Another Look at “Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod”

The latest issue of the “Lutheran Clarion” is online and is worth reading and downloading for your files. Click here to obtain your free copy.

In this issue, Dr. Scott Meyer, Chairman of the Board of the Concordia Historical Institute (hereafter CHI), gives a magisterial analysis of James C. Burkee’s book Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011). The title of Meyer’s article is “Theology–the Real Issue of the Preus Era.” Meyer’s headings summarize his points: “Hearsay vs. Eyewitness Evidence,” “Burkee Diatribe Against [JAO] Preus,” “The Issue of Theology,” “Behnken’s Concern and Plea,” “[JAO] Preus vs. Burkee on the Issue of Theology,” and “Christ’s Teachings.” This article is the presentation that Dr. Meyer gave to the January 2012 Lutheran Concerns Conference in Fort Wayne.

The previous issue of the “Lutheran Clarion” published an article with the same title “Theology–the Real Issue of the Preus Era,” written by Mr. Walter Dissen, Esq. for the same conference. If you don’t have that article, you can obtain it here for free.

The credentials of both Dissen and Meyer are significant and very impressive. Walter Dissen was a personal eyewitness to many of the events of the Preus era, serving 12 years on the Board of Regents at Saint Louis, 12 years on synod’s Commission on Appeals, and most recently 12 years on the Board of Regents at Fort Wayne. He is a retired corporate attorney, having served at the highest levels of industry, with matchless experience in service to his church.

Scott Meyer received the Distinguished Service Award from CHI in November 2004. The Award has been given to only a few people in the history of the LCMS, including C.S. Meyer, Theodore Tappert, J.A.O. Preus, Oswald Hoffmann, Gerhardt Kramer, Roy Suelflow, August Suelflow, and Gladys Suelflow-Krause. Scott Meyer has been a faithful and productive member of the Board of Governors of CHI and its various committees since 1986. He is the distinguished author of the award-winning Fifty Years in the Footsteps of Walther: Biography of William C. Kohn. He is a retired corporate patent attorney for Monsanto.

Previous reviews of Burkee’s book include: Ken Schurb, Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 84 #1 (Spring 2011): 55-57; and two online reviews at Blogia, one by David Ramirez and one by myself.

The accumulated criticism in the above-mentioned reviews leads me to wonder what happened in the writing of Burkee’s book, which was originally his doctoral dissertation. I am not, in any way, questioning Burkee’s competence as a scholar of general American history. That is his scholarly field, after all!

The online description for James Burkee says that he is the “Associate Professor of History” at Concordia University-Wisconsin, specializing in “modern American political history.” He also “teaches courses on the modern Middle East, US national elections, and Wisconsin political history.” “He earned his Ph.D. from Northwestern University” in Evanston, Illinois and “did his undergraduate studies in Business and History at Concordia [University-Wisconsin].” There is nothing here that indicates more than a rudimentary competence in theology, religion, or church history. This is the most charitable explanation for Burkee’s apparent blindness to theological issues in the Preus era.

As a church historian, I am wondering what an American political historian is doing writing his dissertation in my field of church history. It doesn’t make any sense. His doctoral committee should have refused to accept his topic. Although most folks think that historians are equally competent in all fields of history, that belief is hardly true. For example, engineers are not just engineers. They are electrical engineers, civil engineers, software engineers, etc., etc. You risk major damage if you hire one to do the other’s job. The same is true for historians and their work.

I would never venture to write a dissertation, or write a book, in a historical field that I had not studied extensively, in detail, for many years. Why did the doctoral level faculty at Northwestern University encourage and permit this in Burkee’s case? I don’t know, but it is symptomatic of where church history is headed in America.

One of the most talented and respected church historians in the United States, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, was David W. Lotz of Union Theological Seminary–New York. Lotz edited an important book on American church history in the modern era titled Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America, 1935-1985. Essays in Honor of Robert T. Handy (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmanns, 1989). For that book, Lotz wrote a historiographical essay titled “A Changing History: From Church History to Religious History” (pp. 312-342). The essay is most significant for how it explains the secularization of church history since 1965.

In his essay, Lotz wrote: Martin E. Marty observed that church history was now being pushed ‘in a secular direction’ . . . For Marty, then, the crisis besetting the discipline [of church history], marked chiefly by a loss of ‘church’, could be offset by a promising new venture: the study of religious history (though this shift, it seems, also confirmed and even compounded the crisis). (p. 330-331; my emphases). In other words, Lotz did not believe that Marty’s “solution” to the problem was helpful in resolving the crisis.

Toward the end of his essay, Lotz wrote: This programmatic turn from theological history to social history-so characteristic of religious history in toto-is partly attributable to the change in the discipline’s primary institutional locus from seminaries to university departments of religion and history. Most of the more recent Ph.D.s in religious studies lack formal, seminary-based theological education. In consequence, as Jaroslav Pelikan has remarked “young scholars have been entering the field of the history of Christianity without adequate preparation in the biblical, ecclesiastical, liturgical, and theological issues with which, after all, much of that history has been preoccupied, and have therefore been compelled to acquire, only after the doctorate (if then), what seminary graduates used to bring as a prerequisite to graduate study and research.” (p. 337; my emphasis).

Both David Lotz and Jaroslav Pelikan explain the problem that faces church history today. It is being overrun by persons schooled in “general religious history” or by persons trained in “social history.” Burkee appears to take the latter approach. Both types are blind to and ignorant of Pelikan’s list of “biblical, ecclesiastical, liturgical, and theological issues” that are the “meat and potatoes” of real church history. Little wonder, then, that Burkee didn’t think that theology was an important issue in the Preus era.

That is why Burkee’s book is a bad book. That is why I can’t recommend it to anyone for any reason. It is why I will continue to use the more reliable books by Fred Danker No Room in the Brotherhood and by John Tietjen Memoirs in Exile to get the liberal’s side of the story of the Preus era. It is why I will continue to use the very reliable books by Kurt Marquart Anatomy of an Explosion, Seminary Board of Control Exodus from Concordia, and Paul Zimmerman Seminary in Crisis to get the facts about the Preus era and its context in American Lutheran church history.

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