July/August 2023 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2023

Captured! How the church of my childhood fell under the sway of Christian Nationalism

  David Beck

I was brought up in a small rural town in central Minnesota. If you ever listened to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” Lake Wobegon describes the town I grew up in to a T. 

Although a small town, we had seven churches. My father was pastor of one of those churches, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). I was in the eighth grade when my father got a call from one of the other pastors in town. He asked my dad whether he would join the other pastors in saying a prayer during the half time of an upcoming football game. My dad said, “Absolutely not.” 

I overheard the conversation, and I was shocked. “Why in the world wouldn’t you participate?” I asked.

He responded by quoting a couple of Bible passages on avoiding false teachers and then went on to lecture me on the importance of the separation of church and state. It was, I believe, the first time I had ever heard that expression, and it left an indelible mark. My father told me in no uncertain terms how important the separation of church and state is in protecting the preaching of the true gospel. It was the very reason that the founders of the LCMS had emigrated from Germany over 100 years before to establish a church free from government interference and free to preach the word of God as God had intended it to be preached.

Later at LCMS high school I attended, the subject of the separation of church and state came up again during the 1960 elections between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The consensus at the school was that the election of Kennedy, a Catholic, would be a threat to our democracy and the separation of church and state as Kennedy would be taking his orders from the Pope. (Of course, the fears about Kennedy turned out to be overblown.)

A school circular stressed the importance of the separation of church and state quoting a 1932 LCMS resolution stating, “Accordingly we condemn the policy of those who would have the power of the State employed ‘in the interest of the Church’ and who thus turn the Church into a secular dominion; as also of those who, aiming to govern the State by the Word of God, seek to turn the State into a Church.”

The LCMS at that time was rapidly growing. The denomination relished its members’ freedom to pray and worship as their interpretation of scriptures demanded without government interference as guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

But threatening forces within and outside the LCMS were increasing. Within the LCMS, historical biblical criticism was becoming a threat to the church’s doctrinal position on biblical inerrancy. Outside, through a variety of judicial and legislative decisions, secularism had become a thorn in the flesh as some churches the denomination had been aligned with became more progressive in their doctrinal positions. 

All this resulted in a power struggle within the LCMS to deal with these issues that left the church’s conservative wing in charge. Then, just as the LCMS doubled down on its conservative messaging, the denomination started to see a rapid decline in its membership. From 1970 to 2020 the LCMS lost one million (36%) of its members.

The LCMS was facing an existential crisis. As a result, it turned increasingly to the judicial system to protect its interests. Since 1988, along with other opponents of the separation of church and state, LCMS officials have been involved in 90 friend-of-the-court briefs in church-state cases. 

The denomination has opposed reproductive rights and marriage equality. It resisted COVID restrictions on large church gatherings and backed government’s ability to display Christian monuments in public spaces. The denomination sought taxpayer funding of private religious schools and backed the right of religious groups to discriminate in hiring and firing of non-ministerial personnel. It also insisted that school religious clubs should have the right to discriminate and supported a public high school football coach who insisted he has the right to say a coercive prayer at mid-field after football games.

In 2011, the Becket Fund represented the LCMS before the Supreme Court in a case involving one of its schools that had fired a disabled teacher — not for cause, but because school officials claimed a right to dismiss anyone they considered to be a minister. In 2017, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) represented the LCMS before the Supreme Court on behalf of a church in Missouri that requested to use a publicly funded program to resurface its playground with recycled tires. The LCMS won both of these cases. Through its judiciary activism, the LCMS had now become a staunch opponent of the separation of church and state. But that wasn’t all.

In 2016, the LCMS established the Lutheran Center for Religious Freedom, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C., to work with Congress in writing laws that would align with a “biblical world order” — a term I had never heard mentioned by anyone in the LCMS before. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The executive director of this lobbying group told me in an email exchange that the biggest threats to humanity were and have been the Enlightenment, secularism and the separation of church and state. The answer to humanity’s problems, he said, is to establish a biblical world order. 

He and others in the LCMS often cite Martin Luther’s controversial two-kingdom doctrine and the Augsburg Confessions from the 1500s as the church’s justification for working through the state to impose God’s will. According to the hardliners’ interpretation, the power of the state comes from their god, not the people — despite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

In a way that reflected this evolving right-wing extremism within the leadership of the LCMS, I became the recipient of a batch of hate memes that originated with the executive director of LCMS’ Lutheran Heritage Foundation. I challenged the sender who had forwarded these memes to me. I told him that the hateful nature of these memes had no place in a civilized society. He responded by quoting Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” This was certainly not the kind of response I would have expected from someone who subscribes to Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as I had been taught.

It’s hard to imagine how the LCMS could become any further divorced from its original beliefs in the importance of the separation of church and state in protecting its freedom to preach the gospel, but it has done just that. It is now a registered partner of the ADF, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate organization, describing it as one of the most influential groups that worked to undermine LBGTQ+ rights during the Trump administration. The ADF takes legal positions in opposition to same-sex marriage, the decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity and the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It has also been staunch advocates for other cultural issues near and dear to the extremists on the right.

I pointed this out to a devout follower in the LCMS who told me she had never heard of the ADF. This led me to believe that many members in the LCMS may be unaware of the evolution of the denomination, where their donations are going and what the leadership of the LCMS is up to. This seems to be born out in a recent Pew Forum survey that found 45% of the denomination’s members say they use common sense and not the Bible to determine what’s right or wrong. In addition, 55% believe what is right or wrong depends on the situation, 39% seldom or never read the bible, 41% don’t feel the word of god should be taken literally, 46% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 56% say homosexuality should be accepted and 45% strongly favor marriage equality.

This would have been at least for me a fairly hopeful note to end on, but now I’ve learned that a group of white Christian Nationalists led by Corey Mahler, an attorney who attended Chapman University while Trump’s attorney John Eastman taught there, are trying to turn the LCMS into a bastion for Christian supremacists who believe the Bible justifies their hate. They’ve been increasingly successful as reported by Rolling Stone and by Machaira Action, which researches fascist systems. 

Mahler and his supporters are determined to make their far-right policies the official and explicit agenda of the LCMS. The LCMS leadership is screaming mad about this development and promises to excommunicate them. But since the LCMS has already aligned itself with other extremist groups such as the ADF, it’s highly unlikely it can now change trajectories. They are, to put it mildly, reaping what they have sowed. They have become a petri dish for extremism bereft of any notion of the separation of church and state, a regrettable dystopian state of affairs for the LCMS and our country.

David Beck is an Americans United member in Montara, Calif.

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