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.


The Benke Case and American Civil Religion, By Martin R. Noland — 58 Comments

  1. “Having overstepped, though, if he had just said, “I overstepped, in the heat of the moment. I should not have done this,” there would have been no problem at all.”

    …from post #38 should have been included in my previous comment

  2. 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.

    Here’s some background excerpts from Benke’s own 2002 Response to Charges, describing events leading up to the Yankee Stadium Interfaith Prayer Service:

    Thu, Sep 13 – “The gathering at Abyssinian Baptist Church, a historic parish in Harlem served by Dr. Calvin Butts, ended with a time of prayer and reflection… After the service, I was informed that the mayor had called for religious leaders to gather at Cardinal Egan’s office to prepare for the visit of President Bush and for a special event to be held in the near future.”

    Fri, Sep 14 – “I got to the meeting at Cardinal Egan’s… The discussion centered around a million person event to be held in a park on Sunday, September 23, for the purpose of civic healing. The Mayor was inviting religious leaders to attend and participate… The rest of the group then left to go to “Ground Zero” to stand behind President Bush, who was coming that afternoon. I was not allowed to go because on the prior day I had not gone through an FBI clearance.”

    Thu, Sep 20 – “I determined to make a phone call to a Roman Catholic contact about the September 23 event. When I asked about the event in Central Park, he said, ‘Oh, that’s ancient history. With all the security issues, it’s been moved to Yankee Stadium. You’ll need a ticket to get in through security. That’s designed to keep attendance to those who really need to be there.’ I made a series of phone calls. By mid-afternoon these conversations resulted in the opportunity to participate in the program at Yankee Stadium and to offer a prayer.”

    “During this night of reflection, I concluded that certainly the leaders of my own Atlantic District and most certainly the Synodical President would have to be in favor of my participation.”

    Fri, Sep 21 – “I contacted Dr. Kieschnick early in the morning concerning my involvement in what had become the Yankee Stadium program. He asked what type of event it would be and I told him who was hosting it and how the plans had progressed under the direction of the Mayor’s office. He then asked, from the wording of the Synodical convention resolution, whether there would be any restriction placed on my Christian witness. I told him that I knew of none, but that if there were, I simply wouldn’t go. I also told him I intended to offer a prayer in Jesus’ Name. He then affirmed my decision to participate.”

    “I then contacted Dr. Hiemstra with that information, since he had to know on that day whether I would be participating due to FBI clearance procedures. He indicated that the timing of the event was orchestrated in such a way that prayers were limited to one minute in duration…”

    Sun, Sep 23 – “The religious participants were held in the Yankee locker room, while the politicians and celebrities were in the visitors’ quarters. Then the FBI representative read off the list of approved participants, and my name was not on it – whoops! I went to the Protestant portion leader, who thought that maybe I should just wait in the dugout when the rest went out and they would call me later. I started to laugh, because I had this vision of being kind of the pinch-hitter’s pinch-hitter, strolling out to pray with a bat in my hands. But I resolved that I would need to accompany the rest up to the bleacher area out on the field. I spent some time with Roman Catholic friends Bishop Daley and Cardinal Egan, discussing Pro-Life issues (Cardinal O’Connor and I had co-founded a crisis pregnancy center in Manhattan under the great direction of a team of Roman Catholic and Lutheran laywomen). Then I took the Cardinal’s arm and walked out from the dugout onto the playing field. What were they going to do, throw me off the field? As the celebrities and politicians emerged, the usually congealed situation took place, and we all inched out toward second base. Eventually they found me a chair, sitting next to [Admiral Robert Natter] the Commander of the Atlantic Fleet.”

    “I decided on the spot to say a few sentences before praying, swept up just then in the high emotion of the afternoon.”

  3. @Carl Vehse #53
    I never realized that Pres. Benke worked so hard to do something which he knew would cause division. I didn’t have to beg that much for an invite to Nixon’s Inauguration.

  4. “I decided on the spot to say a few sentences before praying, swept up just then in the high emotion of the afternoon.”

    This says it all. One would think that DP Benke would have his remarks carefully prepared, so that he would indeed “Give a bold witness in word and deed….” to quote the LCMS’ mission statement. One would think that he would be sure to share the love of Christ, and leave the gathered multitudes with something to think about. After all his pleading, cajoling, and behind-the-scenes politicking, one would think that he’d be ready. But, after all his politicking, he simply behaved like just another politician (“It’s all about ME”), and lost forever a golden opportunity. No wonder even President Kieschnick chided him for his lukewarm performance!


  5. I think it’s telling that while President Benke’s prayer did not boldly confess Christ & the exclusive Gospel in his prayer, he was quite bold in confessing how he circumvented FBI security.

  6. @Martin R. Noland #42

    Dr. Noland,
    I’ll be the first to admit that I am all too often perceptually handicapped and intellectually slow, so please indulge me. It seems that there the Yankee Stadium fiasco (please, let’s get away from using personal names whenever possible) and the recent LCMS presidium change point to a recurring problem. Corporately as a synod, we don’t know what we are.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that undergirding what you originally wrote, above, is the fear that the majority of LCMS laypeople as well as a majority of our pastors quasi-erroneously believe that there is a generic, non-denominational, original true Christianity that most churches possess to which they add their denominational dogma and practices. This is quasi-erroneous because there is an original, true Christianity. It is most truly represented by Holy Scripture as explained by the Book of Concord of 1580. This I state with a fair degree of certainty based on having ventured quite broadly, having some familiarity with the Soto Zen and Shingon Buddhism of my maternal grandparents (syncretism is common among Japanese Buddhists), Methodism (parents), Congregationalism (paternal grandfather & high school) and dispensational fundamentalism. While in law school I dabbled with orthodox Judaism. Confessional Lutheranism is Christ’s soul saving truth in all its depth and clarity, simultaneously simple enough for a child and complex enough to require of veteran pastors weeks of meditation. Those of you who were born into LCMS families and know nothing of Christ-less paganism are only vaguely aware of the unimaginable riches into which you were blessed to be born. Take it from one whom Christ dragged out of the spiritual cesspool.

    In seminary we were taught about the Christological heresies that resulted in the ecumenical councils and creeds. In the sixteenth century Martin Luther restored the cardinal doctrine to the Western Church and almost immediately the Protestant schism sprang from among us and that gave rise to the apologetics of Chemnitz, Calov and others. In the nineteeth century the Saxon fathers crossed the Atlantic rather than have the Union Agenda imposed upon them. If I correctly “feel” what you are saying, we are currently facing the same crisis of faith as Christians of the past. Syncretism is but the latest major manifestation of the recurring doctrinal confusion plague.

    Perhaps we should all agree that the first half of the Harrison term should be devoted to studying exactly what we believe. Time to go back to Concordia, specifically to the Small and Large Catechism. Can’t hurt for us to do so in meekness and love as Christ commanded and St. John urged. Sorry for sounding harsh, but it seems that Christ demands strictness here. The end game is uncompromising. In the true Church there is no “agree to disagree” concerning doctrine. The bottom line is as it always should be: no unity without agreement to the same confession.

  7. Dear Pastor Kan (comment #57),

    Thank you for your very perceptive comment and response to my post.

    You are correct that we should avoid personal names when talking about issues, or as little as possible. I needed to mention President Benke’s name, because his name was attached to the church court case, and thereby everything related to it. It was not my intent to focus on him or the case. These are merely context for the problem of “syncretism” that is current today. It is current today, because the 2010 convention has asked the church to discuss the issues in its Resolution 8-30B.

    I am not going to suggest to Pastor Harrison what he, his assistants, or staff should be doing. The convention already did that with its massive restructuring of the national office. He has to be involved with that, because the convention said to do that.

    Your last paragraph is an excellent suggestion, and is perfectly in keeping with the first objective of synod, Constitution Article “Conserve and promote the unity of the true faith, etc.” This is the English translation of the original German, which said “Preservation and furthering of the unity of pure confession” (see CHIQ 16:1 [April 1943]: 2). This was drawn from Walther’s letter to Adam Ernst, August 21, 1845 “The maintenance and furtherance and guarding of the unity and purity of Lutheran doctrine” (see Moving Frontiers, p. 143).

    Our English translation “unity of the true faith” can give the impression that it is talking about the “subjective aspect of faith,” or as the theologians say “fides qua.” But the original German indicates the intent and meaning is the “doctrinal content of faith” or the “fides quae.” So that does mean that doctrine is the Number One priority of the synod, and thereby, all its leaders.

    So your suggestion is perfectly in keeping with our “covenant of love,” which is our LCMS Constitution.

    Regarding your comments about a generic Christianity, this is the chief Protestant heresy of our age. It was first promoted by the ecumenical movement, which sought world peace through religious unity. It was later promoted by the evangelical movement, which seeks unity through common religious experience, tolerating a wide diversity of methods, approaches, and doctrines.

    You are correct that most people born and raised in our church don’t realize the treasures they have received. I don’t think this is, necessarily, ungratefulness. I think it is mainly the lack of cultural experience outside of their social horizons. They just don’t know what they have.

    Thanks for your very thoughtful contribution!

    Yours in Christ, martin R. Noland

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