Word from the Center Digest: September 20, 2019

American Lutheranism and the Founding Fathers

by Timothy S. Goeglein

There is a myth among some American Lutherans.  It is that the public square is compromised, complicated and messy, and thus Lutherans should remain elementally disengaged from the affairs of state.  And, too, that this side-lined view is firmly rooted in Lutheran theology.  In sum, women and men of faith should, at one remove, decouple themselves and their families from public policy lest they tarnish their faith and potentially the church itself.

But is this really what Lutherans believe?  Is this really what our theology teaches us?

I was speaking in Wyoming to a large gathering of Lutherans this summer.  During the question and answer session that followed my remarks, a woman said she had been raised to believe that Luther’s two-kingdoms biblical worldview – that there is a God-ordained space for government and a God-ordained space for the church, and never the twain shall meet – was considered sacrosanct. Wasn’t this the case?

I shared with her that, possibly, there was no man of Luther’s own era who was more involved in the public square than Luther himself, which in no manner negated the immutable truth of the theology of the two kingdoms: that while the church and the government have definitively different roles, functions and purposes, those distinctions do not prevent Lutherans from being actively engaged in the impacting and shaping of the public policy questions of our own era.

Indeed, we serve Christ and our neighbors most vitally when we are promoting life, liberty, truth, justice and beauty in our most public places.

In one sense, it is a matter of an extension of our vocation, about which no one wrote with more eloquence, discernment or passion than Luther.

This all came to mind when I was reading an important new biography of Robert E. Lee’s father, “Lighthorse” Harry Lee.  He was one of George Washington’s most important comrades and compatriots during both the American Revolution and during the Washington presidency. The book is Lighthorse Harry Lee by Ryan Cole (Regnery, 2018). It was Harry Lee who famously said that Washington was “First in war; first in peace; and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

In the course of my reading, I learned quite by happenstance that the most important national memorial service honoring and commemorating Washington shortly after he died was the one at Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, built in 1766.  This was the historic church located at the corner of 4th and Cherry Streets, the church where the early American Congress met for a service of prayer and remembrance after the surrender of the British at Yorktown.

At that same church, the members of Zion invited and hosted the entire United States Congress for the service commemorating Washington. It was one of the largest interior spaces in the United States in the late eighteenth century.  This was about as high a profile as a Lutheran church could possibly have.

The more I learned, the more intrigued I became. It turns out the pastors and deacons of that parish in early 1789 wrote Washington a letter of congratulations after he won the presidency the first time. While not exactly offering a formal endorsement of Washington, the glowing letter makes it clear the church’s leadership and its congregants were celebrating not only victory over the British in the Revolution but also the elevation of Washington as the first, unanimously-elected president of the United States.

“It is with inexpressible satisfaction that we the Ministers, Church wardens, and Vestrymen of the German Lutheran Congregation in and near the City of Philadelphia address Your Excellency on the present great occasion  The entire esteem, the exalted consideration with which we view your character delightfully combine with the duty which we owe to this our country, and the love we bear to every fellow-citizen throughout these States in exciting to announce the joy we entertain in our appointment to the station of President in chief.”

But didn’t that shimmering letter fly in the face of the two kingdoms’ theological premise?  Weren’t they violating one of the central cannons of churchly authority?  Of course not.  They had made a wise and prudent decision that Washington was not only a worthy and remarkable general but also the ideal man to lead their new nation.  They wanted him to know they were praying for him and that they would commend his presidency and the nation’s new president to God’s blessing and mercy.  Theirs was a beautiful act of prayerful support and encouragement and not a violation of engagement with a powerful new leader.

Remarkably, Washington himself wrote back to them, expressing not only own esteem for Zion and its parishioners but also thanking them for their prayers and petitions of encouragement. Washington confirmed with them that it was his desire to preside with the humility, humanity and grace consistent with the hopes and principles with which they had written to him to offer their support and goodwill. Washington made it clear that he was manifestly relying on God’s blessings and help in this period after the crisis of the Revolution:

“I could not however avoid apprehending that the partiality of my Countrymen in favor of the measures now pursued has led them to expect too much for the present Government; did not the same Providence which has been visible in every stage of our progress to this interesting crisis, from a combination of circumstances, give us cause to hope for the accomplishment of all our reasonable desires.”

Neither in Zion’s letter to Washington, nor in his reply to them, is there any conflation of church and state; there is no sense that the new president will be viewed as a kind of pastor of the nation; nor does Washington pretend, as a cradle Anglican and lifelong member of the vestry in his parish in northern Virginia, that he is wending toward Lutheran precepts.  Instead, the letters are a healthy exchange between a president-elect and a church that has taken a public posture for good governance in what was then America’s capital city, Philadelphia – the same city that was the birthplace of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Zion had many other important, historic interactions with the Founders and the public life of what was then not only an important city of government but also Benjamin Franklin’s adopted hometown; he was peerlessly the most famous citizen of Pennsylvania and the most famous American around the world.  Zion recognized Franklin’s status – he once held the title President of Pennsylvania — and yet always prudently distinguished the role of the church and the role of government in a manner most commodious to Luther’s prescient distinction.

Lutherans in twenty-first century America can learn a lot from our Lutheran forebearers, not the least of which was their exemplary model of a prudential and graciously-active engagement in the public square firmly rooted in a theology consistent with the best of Lutheran theology. 

Tim Goeglein is the Vice President of External Relations and Government Affairs at Focus on the Family.

Be Informed

University of Pennyslvania Law School professor Amy Wax notes that, “Disliking, avoiding, and shunning people who don’t share our politics is not good for our country.” Read more about why she believes it here.

Be Equipped

Jude Schwalbach explains the unhelpful trend of students turning their “back on civil discourse” in a recent article for The Heritage Foundation.

Be Encouraged

“We may pay for our refusal to compromise dearly. We may suffer. We may be persecuted. We might face imprisonment, the loss of our life savings, the closing of our business, the wrath of the state. We may see these possibilities on the near horizon. But whatever comes, we cannot fail to remember the example of another biblical figure, Stephen, who was stoned to death for his bold gospel preaching in Acts 6. Immediately before Stephen were the people who ended his life. But as he lay dying, Stephen lifted his eyes and saw one greater behind them, beyond them. This figure, the Lord Jesus Christ, himself suffered and bled and died under the weight of injustice and persecution. He did so to save his people and glorify his Father. He walked the crimson trail, the narrow way, until the bitter end. Knowing our reward, so must we.” – Owen Strachan

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