In its issue of August 9, 2011, The Christian Century reported that Michele Bachmann, the Republican presidential candidate, had resigned from her church six days before launching her campaign. (This was also reported in some secular media.) The church in question is Salem Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minnesota, which is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). This is the smallest and most conservative among the three major bodies of American Lutheranism. One of its doctrines is that the Roman papacy is the Antichrist.
When this matter was first mentioned to Bachmann, she questioned whether her church held this doctrine. One might imagine that her knowledge of theology is comparable to her knowledge of economics. Or perhaps she just did not know about this position of her church. In any case, one might also doubt whether her rejection of this anti-Catholic view is due to a sudden theological insight. She is hardly the first politician wishing to appeal to a religiously diverse electorate who finds his or her church membership inconvenient. John F. Kennedy confronted this inconvenience directly when, during his presidential campaign, he tried to convince a roomful of Baptist ministers that his Catholic faith had nothing to do with his politics. (Apparently he succeeded, though it is difficult to imagine how a serious Baptist would be drawn to someone who maintains that his religion has no relevance to his real life.) Barack Obama made national headlines when in 2008 he resigned from Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago a few weeks after repudiating the views of its former pastor Jeremiah Wright. This individual, among other things, had said that AIDS was a plot of the American government against blacks, and who (incautiously) ended a televised sermon with a prayer that God should damn the United States. (As far as I know, Obama never explained how he could have remained ignorant of Wright’s worldview through many years of close association.) Then of course there is Sarah Palin, on the other side of the aisle, who in 2002 left the Pentecostal church to which she had belonged since age 12, the Wasilla Assembly of God, and with her family joined a more sedate Evangelical congregation. (Is there, somewhere, a video showing Palin speaking in tongues?) And any number of Catholic politicians have gone on about how they “personally oppose” abortion, but would not want to impose their view on others. (Assuming that they really believe that abortion is homicide, this is roughly comparable to saying, “I personally oppose murder, but I accept your right to commit it.”)
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS) was founded in 1850 by German immigrants. (By the way, the term “Evangelical”, in the name of this and of other Lutheran bodies in this country, should not be understood in its usual sense in English. It is a translation of the German “evangelisch”, which simply means “Protestant”.) It now claims about 390,000 members, much less than the two more numerous Lutheran bodies, the theologically (and also politically) liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), whose conservatism is close to that of WELS, but in the latter’s view not close enough. The headquarter of WELS is in Milwaukee, which through most of its history has been known as the Beer Capital of the World, but can now also boast as the location of a Lutheran version of the Vatican. (I don’t know what its headquarters looks like, but I am sure that it cannot compete in originality with that of the ELCA, which is located at O’Hare International Airport near Chicago—presumably the only religion in the world run from such a postmodern location.)
WELS believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, including the creation stories in the Book of Genesis. It holds that Christian fellowship should only be extended to those who share the right, that means its, doctrinal views—which effectively excommunicates just about all other Christians, with the possible exception of Missouri. (At some point—I don’t remember why—there was talk of also excommunicating Missouri, but it was decided to only “admonish” LCMS.) “Fellowship” apparently means, not just communion, but any activity of praying together, which is why Wisconsin kids were not allowed to join the Boy Scouts. As one would expect, WELS is rigorously conservative on all issues south of the navel. There are of course no women clergy. In 1959 WELS published a “Statement on the Antichrist”, whose key sentence reads “We reaffirm the statement of the Lutheran Confessions, that the Pope is the very Antichrist.” I don’t think that many Reformation scholars would agree with this interpretation of the confessions. In the wake of the brouhaha about Bachmann’s resignation a WELS spokesman, Joel Hochmuth, issued a clarification. (Anyone who understands German will relish the name.) He said that the status of Antichrist refers to the papacy as an institution, rather than to individual popes.
If one is interested in the diversity of American Lutherans, one may go two pages on in the same issue of The Christian Century, where there is a report of a change of name. Crusader Lutheran Church in Rockville, Maryland, a congregation affiliated with the ELCA, changed its name to Living Faith Lutheran Church, after a long acrimonious debate. The decision, as a result of which about a third of the members quit the congregation, was made because the old name was deemed to be too “militaristic”. (Or could it be that there was fear of a Jihadist attack in this Washington suburb?) The Christian Century story was accompanied by a picture of a banner with the new name being exhibited at some kind of parade. There were two individuals in clerical vestments, one a woman.
STATEMENT OF DISCLOSURE: I am unapologetically (and it seems incurably) a Lutheran. I am not comfortable in the contemporary Lutheran scene. I find equally unappealing the rigid doctrinal orthodoxy of Missouri and Wisconsin, and the orthodoxy of political correctness in the ELCA. I think that both are profoundly un-Lutheran, in that they both contradict the rediscovery of Christian liberty which was at the heart of the Reformation. This blog is not designed as a platform for my theological views. But this post may give the impression that I incline toward—let me call it—the Wisconsin Magisterium. Not so. However, I will concede one thing: I have a weakness for chutzpah.
After the Bachmann story came out, Mark Schroeder, the president of WELS, issued a feisty statement: “The papacy claims to speak with an authority—even infallibility—that was equal to or surpassing the Word of God itself. By doing so it puts itself in a position of being ‘anti’ or ‘in place of’ Christ.” In other words, the papacy is, by definition, Antichrist. Not a trace of apology there. But, interestingly, the harshness of the statement is softened by saying that exposing error is actually an “expression of love”—a case, that is, of hating the sin but loving the sinner. Schroeder rejects the charge of bigotry. He goes on: “We rejoice that even in the Catholic Church (where we believe the Gospel has been distorted) there are many Catholics who hold to a simple faith in Jesus Christ as their savior who will ultimately be saved.” (I love two little words in this statement—“even” and “ultimately”!)
As readers of this blog will know by now, I like putting together what is usually not put together. In this instance: Mark Schroeder and Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2009 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (previously known as the Holy Office or the Inquisition) published a statement on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, which greatly annoyed Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The statement was explicitly endorsed by Benedict XVI. It is not clear why the statement apparently surprised some, because it really contained nothing new. It reiterated the declaration Dominus Iesus, issued in 2000 by the same Vatican agency, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger before his elevation to the papacy.
The recent statement is very clear: “Christ established here on earth only one Church.” Other Christian communities cannot be called churches “in the proper sense”. This only reiterates what was previously declared in Dominus Iesus: “There exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” Then there follows a three-tier scale of those outside the true Church. There are the Eastern Orthodox, who stand in “apostolic succession” and have a “valid Eucharist”, who are also members of the Church of Christ, but in a less than perfect way because they refuse to be governed by the alleged successor of Peter. Other “ecclesial communities” (a polite term for Protestants, who used to be called “sects” in earlier Roman discourse) should not be understood as “churches in the proper sense”. But here follows a softening note: Their members, if baptized, are “in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church”. Thus they are certainly candidates for salvation. As to non-Christians, one may assume that the saving grace of God may reach them too, “in ways known to himself”. Prayers and rituals of other faiths may be “pedagogical helps”, in “preparation for the Gospel”, to be approached by Catholics with “charity and respect for freedom”. I am not sure that Buddhists appreciate the charity.
The comparison is interesting—Schroeder and the Pope (or in Wisconsin’s perspective, the Vicar of the Antichrist). What we have here is mutual excommunication. But it is excommunication with a human face, expressing love for the excommunicated. It is, I suppose, an unequal contest. Rome is ahead of Milwaukee by more than a millennium in the business of excommunication. It knows how to do this with exquisite ceremony. Perhaps the most magnificent instance occurred in 1054, when the legates of Pope Leo IX went to Constantinople to deny Michael Cerularius the title of “ecumenical patriarch”. They marched into Hagia Sophia during the divine liturgy and deposited the papal decree on the high altar. Subsequently, Cerularius and Leo IX excommunicated each other. At that time Constantinople had as much panache as Rome in such exercises of self-assured authority.
I met Benedict XVI once, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. I rather liked him. I don’t know Mark Schroeder. But I stipulate that both men are utterly sincere in their belief that they are in possession of the core truth of the Christian faith. I would also stipulate that, if this is bigotry, it is bigotry of the office rather than of the person. But, as mentioned, I have some empathy with the chutzpah of an individual sitting in Milwaukee in effect excommunicating the Roman pontiff. Conversely, I have a visceral suspicion of any person or office with a claim (however circumscribed) to infallibility. I like the idea that there are 390,000 people whose religious center is not Rome, not Constantinople, not even Canterbury, but Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That city on the western shore of Lake Michigan may no longer be the Beer Capital of the World, since the Miller company was bought by South African Breweries. But for more than a quarter million people Milwaukee is the headquarters of the Only True Church.