To the extent that Lutherans are noticed at all by non-Lutherans in America, impressions can be wildly contradictory. From one perspective, they can look like mildly exotic ethnics—sort of like the Mennonites, only more numerous. Thus it is possible for interested outsiders to smile indulgently at in-group reminiscences, like James Nuechterlein’s engaging “Memoirs of a Lutheran Boyhood” (First Things, October 1990), where he reports that “It was one of the great curiosities of my childhood that so few people outside of my family and congregation understood the centrality of the fate of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to world-historical development.”
On the other hand, they may seem tragic-certainly they often have in literary representations, such as Ole Rodlvaag’s rich depiction of Beret Hansa’s winters of discontent on the Dakota prairies in his novel, Giants in the Earth. Then again, certain literature might convey impressions of a different sort—as when Garrison Keillor describes the perplexity of Lake Wobegone’s Lutheran Pastor, David Ingqvist, who, after a young people’s trio had sung “I Believe” as an offertory, concludes that “the so-called one-drop, one-flower theology” was “not what Martin Luther left the Catholic Church over.”
In these examples the settings of the stories add to a sense that Lutherans are on the fringe of American life—, poignant, telling, funny, or tragic, but on the fringe nevertheless. Keillor’s Lutherans inhabit a dying corner of rural America that his skillful Sehnsucht brings back to life but at the same time distances from contemporary experience. Rodlvaag’s is an immigrant’s work, originally written in Norwegian at an ethnic college named in honor of a personage, St. Olaf, who is not a household name for most Americans. While immigration continues to be an important fact of life in the United States, someone born, as Rodlvaag was, on Dodnna Island, just south of the Arctic Circle, and who wrote about the vast, nearly uninhabited prairie, may not seem relevant to the immigrants of the late twentieth century who come to our crowded cities from the opposite corners of the globe.
Lutheran marginalization in America can also be reflected, perhaps, in the country’s mass culture. It is a mark of distinction, but hardly a path to wide popularity, that Lutherans are hereditary patrons of Baroque music. And there are other characteristics distinctive to Lutherans that, however commendable, are esoteric the same way. It might seem, for example, that some secret elixir devised to develop special muscles for historical scholarship is regularly dispensed to young Lutherans, for how else can one account for the fact that Lutherans are the country’s most distinguished church historians—Sydney Ahlstrom, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Martin Marty being at the top of the list and a host of only slightly lesser lights following close behind. Yet while there are regiments of outstanding Lutheran church historians, there is no truly great monograph about the Lutheran experience in America to compare, for example, with George Marsden’s history of fundamentalism, John Courtney Murray’s reflections on Roman Catholicism, Donald Mathews’ interpretation of antebellum Southern evangelicalism, or the excellent books by Joseph Haroutunian, Norman Fiering, Harry Stout, and others on the American Puritans.
At first glance, then, Lutherans may look like an exotic growth on the American landscape. From the angle of the social scientists, however, a very different picture emerges: in demographic terms, Lutherans seem, in fact, remarkably unremarkable. Research conducted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, which has been providing survey data on America’s main Protestant families for the last three decades, shows that Lutherans as a social group are pretty ordinary. Fewer Lutherans attend college than do Presbyterians or Episcopalians, about as many as do Catholics and Methodists, and more than do Baptists. Lutherans as a denominational family are older than Catholics, Baptists, and Episcopalians, and slightly younger than Methodists and Presbyterians. More Lutherans fall into higher income levels than do Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians, but slightly fewer than Catholics. The newsworthy potential of such information is, I dare say, not very great.
Politically, Lutherans are just as predictable. With other predominantly white Protestant denominations, Lutherans are overwhelmingly Republican, a tad more so than Methodists, a tad less so than Presbyterians. In 1988, over 63 percent of Lutherans who voted cast their ballots for George Bush as compared to about 60 percent of Methodists and 65 percent of Presbyterians. Lutheran identification with the Republican party is about the same as among Presbyterians and Episcopalians. These findings are especially welcome to Republican strategists, since Lutherans turn out to vote in very strong numbers, about 85 percent in 1988, a percentage somewhat higher than Catholics, Methodists, or Episcopalians, and almost as high as Presbyterians.
None of this information could possibly be startling to those who live among Lutherans, but at least two social-scientific conclusions do set the Lutherans apart—where they live and what effect church attendance has on their political choices. A fairly recent county-by-county survey of American religious allegiance provides overwhelming demonstration of the Lutherans’ geographical concentration. This survey shows that Lutherans are the largest religious body in 259 counties throughout the United States. Of those counties, over 80 percent are located in seven midwestern states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana. Of the 109 counties where Lutherans make up at least 50 percent of the church members, 98 percent are in these same seven states, with 61 percent found in Minnesota and North Dakota alone. (Parenthetically, the demographic dilemma faced by Lutherans is highlighted by these numbers, since results of the 1990 census show that, of the seven states, only Wisconsin and Minnesota have gained significant population in the last ten years.)
The surveys show that, in general, white Protestants who attend church regularly are more likely to vote Republican than those who do not attend regularly. Lutherans are distinctive, however, in that church attendance makes more difference for them than the other Protestant families. In the elections from 1956 to 1988, Republican presidential candidates received from 12 to 23 more percentage points of support from Lutherans who regularly attend church than from those who do not. In the language of political scientists, these figures show the “ethnic” character of Lutherans, since church-going usually reveals the sharing of “associational” values as opposed to merely “communal” values.
This last bit of jargon carries us naturally from the social scientific to the historical, for what it draws attention to about Lutherans is that most of them are more recent immigrants than other mainline Protestants. Only to look at a basic bibliography of Lutheran writers—of Ahlstrom, Anderson, Bachman, Fevold, Gritsch, Hildebrandt, Jenson, Jordahl, Mattson, Nelson, Nodtvedt, Schneider, Tappert, Wolf—would make their origins in Germany and Scandinavia obvious. Once this fact is established, the key work for explaining the course of Lutheran life in the new world becomes the Census Department’s Historical Statistics of the United States. Its pages are jammed with figures, but the immigration tables could not be clearer. German migration was extraordinarily strong from 1840 to the First World War, numbering more than 5,000,000. Scandinavia contributed almost as many immigrants as Germany during the thirty-five years before World War I, with almost 2,000,000 new arrivals from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. After 1914, the numbers shrank dramatically.
Understanding how and when this massive immigration came to an end, we can find little to surprise us in twentieth-century Lutheran history. The first generation’s proliferation of ethnically defined Lutheran denominations as well as a siphoning off of countless hereditary Lutherans into American sects or into nonobservance is completely predictable. Just as unremarkable is a gradual process of consolidation in the second generation as broader alliances of language and religious style replace the particularistic allegiances left over from Europe. A tenacious hanging-on to Old World languages and forms is standard form among some segments of the immigrant community. However the descendents of immigrants might judge this tenacity, it does sometimes bring unintended benefits to outsiders (as I for one am able to attest from the help a subscription to Der Lutheraner was to me some years ago as I struggled to learn the German language). Along with variable degrees of variable attachment to Old World forms and languages come variable degrees of attachment to Old World convictions. In the late 1960s, for example, as I read Der Lutheraner, I was never quite sure how literally the slogan on its masthead—which, as I remember, read “Gottes Wort und Luthers Lehr’ vergehen nie und nimmermehr” (God’s word and Luther’s teaching will never ever pass away)—was intended.
By the third generation after the cessation of large-scale immigration, most immigrant communities experience even greater consolidation, but also greater controversy over the pace of assimilation. By this stage in the immigrant experience, there has been enough time to move out of rural or urban enclaves into the suburbs, to make a lot more money, to see increasing numbers of the rising generation marry outsiders, and to provide more and more young people with higher education beyond the immigrant community itself. For Lutherans, the third generation can be said to have arrived at different times in different communities, but for the most part, large-scale immigration had receded pretty far into the background by the 1970s and 1980s. It was only to be expected, therefore, that a transcending of ethnic traditions would have occurred, as indeed it has in the case of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). It was also to be expected that there would be acrimonious debate over how much of the Old World inheritance to modify in the light of conditions in the New World, as has been most spectacularly the case in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
As for participation in national political life, however many Lutherans may have served as governor of Minnesota, mayor of Bismarck, or in the Wisconsin state legislature, nationally Lutherans have been seriously underrepresented. There are now in the United States more than four times as many Lutherans as Episcopalians, nearly three times as many as either Presbyterians or Jews, and almost as many as Methodists. Yet in the current Congress, there are half again as many Jews as Lutherans, twice as many Presbyterians, two-and-one-half times as many Episcopalians, and more than three times as many Methodists. The highest national office ever filled by a Lutheran is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and that happened only recently, with the appointment of William Rehnquist. Many United States Presidents have been Episcopalians; several have been Presbyterians and Congregationalists; one was a Disciple of Christ; and two have been Quakers; but none has ever been Lutheran, even though for several decades Lutherans have been more numerous than the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Disciples, and Quakers combined. No Lutheran has ever been even nominated for either President or Vice President by one of the country’s major political parties. Lutheran underrepresentation in national politics might at first look like a simple function of ethnic timing: give Lutherans a few more years, would run the argument, and there might be the same sort of German-and Scandinavian-Lutheran presence in national politics as there has been for Irish Catholics. But factors other than the mere rhythm of the generations are involved here. One of these would seem to be the nature of Lutheran religious life in America, itself also unobtrusive.
The surprising thing for those who are acquainted with the penetrating vision of Luther, the scholarly aplomb of Melanchthon, the irenic efficiency of the Concord formulators, the surging brilliance of Bach, the passionate wisdom of Kierkegaard, or the heroic integrity of Bonhoeffer is how inconspicuous the Lutherans have been in America. Beyond their instructive experience as immigrants, it is hard to isolate identifiably Lutheran contributions to the larger history of Christianity in America.
To be sure, there are a few noteworthy conversion stories. Where I teach, Wheaton College in Illinois, which is evangelical in the American rather than the Lutheran sense, we do have a limited number of practicing Lutherans among faculty and students. But we probably have even more former Lutherans who testify that they had to leave the Lutheran church to be, in their words, “saved” or “born again,” to find “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” or to hear “the gospel.” Most of these conversion stories are about individuals moving away from Lutheranism. Shifts in the other direction, to a new ecclesiastical allegiance to Lutheranism, do certainly take place, but few are well known.
If American Lutherans lack spectacular stories of conversion, they also seem pretty ho-hum in their religious convictions and observances. An extensive Gallup poll in the late 1970s found Lutherans as a group, when compared with other Christian families, showing nothing very distinctive on a whole range of beliefs and practices. For example, about the same proportion of Lutherans as other Christians found religion consoling, believed that Christ was the Son of God, felt that humanity had originated with Adam and Eve, knew at least five of the Ten Commandments, believed in the Bible as a religious authority, and thought the Ten Commandments were still valid. (Lutherans were like other Americans in that about twice as many of them considered the Ten Commandments still valid as could name even half of them.) Similarly, about the same proportion of Lutherans had spoken in tongues, were active members of a church, did volunteer work in the local congregation, and attended services. Where Lutherans as a communion were distinctive was that they turned out to be quite a bit less likely to have had a life-changing religious experience or to believe in the devil as a personal being. They were also quite a bit less likely than Baptists to visit the sick, give 10 percent or more of their income to religious causes, or to know that Jesus said “you must be born again” to Nicodemus. On the other hand, Lutherans were more likely than Methodists to read the Bible at least two or three times a week and to believe that the Bible did not make mistakes. They also spent more time in youth work than even the Baptists.
Survey researchers find Lutheran belief and practice on the whole to be neither esoteric nor marginalized. Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney in their study of American Mainline Religion (1987) had little difficulty classifying the Lutherans as “moderate Protestants” along with Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Northern Baptists, and the Reformed. On questions concerning civil liberties, racial justice, women’s rights, and the new morality, Lutheran attitudes were all but indistinguishable from those of these other Protestant groups, who in general were a touch more conservative than Roman Catholics, a great deal more conservative than Episcopalians and Congregationalists, but quite a bit more liberal than Southern Baptists, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and (except on race) black Protestants.
The unobtrusiveness of Lutherans in America is underscored by how easy it can be to place the various Lutheran bodies onto a conventional Protestant spectrum. In such a perception, the ELCA and its tributaries fit comfortably with the National Council of Churches mainline, the Missouri Synod looks like a branch of conservative evangelicalism or fundamentalism, the Wisconsin Synod appears as a regionally defined ethnic enclave, and the smaller groups like the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod resemble earlier splinters from the Lutheran trunk like the Albright Brethren, the Swedish Covenant, and the Evangelical Free Church.
Odd experiences, to be sure, do raise questions about such facile categorizations. At Wheaton College during the Lutherjahr of 1983, for example, several members of the faculty thought it would be fitting to ask Lutherans to organize a worship service on campus to mark the event. So we approached the local ministerium of the Missouri Synod thinking it only logical to seek such assistance from the Lutheran denomination that seemed closest on doctrinal matters to Wheaton’s own convictions. Much to our surprise, our overtures were rejected immediately, for we had with great naivetea suggested that such a service might include a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We had forgotten the Missouri Synod’s solicitude for the purity of communion. When, however, we turned, this time with some suspicion, to representatives of the American Lutheran Church (ALC), our plan was welcomed warmly. The service that resulted, with a sharing of the wine and the bread, was hailed by both the ALC and the Wheaton participants as a bracing “evangelical” experience. In general, however, if one does not look too closely, the divisions in Lutheranism seem to correspond quite neatly to more general divisions in American Protestantism.
Here, then, is a superficial view from the outside: Lutherans may now and then have their eccentricities, but they are on the whole, and given their place on the immigrant curve, quite ordinarily American.
But this superficial view may be excessively so. A little more probing reveals that in fact the history of Lutherans in America is a dramatic story with several remarkable twists. Indeed, one might even conclude that recent history has provided a kind of Lutheran second coming to America.
The first coming involved the tradition that stretched from the colonial period through the Civil War, beginning with the efforts of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1789), who had been sent from the pietist center of Halle to provide guidance for the German Lutheran immigrants in colonial Pennsylvania. As these settlers learned English and took on other American characteristics, their religion—quite naturally, it seemed—began to assume an American cast.
In the next generation, Americanization continued, especially under the direction of Samuel Simon Schmucker (1799-1873), a graduate of the Presbyterians’ Princeton Seminary, who worked throughout his life for causes that he felt would benefit both Lutherans and other Protestants in the United States. It was Schmucker’s conviction that New World Lutherans could profitably link characteristics of American Protestantism with those of the European tradition. He worked on behalf of the General Synod of Lutheran churches (formed in 1820), became a mainstay at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, and pledged himself to fight rationalism and religious indifference with the weapons of the Augsburg Confession and Luther’s Small Catechism. At the same time, Schmucker’s concerns moved beyond narrow definitions of traditional Lutheran faith and practice. He supported revivalism. He favored the development of interdenominational agencies, such as the Sunday School movement, to spread Christianity and to improve national morality. He spoke out on American national issues—expressing, for example, his fears of new immigrants and Roman Catholics. He also was a founder of the American branch of the Interdenominational Evangelical Alliance (1846), and prepared an address for the 1873 New York meeting of the Alliance as almost the last act of his life.
Schmucker eventually antagonized traditional Lutherans when he moved to modify the historic Augsburg Confession. To him it was Lutheran enough to agree that “the fundamental doctrines of the Word of God are taught in a manner substantially correct in the doctrinal articles of the Augsburg Confession.” If he concluded that he could then go on to question the Real Presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper, to reject private confession, to wonder if baptism really brought regeneration, and (in keeping with American “Puritan” opinions) to desire a much stricter Sabbath, he still thought of himself as a good Lutheran. But others did not.
Schmucker’s point of view came close to being the prevalent one until about the mid-nineteenth century. Then, however, the growing numbers of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia and a revival of interest in the roots of the Reformation combined to lessen his influence. Schmucker’s books, like A Fraternal Appeal to the American Churches (1838), pleased his friends but worried the new immigrants by adding modern American convictions to traditionally Lutheran beliefs. The anonymous Definite Synodical Platform of 1855, which proposed a revision of the Augsburg Confession along lines favored by Schmucker, precipitated a clash that eventually led to the mobilization of “European” Lutheranism against the trends favored by Schmucker.
In the struggle between “American” and “European” Lutherans, defenders of old ways were blessed with capable leaders. One of these was the American-born Charles Porterfield Krauth (1823-1883), whose book The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology provided a forthright rationale for maintaining strict Old World standards for Lutheran teaching, even in the confines of the New World. For Krauth, a belief in the general correctness of the Augsburg Confession was not enough. This document, rather, needed to be affirmed in its details, for it was “the greatest work, regarded in its historical relations, in which pure religion has been sustained by human hands . . . . It is our shield and our sword, our ensign and our arming, the constitution of our state, the life of our body, the germ of our being.”
Another conservative was Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (1811-1887), a native of Saxony who migrated to the United States in 1838. Walther was every bit as active as an American revivalist, but it would have been an insult to tell him so. He pastored a church in St. Louis, helped start a training institute for ministerial candidates, founded a publishing house, a newspaper, and a theological journal, and worked to unite several different Lutheran synods. He became president of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (forerunner of the modern Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod), and was a leading figure in the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America that came into existence in 1872. Although Walther leaned toward congregationalism and proclaimed such high views of God’s grace that he was called a “crypto-Calvinist,” he shared with Krauth the conviction that the Lutherans’ main task in the New World was to maintain Old World distinctiveness rather than adjust to American ways. Walther therefore insisted that ministers, as a condition of their service, affirm “that without any exception the doctrinal contents of the confessions of our church are in complete agreement with the Holy Scriptures and are not in conflict with the same in any point, whether a major or a secondary point. Accordingly, [the minister] declares that he heartily believes the contents of the confessions to be divine truth and that he intends to preach it without adulteration.”
Following Krauth, Walther, and like-minded confessionalists, American Lutheranism turned back toward Europe. With other ethnic Protestants, such as the Dutch Reformed, some of the Lutherans also established their own system of private schools at a time when most other American Protestants were becoming strong supporters of public education. Thus, the first coming of American Lutheranism was brought to an end. American Lutherans turned their backs on what Schmucker had thought was a pious form of Americanized Lutheranism, but what his detractors concluded was only a mildly Lutheranized form of American pietism. Connections to the wider worlds of American religion would not be reestablished to any significant degree until after World War II. Whatever brought about this situation—the upsurge of immigration, a more strictly theological solicitude for Lutheran traditions, or (as Paul Kuenning argues in his recent Rise and Fall of American Lutheran Pietism ) a morally suspect retreat from public activism to social quietism—the course of Lutheranism was fixed.
Radically different interpretations of the transition from the path of Schmucker to the path of Krauth and Walther are possible. From one point of view, we might conclude that it was unfortunate for American Lutherans that this reversal took place. Certainly it led to a loss of Lutheran influence in America, to the promotion of a parochial spirit, to a slavish obeisance to the memory of Europe, and to squandering more than a century of hard-won wisdom on negotiating a livable compromise between Old World traditions and New World realities.
From another angle, however, one might suggest that it was extremely fortunate for American Lutheranism that the reversal took place. In this reading, by not following Schmucker’s path into the wider worlds of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism, Lutherans avoided the disasters that by the time of Schmucker’s death in 1873 lay only a few short years into the future. Schmucker had hoped that Lutherans could join nineteenth-century evangelical culture and, in so doing, add a distinctively Lutheran seasoning to an already heady brew. But the brew that Schmucker so much wanted Lutherans to share was, even as he wrote to the 1873 meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, turning very flat indeed.
In fact, soon after Schmucker’s death a disastrous three-fold division took place in the Protestant mainstream. In response to new social and intellectual challenges, some heirs of nineteenth-century evangelicalism, who would soon be called modernists, moved with the times, conceded the hegemony of the new sciences, and sought a new alliance between modernized faith and the American way of life. Others, the later fundamentalists, responded in a more complicated way. They moved both with and against the times—with, by adopting the new applied technologies of mass media and public marketing; against, by resisting the evolution of old doctrines demanded by the new era. They too attempted to preserve a Protestant America, but with its old content as well as its old form. By far the majority of Protestants vacillated in the middle, nostalgic for the old harmonies of society, mind, and religion. They were unsettled by the tendency of new ways to dismiss traditional Christian convictions, but also unwilling to decide for either the modernist or fundamentalist construction of true religion.
The redirection of Lutherans from an Americanizing to a separatist course meant that they were spared this disruption of the evangelical Protestantism that Schmucker had so admired. From the standpoint of later American history, Lutherans had entered into a desert sojourn. But from a church-historical angle, it meant that when the Lutherans did reemerge after World War II, they entered onto the broader American scene still self-conscious Lutherans. At least the self-isolated Lutheran existence from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century had served to strengthen the likelihood that something distinctively Lutheran would survive into the twentieth century.
What, then, about the second coming of American Lutheranism after World War II? What was gained for Lutherans by escaping the diffusion that vitiated the energies of America’s central white Protestant tradition at the start of the twentieth century? A jaundiced observer might have reason to conclude that the answer to the question is nothing, that Lutherans escaped the collapse of late-nineteenth-century American Protestantism only to embrace the forms of late-twentieth-century American Protestantism precisely at the point when they too were lapsing into pallid cultural captivity.
Thus, it has taken the ELCA and the groups that went into its formation a long time to create a modern American denomination. But once having achieved that end, does the ELCA have anything authentically Lutheran to contribute to the wider American community it has struggled so mightily to enter? A disturbing conclusion can be drawn from Christa Klein’s recent study of the Lutheran Church in America’s social pronouncements of the 1960s and 1970s (Politics and Policy ). What the study seems to show is that the LCA acted on the same issues as did other mainline Protestant denominations and responded to these issues in pretty much the same mildly moralistic liberal fashion. The historical picture Christa Klein draws of denominational leaders fleeing from distinctive Lutheran doctrines like two-kingdom theology in their haste to be relevant to mid-century American life is not an encouraging one. Did nineteenth-century Lutherans turn from the path of Samuel Schmucker so that they could emerge in the mid-twentieth century as conventional partners of the mainline establishment? Klein leaves the issue as a question, but Peter Berger is more assertive. As he has put it, American Lutheranism lost “its distinctiveness . . . in the wake of the recent merger” between the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church that led to the ELCA. Berger’s protest against what he considers the defalcation of the Protestant mainline, including the ELCA, is that it has made him “ecclesiastically homeless.” At a time when observers like Berger are describing with aching poignancy the discontents of the mainline, it is odd to see the ELCA rushing so hard to catch up.
The same sort of jaundiced observations might be made, from the other end of the ideological spectrum, about the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. When its discord of the 1970s brought Missouri greater national attention, it did so in terms that seem to come straight out of the history of the fundamentalist movement. Did Missouri under C. F. W. Walther escape the perils of Schmucker’s nineteenth-century American evangelicalism only to reemerge a century later as woodenly biblicistic, anti-intellectually creationistic, defensively patriarchialist, and conventionally rightist in politics—just when it was becoming increasingly clear how much these fundamentalist positions depended upon quirks in American Protestant history rather than main traditions of classical Christian faith?
The jaundiced critic, in other words, might think that American Lutherans escaped the peril of nineteenth-century Schmuckerism only to fall prey to a late-twentieth-century version of the same thing—for the ELCA, launching the ecclesiastical ship into a mainstream that had almost run dry; for Missouri, taking on the colors of a fundamentalism ever more clearly revealed as a Christianity merely of assorted rightist tendencies.
Perhaps these judgments about the ELCA and Missouri are as off the mark as seeing Lutheran behavior only as a predictable product of immigrant experience. Maybe the ELCA really does take seriously the profession of its founding document: “This church confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God’s mission in the world.” Maybe, along the line that Milton Rudnick’s Fundamentalism and the Missouri Synod (1966) demonstrated so well for a previous era, Missouri continues to be substantially Lutheran and only incidentally fundamentalistic. If that is the case, if the ELCA and Missouri both retain authentically Lutheran convictions as they enter, along different paths and perhaps willy-nilly, into broader currents of American life, then the turn from Schmucker will not have been an ironic one. Then the separatism of Lutheranism in America from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century might turn out to mean something very important indeed.
From a Christian point of view, it is certainly to be hoped that the above jaundiced judgments are wrong. Lutherans do have much to offer to the wider American community, but only if they can fulfill two conditions. First, to contribute as Lutherans in America, Lutherans must remain authentically Lutheran. Second, to contribute as Lutherans in America, Lutherans must also find out how to speak Lutheranism with an American accent. Falling short of either condition means that, though Lutherans as religious individuals may contribute much to Christianity in America, there will be no distinctly Lutheran contribution. The task is to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation. If such skillful navigation could take place, the resources that Lutherans offer to Americans, especially to other Protestants, would be of incalculable benefit.
First, if Lutherans were to retain their traditions even as they discover ways of communicating them in America, they would be in an ideal position to show the benefits of a religious consciousness rooted in the past. Like a few other ethnic confessionalists from the sixteenth century, but unlike most American Protestants, Lutherans have always insisted that history is important for the faith. In America, the Revolutionary heritage has proclaimed that the past is pollution. Beneficial as this sentiment may be for affairs of government, it has been a poison to the church. American Christians who proclaimed “no creed but the Bible” gleefully joined the anti-historical chorus. Filled with great pessimism about what they could learn from the past, Americans have from the beginning possessed an even greater optimism about what they could teach themselves in the present. This attitude continues to prevail widely among Protestants, and now among a growing number of Roman Catholics. It is an attitude that the Lutherans are well positioned to oppose.
Why should American Christians regain a historical sense? What can be wrong about forsaking the corruptions of the past in favor of self-reliance? It must, of course, be conceded that a historical sense can be perverted. If, as the Lutheran Jaroslav Pelikan puts it, “tradition is the living faith of the dead,” then “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” American Protestants may be commended for watching out for the dangers of formal traditionalism. They can also be accused of throwing out the baby of history with the bath water of formalism.
Lutherans are in a position to teach a much sounder view of the past. The very structure of Lutheran observance draws attention to the enduring realities of divine providence. American evangelicals, who waste away with panting for the supernatural quick fix, and American liberals, who want to fix things by themselves and right away, both need to learn from Lutherans that God’s concern extends over decades and centuries as well as over days, weeks, and months. Lutherans, who know something about the long view of history, should be insulated against the instability of innovation and the overconfidence of ignorance. Many of America’s most energetic Christian leaders have cried with virtually the same words: “I have found something new. You must accept it or be lost.” Against this lust for novelty, the Lutheran sense of history stands as a sober witness. Its wisdom lies in the realization of how regular are the follies of humanity, how constant the grace of God. Lutherans should not be so filled with hubris as to deny the reality of historical change. But they are in a position to show that the accumulated testimony of the past is far more likely to plumb the depths of God’s character and the vicissitudes of human nature than the idiosyncratic voice of the present.
A Lutheran sense of history also opens up the simple, but stupendous, truth that the communion of saints exists over time as well as out in space. The Reformers taught that God shows his mercy to all believers, not just to a priestly class. American Protestants sometimes remember as far back as the generation of their parents or grandparents. Rarely do they consider the insight that lies buried much further back in the Christian past. The Lutheran tradition does not, of course, exhaust the ministry of the Christian past. But to realize that its saints—von Bora, Melanchthon, and Bugenhagen; Cranach, Schudtz, and Gerhard; Chemnitz, Chytraeus, and Andreae; Spener, Francke, and Bengel; Schmucker, Krauth, and Walther—are still ministering priests as well as historical figures is to broaden the meaning of communio sanctorum. One could perhaps ask them to range farther afield in the past for the ministry of departed saints, but in America it may be enough for Lutherans to maintain a lively contact with their own heritage. Such an example could go far to cure the dreadful amnesia that cripples nearly all Christian faith in America.
Second, if Lutherans retained their traditions even as they discovered ways of communicating them in America, they could offer a great assistance to Christian political involvement. The dominant pattern of political involvement in America has always been one of direct, aggressive action modeled on Reformed theories of life in the world. Like the early leaders of Calvinism on the Continent and the English Puritans, Americans have moved in a straight line from personal belief to social reform, from private experience to political activity. For the colonial Puritans and the nineteenth-century evangelicals this meant the mounting of crusades. It has assumed the necessity of moving directly from passion for God and the Bible to passion for the renovation of society. The more recent and more secular period of American history is no less characterized by crusading zeal. Now, however, it is not so much zeal for God and the Bible as infatuation with science and technique, eagerness for American influence among the nations, or a passion for private rights that fuel efforts to renovate society. The common strategy in each period has been wholehearted pursuit of political goals defined on the basis of private religious belief (or in the secular period, private beliefs functioning as religion once functioned). The public sphere, which increasingly has meant the realm of government, exists as a forum in which to promote the virtues defined by my religion (or substitute for religion).
Such Reformed attitudes toward life in the world have had an immeasurably great effect on American history. Calvinistic convictions about living all of life for the glory of God led to the remarkable experiment of seventeenth-century New England, where Puritans created the freest, most stable, most democratic society then in existence in the entire world. In the eighteenth century, a more diffuse Puritan passion for public justice provided, if not the specific ideology, at least much of the energy for the American Revolution and the creation of a new nation. During the nineteenth century, a more general evangelical Protestantism fueled immense labors of Christianization and civilization—subduing a continent, democratizing a people, evangelizing at home through revival and abroad through missions, reforming institutions, attitudes, habits, and social practices, and surviving a civil war that ended with the prohibition of slavery.
The encroachments of secularism on this Reformed deposit have changed the substance but not the form of public activity. When Science replaced Scripture and Progress elbowed God aside, the goals remained the same—all of life must still be reformed. Only the agency was different. It might be Education, opened to all as a means for solving the nation’s problems. It might be Science and Know-How, the Form and Demiurge of modernity. Most typically, the new religion has been government, or the state. With Democrats who favor social equality and the moral role of legislation or Republicans who favor national security and legislative promotion of a free market, the crusading mentality remained. Thus, though modern Americans may differ in nearly every particular from their Puritan and evangelical ancestors, they still are deeply committed to working out their salvation, and the salvation of everyone else, through the restructuring of public life.
Conspicuously absent in this political-religious history have been the characteristically Lutheran attitudes. For one, it has been rare for Americans to think that a different strategy, a different set of axioms, might be appropriate for public life than for private life. Rather, Puritan spirituality fueled the drive for a Puritan commonwealth. Evangelical revival became the model for evangelical social reform. The pragmatic approach to the self associated with John Dewey became a pragmatic method for regulating the public. The pursuit of absolute moral freedom for the self became the drive for moral liberation in society. The Lutheran belief in two kingdoms—the belief that it might be possible to erect a theory of government that is different from values guiding the self—has been rare in American history.
Similarly, there have been only occasional examples of what could be called “Lutheran irony.” In religious terms, this irony is the sense that precisely when Christians mount their most valiant public efforts for God, they run the greatest risk of substituting their righteousness for the righteousness of Christ, and thereby subverting justification by faith. A few Americans, like Nathaniel Hawthorne in the nineteenth century and Reinhold Niebuhr in the twentieth, may have glimpsed this irony, but it has been a distinctly minority position. In secular terms, “Lutheran irony” would be a bent of mind quick to perceive where the public crusade leads to unintended consequences: constitutional actions to free the slaves that result in vastly expanded power for the courts, or efforts to make the world safe for democracy (Wilson) that lead to the rise of a Hitler, or a willingness to go anywhere in the defense of freedom (JFK) that leads to Vietnam, or the desire for national security that heightens the risks of global annihilation. In both cases, religious and secular, a “Lutheran” might be justified in asking if the transit from personal moral vision to comprehensive public crusade did not falter precisely for the failure to observe the structural differences between personal moral vision and comprehensive public crusade, between, that is, God in relationship to the individual and God in relationship to the world.
The political point is not that Reformed attitudes toward culture are dead wrong, nor that a “Lutheran” perspective is automatically correct. From a more general angle, it is possible to tot up strengths and weaknesses of both Reformed and Lutheran, as well as of Catholic and Anabaptist, political tendencies-for example, Reformed strength in guiding the restructuring of societies, Reformed weakness in carrying reforming zeal to excess; Lutheran strength in recognizing the occasional incongruity between private and public spheres, Lutheran weakness in the tendency to lapse into political quietism. As it is, however, America has enjoyed a surfeit of Reformed tendencies and only a very occasional nudge in the Lutheran direction. A better balance is possible.
Third, if Lutherans retained their traditions even as they discovered ways of communicating them in America, they could offer Americans the strengths of a noble theological tradition, noble for its form, but even more for its content. Historically, it has been rare for carefully constructed theology to flourish in America. There has been no dearth of Christian conviction, no lack of intellectual seriousness, no shortage of disciplined thought. But such effort has only rarely produced cohesive theology. Americans have excelled in pragmatic efficiency; they have not been keen on cohesion. In fact, theological effort itself has been a cause of no little suspicion—because it fetters Christian liberty, because it undercuts the authority of the Bible, because it gets in the way of urgently required reform. In place of well-conceived and deliberated confessions, Americans prefer hastily constructed statements of faith or simply rely on conventional wisdom.
Lutherans are heirs to a better way. They possess confessions that have stood the test of time, that arise from the major themes of Scripture, that present a cohesive picture of the Christian’s relationship to God, to fellow humans, and to the world. The starting point of Lutheran thought, to its credit, is, in George Lindbeck’s words, “neither biblicistic nor experientialist, and certainly not individualistic, but dogmatic.” In America, the dogmatism has taken several different forms, and the differences among those forms are not trivial. But what they share with their confidence in dogma could bring welcome refreshment to the American church.
Lutherans have something for Americans not simply in the fact of their confessionalism, however, but also in the message of their confessions. That message sounds at least slightly strange to Americans, even to well-meaning Protestants and the increasing number of Catholics concerned about repairing the sixteenth-century disruptions. It is strange because it stands outside the main shaping influences of American history. The strangeness suggests that the Old Lutherans who feared the Americanizations of Samuel Schmucker intimated more theological dangers in the American experiment than either they or Schmucker could define. That experiment began with revolution and a Christianized embrace of what historian Henry May has called moderate and didactic forms of the Enlightenment. Its religious character was shaped by revivalistic spirituality and voluntaristic ecclesiastical organization. It nurtured a Christianity at ease with cultural domination. It led, in the early years of this century, to a debilitating struggle between fundamentalists and modernists.
This mainstream American history was not a bad history for the churches. The gospel has flourished in it remarkably. But it is a history that easily becomes ingrown, that too easily forgets what others from different times and places, including the places indigenous to Lutherans, have learned. Precisely because they pulled back into themselves, as it were, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Lutherans have something to say to a Christian people shaped by this American history. What they have to say involves central affirmations of the Reformation which, if they are to be heard in America at all, must be heard from Lutherans. There are at least four such things the Lutherans have to say.
A first concerns the church. If a great strength in American religion has been the power of its voluntary activism, so a corresponding weakness has been the notion of a voluntaristic ecclesiastical organization. American Christians might find a spiritual truth in Luther’s claim that “outside the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, and no salvation.” But the prevailing tendency of at least American Protestants has been to treat all ecclesiastical organization as a product of human creativity, an object of human manipulation. Americans achieved great success in shaping political institutions for the New World. Tom Paine appeared to be correct when he said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This confidence in the people’s ability to model institutions anew has spilled over into the church. Creativity, flexibility, marketability, and adaptability result. But so does a loss of permanence, stability, and tradition that Lutheran ecclesiology might provide.
More centrally, the defense of an Augustinian conception of human nature by the earliest Protestants has not fared well in this country. Given the great confidence of the Revolutionary period in the human ability to chart a political destiny, the great confidence of the Enlightenment in ascertaining human motivation, and the great confidence of revivalists in discerning spiritual ends and means, Augustinianism was doomed. In America it was simply too much to believe that sinfulness—the ineluctable curvature of the self in upon itself—was a greater problem than sins, the freely chosen actions of the will. As a result, American Christians have largely lost the reformers’ belief in the labyrinthine depths of human self-deception, and so they have lost the ability to feel, as Luther felt, the thrilling victory of God’s grace in Christ.
A related casualty in America has been Reformation convictions about the objectivity of salvation. Particularly with the great revivalistic concern for the experience of conversion at a particular point in time and then with the great moralistic concern for the promotion of solutions to the problems of society, it has been difficult to retain the sixteenth-century consciousness of the centrality of God’s action in human affairs. The Protestant tendency in America has been to preserve the importance of preaching, Bible-reading, the sacraments (or ordinances), and Christian fellowship, but to interpret these as occasions for human acts of appropriation. That God saves in baptism, that God gives himself in the Supper, that God announces his Word through the sermon, that God is the best interpreter of his written Word—these Lutheran convictions are all but lost in the face of American confidence in human capacity.
Finally, what Lutherans can offer Americans is the voice of Luther, a voice of unusual importance in Christian history, not because of who Luther was and not because of the organizations that carry on his name. The voice of Luther is important because in it we hear uncommon resonances with the voice of God. Luther is no more a saint than the least of all believers, no more an oracle than the most ordinary person who tries faithfully to proclaim the word of God. But, for whatever reason, in the effable wisdom of God the speech of Martin Luther rang clear where others merely mumbled. That speech may have grown stale in Stockholm, Oslo, Hamburg, Munich, and Bonn. It evidently retains a little power in Leipzig and east of the Brandenburg Gate. Its power has yet to be tapped in America as a whole.
And what does that voice say? It says what especially Americans need to hear:
—It says: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened . . . . He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross . . . . A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
—It says: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his . . . .”
—It says that Christians are always both justified and sinners.
—It says, in Luther’s last written words, “We are beggars, and that’s the truth.”
These are words that Americans need to hear. They need to hear them in church, but they also need to hear them in the universities, in the boardrooms of corporations, in the halls of Congress, in the military, in homes and schools and shopping malls and on athletic fields and the factory floor—in every place where the restless hearts of men and women search for meaning, forgiveness, truth, and the hope of life. They are words for Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, but also for those who do not recognize their need of God. They are words that can be said in other ways by other folk, and they are not the only words that people need to hear. But reservations, qualifications, and limitations do not make them any less important. They are also words that Lutherans have long repeated to themselves and to their children.
Americans, to be sure, do not stand by with bated breath to see if Lutherans still believe these words or if they can find a way to speak them with power in the late twentieth century. Whether Lutherans still believe these words, or whether they can speak them with power today, are, however, questions that no outsider can hope to answer. They are questions that Lutherans must answer for themselves.
Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College. An earlier version of this essay was presented at Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary.