Excising Luther from Lutheranism

I had wondered why my parents no longer consider themselves part of the Lutheran church.  Now I know.  Bishop Peter Rogness, the St. Paul synod leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, just gave me my answer.  Rogness wrote a paean to collectivism in a February 6, 2011 StarTribune letter titled, “Government is not the enemy.”  While I don’t believe the government should be the enemy, nor that it is inherently against the people, the collectivist ideology as espoused by Rogness is definitely steering the institution in that direction.  Rogness expressed a philosophy that neatly and succinctly extracts everything Martin Luther, the progenitor of our denomination, stood for.  Rogness believes the government not only has the right, but the responsibility, to save us from ourselves.  He, and his like-minded allies, believe government is the way to make everything right in the world.  In doing so, he takes away that which Luther so espoused, responsibility for our own souls.

First, a little primer on my understanding of Martin Luther’s seminal philosophy.  Luther believed two things which were radical enough to fracture the Western Christian church and give rise to the belief in individual self-determination.  One, he believed that only by the grace of God were we saved from our lives of sin and damnation.  It was only through Jesus’ sacrifice that we could ask for salvation and get it.  We couldn’t get salvation from doing good deeds, or buying indulgences, nor holding church office.  We could only get salvation through God and from God.  This was monumental.  The Western Christian church was the purveyor of salvation.  It was part and parcel of the government.  It was only through the edifice of the Church that a person could achieve salvation.  Luther’s pronouncement that salvation could only come through a personal relationship with God was heresy.

For years following the death of Luther, people raged in political and religious wars over this idea.  The Roman Catholic Church was forced to reform itself and accept this idea, though with many caveats and without ever completely giving up control.  Political leaders despised and loved the idea that grace could only come from God, and not through canon or law.  Some leaders understood this freed people to demand their own responsibility for their own lives and futures, and that was dangerous at the tail end of the feudal era.  People had a place.  The political and social structure only allowed some to rule and others to obey.  The idea that everyone was captain of their own soul was scary.  They didn’t want to let the stupid, ignorant masses believe in themselves.  That could lead to anarchy and destruction of their rightful place as masters. 

But this idea changed the world.

Luther’s other ‘little’ idea was equally as earth shattering, and a logical extension of his first.  This was the idea of a ‘priesthood of all believers.’  Essentially, everyone was their own priest, or master of their own soul.  No one could order penance or tithes or fees or offices to be taken from individuals to ‘save’ them.  There was no earthly emissary from heaven that had the right to order others around.  This idea was in direct conflict with political leaders at the time and flew in the face of political philosophy.  Kings had a divine right from God to care for the people.  They, and not the huddled masses, had the power to direct resources and this was a gift, and burden, from God.  People had to accept crowned heads as their God-given leaders who would care or direct them on a whim.  God was behind the divine right of the royal and noble class position.  If people were their own priest and in charge of their own soul, why would God demand temporal leaders be in charge of their bodies and possessions?  That was explosive, and deadly.  But, it made the kind of political, social and economic relationships among people in the American colonies possible.  They were voluntary, cooperative, and individualistic relationships based on mutual advantage and mutual agreement.  They also made it possible to have democratic self-rule.  Since in the eyes of God, everyone was equal, they could all have a say in those who governed them.  No one was ‘charged’ by God to rule, they only had the rights we afforded them.  No one, or no group, was captain of another’s soul, or pocketbook, or social position.  That was all a blank slate on which we could write our own destiny. 

Enter the collectivist visions of a Lutheran bishop who has forgotten such lessons of history.  Rogness leds us on a fanciful semantics lesson of how we ‘evolved’ as a country somehow becoming a singular entity following the Civil War.  This little fantasy of America as a splintered entity and became a coherent whole after the fire of internecine war is a favorite among collectivist/progressives.  They like to think of America a kind of grand, holy exercise by fate to ‘advance the human condition’ to the mature socialist collective utopia.  Rogness writes, “We had become a single people, dedicated to our principles and to the notion that our individual well-being was tied somehow to the well-being of our neighbors.”  Of course, Rogness believes he has an inside track to the ‘principle’ that America embodies.  He believes our ‘tied somehow to the well-being of our neighbors’ gives license for people like him to plan our direction.  Gone are the silly ideas that a person is most clearly his or her own priest, and are instead part of a collective.  Individuals must sublimate their own blank slates and allow those more endowed by God to write their destiny. 

So, Rogness throws Luther’s idea of ‘priesthood of all believers’ under the bus, being it is inconvenient and messy.  Rogness’ collective ‘we’ as the people must have a focus, a leader.  We cannot hope that individuals will do the right thing.  He argues, “[w]e the people decide our fate. We the people elect our neighbors to come together and shape our common life.”  Rogness believes the individual is not capable of deciding what is best.  The collective, the group, must decide how to direct resources and order lives.  Gone is the idea that we are our own priests.  Instead of the Church, it is the commune or collective soul that must be the ‘priest.’ 

How should that collective priest or leader direct our choices in life?  “Because I believe the choices now before us are fundamentally moral choices: justice for all and compassion for the general welfare,” Rogness argues.  The collective priest of Rogness will direct choices, resources, and lives toward notions of social justice, a concept that is neither social nor just.  Instead, social justice is the legislated allocation of resources to those who are favored by the Democratic Party, in other words, their political allies.  As a result of political affiliation, this group can decide what to take from who, and at the end of a sword if need be.

“If it means we use the vehicle of government to work smarter, leaner, more imaginatively, we do it. If it means pooling more of our resources through fair and smart taxation, we do it.”  Rogness states.  Grace isn’t from God, it’s from the government.  If you want salvation, or porridge, it is only from the institution of government that you can get it.  Luther’s petty ideas are so last year.  This year, we have adopted the works of Marx as our model. 

Rogness believes this is somehow a Christian philosophy, the philosophy of man usurping the will of another person.  “I believe we yearn to be a moral people. Amid challenging decisions, we must not lessen our commitment to those among us who depend on our common life for their own well-being.”  Of course, if you don’t want to come along, we will force you.  Rogness will sit in judgment over those who want to live a life written by their own pen.  The collective, as envisioned by Rogness and Marx and Michael Moore, will decide who gets what and what you can believe.  Your choices are subservient to the collective.  God has endowed this collective, and their voices, with power over your soul, and pocketbook.  You are nothing more than a cipher on their ledger.  You weren’t created uniquely or individually.  You are just part of a vast machine.

And your soul is in their hands.  I believe Luther would weep.

 Crossposted at Looktruenorth.com