Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Regular readers will recall that I have, from time to time, had occasion to remark on the inglorious state of American Lutheranism. Most of those remarks have been pointed in the direction of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest U.S. Lutheran body at 5.1 million members. But in the interests of fair play and equal opportunity kvetching, it is time to shift attention to the smaller (2.6 million) and more conservative Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod (LCMS). If the ELCA seems incapable of stopping its drift into the dreary liberal Protestant mainstream, the LCMS appears determined to maintain the sectarian mentality that, in contradiction to its theological self“understanding, has marked it from its origins in 1847.

The immediate point at issue is prayer: not whether to pray, but with whom. In the wake of September 11, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office organized a memorial service for the victims of the World Trade Center tragedy. The invited participants in the September 23 event at Yankee Stadium were an eclectic lot”politicians, show“biz types, and religious leaders of every conceivable variety. Among the latter was the Rev. David Benke, pastor of an LCMS congregation in Brooklyn and president of the synod’s Atlantic District. When it came his turn in the politico“religious exercises”the Associated Press nicely summarized the occasion as “a flag“draped gathering of prayer””he offered a brief, explicitly Christian petition and sat down.

To those who know Missouri, what followed was as predictable as night succeeding day. A number of LCMS clergy filed charges with Synod President Gerald Kieschnick complaining that in offering prayers along with assorted Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist clergy, Benke was guilty of (the terms varied) unionism, universalism, syncretism, and even idolatry. When it became known that Kieschnick had approved Benke’s participation in advance, the critics filed charges against him as well. The synod’s Commission on Constitutional Matters ruled that only the church’s national convention, which will next meet in 2004, can exercise discipline against the synod president, but that did not let Pastor Benke off the hook. The charges against him are still pending, and one of the synod’s vice presidents is charged with recommending what, if any, action should be taken against him. The possibilities include an official reprimand, dismissal from synod office, or even”though this, most knowledgeable observers think, would be extremely unlikely”removal from the pastoral ministry.

All this has been highly embarrassing for Missouri (so embarrassing, in fact, that church officials have placed a gag order on discussion of the matter by parties to the case or even by church publications). Most Americans aware of the issue, including most American Christians, find the charges against Benke silly or worse. There is also evidence that a considerable majority of Missouri Lutherans, theologically conservative as they are, recognize and make allowance for the extraordinary circumstances in which Benke acted. Judging from the preliminary public response among clergy and laity alike, most Missouri­ ans agree with what he did, and even those uncertain on the matter are willing to give him a pass. They see the good sense”practically and theologically”in what Benke said in defense of his actions: “In a pastoral way it was an appropriate thing to offer a prayer in the name of Jesus at a time of national crisis.”

Defenders of Benke note as well a recent church statement that, while leery of civic prayer services in general, permits clergy participation under extraordinary circumstances (“a once“in“a“lifetime event”) and as long as the pastor is permitted to pray in the name of Jesus. At Yankee Stadium, Benke prayed in Jesus’ name, and the event the service memorialized surely fit”or so we must devoutly hope”the “once“in“a“lifetime” prescription. “Let charity prevail” said President Kieschnick of judgments concerning Pastor Benke’s behavior, and it seems that most Missouri Lutherans, even those for whom charity in these matters does not ordinarily come easy, are inclined to agree.

All this is not to say that the occasion was unproblematic. I watched much of it on tele­ vision, and my reaction was decidedly ambivalent. Parts of the civic event/prayer service were genuinely moving, parts of it descended deeply into kitsch. Politicians bloviated, Bette Midler sang loud, and Oprah Winfrey, who acted as emcee, oprahfied the entire proceedings. Civil religion in practice is often not a pretty thing to behold. But bad aesthetics is not necessarily bad piety, and my overall response to the occasion was that I was glad it had occurred, that it was, all in all, appropriate, and that David Benke had rightly participated in it.

Critics of Benke within the LCMS are not entirely without support from outside voices. The columnist Rod Dreher, writing in National Review Online (February 21, 2002), does not explicitly put himself in the anti“Benke camp, but he does say that Benke’s critics “are asking the right questions, particularly at a time when syncretism . . . is a grave threat to religious identity and moral reasoning.” His argument comes down to this: in a culture awash in moral and theological relativism, post“September 11 ecumenical events like the one at Yankee Stadium have a tendency to blur authentic differences and contribute to our postmodern muddle.

Perhaps so, but one could as easily reverse the argument. True, no one at the event saw it as an occasion to spell out the profound theological differences among the participants. But whatever their religious differences, those gathered to mourn the dead were in clear moral agreement: no one suggested anything other than that the wanton killing of the innocent civilians in the Trade Towers was a great evil for which there was no legitimate excuse. Those present were saying, in effect, “Whatever our theological differences”and no one here denies that they exist”we know evil when we see it and we can together name it.” What happened at Yankee Stadium was not, except for those who chose to so interpret it, an instance of syncretism, and it was certainly not a postmodern denial of clear moral reasoning.

As for the effects of the incident within Missouri itself, there may even be a happy ending for those eager to draw the synod out of itself and into a critical engagement with the larger Church and with American culture. The ultraconservatives in the LCMS seem to have overreached themselves, and the net result could be an advance in the cause of Missouri’s beleaguered moderates. It may even be the case that a Missouri unburdened of a blinkered preoccupation with unionism will present itself as an attractive option for those in the ELCA dismayed by that body’s continuing flirtation with apostasy.

But perhaps my inveterate optimism”or at least hopefulness”betrays me. The hard“liners in the LCMS are so securely entrenched in power that they may be able to push through some form of censure of Benke for his mild ecumenical gesture. And even if they fail in that endeavor, there is no guarantee that, in the larger scheme of things, anything significant in the synod will have changed.

Flannery O’Connor famously remarked that Catholics are more often made to suffer from the Church than for the Church. Missourians of other than the strictest observance know exactly what she meant.