Rev. Eugene Brueggemann
We live in a country and in a time when the religious word evangelical has been politicized. It is a term traditionally used to describe an expression of Protestantism which has thrived in this country practically from its beginnings. It emphasizes evangelism and a more or less literal reading of the Bible. It is a movement which has been embraced by many denominations without becoming a denomination itself. Today it provides a platform on which a number of prominent Protestant preachers, politicians, and authors have stood while publicly endorsing conservative candidates and causes. It is a serious player in American religion and politics.
To quote Jonathan Merritt in the December 2020 issue of the Atlantic, “There is no single membership statement to delineate identity [of an evangelical]… To the pollster, it is a sociological term. To the pastor, it is a denominational or doctrinal term. And to the politician, it is a synonym for a white Christian Republican” –which is why we need to talk about it these days.
Martin Luther loved the word evangelical, and so do we. The Reformation battles ended in the division of Western Christianity into Catholic and Protestant sectors. The word Lutheran was quite naturally applied to Luther’s teachings and followers, but Luther would have none of it. He saw himself as a reformer of the Catholic Church, not as the founder of a new church. Luther’s choice of a word to describe himself and his doctrine was the word evangelical, which means gospel-centered. He was aghast at the name Lutheran. He insisted that no church should be named after any man, especially not him, who he described as nothing but a “bag of worms.”
Luther’s attempt to disassociate his name from his movement was partly successful. To this day the word evangelical is used to identify Lutheran churches in Germany, but it has been broadened to include Reformed churches. Churches which want to remain confessionally Lutheran use the term Evangelical-Lutheran. That, of course, is the tradition in which the Missouri Synod stands.
The Missouri Synod was formed in 1847 as Die evangelische lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio und anderen Staaten. In 1941 or 1944 it formally changed its name to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, dropping the word evangelical from its legal corporate name. This did not signal a departure from the orthodox Lutheran tradition; it was just a small step in the Americanization of the Synod, a media savvy shortening of the original name.
The word evangelical is a familiar word in American political life. In today’s America it is not used to describe our European heritage; it is used to describe conservative Protestant churches and leaders who hold traditional views on moral and doctrinal issues. Many of them have chosen secular political methods to defend and advance their cause. We can agree that many of their social goals are desirable and consistent with Christian virtues and that American Christians of any denomination have the right and duty to enter the political arena to advance worthy causes. A lot of Lutherans on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide are politically active. We Missourians are generally on the conservative side, the side often referred to as “evangelical” or “the religious right.”
The point of this essay is that we must not assume that the phrase Evangelical-Lutheran in our Church’s name has the same meaning as the word evangelical in our national political life. There is some overlap, to be sure. We are all Protestants who share a love of the gospel and hold many traditional doctrines and moral values in common, but we differ in the confessional principle of the two kingdoms doctrine, which is anchored in Christ’s words to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and in Saint Paul’s counsel in Romans 13. As a synod we are designed to engage society not as a political player, but as a witness to the truth embodied in Christ and his mission. Our political influence is our faith at work in promoting justice and peace at home and abroad in personal life and in charitable organizations.
The evangelical churches we know today in our country formally organized in 1942 as the National Association of Evangelicals. This outcome took place after a long gestation in American history. It included a wide variety of Protestants who had been active in the Prohibition and Fundamentalist movements in those churches. The Scopes trial had highlighted divisions between traditionalist and more modern thinking, and the Presbyterian Church had split over those issues. The Lutherans, emerging as so many were from their ethnic cocoons, were not front-and-center in this episode. We had other theological fish to fry.
In the post-WWII years, the evangelical churches grew in response to the perceived failure of liberal churches and leaders to retain a high view of the Bible and the evangelistic mission of the church. The evangelicals were a grass-roots movement based in the South and Midwest with notable leaders like Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. Their churches were growing, liberal churches not so much.
Jonathan Merritt estimates that up to 47% of Americans are evangelicals and that they have become a political force. (A recent PRRI report, however, from July 2021, indicates that the actual number of white evangelicals in the US is significantly lower than Merritt’s figure and is declining.)
It is most certainly true that Lutherans are free to identify with any political party or movement whose values and objectives they share, with the essential caveat that they do not replace the Christian faith and church as their primary identity. That many Lutherans today identify with the evangelicals is hardly surprising.
But—and this is an important “but”—the use of the word evangelical in American politics today is a cultural indicator with little or no association with the same word in our religious heritage. This needs to be said in our journals and in our political conversations. We are Evangelical Lutherans (a traditional religious category), who may or may not be Lutheran evangelicals (a contemporary political category). It is one more way to differentiate between the law and the gospel as we wend our pilgrim way through the thickets of political clamor into the future where God is drawing us.