From October 2017 until October 2018, Protestants around the world, especially Lutherans, are commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the church catholic’s Reformation. The coincidence of these celebrations with the rise of populist political movements has led some to ask: Is it important to understand Martin Luther in order to understand our political moment? Various writers have announced that Luther was the Trump of 1517 or that Luther and Trump have much in common. We’re told that Luther “spawned” Trump.
Unfortunately, few of these hot takes engage with Luther’s distinctive theology governing religious engagement in politics, which theologians call the “Two Kingdoms Doctrine.” In a recent article for The Nation, “How Martin Luther Paved the Way for Donald Trump,” Michael Massing discusses the Two Kingdoms Doctrine at some length. Unfortunately, Massing incorrectly states that Luther taught that “Christ’s Gospel was to apply only in the spiritual realm; in the secular, the government’s role was to maintain order and punish evildoers, not to show compassion or mercy.”
Luther never taught this—though many Lutherans throughout history seem to have understood him in this way. My research on the 2016 election shows that Trump’s victory was probably obtained by capturing a big swing among American Lutherans. Is it the case that Lutheran theology favors brute political realism, mercilessness in state operations, perhaps even docility in the face of tyranny? Historically, the answer has often been “yes.” But it needn’t have been, if Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine had been understood correctly.
The Two Kingdoms Doctrine originates in Martin Luther’s 1518 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” though before that it has resonance with Augustine’s City of God, which had influenced Christian church-state relations in the West for a millennium. In the 1518 tract, Luther lays out an idea that is central to all Lutheran teaching: There are two kinds of righteousness, civil and spiritual. By civil righteousness, Luther meant that people, by the powers of reason with which they are endowed, can refrain from murdering one another, or stealing, or lying. But no amount of civil righteousness amounts to spiritual righteousness, that is, the right-acting that may earn salvation. Perfect civil righteousness does not undo the basically sinful nature of man; only spiritual righteousness does that, and spiritual righteousness is nothing else than faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation. With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.
From the 1430s until Luther’s day, German peasants had periodically engaged in large-scale uprisings, protesting excessive taxes, corrupt churchly authorities, and other grievances. In the early 1520s, Luther’s preaching against the power of the Roman Catholic Church served as a rallying cry, helping give these peasant revolts a higher sense of purpose, and providing them with a language of spiritual and political critique. What had been smaller regional uprisings became widespread; hundreds of thousands of peasants rose up and began seeking to overthrow the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, as well as their feudal lords.
Luther condemned the Peasants’ War, reminding the peasants that secular authorities are divinely instituted for human good. He called for the uprisings to be crushed, even as he advised the feudal lords that the revolts were their own fault, thanks to their oppression of the peasants, which oppression they should cease.
Luther is sometimes criticized for not supporting the peasants, as if he owed complete loyalty to the populist wave. But we should note that the rebels were not democratic reformers, but apocalyptic radicals seeking the institution of heaven-on-earth. When a group of radicals took the city of Münster in 1534, they formed a polygamous death-cult centered around charismatic leaders who duped their followers into a disastrous siege, in the hope of initiating the End Times. Their campaign was more Jonestown than Yorktown. Thus, when Luther condemned the rebellion, he did not condemn a political platform. Indeed, he supported many of the practical reforms the peasants demanded, and pushed the German nobles to adopt them! Rather, he condemned the mobs for trying to institute cultic theocracies based on their idiosyncratic and often violently repressive readings of scripture. He argued that the conflict was basically civil in nature—neither side could claim to be representing God.
In the wake of the Peasants’ War, Luther set about creating an organized theology systematizing his belief that church and state must have some kind of separation. From this project arose the Two Kingdoms Doctrine, the belief that God rules alone in the “right-hand kingdom” and empowers humans to rule in the “left-hand kingdom.” In the right-hand kingdom is all spiritual righteousness: God alone establishes laws that pertain to spiritual righteousness, God alone can justify according to spiritual righteousness.
In the left-hand kingdom is all civil righteousness. Rarely does God throw lightning to smite the wicked. More often, humankind is ordered to exercise the role of civic stewardship we were given in Eden. So that we may accomplish this task, God has established three estates, in which all people exist and find their roles: state, church, and family. To Luther and many other reformers, we all have duties primarily as subjects of an earthly sovereign, subjects of a divine sovereign, and subjects of a household sovereign. Luther suggested that the roles of ruler, pastor, and parent were all ordained by God to carry out the stewardship of their respective estates. Each authority was to steward his or her part of the left-hand kingdom. The estate of the church, of course, was special: The pastorate was entrusted with the “Office of the Keys,” the authority and command to forgive sins, and thereby communicate the reality of the Kingdom of God into day-to-day life within the Kingdom of Man.
Virtually all Lutheran piety and moral life flow from this model. For Lutherans, the first question when considering one’s own deeds and need of God is one’s social position within the three estates of the Kingdom of Man. In the Small Catechism, the most condensed statement of Lutheran piety, Luther repeatedly exhorts the Christian to treat the Ten Commandments not simply as a list of laws, but as tools to frame one’s place in life.
Our place in life, the synthesis of our various duties, roles, and talents, is called our vocation. Luther practically invented the modern usage of the word “vocation.” Before Luther, the word had meant almost exclusively the spiritual calling to priesthood or monasticism. But for Luther, God works in the Kingdom of Man through vocation, through observable means or “masks,” just as He delivers the Kingdom of God to us by the observable means of baptism and communion. Since Luther first popularized this view of vocation, Lutheran pastors have consistently exhorted their flocks to perform their vocations as subjects, parishioners, and family members. This extension of spiritual and moral significance to mundane, secular work is what is meant by the “Protestant work ethic.”
But sadly, almost from its conception, the doctrine of vocation has been at best half-taught. It is not too harsh to say that Luther was one of the few major Lutheran church leaders until the twentieth century to see that condemning the immorality of the state was part of his vocation. For centuries, Lutheran pastors in Europe reminded people to remain subject to their sovereigns, yet too rarely reminded sovereigns of the burden on them to care for their subjects. All too often, the doctrine of vocation placed burdens only on the already burdened. Soon enough, the settlements of Westphalia, which gave sovereigns the right to determine their states’ religions, led most Lutheran churches in Europe to become bureaucratic agents of the state. In countries such as Denmark, church membership was used to force peasants to remain as residents in the parish of their birth. The situation became so unbearable that by the 1700s, major reform movements had broken out within Lutheranism.
The ensuing battle over the established Lutheran churches resulted in the Saxon Migration to America, which gave rise to my own church, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. It also gave rise to pietist and free church movements in Scandinavia and latter-day reformers in Denmark. All these movements, in their various ways, responded to a fundamental problem in the teaching and practice of the Lutheran state churches: Subordination to the state had impaired the church’s ability to perform the Office of the Keys. The church had become little more than a cog in the bureaucratic machine. Luther’s heirs, far from exemplifying the doctrine of separate and thriving estates, had, for all practical purposes, subordinated the Gospel of God to the laws of man.
By the twentieth century, nothing remained in the European Lutheran churches of the ancient prophetic voice preaching repentance to rulers. In a classic case of too little, too late, a few Lutheran heroes, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could not make up for the wider Lutheran response to the threat of Nazism—which ranged from outright exuberance to strategic collaboration to vague neutrality.
Does this mean that Luther’s Two Kingdoms should be viewed ignominiously today? I do not think so. Rather, Lutherans should reconsider this doctrine in light of Luther’s teaching on vocation.
In this light, several facts become clear. Citizens have a different vocation than subjects. Modern governments place a duty and a burden upon citizens, demanding that they participate in governance. No modern American has a ruler, in the sense that the Christians did to whom Paul wrote his letters. All the scriptural teachings about governments apply, but the reality of democratic and participatory governments means that a vocation-centered theology cannot view Christians as merely the subjects of the state: By having voice, Christians are participants in the rulership of their state. As such, when considering what sins they should confess, they must consider sins of rebellion against lawful sovereigns and sins of misgovernment, that is, failures to discharge the duties of self-governing citizens.
Beyond this, Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.
Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.
Lyman Stone is an economist who researches demography and migration, and an advisor at Demographic Intelligence.