By Dr. Norman Metzler
In recent political developments at the presidential level, a parallel has become quite evident between the Watergate machinations of President Richard Nixon and his subsequent resignation from office, and the possibly actionable machinations of President Donald Trump that could rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
There is another fascinating parallel between these national political developments and the synodical church-political developments in the Missouri Synod in roughly the same parallel timeframes of the two national presidencies. Rev. Dr. J.A.O. Preus ran for the synodical presidency basically on a platform of bringing confessional “law and order” to our LCMS, just as in that same timeframe Richard Nixon ran for the USA presidency on a platform of “law and order” for our country, in the midst of epochal upheaval embodied in the various liberation movements (black liberation, women’s liberation, gay liberation) and widespread Vietnam War protests.
As we know all too well, Nixon’s appeal to a generalized fear of change and chaos breaking out in the liberation and anti-war movements was successful; he won the national presidential election in 1968. A year later, Preus’ appeal to LCMS delegates’ fear of liberalism and their desire for strong leadership to restore confessional Lutheran identity and practice in Synod was likewise successful, and he won that synodical presidential election. He and subsequent synodical presidents embarked on a crusade to strengthen and centralize synodical control, exercising hierarchical powers at the expense of the constitutionally-guaranteed advisory relationship of Synod to its member congregations and workers.
Fast forward almost a half century, when we have now witnessed the ascendancy on the national political stage of a presidential candidate who stoked fears of change and the loss of our American “greatness” in order to win the national presidency and undertake an almost dictatorial style of governance as president. Parallel to this national political development, we are witnessing LCMS President Matthew Harrison stoking synodical fears of loss of our biblical and confessional purity and orthodoxy, all in order to consolidate and strengthen his hierarchical powers as president of Synod – again, contrary to the constitutionally provided advisory function of Synod relative to its members, i.e., congregations and called workers.
The Watergate investigation and threat of impeachment, as we know, led to the resignation of Richard Nixon and something of a course correction in our national politics. A parallel ongoing investigation into the US presidency and leadership today may lead to a course correction in our national politics. There was no parallel course correction within the LCMS leadership in the 1970s, and the efforts to solidify hierarchical control of Synod have mostly continued unabated since the Preus era. However, somewhat parallel to the national investigation of the current administration, efforts are underway today in the LCMS to effect a change in synodical leadership that would return our Synod to its proper advisory role, and empower local congregations and workers for their mission and ministry.
What will come of both the current national government investigation and our current LCMS synodical efforts for change in leadership and vision remains to be seen. But it is both fascinating and sobering to see the parallels between our secular national political developments, personified in Nixon and Trump, and the church politics of our Synod, personified in Preus and Harrison. We as citizens of our nation must exercise our responsibility to vote for leaders who will return our nation to civility in politics and the proper rule of law. It is likewise the responsibility of the members of Synod to vote for leadership that will return our LCMS to its advisory role in support of congregations and workers properly focused on mission and ministry.
*Dr. Norman Metzler served as the head of the Theology Department at Concordia University in Portland.