October 28, 2012

Social Witness for a Realigned Protestantism

The following remarks were delivered at the recent Ecumenical Leadership Summit in Dallas by Robert Benne, a Lutheran and ethicist who is professor emeritus at Roanoke College in Virginia.


I want to begin with something of an autobiographical slant so that—as we used to say in the 60s—“you know where I am coming from.” My graduate school days were immersed in the liberal idealism of the pre-60s. (I mark the 60s from 1965-1975.) My teachers were activists in the civil rights, urban ministry, and community organization movements of that time. My doctor father wrote two famous books of that era: The Suburban Captivity of the Churches and New Creation as Metropolis. I was deeply involved in King’s civil rights movement and identified strongly with urban ministry and the community organization movement, especially the Woodlawn Organization on the Southside of Chicago.

When I began teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology in 1965 I was brimming with that liberal idealism and conveyed it to my students, many of whom went into urban ministry. I was excited about the church as an instrument of social and political transformation and focused on that as the primary mission of the church. The proclamation of the Gospel seemed pretty retrograde beside the prospect of rebuilding a just American society. Get the church where the action is!

I was riding high as the house radical until the real 60s came along. The tremendous upheaval of that decade shook me to my roots. The civil rights movement became Black Power, the student movement became violent, the anti-War movement became anti-American. Riots, mass marches, protest rallies, burnings, and assassinations gave an apocalyptic hue to that awesome time. I tried to follow the movements as they lurched to the left but simply couldn’t. I had a crisis of conscience and decided I had to be more honest with myself. I simply did not believe the exaggerated analyses and revolutionary prescriptions of the radicals.

Not only that, I saw the huge abyss yawning between the radical elite of the churches and the laity. The laity were for the most part conservative and didn’t follow the radicals. Moreover, they had a deep conviction that social and political action was not the main mission of the church.

The time came for reassessment of my own beliefs. I became convinced that the American project—its politics, economics, culture—were not the cesspool depicted by the Left. But more importantly, I saw that the mission of the church was the proclamation of the Gospel—the full Trinitarian Faith—and that social and political witness were decisively secondary. What’s more, I began to think that the church should not be tethered too tightly to any political ideology or movement….the danger of the secularization and instrumentalization of the faith was too great.

So that period became one of great transition for me…one that put me at odds with my church and its religious intellectuals, who were mostly on the Left, though not many of them real radicals.

In the social, economic, political realm I began to come to more conservative conclusions than I ever thought possible, given my training and early teaching. I began reading the early neo-conservatives such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, followed soon by Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus. They gave me great comfort because I was thinking the same things. I began to write in that vein….whole books in defense of capitalism, the American Dream, the civil religion.

In the church I became publicly critical of the consistent left-wing tilt of the Lutheran Church in America and then the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I was and am infuriated over their continual harassment of Israel. The head of the powerful Church and Society Division warned me many years ago that I would have no role in the church’s social witness if I continued in the direction I was going. He was right. But there are other venues to hold forth.

Now I am on the outside of the church into which I was born, but the main reason I am on the outside doesn’t have centrally to do with their biased social witness. It has to do with more crucial issues: the authority of Scripture and the Great Tradition of Christian moral teaching, and the deflation of the Gospel of Redemption into the Gospel of Inclusion.

But I have strong opinions about the proper social witness of the church, which have to some extend been funneled into the North American Lutheran Church and to the Missouri Synod Lutherans. I fervently believe that we should speak less but more authoritatively on a selected set of issues out of our own theological/ethical principles, not out of the political fads of the day. There are certain issues that Christians of all stripes should rally about but those are limited. And how the Israelis defend themselves is certainly not one of them.

I puzzled all this through in a book called Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics. There are a number of theses in the book. It is bad and impossible to separate religion and politics or to fuse them. Religion—in its organized form—should engage critically with politics. The churches best and most important way to influence political life is indirectly through the formation of its laity, who will then become the voters and political actors in the society, and members of voluntary associations.

But the church does have a direct but modest role. It should speak out on some issues. But it should be quite aware that the movement from core Christian moral convictions to public policy is a jagged one. It moves through three or four concentric circles of argument before it gets to a decision about specific policy. Christians of good will and intelligence disagree at every step of the way from core to policy. Further, we are conditioned by influences that do not come from our core convictions. So in most cases there is no warrant for the church to speak and act directly.

Yet there are limits….there are some policies that are so wicked that they so obviously violate the core that Christians must resist….just say “no.” And, I believe, there are about four general directions that most Christians should agree on as they move from core to policy. Those are: the provision of an adequate safety net for those in our society who are unable to make their way in it (children, wounded veterans, physically and mentally handicapped persons), the protection of nascent human life; the upholding of the fundamental social unit of society, traditional marriage and the nuclear family; and religious freedom. That we agree on the general direction of these values does not mean that the argument over public policy is over, but it does should put us on the same page.

The proper social witness of the church is very important. We should at all costs avoid tethering ourselves too closely to any political ideology or party. We should draw on own wells when we speak, not from secular political nostrums. We should carefully discern which issues we are called upon to speak. They should be few, perhaps only those where we have to say “no.” But when we must speak we must speak. In the meantime, however, let’s hope and pray that our parishes are doing the work of formation of laity, where resides the real political impact. One well-formed Senator is worth a thousand statements.

5 Responses to Social Witness for a Realigned Protestantism

  1. Lou de Louzada says:

    This may be one of the most important sermons presented in a long time.

  2. Ray Bannister says:

    I like this! Always gratifying to see someone make the Great Exodus from liberalism to Christianity. I think his best insight is to recognize that in our taking a position on social issues, we can’t help but be influenced by our culture. You will never hear a liberal say that – for them the voice of God and the liberal New York Times editorial page are one and the same.

  3. “One well-formed Senator is worth a thousand statements.” This is a point I tried to make in my book about the economics of the mainline ecumenical movement. But I think the disconnect might just be that the “social justice ecumenists” (for lack of a better term) think that the Senator is formed (or perhaps more accurately “directed”) precisely by such social statements. The problem is, in part, that they think that formation can be short-circuited and the Christian legislator can simply be told by those who know better (i.e. church officials) what ought to be done with respect to a particular policy.

  4. John H. Woolwine says:

    Dr. Robert Benne and Dr. Gerald McDermott have blessed Roanoke College and
    our region (Western VA) with their wisdom in teaching and writing. They have also
    brought some of the best scholars,writers and speakers to this area representing
    many philosophical viewpoints. In this message Dr. Benne describes in part how
    American liberalism went off the rails in the latter days of the Twentieth Century.
    How will future historians describe the USA today ?
    As one who heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak to college students in 1965, I can relate to his journey. In my memory it was stimulating to be a liberal
    on a conservative college campus in the early 1960s (despite threats from two of my
    all white fraternity brothers). I embraced LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty,
    but when I returned from Vietnam and left the Army in 1968 the day after the assassination of Dr. King, I was beginning to have concerns for the future of our
    country. Now 44 yrs later, one can see how much we have lost.
    The campus “radicals” (leftists) have become the politically correct “thought police”
    on colleges today. Post Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, the US media is
    dominated by liberals. Everyone is required to identity by a sexual urge. The list is
    to long to include here. Praises to those academics who have the courage to
    speak the truth !! – J.H. Woolwine ( born a “war baby” -1942- while my father was gone in WWII)

  5. Ryan Schwarz says:

    And from a layman at that!

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