was introduce to the confessions I was hooked! For th first time in my life I found a thoughtfully thought out theology in depth and breadth. I found a people shaped by what I found out was the Theology of the Cross. It was the strongest most authentic faith experience of my life to this point. The confessions allow for room and tension in a way that invites us to remain in the center, with Christ.

  15. Sam, I couldn't have said it better myself. Ditto Daniel. And Dawn, thanks for the additional bio of a Nobel Lutheran. I was alerted by the Borlaug connection via a recent post by you on FB.

  16. Clint --

    You wrote:

    "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)."

    I have just read all of the comments -- as carefully as I know how (!) -- and I did not see one reference to this or to my first comment, even though the title of your post is "Newt Among the Lutherans."

    Pastor Sam --

    I have only read the Augsburg Confession, but I find nothing in it that contradicts Catholicism -- except married clergy. Needless to say, there is nothing about gay clergy or Women's Ordination. Of course, I do have a Reading Comprehension problem!

  17. Kathy, this blog is Lutheran confessions. If you would like a blog that focuses on Newt's conversion to Catholicism, perhaps you would like to create your own blog rather than trying to turn this one into something it isn't.

    As for women clergy, I love them. Women have always been apostles and leaders in the church, praise God. As for gay clergy, I love and welcome them. I know, that's just because I've "caved to the culture" and am a "Mainline Protestant." Get over it.

  18. Anonymous2:37 PM

    I found both humor and truth in this post, and hope the humor was intended! I laughed at the comparison of Luther to western Massachusetts. I lived in western Mass for nearly 10 years, and considered myself a bit left of center. I had to move away to realize that I'm actually a rabid liberal.

    My congregation in Minnesota is crawling with Luther grads. To a person, they are so enamoured with Luther that I wonder if they qualify as a cult. ;)


  19. Jazz, I'm glad you caught the humor, and yes, Luther is definitely a cult in Minnesota.