Lutheran Politics & Christian Realism

Mark Tooley on December 23, 2020

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, speaking to you from a very empty downtown Washington DC, talking today with great pleasure to my old friend Dr. Robert Benne. He taught for many, many years at Roanoke College in Virginia and is a distinguished Lutheran thinker and theologian who is going to explain to us a bit, as so far as you can within a limited amount of time, the distinctives of Lutheran political theology. He also has written a new memoir that maybe we can touch on, which I commend to you. So, Bob, thank you for joining us.

Benne: You’re welcome. It’s great to be with you.

Tooley: Bob, there seems to be a lot of confusion in American Christianity today, especially among evangelicals, who have very little sense of church tradition and very few ties to the great traditions of Lutheranism, Anglicanism, etc. that include the riches of a certain understanding of political theology. So, very often, whether you’re on the left or on the right, American Christians today take a Bible verse and try to connect that to some kind of public policy position, and that’s what they regard as Christian political witness. What is Lutheran political theology and how could it be helpful to us today?

Benne: Well, I want to back up a step to explain a little bit about the Lutheran approach. In the early 90s, Mark Noll, the distinguished evangelical historian, suggested that we needed a Lutheran dose of theology in the political realm in order to kind of modify at least a Reformed notion of religion and politics. And then he proceeded to suggest that the Reformed idea of political theology was adopted from a heavy notion, or a very strong notion, of sanctification of the person in the spirit. That was applied to society. So, society, through the workings of the church, could become a holy society and a sanctified society. And he thought that was deficient, and he called for kind of a Lutheran view of things to change that a bit or modify that. So, I wrote this book The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century in response to Noll’s calling forth. And the essence of the Lutheran view is summarized in the phrase, “The two ways that God works in the world are through the law and through the gospel.” And one can visualize this horizontally and vertically. And all of us stand at every moment of our lives vertically before God, but we also stand horizontally before our fellow human beings and the various sectors that God has sustained in the world, including politics. And politics to the left on the horizontal line is the work of God’s law, where he’s constantly trying to many different agencies to keep order and create a modicum of justice, but that can wax and wane. And one has no hope for a utopian conclusion to history, particularly given through human efforts. So, it’s a very realistic notion of what’s possible within history of the work of God’s law. And it’s a big mistake to intersect the notions of salvation and sanctification into that horizontal level. So, on the vertical level, as you know, Lutherans have this radical doctrine of grace. We don’t do anything for our salvation. God comes down as a word in Christ; we’re going to celebrate the birth of Christ very soon. And that work of Christ engages us and saves us, justifies us, and also the work of the spirit that sanctifies us as we work out our callings in the world. But none of that will be redemptive in the way that Christ’s work is embedded into us in the vertical dimension. So, one doesn’t expect salvation; the idea of a redeemer nation is really foreign to the Lutheran notion. And so, one doesn’t expect salvation in the horizontal sphere for the kingdom of God, and of course, that’s very different than the American temper. Remember Richard Niebuhr’s book The Kingdom of God in America, where he argues you can’t understand American history without understanding the effort to build the kingdom of God in history. And that’s very un-Lutheran. Now the Lutheran tendency is a bit too unrealistic, and maybe even becoming cynical, about what’s possible in history. And in the worst case is separating the two kingdoms, where the gospel and the law have nothing to do with each other. And that has been a Lutheran weakness now and then in history. But a more dynamic interactive view of the law and the gospel is what is called for. But even so, one never expects in the left-hand kingdom the way that God is working through the law. You never expect redemption, nor do you expect a kind of original sin located in one person. That sin operates through all human beings and every institution. So, what we have now today, it seems to me, are some Christians, they’re religionizing politics. That is, they’re bringing the work of the gospel, the redemption, into political life. You get it on the left and the right. And recently, evidently, there’s been quite a kerfuffle between Rod Dreher and Eric Metaxas about how they reacted to Trump’s defeat. And Metaxas evidently is using heavy-duty language of the kingdom to talk about the loss, Trump’s loss, and he’s been criticized sharply. And Metaxas is not the only one. But it elevates politics to the level of salvation, as it were. And the loss in politics is like the loss of salvation. And then on the left, we have all sorts of versions of the horizontal level of politics becoming redemptive. So, if it’s true that a good deal of the millennial and the new generations are disconnected from religion, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to religionize politics. They’re going to search for redemptive efforts in political life, and boy do we have a lot of that, not only in political life, but in radical environmentalism. So, I think the Lutheran notion is very wholesome in that we never expect salvation, except through Christ. We never expect that the world of history is going to be the kingdom of God until God brings it in on his own, as it were. And these kinds of distinctions are extremely important, because now we are getting secularized versions of original sin and redemption in this anti-racism. My goodness, that’s the importation of Christian views, in elevating racial issues into salvation versus damnation. So, I think cooling things down from a Lutheran point of view is very important, but yet not giving up the effort to achieve justice and order in the world are not expecting too much of it.

Tooley: You referenced this briefly, but there have been rather superficial caricatures of Lutheran political theology, the two kingdoms concept. For example, a year or two ago, until recently the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr, had described the Two Kingdoms theology as essentially you let the government do what it wants to do in terms of wielding a bludgeon against the unjust and the dangerous, but government has nothing to do with morality. How do you respond to that kind of caricature?

Benne: Well, it’s pointing out kind of a Lutheran weakness where there wasn’t any connection between the two kingdoms. But my response to that is that the government particularly Christians working through government, either as political figures or through voluntary associations like the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and calling to use, draw upon the Christian moral or intellectual tradition to engage the world critically and to put their efforts into increasing justice in the world and keeping order in the world. And all of us have that role in our work, and we have that role as citizens. And the two kingdoms interact in the notion of a Christian calling, but also in the notion of Christian voluntary associations working in the world. So, I would look for a lively interaction and critical participation of Christians as Christians in the world that overcomes this kind of dualism. I’m not sure I’m getting exactly what you meant.

Tooley: Well, I think you did respond. That the two kingdoms concept does not preclude a moral outlook in politics, but perhaps it’s more subtle than the sacralization of politics.

Benne: By all means no, not a demoralization of politics. I don’t agree with that. But not a religiousization of politics.

Tooley: Right.

Benne: That’s the big difference. No, every Christian prince, from Luther’s point of view, was called to do justice. And he lectured them obsessively. Now, there was, as I said, additionally, there was a tendency for Lutherans to look at the world as so fallen that they thought that redemption had nothing to do with our life in the world. And that attitude pops up in several places in history, even in the Nazi time. It divorced the two kingdoms for some Lutherans. So, they did their duty in the world, but their Christian faith has nothing to do with their lives. That’s a very faulty notion of vocation, it seems to me.

Tooley: It sounds like, if I can summarize you accurately, that perhaps America has a Calvinist understanding of itself that tends towards this sacralization of politics. And I would add, perhaps the Methodist influence throws in a dose of perfectionism, with very high expectations of reforming and perfecting society. So, Lutheranism would bring in a strong dose of realism, which brings us, and you were bringing him up before we started our interview, Reinhold Niebuhr, who wasn’t Lutheran, per se, he came from a Reformed background. But how does Lutheranism relate to Niebuhr’s school of Christian realism?

Benne: Well, that’s a very interesting question, because Niebuhr comes out of an Evangelical Reformed tradition, he and his brother. And I always see Richard Niebuhr as the Refirmed side, and Reinhold as the Lutheran side. As you know, E&R, the Kaiser made the Evangelical Reformed go together into a union church in Germany. And lo and behold, a lot of Lutherans didn’t like that so they immigrated to America and they are the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod. But the Niebuhrs, the Niebuhr family, had both those elements in it. And Reinhold of course imbibed enough with the critique of Lutheranism. He didn’t want to identify himself overtly with Lutheranism, but his whole realistic theological ethic seems to be as thoroughly Lutheran where you cannot expect in history any kind of imposition of the kingdom of God. Any kind of notion. You can have approximations of the kingdom, and by that he meant a little bit of movement for justice this way or that way, but a very realistic notion about what can happen in history. You remember how he talks about eschatology. That history will not solve the problems of humankind. It will accumulate them. So, we’re headed for a Big Bang from Reinhold’s point of view, rather than the kingdom of God being built by humans. So, I’ve always interpreted Reinhold as a real flowering of the best kind of Lutheran two ways that God reigns in the world of anybody. Now by now we have more Lutheran parochial writers that do very well on that. I tried to make it into the public argument. I’m not sure that America took me seriously.

Tooley: Hahaha. Well, there’s still time for America to listen to you. Well, in terms of this theme of the sacralization of politics, those who view each election in apocalyptic terms, how should Christians respond to that perspective, and how does that relate to how we understand democracy, which by definition entails at times losing elections to those whom you adamantly oppose?

Benne: Well, absolutely. It seems to me the founders knew about sin. That’s why they divided powers and made sure that no one could grab power big time. So, I think that all of us have to be measured about what our political candidates can do and what our political parties can do. So, we’re looking for small gains, of course, very important gains. And of course, we’ve just come out of a wild period where Christians had to kind of look the other way about character and personality and look at program and ministry of accomplishments. That was a real quandary for Christians. And as you know, quite a few of our Christian brothers and sisters said they could never vote for Trump, even though they agreed with a policy that he pushed and, in many cases, enacted. So, we just passed a very difficult time, it seems to me, where the program and personality and the finitude and sinfulness and fall in this of human life has been illustrated to us over and over again in politics. And it’s a case of relative goods and bads. And now we’ve got a president who claims to be a serious Catholic, but ignores all Catholic teachings as far as I can see. So, Democrats are on the same, Christians on the Democratic side, are in the same kind of problem that we Republicans had with the kind of person that’s leading and religiously where they stand. So, it is really a messy bag, and one had to sort of swallow a lot to vote and to be for either of the candidates, it seems to me. And looking back, I think one of the great gains that Trump made in spite of his character and personality is the appointment of three Supreme Court justices. That was for me the most important thing that he could have done; that he did do. But the other sorts of things he did do, and I have no doubt that his own person is highly compromised by his past, and who knows where he’s going to go in the future. I would like to see him bow out now. Get some of the hot, hot air out of political life. The polarization is just incredibly strong in American life. So, I think this religionization of politics from the left or the right, or even the secularized religionization of politics, which I think is more and more likely as we become more post-Christian. We’re going to have secular verges, like this anti-racism stuff. What is more original sin than being white? And there’s no redemption. There’s no redemption. I mean, and for black Americans, what is the future for them except whatever the white person can give them? So, I mean, it’s a really bizarre, bizarre demolition of Christian notions, secularized Christian notions. And without the Christian roots, they soon go awry and become very destructive, it seems to me.

Tooley: Now, you come out of a historically liberal mainline Protestant denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. So, you’re familiar with all the decades of problems with its political witness and the religious left and it’s statism and utopianism. Much of the religious left seems to be expiring, at least its mainline Protestant faction. But what mistakes have the religious right made over the years, and what can they do better in the future?

Benne: Well, I have a little book called The Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics, and the two bad ways I begin with is separating religion and politics. Why I wrote the book was that I got so angry about the confusion of the separation of church and state with the separation of religion and politics generally from the left. And interpreting the separation of church and state is that religious people are to stay out of politics and drop their religion when they get into politics. So, the first way was what I call separationism. And of course, our religious traditions as separate, religion and politics. But mainly what we’re getting, and of course Christians have huge pressures, orthodox Christians, to get out of public life and political life. So, the separation comes from the secular side, and it’s increasingly powerful, anchored in the corporations and a lot of scary places. But the second way that I talked about was fusing, the fusion, of religion and politics. And the Lutheran scheme of things is a good way to resist the fusion of religion and politics. So, I think what’s happened on the right often is a fusion of conservative politics with conservative religion. And it’s a very dangerous thing to do, because it religionizes politics and politicizes religion. And I’m more worried about what it does to Christianity. It robs Christianity of the radical and universal meaning of the gospel by fusing it with one political party or one political movement or a regime. And of course, we have many, many examples of that in history, awful fusions that then Christianity pays big time when things changed politically. You can think of the French Revolution. You can think of the Bolshevik Revolution. Where the fusion of religion and politics not only was bad for religion, but was really dangerous for religion when things changed. So, what it seems to be is what the right has tended to do is fuse a little bit too much the religious with conservative politics. And Falwell was perhaps the most egregious example of that recently, where he was really kind of wed with Trumpism, and it was embarrassing to Liberty University. And it turned out that Falwell had other problems on his plate than the fusing of religion and politics. But you get the same thing, it seems to me, with the pastor down in Dallas, Jeffress. Those sorts of fusions I think are really not good at all for the faith. And it’s a temptation I think of this old reformed hangover that you’re looking for redemption in political life, and therefore you tend to fuse, on the right and on the left, there is a tendency to fuse religion and politics. So, you have to have a dialectical interaction with a transcendent notion of God’s law always beyond what we’ve achieved, as well as the transcendent notion of the gospel that always makes it clear that we fall short in our historical lives of what God wills.

Tooley: Your book recounts that Richard Neuhaus, our IRD cofounder, came to speak at Roanoke College not very long before he died. So, this was the last encounter you had with him, and it was right after the 2008 presidential election. So, you expect Neuhaus to be delivering a fiery call to action, but instead he was much more mellow and subdued. So, as we conclude, perhaps you could share some of those memories?

Benne: Well, Richard and I go way back into the ‘60s, when we were both liberals on the left. He was a pastor in Brooklyn, a Missouri Synod pastor, but already a fiery anti-war guy on the left. And the Democratic Convention of 1968, which, as you know, followed the assassination of Martin Luther King and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and everything was an uproar, and Richard was on the left then and a representative from Brooklyn, and every evening after the Democratic Convention, he would come down to Hyde Park on the south side and tell us about what he’d been through. And of course, it was full of violence and arrests and all that. And it was very exciting. And I’ll never forget him saying it’s a hinge moment in history, gentlemen. Few intrepid, clear-thinking leaders could grasp things that change the course of history. And of course, it was pretty clear who was among that small group. Richard was definitely one. And of course, he did make a huge mark. God, I mean, it wasn’t in politics, but it was in religious journalism that he became a major figure in the interaction of religion and public life. But he could never convince the left to take the sanctity of life seriously. And he gradually moved then in a neoconservative direction and was kind of an inspiration. We were exactly the same age. So, I watched him move and Michael Novak move, and they were very comforting to me because I was making the same kind of moves politically, economically, and on right to life kinds of things. And so, Richard kept moving, but stalwart in the kind of neoconservative movement, religion and politics. And I’d heard him speak at Loyola College a couple of times. I always had a little bit of sense that he was doing me a favor, that he was really aiming for bigger, a higher level of impact than Roanoke College, but nevertheless, he came and he told me one memorable thing once. I was running across with him to the chapel, and I noted that he didn’t have an earned PhD. And he looked at me and he said, “No,” he said, “Bob, I have an earned doctorate, a DD.” So, he spoke that time and then much later in life, I invited him again. And it was after the election, and wait a minute, I think it was before the election in October. I think right before the election. And I expected him to be a fiery profit, as it were. And he had a whole room full of people who were dying to hear what he had to say, because they all knew about him and read him and all that. And he talked very deep about deep-running Christian themes, the meaning of justice, the meaning of value of life, our patience with the vicissitudes of history, and the final hope being in Christ and not in politics. It was really quite, everybody listened to every word that he had to say. And it was a big surprise to me. And then later after the event, we had him over to our home. And Richard always loved scotch and little cigars. We don’t smoke in our house, but we were going to accommodate Richard. So, we put him in a big chair next to the sliding door so he could have his scotch and smoker his cigarillos. And sure enough he did, and we had friends around him, expecting him to hold forth, you know, like he used to hold forth. And he was very mellow and friendly, and he didn’t want to talk politics. He wanted to talk about personal stuff. And so, it was a very different Richard than I thought we would get. And then when I took him to the airport, I just had this deep sense that this is probably the last time I would see him, because when I suggested we walk up to the venue where he was to speak, he said, “Bob, I think I need a ride.” So, I drove him right up to the front door and helped him out of the car. And I said, “Richard, are you feeling alright?”. He said, “I’m feeling fine.” Yeah, right. And he was very fragile already. So, when I took him to the airport, I thought this is probably it. And it was. So, that ended a friendship that began in the early ‘60s.

Tooley: Bob Benne, thank you for a very enjoyable Lutheran conversation.

Benne: Good to be with you again, Mark.

  1. Comment by Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth on December 26, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Very helpful interview. Good questions. Instructive answers. Fascinating description of Rev. Richard Neuhaus visiting Roanoke College and Dr. Benne for the last time. Keep up the good work! And a blessed Christmas Season to all.

  2. Comment by Gary Bebop on December 27, 2020 at 4:10 pm

    What’s not to like here? Everything resonates, right? But this type of conservatism resembles a toned down progressivism. Our messaging often blurs the boundary. Who is attracted to conservatism that sounds a lot like the progressive activists just down the street? Paul Jeffress doesn’t confuse people in his messaging.

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