A Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty?

By Caleb Keith

Most of the people reading this probably haven’t heard of the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty (LCRL). I hadn’t heard of the LCRL until this past summer, and it wasn’t until this last semester that I really understood what the LCRL is and what they do. As part of a research paper for my Christians and Ethics course this semester, I examined the LCRL and reviewed its functions in light of the classical view of Lutheran two-kingdom theory.

The LCRL is a “special initiative” of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LC-MS) located in Washington D.C. The LCRL monitors and engages with political and ethical issues surrounding the first amendment, marriage, and abortion in two distinct ways. Firstly, it educates and connects congregations and individuals within the LC-MS concerning critical political developments in Washington. Secondly, it performs limited political lobbying within IRS guidelines for non-profit organizations. The question I ask is simple: is this sort of political involvement in line with the classical view of God’s two-kingdom rule?

I based my research off of available documents from the LCRL webpage. Below is their purpose statement:

  1. Engage federal and state officials and other partners through advocacy and networking;
  2. Educate future generations about serving God through vocations in government, law, and public policy; and
  3. Connect with Lutherans involved in government affairs. Where the government, the culture and faith conflict, Lutherans can and must speak up and out in support of religious liberty.

Based on the above statement, the LCRL performs both public and private functions within the church. In its public function, the LCRL engages political leaders and performs limited lobbying on behalf of the LC-MS. In its private functions, the LCRL serves to educate and connect with LC-MS congregations and individuals about political issues concerning religious liberty.

Church-and-Politics

In my paper, I argue that the LCRL’s function as a lobby in most cases stretches classical two-kingdom theory concerning the role of the church, while the LCRL’s function as educator operates within two-kingdom practice for the benefit of the church and all people.

The two kingdoms are often distinguished by the terms right-hand kingdom and left-hand kingdom. The right, in its simplest understanding, is the realm of the Church and salvation, while the left hand is the realm of social order overseen by government and other secular authority. This distinction is deeper than the typical American understanding of the separation of church and state. Though they remain separate, these kingdoms are not in competition with one another but are both instituted by God coexisting for the good of man. The Christian life takes place within the right-hand kingdom so that men might be reconciled before God and in the left-hand kingdom that men might live peaceably and be blessed in this earthly life.

Since the left-hand kingdom is made up of both Christian and non-Christian sinners, it requires laws for order, peace, and security. However, the coercion of these laws cannot solve but only curb the problem of human sin. Thus, the right-hand kingdom of Grace does not expect temporal government to do God’s perfect will. The role of the right is not to ensure perfect earthly obedience but to bring about and uphold salvation through Christ. In this light, it may be problematic for a Lutheran synodical body which confirms the classical Lutheran two-kingdom teachings would perform political lobbying in Washington D.C. This lobbying engages in the shaping and guiding of earthly obedience. To be clear, the LCRL does not employ the means of Grace or the Gospel as a tool for coercion. Instead, the LCRL functions in the left-hand kingdom using human reason and the Law of God as guide concerning political and moral issues. However, since the LCRL still functions as an entity within the LC-MS, it always carries right-hand kingdom implications along with it. The involvement of a right-hand kingdom organization in left-hand kingdom rule can result in blurring the Gospel with the Law and making the church look more concerned with social order than with salvation even if this is not really the case.

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While the LCRL’s role in public civil engagement may not completely fit within the classical two-kingdoms theory, its role as educator certainly does. This is because the two kingdom warning of involvement within the political realm is not to Christian individuals whose vocation as citizen may call for them to be engaged in such matters. As an agent of the LC-MS, the LCRL does well to educate congregations and individuals about current and future legislation. The LCRL is also armed with God’s word so that it can encourage members of the church to take action according to their callings as members of both the left and right hand kingdoms.

The two-kingdom Theory is an integral part of how the early Lutheran reformers and the historical Lutheran church views both the Church’s and the Christian’s place in society. This theory is as important now as it ever has been because the ethical climate of the western world has become more hostile toward orthodox Christianity. While valuable, this theory can be stretched to apply outside of the reformers original intentions and context. Lobbying activity performed by the LCRL may be one example of such stretching insofar as it takes a direct role in the American legislative process. While one function may be a stretch of the classical view of the two kingdoms, the LCRL’s role on individual and congregational education falls directly within the classical two-kingdom model as well as the reformers’ understanding of Christian liberty and vocation.

I am not writing this to attack the LC-MS or the LCRL. Instead, my aim is to start a conversation about the place of the Church and its voice in the midst of the political and ethical failings of our government. Is church-organized lobbying a good solution, or does the responsibility of political action fall on the vocations of the church’s members?

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7 thoughts on “A Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty?

  1. In terms of advocating on behalf of religious liberty, the Apostle Paul did, at times, appeal to the rights of his Roman citizenship. I believe that Paul would have done the same thing on behalf of one of his congregations, if was ever in a place to do so. If you could prevent your flock from being robbed by the government or attacked by angry mobs, wouldn’t you do what you had to? Isn’t this similar to what Justin Martyr did?

    We obviously don’t face that level of persecution in 21st Century America, but the culture and the laws of the land are turning against us. If the LCMS can lobby the government in order to protect its people from persecution, and they can do so according to their rights as citizens, don’t you think this is a good thing? What good are civil rights if we don’t use them?

    As far as the denomination advocating for legislated morality, I think that gets a bit closer to crossing the line. In the case of the right to life, however, I think the stakes are so high that we must speak up. Advocating for the lives of the most vulnerable is not necessarily a confusion of the Two Kingdoms. I think it falls more into the category of loving your neighbor and seeking to protect him.

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    1. Ken, I believe you are completely right that we must speak up when it comes to issues surrounding life and abortion. Moreover, by “we” I mean Christian citizens. There is certainly a place for the church to speak on this matter, I just don’t think it is the role of the church corporate or a synod like the LC-MS to be involved in the shaping of public policy. Leave that to the individual and let the church do what it does best, forgive sinners, even those who murder the unborn.

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      1. We may have to agree to disagree on this one, brother. You’re starting to sound a bit like Reformed Christians when they talk about regulative principle of worship… “well, technically the Bible doesn’t say that the church should use instruments on Sunday morning, so we should all just sing acapella… and only sing the psalms, too.” I’ve had Christians tell me that the Bible only gives us examples of Christians giving money to help poor Christians, therefore Christians should not give money to help poor non-Christians. What about being freed by the gospel to love our neighbors? Is it wrong to send money to medical missionaries helping unbelievers, or aid ministries providing food to the poor? I think those are good things, things which are pleasing to God, but they are not explicitly commanded in Scripture. The segments of the Reformed tradition who insist that the Bible only gives us examples of Christians giving money to help other Christians are technically correct.

        You’re right that the primary role of the corporate church is Word & Sacrament ministry, but if the church corporate is fulfilling that ministry, I’m not sure why it is wrong for them to advocate before the government on behalf of their people. I’ve seen serious issues in the Reformed tradition when Christians are so adamant that the church can only do x, y, and z. They make sharp distinctions between the mission of the church versus the responsibilities of individuals, which are necessary distinctions, but at times it can become an excuse for callousness and inaction.

        I think Lutherans in America are leary of joining the religious right, as they should be. There is such a confusion between God’s relationship to the church, and God’s relationship to the state in that movement. They think God’s only going to bless us if we make His Law the law of the land. Another example of this is the Federal Vision Movement. Let’s call that falling off the horse on the right side.

        At the same time, look at the Protestant churches in Nazi Germany who tacitly or openly supported Hitler. Boy, did they keep the Two Kingdoms separate! That was some great theology, huh?

        I was in a Bible Study once where the teacher said that Christians would have been right to turn in Jews in Nazi Germany because the Bible tells us we must submit to the government. I think we can call that falling off the horse on the left side.

        I think the church needs to be somewhere between those extremes. Its good for the church to advocate for religious liberty on behalf of its people, because if we don’t, our freedoms will most certainly be eroded much more quickly. At the same time, its bad for the church to confuse God’s law for Ancient Israel with the law that is supposed to govern our land. Its good for the church to advocate on behalf of the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, and the poor, but its bad for the church to become confused and think that God isn’t going to bless their church unless the government of the United State changes its position on the right to life.

        Anyways, definitely good stuff to discuss. Thanks for the interaction.

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  2. I think the LCMS is going way too far on this issue in a foray into politics and I even have my doubts as to the educational role within the church. I live in the northeast but have contacts in the Bible-belt who were brutalized by evangelical churches who seek, not only a union of kingdoms but hegemony in politics, social order, and economics to the point where the Church is a negative in their lives. The educational segment leans too heavily in a vote-directing capacity and we already suffer from a lack of vision on many issues preferring to criminalize and drive things under ground rather than prevent. I don’t see the right-hand remaining clean and far too many Lutherans have already succumbed to Americanization within the church.

    Blind acceptance of economic order already undermines stewardship without regard to the actual nature of earnings and property(7th commandment). Profit motives undermine contentment (9th and 10th Commandments). Theses issues, in turn, create incentives to abortion (5th) and easy divorce/ separation (6th), which feed back into abortion. Life and property as rights of the individual leaves us open to the most violent interpretations of the 2nd Amendment, rather than a constabulary one – it conflates “the people” with “each person”, sows fears, and even the notion of self-defense is easily perverted to the cause of abortion when the child can be seen threatening the economic or mental well-being of a woman – it makes the child an aggressor. We have to learn to see the Law as so integrated as to be a monolith not tolerating raising one aspect above others. Even if we go to order or precedent, the 5th ranks below idolatry. But, since we forgo trying that one out in the public realm, we decide, instead, to lord over others with a quasi-religious notion of some of God’s Law being applicable to all, regardless of opposing religious notions (polygamy, abortion, homosexual marriage) as if no one is free to embrace these things. this is seen in the US as conservative, right-wing, and Christian.

    Do you know how many people think that “God helps those who help themselves” or “teach a man to fish…” are from scripture? Why? because if it seems right by political dogma, it must be Christian in such a Christian country. How many think that wealth or even nationality are signs of God’s favor?

    We can act for justice in distribution of wealth, goods, and services to work against abortion and divorce, shore up the family. We can clamor for increased spending on infrastructure (and reap the job creation from this) all the while taxing most heavily those who most profit from the infrastructure and re-create a middle-class. We can reduce consumption and insist that wages are brought up by, yes, forcing profits down. It is not like unbounded profits and poor distribution are things of nature, they are things created by rules we’ve invented and we can invent new ones. The first thing we need to do is stop using faith to support capitalism, profit, investment, interest, pollution, greed, prisons. Simply acknowledge that all we have, the whole world, was given for the whole of mankind and intended to provide well for all mankind. Come to grips with the notion that surplus, profit, above the value of what is produced (that’s the actual definition), does not appeal to anything of God. In other words, target the temptations and incentives, not the resulting actions. This is seen in the US as godless, liberal, anti-Christian.

    Sometimes, doing what is best for our neighbors is not what they want, but what they need. In church, we don’t allow our food pantries and aid money to enable people to gamble, by drugs, drink. Perhaps we should also refrain from enabling their flawed senses of human judgment against groups of people and actions they deem are worse than their own or to the worship of wealth. To that end, I don’t think Synod should be doing this unless they are ready to turn on all the ways of man in favor of God’s ways, call these things what they are, forsake nationality, and cease speaking of rights rather than gifts.

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    1. I think it’s unnecessary to conflate capitalism with pollution, greed and prisons. Just because a person is a capitalist, does not make that person a Social Darwinist, global warming denier, or robber of the underclasses. Capitalism, just like everything else in a sinful world, must be regulated to prevent abuses, but it is the abuses that are bad, not the entire system.

      To say that capitalism is un-Biblical is to say that the 7th, 9th, and 10th Commandments are invalid. Capitalism, most essentially, is a pretty simple concept: you have the right to own property without having someone steal it from you and you have the right to sell or trade that property for a price that is mutually agreed upon.

      Some people pretend that any government oversight or regulation is the equivalent of Socialism. Those people have never read Marx. Unfortunately, knuckleheads on the right have overused the word Socialism so much that the vast majority of Americans believe that any form of welfare, any form of government regulation, or any type of government-run economic stimulus automatically equates to Socialism, as if every economic action can either be defined as Capitalistic of Socialistic. It’s unfortunate that those people don’t realize there are a million economic philosophies and theories that could properly fall under the broad “Capitalism” label, without adhering to some sort of Ayn Rand styled Libertarianism/Social Darwinism.

      I don’t know specifically what the LCMS is lobbying for, but I don’t necessarily see all political lobbying by a religious body to be out of bounds. I think it just has to be done with some necessary dangers/pitfalls in mind. The LCMS shouldn’t join arms with the religious right on all issues (maybe not most of the religious right’s pet issues), but I think it would be good for the interests of their people to be represented before the government. We do live in a democracy, after all. Isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t a proper understanding of vocation inform us that we should work within our rights as citizens?

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      1. I agree with much of what you say but the economy we practice and property rights we espouse do, indeed, counter stewardship. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…” (Ps 24:1). There is only one property owner and the disposition of His property is to be according to His will.

        The Church Fathers were firm in the resolve that while one may hold private property one ought to dispose of it in a Christian manner so as to prevent privation and certainly saw usury, greed, wealth accumulation and profit as evils. Why? Because they had the economic sense to see that a finite world was provided for us, infinite growth was neither possible nor desired. They held that value was added only in a person’s labor. In other words, there could be no surplus. These things were, indeed, cited as issues of contentment, greed, envy, competition and theft. For everything accumulated in excess of need came at cost to someone else, and it still does. I endured a lot of lot finance folks and libertarians and growth-obsessed people in my pursuit of an economics degree. It all leads, inevitably, to pollution (waste) and prisons (this nation has the most) and is driven by greed. the “profit motive” (greed) is cited as the prime mover (Econ 101). Agreed upon pricing is not a relevant issue simply because cost, price, and value are not synonymous. In order for price to generate profit, it is logically necessary for one to sell at greater than value.

        “The rich man argues, Whom am I wronging so long as I keep what is my own? Tell me, just what things are your own? Where did you get them to make them an inseparable feature of your life?… If every one were to take for himself simply what sufficed for his use, and left what was over and above to the man in want, there would be no distinction of rich and poor. Were you not born naked? Shall you not return naked to the earth? Whence, then, the goods you now possess? If you ascribe them to fate, you are godless, neither recognizing the Creator nor being grateful to the giver. But you acknowledge they are from God. Tell us then the reason why you received them. Is God unfair in the unequal distribution of the good things of life? Why is it that you are rich and that another is in need? Isn’t it wholly that you may win the reward of kindness and of faithful stewardship, and that he may be honored with the great prize of patience? Now after seizing all things in your insatiable greed, and thus shutting out others, do you really think you are wronging no man? Who is the man of greed? He that is not content with a sufficiency.” (St. Basil, Sermon on the Parable of the Rich Fool, Luke 12)

        We were not born in Geneva, we are from the Church and ought to look to the Fathers in their criticism of real property, enclosure of the commons to obtain rents as reward for service to the crown, the origin of the lots and blocks we have, today.

        We can even turn to the Large Catechism: “For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor…For, as we have just said, to steal is to signify not only to empty our neighbor’s coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market, in all stores, booths, wine- and beer- cellars, workshops, and, in short, wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor…Furthermore, in the market and in common trade likewise, this practice is in full swing and force to the greatest extent, where one openly defrauds another with bad merchandise, false measures, weights, coins, and by nimbleness and queer finances or dexterous tricks takes advantage of him; likewise, when one overcharges a person in a trade and wantonly drives a hard bargain, skins and distresses him. And who can recount or think of all these things? To sum up, this is the commonest craft and the largest guild on earth, and if we regard the world throughout all conditions of life, it is nothing else than a vast, wide stall, full of great thieves…No more shall all the rest prosper who change the open free market into a carrion pit of extortion and a den of robbery, where the poor are daily overcharged, new burdens and high prices are imposed, and every one uses the market according to his caprice, and is even defiant and brags as though it were his fair privilege and right to sell his goods for as high a price as he please, and no one had a right to say a word against it.” Selling above value is easily theft.

        “This is, in short, the course of the world: whoever can steal and rob openly goes free and secure, unmolested by any one, and even demands that he be honored. Meanwhile the little sneak-thieves, who have once trespassed, must bear the shame and punishment to render the former godly and honorable.” Prisons for the poor.

        “Therefore let every one know that it is his duty, at the risk of God’s displeasure, not only to do no injury to his neighbor, nor to deprive him of gain, nor to perpetrate any act of unfaithfulness or malice in any bargain or trade, but faithfully to preserve his property for him, to secure and promote his advantage, especially when one accepts money, wages, and one’s livelihood for such service.” Imagine being driven, not by personal gain or profit (capitalism) but by the other person’s advantage over you.

        True, we need oversight and regulation. But the path to that has to begin with and admission of what we actually have and most Christians in this nation, particularly evangelicals, confessional Lutherans, and right-wing Catholics are more taken with the system which is built upon personal interest and private greed. If you aim for a system that is based on your own interests and allowing people to further their own interests rather than a system which demands always the interests of the other at personal cost, your regulation and oversight will not be honest or properly directed.

        Granted, this is a sinful world. But we need to say that in terms as specific as we seem to be able to say things concerning social issues, that the natural law demands a just distribution, just as it defines sexuality and condemns murder. We do not. Privation leads to stealing to provide, fear, abortion, violence and prisons. The proof is in front of us, daily. We accept certain evils with words like “materialism” and “consumerism” rather than point to underlying motivations and the corrupt system that demands even servitude to it in exchange for a simple livelihood. Otherwise, who cares if we are free or muzzled in the public sphere?

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      2. I absolutely agree that Christians should faithfully give to support the ministry of the church, the relief of the poor, the spread of missions, etc. To say that, however, is different than saying that the government has a right to take what I own and give it to another. I think this is where a proper understanding of the Two Kingdoms comes in, as well as a proper understanding of Christian freedom. The Lord blesses me as He sees fit, and it is my responsibility to steward those blessings, not the government’s responsibility.

        I do believe in a minimum social safety net for helping those most vulnerable, but the system as it currently stands in the US goes far beyond that. My wife and I were relatively poor for the first few years of our marriage, and we lived in some pretty ghetto apartment complexes. A lot of our neighbors were working the welfare system, lying about their income, refraining from marriage because the “wife” could get more benefits for her children that way, etc. I’ve also seen members of my family/extended family abuse the welfare system by spending their welfare checks on new iPhones, vacations, and going out to eat. How can a person with no job afford an iPhone 6 and a vacation? The system is horribly abused, and I think we would all benefit if some of that capital was freed up to create jobs, wealth, and technology.

        Which brings me to a second point – I disagree that resources are inherently limited to the number of people on the planet. It is possible to create wealth and to create a surplus through increased efficiency and technological innovations. The green revolution in agriculture has created a surplus that we did not think was possible in the 1970s. The average person around the globe today enjoys a far higher standard of living than his grandparents, and especially his great grandparents. That’s not to say that there are no sustainability issues, or that there is no economic instability. There are also people who get abused horribly by this system. Those are all things that need to be addressed, but I don’t think we’ve got a better model to work with than capitalism. Capitalism is like democracy. It’s the worst possible economic system you can think of, except for every other economic system. That’s just part of living in a fallen world. Rather than bashing capitalism, we should try to make it work better, because we really don’t have a better model to work with.

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