A Response to the ELCA’s Draft Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement: Discipleship in a Democracy

May 6, 2020

Rev. Roger A. Willer, Ph.D.
Director for Theological Ethics
Office of the Presiding Bishop
8765 W. Higgins Road
Chicago, Ill 60631

Re: A Draft Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement: Discipleship in a Democracy

Dear Dr. Willer

I am afraid that what I have to say about the above draft will come across as rather harsh. Though appreciative of the careful work it represents and in substantial agreement with its content, I am convinced that, on the whole, it misses the mark. It is quite simply not the statement the church and the world need at this time.

The draft statement hangs much of its argument on the “two kingdoms” doctrine. That teaching works fine when government is more or less functional and requires only maintenance and occasional repairs. Not so much when it goes off the rails and into the ditch. Of course, I recognize and affirm the interest we all have in preserving the health of institutions, governmental and others, that promote the public good. But I believe the hostility expressed toward governmental regulations for the protection of health and safety is part and parcel of a much deeper crisis, that being the rise of race based nationalism personified in a maniacal, narcissistic megalomaniac and implemented through the agency of the Republican Party with the support of its religious surrogates. The critical problem with the document is its obsession with ‘fixing” America. What we need in this hour is a bold witness to the reign of God and its counter-cultural values that is unafraid of naming the beast and exposing its lies and oppression.

You don’t have to look far in order to see exactly what I am talking about. The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” was enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform . It states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that  “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.”

Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.”  It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”

This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Stephen Miller have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

The rise of quasi religious nationalism is not just an American phenomenon. Similar political movements have overtaken the governments of nations around the world, including Italy, Hungary, India, Brazil and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Such movements are making considerable headway in western European nations as well. Just last year, the Lutheran World Federation produced a very thorough and thoughtful collection of essays on the scope of this disease entitled Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism. This is a global ideological pandemic that we ignore at our peril. We do not serve the church or the planet well when we “heal the people’s wound lightly” by treating only the symptoms while allowing the disease to spread unchecked.

The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins and other prophets of the regime employ the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Are we going to go on pretending that the man who leads our nation is just another elected leader whose blatantly false, racist and hateful words and policies we must “talk around,” in the name of civility, neutrality or nonpartisanship? No, we are not yet at the point where our situation is analogous to that of the church under the Nazis. But I have to ask, how much closer do you want to get? How many more black Americans must be gunned down by police? How many more children must die in detention centers? How many more people must die of covid 19 because a president approaching an election does not want to impose or enforce regulations unpopular with his base, but required to prevent its spread?

I am aware that the ELCA has issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But like the current draft under consideration, they only scratch the surface of our country’s sickness, a global sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism, the America first agenda and the claim that these demonic ideologies are sanctioned by Christian faith and teaching. I would love to see my church, the ELCA, take the lead toward developing such an ecumenical confession. Sadly, though, I am beginning to doubt that American mainline protestant churches like my own possess the moral courage, the spiritual maturity and the theological depth to produce such a bold confessional document. I devoutly hope that my doubts are misplaced. Because until we address the ice berg toward which the ship is sailing, our learned theological dissertations on governance amount to little more than squabbling over arrangement of the deck chairs.

Please know that, despite my criticisms, I appreciate your work and that of your office and pray for the Holy Spirit’s continued guidance for our church in what I believe are challenging times.

Christ’s servant and yours,

SS/Peter A. Olsen

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)

6 thoughts on “A Response to the ELCA’s Draft Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement: Discipleship in a Democracy

  1. Peter,

    You have stated this so well, and I am sorry but I think we waited too long; we needed “a Barmen like confession” when Trump first started campaigning …and the Nationalist Christian’s…said he was sent by GOD.

    The ELCA had little to say for far too long, and when words are uttered, they are too little and too late.

    I left my ELCA congregation of 12 years in the spring of 2018. I cannot bear this slaveholder religion that so many Christians hold dear.

    My bread and wine for the past two years has been your posts. Thank you.

    Margy Kane ________________________________

    1. Thank you, Margy, for your comments and kind words. Yes, I think too that we in the ELCA have waited too long. For too long we have prized peace within our ecclesiasitcal household over peace and justice for God’s creation. Still, I pray that the anguished cries of black Americans might finally wake us up. It would not be the first time the black church has spoken the prophetic word required to shake the rest of us out of complacency. Peace and keep the faith.

  2. Hello, Thank you for responding to the ELCA draft message. I tried to read their message in entirety but ended up skimming because it was neither compelling nor infused with the breath of the Holy Spirit . These are perilous times. Our message, as people of faith, must be bold and we must name the Empire for what it is. I’ve been listening to the prophetic sermons and teachings of Walter Brueggemann and have realized Black Lives Matter is the Exodus story. We were made for these times and must go forward with courage and fortitude. Thank you for yours.

  3. Pastor Olsen – thank you for speaking up on the draft social statement. As a father of three daughters, I read with anticipation the social statement on women and justice. I was wholeheartedly disappointed. There were no biblical references of men using their influence for good or(Joseph planning to divorce Mary quietly) and examples of sin and toxic behavior(think David’s actions as he coveted Bathsheba). In the example of Joseph, he was in a system where women were not treated equal yet he worked within his means to work towards a better outcome. No separation between good and sinful behavior of individuals, lots of long explanations about systemic/historical problems. Likewise, there were no examples given of women taking on the kingdom work within a system while working to change it. I simply found no redeeming content to share with my daughters.

    Too often these statements are long in the tooth and short on action.

    My congregation had been partnering with one that is much more diverse than ours serving meals at an inner-city once every other month. We got into some membership trouble for other reasons and had other difficulties serving, so the current leadership and Pastor decided to stop the effort. I mention this example because we took on the new ministry while I was leading the congregation as president through a very stressful time, we were in the throws of the fallout from various things and in the middle of a call process. Yet the project united us and provided a much-needed service to an underserved community. We did not need a mandate or several page documents to tell us what to do. I have not read this current statement at all and in fact, I won’t. I know the pattern. Instead, I am going to email the Pastor at the church we partnered with and just ask her what she needs and work to help with whatever I have been blessed with. Thanks again for speaking up.

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