Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Minnesota Conundrum

I am in Minnesota visiting my daughter at college (she has a flute recital and banquet and she is a junior so we figured we needed to make the trip).  We are having a great time but every time I come here, I am faced with the complex quilt that is Lutheranism and the political culture of this state.  There are few states that have as high a percentage of Lutherans in their population as does Minnesota. Open the newspaper and nearly every obituary references Lutheranism -- either the folks were baptized or confirmed in a Lutheran parish or are being buried from one -- and yes they do print that stuff out in the newspaper).  Open the phone book and it reads like a Swedish, Norwegian, German scrabble game.  In Mankato, where I am writing this, there are something like 4-5 different Lutheran denominations represented (a city of what, 40,000).  In addition you have colleges representing three denominations within 15 miles (and all seem to be doing well).  You know you are in a Lutheran heartland when you come here.

BUT... what kind of Lutheranism?  It is generally politically liberal (independent sometimes as well).  For example, the champion of Minnesota politics was Hubert Horatio Humphrey, the Democratic Farm Labor Party leader.  They have consistently elected liberals like Paul Wellstone and weirdo liberals like Al Franken.  They have elected strange independents like Jesse Ventura.  Polls tell us that Lutherans are more conservative than liberal -- but here it is different.

I read where Minnesota is putting foot washing stations in public restrooms to accommodate Islamic folks who must wash their feet to pray.  I read where there is a very high number of gay and lesbians collected in the Twin Cities area (in fact an article in a magazine I was reading on the plane described the large subculture of this city and the "gay friendly" character of the area.

Lets take, for example, a Lutheran Pastor who lives down the street from my daughter's college -- the Rev. Herbert Chilstrom.  He is a native of Litchfield, Minn., born October 18, 1931, from 1958 to 1962 Chilstrom served as pastor of the Faith Lutheran Church in Pelican Rapids, Minn., and Augustana Lutheran Church in Elizabeth, Minn. In 1962 he became a professor of religion and academic dean at Luther College, Teaneck, N.J. He held that position for eight years before accepting a call to be senior pastor of First Lutheran Church, St. Peter, Minn., in 1970. In 1976 Chilstrom became bishop of the Minnesota Synod. He was graduated in 1954 from Augsburg College, Minneapolis, with a bachelor of arts degree in sociology. He went on to receive a bachelor of divinity from Augustana Theological Seminary in 1958. In 1966, he was graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a master of theology degree.

I would expect that he came from good conservative Lutheran stock, people with personal responsibility, a healthy sense of guilt and grace, who appreciated their heritage and culture, who worked hard, who saved rather than spent their money, did not live in showy houses, went to church because they know they needed it even if they did not want to, and felt a sense of duty and service.  They probably worried about Herbie headed to New Jersey and what kind of folks he might find out there in the strange East Coast but they figured they raised him well and he was solidly grounded.  He probably never ever knew a gay person.  He hardly knew any minority individual well -- not because of prejudice but because of lack of contact.  And he believed what Scripture said and preached the Gospel because he knew Jesus was the only way to heaven.  And then what happened to him?

He has become a champion of gay and lesbians in the church, contributed to a book about it, appointed a sexuality study that eventually brought forth the fruit of the ELCA decision to accept and ordain gay and lesbian (albeit within the context of committed relationships).  He has written passionately to those thinking of leaving the ELCA that the decision in August of 2009 was right and was the only path for the ELCA to go.  He attends First Lutheran (where he was once Pastor) and this graying congregation includes the welcome of gay, lesbian, and any sexual identity as part of their mission statement.

This is Minnesota... too.  Would somebody tell me how to reconcile all of this?


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Your previous post hit the button on the head - the Gospel has become equated with "be nice to everyone". Thus, preaching the Gospel is simply being nice, and never never never being judgmental (where "judgmental" is defined by saying that X is wrong).

It makes sense that it would be this way up there now because historically there was a strong Pietist streak, and all forms of legalism break down over time into libertine approaches -- once folks realize they cannot hold to the holier-than-thou approach they take, they will swing the opposite way (like the descendants of the Puritans becoming Unitarian-Universalists). If you felt good about the "good" that you did under the law. . . except you really can't, you will substitute a "let's play nice - oh, see how good I am" good in its place.

Legalism will decay into antinomianism, just as democracy decays into tyranny. This is what Plato would have told us if he were a theologian instead of a political philosopher.

Steve said...

At our church we are working our way through both Hebrews and Revelation. Both of those books have definite things to say to Christians who fall away and spurn the Lamb of God. I'm not sure where all the answers lie but God's grace is mighty and his patience is long. But soon, (a time known only to the Father) we shall all see him, the world shall look on him whom they have pierced while those who have persevered will look upon the Lamb who won the victory for us and gave us the faith to "hear." The "even so, amen" of Revelation 1:8 is coming for sure.

Past Elder said...

I grew up in Minnesota. It's just as you say. My resolution of all that -- I live in Nebraska now. Go Big Red!

Norman Teigen said...

Interesting. I live in Minnesota and it is always fun to see how others see us. It's true about Minnesota being home to weird politicians. I would, however, strike out Al Franken from your grouping and insert a current Minnesota congresswoman, Michelle Bachmann. She is one crazy lady. She is aligning herself with Sarah Palin and they don't get much stranger than that.

There are more people of German descent here than Scandinavian. The Scandinavians, however, have predominated in politics, at least up until recent years. The early leaders of the state were overwhelmingly Norwegian or Swedish.

The Scandinavians who came in the early days were, I am told, from the working classes. There was a certain distance between these immigrants and the people from my own personal spiritual lineage, the Norwegian Synod. The Norwegian Synod people were well-educated. Often there was social disconnect between the well-educated and those not so well-educated.

Well, this is a long ramble. I don't know how to explain Chilstrom. He is a Swede, don't you know. One never knows about 'dem Swedes.

There appears to be all kinds of strange things happening in the ELCA.

Norman Teigen
ELS layman

Anonymous said...

Don't forget some Sotan's (5th District) elected the first ever Muslim, Keith Ellison, to Congress. Norman, why such animosity towards Ms. Bachman? She is a sister in the Lord and part of your fellowship (WELS). Perhaps that explains why she is so "crazy."

Lutheranism in Minnesota is facinating. On one hand you have great men like the Preus' come forth, and on the other hand fallen men like Chilstrom.

Norman Teigen said...

Whether Michelle Bachmann is a sister in the Lord is irrelevant. She is not worthy of re-election. This weekend she spoke irresponsibly about 'gangster' politics and this on the anniversary of Oklahoma City.

I would vote for Keith Ellison before Michelle Bachmann at any time. Religion has nothing to do with it. It's all about competence.

To suggest that I would vote for Michelle Bachmann because my synod is in fellowship with hers is ludicrous.

Carl Vehse said...

So Norman Teigen claims Michele Bachmann is a weird politician based on the following:

1. "She's one crazy lady."
2. "She's aligning herself with Sarah Palin."
3. "This weekend she spoke irresponsibly about 'gangster' politics"

Well if that doesn't peg the political aroma meter, then the claim, "I would vote for Keith Ellison before Michelle Bachmann at any time," surely will.

With even a brief whiff it's easy to tell that Norman, like his senatorial mentor, is carrying a full political load.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir:
You ask: Would somebody tell me how to reconcile the fact that all of this? “ I assume you mean how does one reconcile the fact that much of liberal belief is at variance with what Scripture says. I have a theory about this. In psalms there is a line “It is good for me that I was afflicted.” This seems to me a rather strange thing for God to say; my theory is that prosperity allows a person to ignore some of life’s realities. Prosperity, it seems to me spoils a person or causes them to have an immature attitude toward life so that they do not know the world or acknowledge its realities. They may see that people suffer but have unrealistic solutions to helping those people. Very often, it seems to me that some people think it is a mark of their intellectual sophistication to deny that a duck is a duck.



BrotherBoris said...

Interesting comments about Minnesota! I lived there(Mankato) in the 1980s and graduated from Bethany Lutheran College in 1987. I'm originally from South Carolina. Yes, Minnesota is a very Lutheran state. I guess I don't understand the "conundrum." Just because it is very Lutheran, are you expecting it to be super conservative, Republican and more similar to a Southern Bible Belt state? When I lived in Minnesota, I did not find that everyone was "liberal." Sure, there were some liberals there. But there were real conservatives too. Just visit any WELS church there and talk to the elders about politics. I guarantee you you won't find flaming liberals. Go a little east from Mankato to Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in Owatonna. You won't find too many liberals there, either. Go up to Fergus Fall and visit the Lutheran Brethren. Go to New Ulm and visit Martin Luther College. I doubt you'll find anybody at those places advocating for gay marriage. Minnesota is really just like any other state. It has all kinds of people in it. The liberals just get more press. Actually, Minnesota reminds me a LOT of Georgia, in that it has a huge gigantic liberal city that is both the state capitol and educational, economic center of the state. (Atlanta and Minneapolis are about the same size and both are very gay friendly.) Yet when you get out into small town rural Minnesota (think Sleepy Eye or New Ulm) things don't seem so radically leftist. New Ulm almost reminded me of 1950's America: all white, a church on every corner, all middle class, lots of polite people, no slums to speak of, very little crime and BORING.

I do think one reason Minnesota has a more "tolerant" feel to it is because about 90% of the people are either Catholic or some flavor of Lutheran. It seems to me that the Catholic and Lutheran traditions rarely get up in the faces of strangers and tell them they are "going to hell" the way Southern evangelicals can. Lutherans, even the most conservative, are far too reserved and polite to do that kind of finger-pointing. In addition, don't forget the New England influence in the founding of Minnesota as well. Lots of people from New England and Upstate New York moved west and settled in Minnesota before the Lutherans moved there. They established a very "mind your own business" attitude and culture that prevails in Minnesota to this day.

I enjoyed the years I spent in Minnesota. I have fond memories of the place. I found the people down-to-earth, kind, tolerant, compassionate, and helpful to those in need, with a remarkable absence of snobbery and self-righteousness.

Minnesota may not be perfect, but I think many of the best traits of Lutheranism shine forth in its culture.