Breaking News: Lutherans not Fond of the Papacy

It’s not often that Lutheran theology receives so much media attention. As a former member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was, by an act of journalistic aggression, publicly associated with a politically unfortunate point of theology–that the Pope is the very antichrist described in Scripture. WELS, along with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (my own denomination) and many other Lutheran churches around the world, adhere to the Book of Concord–the Lutheran Confessions. These confessions explicitly refer to the office of the papacy as the antichrist–they use that very word. Nevertheless, while Ms. Bachmann has been desperately seeking distance from that confession to protect her candidacy, I think a Lutheran who faithfully adheres to it could honestly say “no” to a reporter asking whether he thinks the pope is the antichrist.

As usual, whenever a reporter discovers the existence of religion for the first time, it’s not a pretty sight. Being fundamentally ignorant of real theology in most cases, reporters’ understanding of terms will typically come from pop culture. When most people think of “antichrist,” they think of a hate-filled and demon-possessed child who brings misfortune to everyone around him or an influential man with barely concealed devil-horns who knowingly serves Satan and is intentionally manipulating the world towards destruction. The Confessions do not call the Pope the antichrist in such senses. Lutherans believe the pope is the antichrist inasmuch as he improperly places himself in Christ’s place and declares that salvation comes through obedience to Rome rather than through faith in Christ alone–inasmuch as he opposes Christ’s Gospel. In a context where only soundbites are admissible (and shame on the journalist industrial complex for demanding this), I think it is entirely honest and more straightforward to answer, “No, but I think the Pope ultimately works against Christ by making salvation a matter of works rather than grace. In the confessions, the word ‘antichrist’ does not mean what you think it means.” Unfortunately, Ms. Bachmann instead chose to deny her confession in favor of political expediency. I can’t say that speaks well of her character, but nevertheless, the only real story here is that Lutherans strongly disagree with Rome on important theology. In other news, a local man woke up, ate breakfast, and went to work.

There is, however, a larger issue here: namely, the interaction between theological beliefs and politics. How should the former influence the latter? That’s the thing about people who believe their religious confession is actually true: they necessarily think that other religious confessions are wrong where they contradict their own. What is more, they openly act accordingly. There’s simply no way around this. A confessional Lutheran is going to disagree with a dedicated member of the church of Rome on key points of theology. A conservative Baptist is going to disagree with an Anglican. For that matter, any believing Christian will disagree with any Muslim who takes his own religion seriously. If any of the above are honest when the subject comes up, they will disagree openly.

What then of political peace? Does this then mean that genuine believers should never hold office because they contradict the deeply held beliefs of so many of their constituents? You can be sure that anyone in the chattering classes who sees this situation as a legitimate political scandal would answer yes. Religious beliefs, they think, should not darken the door of political decisions. Of course, politics is simply public wrangling over the common good, and those whose religious beliefs have nothing at all to say about the common good probably don’t think their religion is actually true. Assuming that we actually allow religious believers to participate in politics, how could a Lutheran adequately represent a Roman Catholic constituent given their disagreement?

The answer, I think, depends on how many pertinent political decisions depend on the pure teaching of the Gospel. For instance, Lutherans and Rome disagree on whether Christians meritoriously contribute to their own salvation. However, I don’t see a big debate over whether the US government will purchase indulgences on behalf of the poor or whether it will use post proclamations of anathema in public buildings against everyone who believes in salvation by faith alone. Far more common, I think, are debates over whether it will seek justice for the murder of the unborn, whether it will endorse promiscuity in its schools, and other issues on which Lutheran and Roman theology tend to lead to similar conclusions.

So there are important differences, to be sure, but are these differences really a problem for Roman Catholic voters? Perhaps to some, but those Roman Catholics who believe that the Pope holding both swords means that the United States government should submit to papal authority don’t seem to have any prominent candidates at the moment. Perhaps even they would be willing to vote for a Lutheran who sought a public good broadly informed by Christian moral teaching until such a candidate comes along.

Hey, that gives me an idea. Maybe voting will help to resolve this tension between theology and politics that journalists like to highlight. If a person’s theology means they will behave in a way that a voter deems contrary to the public good, maybe that voter should vote for somebody else. What we don’t need, however, are ignorant reporters manipulating public opinion in order to create a set of politically “off-limits” beliefs.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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