The Benke Case and American Civil Religion, By Martin R. Noland

Now that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has a new president, it can discuss the Benke case with less heat and more light. Maybe. At least the discussion is no longer REALLY about the next election.

The “Benke case,” for those who don’t know, refers to the participation of Atlantic District President David Benke in the “Prayer for America” at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 2001. LCMS President Gerald Kieschnick gave Benke permission to participate in that event, which would otherwise be considered a “syncretistic” act under LCMS Constitution Article VI.2.

Persons who believed that Benke violated the synod’s constitution brought charges against him, and the charges were processed under the synod’s “Dispute Resolution System.” The final result of the case was that Benke was exonerated, and his ecclesial judge, the Rev. Wallace Schulz, was summarily fired by his employer, the Lutheran Hour Ministries.

Many people were reluctant to discuss the Benke case for good reason. For one, the bylaws highly discourage publicity (LCMS bylaw (d)), excepting the President of synod or the district president involved in the case. Secondly, any disagreement with Benke’s act could be, and was, interpreted as REALLY being about the next presidential election, since Kieschnick was involved personally in the case, not just officially. Finally, it had become a church-court case, and anyone who understands justice knows that judges should not be pressured by the crowd. Otherwise, we fulfill Wilhelm Loehe’s prediction that the Missouri Synod would be governed by “Poebelherrschaft” (tr. “mob rule”; or, “gang rule”).

The leaders of the Lutheran Hour Ministries not only pressured the Rev. Wallace Schulz, they fired him from his gainful employment. So much for “justice” in the church! Nothing has made me more ashamed of being a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod than the way that the Lutheran Hour Ministries directors treated Rev. Schulz, who was doing his job as an officer of the church in good conscience and with sound judgment. I am not angry; just ashamed.

Schulz ruled against Benke “straight from the book,” i.e., the LCMS Constitution which he was obligated to follow. Those who lashed out at Schulz, and those who were responsible for his firing, obviously disagree with the book, i.e., the LCMS Constitution and especially its Article VI.2 on syncretism. And this is where we still are today, nine years later, with no real resolution on this issue, though the case is finished.

There is some good discussion regarding the issues of syncretism from a Lutheran perspective in: David Adams & Ken Schurb, eds., “The Anonymous God: The Church Confronts Civil Religion and American Society” (St Louis: CPH). There were also excellent lectures on these issues in the last decade at both seminaries. Proceedings from those symposia are necessary reading for anyone who wishes to talk or write intelligently on this topic.

While beginning to unpack my library (finally!), I came across a book I had not opened for over 30 years: “The Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America ” by Martin Marty (New York: The Dial Press). When I attended Concordia Teachers College, River Forest, it was required reading for one of the required theology courses. Most of my professors at River Forest, including the professor who assigned that text, quoted Martin Marty approvingly, and that particular text glowingly.

The book “Righteous Empire” was, in fact, about the development of American Civil Religion. Although couched in the objective language of the religious historian, it was pretty obvious that American Civil Religion was considered a mixed curse. Why? As Marty explained it, American Civil Religion has its uses, but it can be bad because it can blur the distinction between church and state, which is one of the buttresses of freedom of religion. Demagogic politicians can also use it to manipulate the electorate. I thought that Martin Marty’s analysis was accurate and useful.

So, then, I found it extremely ironic when all of the “liberal-leaning-Lutherans” in the LCMS came to Benke’s defense when he participated in an event that was the epitome of the American Civil Religion. Did they suddenly forget everything that Martin Marty taught them was wrong with American Civil Religion? (I don’t know what Marty said about the Benke case, if anything).

Those who want to get rid of the syncretism clause in the LCMS Constitution don’t understand Lutheran history or American religious history. That is the most charitable thing I can say about them. The LCMS syncretism clause is designed to prevent the pastors and leaders of the LCMS from getting involved in events of the American Civil Religion, among other things. Our forefathers saw what German Civil Religion did to the church in Germany. We owe our forefathers a debt of gratitude for helping to keep our church at arm’s length from the Homeric siren that is American Civil Religion.

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