Four Ways Lutherans Can Engage in the Public Square
Four Ways Lutherans Can Engage in the Public Square
By Timothy S. Goeglein
In Washington DC, in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in all of America, there is a small park near Connecticut Avenue in the northwest part of the city. Tall trees provide a kind of natural canopy above, and in the near-center of that vest-pocket park is a bust of one of America’s most illustrious Lutherans who is now largely forgotten.
He was John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg (1746-1807), a general in the Revolutionary War, but first and foremost, a Lutheran pastor born in Pennsylvania. In 1928, the United States Congress authorized this monument to him because, among many other achievements in his remarkable life, he was a member of Congress, representing the 4th District of Pennsylvania.
Muhlenberg had also been a vice president of Pennsylvania when Benjamin Franklin was the president of that state. Clearly, public service was in the Muhlenberg family DNA: John’s brother Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg was our nation’s first Speaker of the House of Representatives — a distinguished Lutheran lineage indeed.
Dramatically, Pastor Muhlenberg finished that sermon in his Woodstock, Virginia, parish on a Sunday morning with a flourish, removed his clerical robes to reveal to his congregation a militia uniform below, and set out to battle the British.
Tellingly, in that final sermon, he said: “In the language of Holy Writ there is a time for all things … there is a time to pray and a time to fight … and that time has now come.”
More than 300 fellow parishioners joined him in battle, a drummer keeping beat as recruits came forward to join their pastor in the quest for American independence.
The Muhlenberg name remains an illustrious one: John’s father Henry Melchior helped found the first Lutheran presence in North America; Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College is named for their family; and General/Pastor Muhlenberg went on to a famous friendship with George Washington, closing his military legacy as a brigadier general and later serving in the House and Senate.
I share this story because it remains a misnomer among some Lutheran Christians that we engage in the public square at our own peril. That it remains perhaps wiser and more prudent to hang back, disengage, and defer to others to do ‘the dirty work’ of politics. But there is nothing in our Lutheran legacy – beginning with Luther himself – to suggest that we somehow compromise our Christian witness or testimony if we also actively seek and work toward the common good.
There are four steps we might consider, rooted in our faith, to engage in the public square in a manner consistent with our belief that the realm of the church and the realm of the state are in fact never to be confused or conflated with one another. This distinction remains a central and immutable part of our Lutheran theology.
First, we need to build relationships with the men and women who represent us – on the city or council; in state government; and at the federal level. It doesn’t mean we are honor-bound to convert them; it means we are to cultivate strong ties, with grace and diplomacy, so that as the men and women who represent us make major and minor decisions about how public policy will be shaped, they will take into account what we have shared from our Lutheran-based worldview. This is Christian citizenship at is finest.
Second, we need to educate the rising generation of young Lutheran Christians about the important distinction between the realm of faith/revelation and the realm of government/state. Too often, this important distinction is difficult to discern and reason in an often confusing cultural moment likes ours. It is more important than ever that we emphasize that the church is strongest and best when it is the church, but that we as Christians have obligations in the government and state borne of service and goodwill – it is a way of serving and loving our neighbors without confusing the role of our churches with the role of those who govern us.
Third, we have to better define what vocation means. Some men are called to the pastorate; some women are called to be deaconesses. That is right and fitting and proper. But there are ample other Christians whose vocation is serving in government; working for the state; seeking to impact and influence public policy; and to produce, write, edit, and assimilate information as news that allows a constitutional republic to function well according to the principles of self-government rooted in the United States Constitution.
Fourth, we need to be bold and steadfast about speaking up and speaking out – both when we strongly agree with a public policy consistent with our faith, and when we strongly disagree with another policy that negates the natural law that is a gift to us. For instance, Congress is in the midst of gathering congressional names for the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. That is a marvelous pro-life, pro-dignity policy. It is worthy, and we should make our voices known. Diplomacy whose genesis is faith is a gift to our nation.
The temptation among Christians is to take the temperature of the chaotic and dysfunctional culture, and to imbue ourselves with a sense of despair and discouragement. But despair and discouragement, we know from Scripture, is a sin because it negates the hope of Jesus Christ. We are not seeking an earthly victory; as Christians, we know that the important victory of all of history has already been won by Our Lord and Savior.
The kingdom of the state and the kingdom of the church are, in the words of the late Chuck Colson, “kingdoms in conflict.” We Lutherans understand that organic tension. Colson famously observed: “Salvation will not arrive on Air Force One,” meaning that the state and government will never ‘save’ us. Our salvation is rooted in Jesus Christ alone.
There is much work and service to be done by Lutheran Christians in the public sphere in 21st century America. We must never allow it to become, in the words of the late Richard John Neuhaus, a “naked public square.”
As with Pastor Muhlenberg, we are blessed with a theology that distinguishes the church from the state, and while we are citizens of both – with obligations and duties in both – our final home is elsewhere, with Christ. While we are on this side of eternity, the chance to serve and love our country and our neighbor and our community is as depthless as the Lord’s love for us. Engaging is a good, right, and humbling call.
Timothy S. Goeglein is vice president of government and external relations at Focus on the Family in Washington DC.
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