- Pamela Jolicoeur
- Paul J. Dovre
- Anna Rhode â€™09
- Arland Jacobson
- Larry Papenfuss
- Polly Kloster
- Roger Degerman
- Stephanie Ahlfeldt
- Susan Oâ€™Shaughnessy
- Kristi Rendahl
- Dr. Heidi Manning
- Roy Hammerling
- Pamela Jolicoeur
- Jan Pranger
- Nikoli Falenschek '11
- Bruce Vieweg
- Dr. Paul Dovre
- Whitney Myhra '11
- Bruce Houglum
- Dr. Lisa Sethre-Hofstad
- Dr. Paul Dovre, Interim President
- Nick Ellig
- Virginia Connell
- Per Anderson
- Vincent Reusch
- Larry Papenfuss
- Carl-Martin Nelson
- President William Craft
- Dr. Olin Storvick
- George Connell
- Robert Chabora
Larry Papenfuss, AthleticsHow Would Luther Vote?
Chapel Homily – Larry Papenfuss
Grace and Peace to You from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
How would Luther vote? It is, of course, a rhetorical question. Our system of government would have been totally foreign to Luther. He was not governed by a democracy, he was not republican or democrat, he didn’t live in a red state or a blue state. So, I’m not going to tell you that Luther would have a clear theological mandate supporting either party or either presidential ticket in this election.
However, over the last several months of the presidential campaign, I have frequently thought about how my Lutheran and Liberal Arts understandings have helped shape my political views and my responsibility as an engaged citizen in an election year. Certainly the goals of Concordia’s liberal arts education and our “BREW” mandate to “become responsibly engaged in the world” apply to our obligation to vote. And so too, do the words of our mission statement that call us to be “thoughtful and informed”. After all, a critical part of the success of any democracy rests firmly with an electorate that takes seriously its right to vote.
My thinking about the issue of how my faith informs my view of the election has been shaped by several fairly recent influences. First, last spring, I was asked to moderate an adult study at our church titled “How Lutherans Interpret the Bible”. It was a four part video series featuring Mark Allan Powell, a professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. Over the last few weeks, I have been struck by how some of the characteristics of Lutheran theological understanding, that he applied to biblical interpretation, have also shaped my viewpoints on political issues. Second, over the summer I read “The Faith of Barrack Obama” by Stephen Mansfield. In it, Mansfield summarizes the religious influences and understandings of Barrack Obama but also those of Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and John McCain. While Mansfield himself would lean towards a more conservative religious viewpoint, he does not try to guide the reader that way but instead, provides a very balanced and insightful look into how faith has shaped the lives of these four individuals. Finally, in early October, I listened to two episodes on MN Public Radio’s series, Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett. She featured a two part series with columnists Ann Sullivan and Rod Dreher on the faith of each political party. Again, a very balanced approach with one highlighting a self proclaimed “evangelical liberal” (two adjectives we seldom hear put together) and the other, a conservative republican who takes odds with the party’s views on economic consumerism and combining its religious perspective with a sense of mission or special purpose for US policies. You can listen to those programs on the web. Again, examples of very balanced reporting that leaves it to the listener to decide.
To organize my thoughts for today, I would like to return to Mark Allan Powell and three principles of Lutheran biblical interpretation that I think also speak to our understanding of political issues. They are:
1. A commitment to debate and dialogue;
2. An affinity for ambiguity and a healthy skepticism of absolutes; and
3. A recognition that some things in scripture are more important than others.
First, A commitment to dialogue and debate
Luther was a university professor who, when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg, was not looking to start a new religion but rather a debate within the Catholic Church. For Luther and for those who are liberally educated (not of course to be confused here with the use of the word “liberal” in a political sense), any idea worth pursuing should be able to stand the test of public discussion and critique. This principle is one that Darrell Jodock, religion professor at Gustavus also suggests is an organizing factor of Lutheran Colleges in his article “The Lutheran Tradition and the Liberal Arts College: How Are They Related”. A candidate or party’s policy on issues important to the election – whether it be the economy, the war, education, health care etc., should be able to be discussed and debated openly and in a respectful manner -- the kind of debate that allows for thorough and sometimes nuanced explanations, for questioning and clarification. Unfortunately, too often we get one-sided summaries of policy that place candidate views into “yes or no”, “for” or “against”, “check the box” responses.
While meaningful dialogue sometimes does happen, debate too frequently gets bypassed in favor of negative campaigning or TV and radio attack journalists who pander to the extremes of the political right and the political left. You know who I’m talking about. Rush Limbaugh is as guilty as Ed Schultz and Keith Obermann is as guilty as Bill O’Reilly. The sad part is that this type of slanted journalism is designed to create an emotional response that portrays the other party or candidate as the enemy, the scoundrel whose views cannot be taken seriously. Opposing viewpoints are belittled and scoffed at. In effect, they ask us to check our minds at the door. As our scriptures for today remind us, we are to be wise in discerning what is true. If I am to have a thoughtful and informed position on issues of political importance, than please provide me with non-biased information and dialogue. I have a responsibility to hear multiple sides and stances before making up my mind. I use the word multiple sides here because I also think that our political system is done a disservice by not allowing third party candidates to have a larger voice.
Since I’ve used Luther’s name in this argument, I’d better make a little disclaimer here. Luther himself would not have been above a little character assassination of his enemies (referring to some as pig theologians and worse) however, not without also engaging in meaningful debate and dialogue.
An affinity for ambiguity and a healthy skepticism of absolutes
Life and politics are not so easily framed as “either/or” propositions for Lutherans. After all Luther, ever the relational thinker, frequently saw greater truth by holding seemingly opposing viewpoints in a creative (or dialectical) tension – recall his theologies of the two kingdoms where we live both in the world of today and the world of tomorrow, of simul justus et peccator or being simultaneously both saint and sinner, or both slave and free. So my Lutheran understanding frequently directs me to seek more moderate views consistent with a “both/and” approach rather than an “either/or” approach. This is particularly true of political hot button issues where two-party politics tend to want to push the extremes to solidify certain blocks of votes. This does not mean that I do not have deeply held convictions but rather that my convictions are not easily placed into polar opposite categories as much of the political rhetoric wants to suggest.
In the doctrine of the two kingdoms, Luther points out that we live in the overlap between this world - the earthly kingdom, and the world to come - the heavenly kingdom. The world of today (the kingdom on the left) is governed by the law and God rules indirectly through our elected officials to maintain order in society. The world of tomorrow (the kingdom on the right) is ruled by faith through grace in order to seek salvation. Our understanding of our Christian vocation is deepened by holding both of these two spheres in tension with one another not allowing either to collapse into the other. Our life then is lived out in the overlap between the two kingdoms. I once heard Professor George Forrell comment on how the Lutheran two kingdom theology was well suited for political servants because while one’s sense of service to neighbor resulted in justice seeking and what is in the best interest of the society, it did not presume the need to convert society to a single religious view. Luther in fact was once asked about whether he supported a particular ruler who professed to be a Christian to which he responded “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.”
So, I get nervous with political rhetoric that suggests that we need to collapse the world of today into the world of tomorrow. And, I get angry at pundits who want “either/or” answers to complex questions and then want to label me or my beliefs. On the flip side of the coin, I also get nervous when political debate completely ignores the role that faith plays in my citizenship. Too often, the pundits want to force me into an “either/or” stance. Unfortunately, the debate is often framed by absolutes or extremes without room for more complex understandings of relationship. In Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, Amy Sullivan, national correspondent for Time magazine, who describes herself as an “evangelical liberal”, lamented the fact that moderate or more nuanced viewpoints are often totally left out of the conversation. She cited the example that talk show debates on religion frequently feature polar opposites pitting a right wing, religious conservative against a left wing, liberal ACL&U member, who believes religion should be totally left out of the public square, leaving no room for thoughtful, more moderate, religious perspectives. Neither extremes are views that I, or the majority of Americans, hold.
I also get extremely nervous, as does conservative Rod Dreher, when our faith gets co-opted into a form of nation worship where US policies are viewed as having special blessing by God. This confusion of nationalism and faith is NOT good for our faith or our country. Jim Wallis agrees and in his book God’s Politics on this topic he writes:
Abraham Lincoln had it right. Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God’s blessing and endorsement for all of our national policies and practices --- saying, in effect, that God is on our side. Rather, Lincoln said, we should pray and worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.
My sense of nationalism, while tremendously important to me, will always be secondary to my life as a Christian. Nor do I feel compelled to exert my Christian beliefs on every American citizen. To do either, in my mind collapses the spheres of the two kingdoms. This of course does not mean that I do not work for justice in the world. It simply means that I see God acting in different ways in each of the worlds.
Luther in his wisdom recognized that the truth is not an “either/or” proposition but that on the contrary, the deepest truth comes from holding these two worlds in creative tension with one another. This seems to be a difficult concept for the political parties to understand. For example, it is almost incomprehensible for those conducting phone polls to fathom how someone might lean toward fiscal conservatism but still support government programs for the poor, or how someone might consider themselves’ an evangelical Christian, and still support gay and lesbian rights.
Lutherans recognize that some things in scripture are more important than others.
Mark Allan Powell uses the examples of Jesus being asked which of the commandments is the greatest to illustrate the concept that some biblical truths take priority over others. In this example, Jesus responds to the question with “Love your Lord your god with all your heart, mind and soul” and the second to “love your neighbor as yourself” –clearly establishing a sense of priority. In my faith and in my politics, I believe the same thing – that some issues are more important and central to both God’s will and our civic responsibility. From my biblical perspective, seeking justice, mercy, and helping the poor are much more important topics than ritual sacrifices, adultery or gay marriage. And I think we need to guard against making single, low priority, issues more important to our decision-making than the big, high priority issues. This, as you will recall, was the problem of the Pharisees who were constantly in trouble with Jesus for making too much out of the small things and ignoring the big things.
And so, with a week to go until the election, I encourage you to seek out the unbiased and informed debate, don’t allow the pundits to collapse your views to the extremes, and keep your eyes on the big issues. The challenge is to be wise and discerning. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of those who in the words of the Romans text “cause dissensions and offenses” “For such people do not serve our Lord, but their own appetites and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple minded”. Don’t be simple minded but instead tune in to the meaningful dialogue and exercise your right and your obligation as engaged citizens of faith.