Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Feeling at home. . . or not so much. . .

Catholics have never entirely “fit” in America. We’ve tried, but the results are mixed. In fact some years ago Stanley Hauerwas, the distinguished Protestant theologian, said that we Catholics not only don’t fit in America, we also know we don’t fit. And because we know, we’re doubly eager to prove that we’re more American than anybody else.  From Abp Charles Chaput speaking at BYU on March 22, 2016.

Now there are some profound words from the good Archbishop worth pondering but I was taken by this in one of his opening paragraphs.  I think Hauerwas and Chaput have it right enough.  Roman Catholics both do not fit and know they do not fit into the ordinary picture of America.  That is not to say that Roman Catholics are not patriotic, that they do not serve well and with honor in the armed services, politics, and government, and that they are less than American.  The opposite is the case.  They are patriotic, they do serve with distinction in the military and government, and some Roman Catholics have become some of our most esteemed political leaders.  I would suggest that though Lutherans have also not quite fit into the fabric of America, the difference between us is that we Lutherans do not know it.

Much of Lutheran history in America parallels that of Roman Catholics.  We both retreated largely to ethnic and religious conclaves, ghettos in which we surrounded ourselves with whom we shared most.  World wars, the industrial move to a more urban America, and economic success are what propelled the Lutheran from their Midwestern haunts.  For Roman Catholics it was more matter of expanding the neighborhood than moving from one region to another.  In any case, some of the same reasons why Roman Catholics are out of place in America apply to Lutherans.  Both are born of roots in which government and monarchy shared with the church the divine rights of church and state.  Neither is fully comfortable with a democracy in which people compete in the political arena (no Lutheran Presidents yet and only one Roman Catholic so far).  Both tolerate the equal protection status of all religions in America even though neither Rome nor Lutherans actually believe in the blessings of a great pantheon of religious diversity.

Like Roman Catholics, Lutherans have felt the need to prove our loyalty to our homeland and the military has provided the most convenient place to do just that.  For Lutherans, however, it was personal since both great wars were fought against the ancestral home of Lutheranism and not a few Americans were suspicious of the Lutheran loyalties at a time of armed conflict.  Lutherans advanced up the ranks of the military with aplomb and distinguished themselves over the entire history of America (including those whose loyalty was brokered at the time of the Revolution). 

The ethnic roots of Lutherans were likewise seen as lower than the establishment and Lutherans began life here at the bottom of the heap.  It did not help that Lutherans brought with them the bane and blessing of the brewer's secret to fine lager.  The temperance movement was as much a cultural war against things German (and Lutheran) as it was against the spirits and their undoing of all things noble and just.

When Lutherans did hit the mainstream, we found ourselves fearful.  Worried that people might equate us with the dreaded Roman Catholics, Lutherans found their German Mass a little too popish and our history in America was a history of shedding many of the Lutheran identifying marks of our Confession and practice.  We inched our way toward the Methodists and Presbyterians hoping that folks might forget the ceremonies and liturgy which were common to Rome and Wittenberg.  Though we did not have to deal with papal power and the fear of divided loyalties there, we did have to work through our fear of things catholic.  Though that has changed somewhat, it is still a significant influence over the face of American Lutheranism.

But the real rub is politics.  We Lutherans were accustomed to being handed a government and the rulers of that government.  Choosing them for ourselves seemed somewhat like an exercise in anarchy and chaos but we went with the flow.  It was easier when governmental goals more closely mirrored our own.  Now we are not so sure.  Some (like the ELCA) have become the vanguards of diversity and social progressivism (having defined this is that which is unique to America).  Others have elected to a less radical Amish route of distinctiveness (WELS).  Missouri has always tried to have it both ways and so we are a mixture of those who want to be American in every way (democratic and institutional) and those not so sure (fearing the loss of Lutheran distinctives).

Unlike our Roman Catholic cousins, we clearly don't know why we feel a little weird about it all, why we feel somewhat out of place, and why Lutheranism does not more uniformly assimilate into the American social and political experiment.  We loved America once and not some Lutherans wonder which America we are to love -- the one we see around us makes us feel less comfortable and not more so.  The liberal Lutherans wonder how anyone could be so wrong and the conservative ones wonder whether this might be more than we bargained for.  So we muddle along trying to be good, solid, ordinary Americans even though it sometimes feels like an ill fitting jacket.  It is not that we are less patriotic now than ever.  We are probably more so.  Those who worry about such things tend to strive for more, not less. 

Luther's two kingdoms do not exactly parallel American ideas of the separation of church and state.  It is harder and harder to live within Luther's distinctions when more and more of the dreaded Muslims end up as neighbors and on the ballot.  We begin to wonder if maybe the time has not come to make some adjustments in Luther's veritable battleship of explanation over the realms of sacred and secular.  I know I wonder about it. Abortion, same sex marriage, life issues, and the definition of marriage all affect culture as much as they affect theology.  Where you stand on some of those issues may well explain why you feel great about the direction of America or why you don't.

Lutherans know something does not quite fit but we don't know why.  I fear by the time we find out why, we may have surrendered too much to the god of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance -- to the point where we feel comfortably at home only because we have forgotten who we are.


Janis Williams said...

Another reason (I can now say "we") Lutherans feel ill at ease here is that Fundamentalism an Evangelicalism reign here. (I am here using E/F in their original definitions.) At least they used to. Maybe here in the South there is still some presence. At leastthere is the memory in the rest of the states. However that may be, the United States has always been uncomfortable with the churches of 'smells and bells.'

The results of this are that Lutherans in many places try to look like Evangelicals. Either that, or they try to look like the world while keeping the vestments and liturgy. Due to the changing definition of Evangelical's meaning, these two things are divided less than ever. The word Evangelical and Fundamental no longer mean what they did. Fundamentalist brings to mind a Muslim with a bomb strapped on, and Evangelical now means so many things it simply defies definition. Probably the closest you migh come would be to say it means, "not Catholic."

Those of us who convert from Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism (whatever the deffinition) understand well that Lutherans don't fit. The deer-in-the-headlight looks from friends and former church members are common. You might as well tell them you've joined a cult. You HAVE joined the ranks of the unwashed and unsaved by becoming Lutheran. Every good Fundagelical knows that when a pastor wears a 'dress' on Sunday mornings, nothing but lies and liberal doctrine come out of their mouth.

The advantage is, you get to answer questions (whether out of their mouth or in their eyes). This is something which happeng less and less as time goes by, unfortunately. It is time for me (at least) to start being vocal about what is the difference. The difference is the Truth of the Gospel, which is more and more lost in Evangelicalism. Sermon topics there are mostly on better kids, finances, and sex (I'm talking about Sunday morning; the time when Jesus the Word is to be central). Fundamentalists are mostly consumed with yelling at each other over pecadiloes.

As long as we are catholic (small 'c'), we will have to maintain that not only do we fit, but we are the best fit. There may be questions about Luther's Kingdom of the Left, but the early Church dealt with that kingdom and by God's grace, she and the Word grew.

Ted Badje said...

I think when our forefathers came to America, their insistence on German as a language isolated and alienated themselves from the rest of Americans. It was a different time. This was before Social Security and some of the government safety net we now have. People in ethnic communities depended on each other. That was the reason for a lot of Fraternal organizations and insurance companies. The past is past. I am not going to spend a lot of time beating up my great-grandfather. I believe Lutherans do hold to true doctrine, and truer practices, and we are more attractive to more people now that they see how watered-down Evangelical churches have become.