If there’s something Lutherans are known for other than great hymnody and potluck dinners, it’s keeping their heads down. Lutherans typically are a staid bunch, not big on “revivals” or drum kits in the sanctuary. And they haven’t exactly produced many celebrity preachers (to their everlasting glory).
They’re also not known for taking prominent, which is to say public, roles on social issues. Preaching is for proclamation, and by proclamation, Lutherans mean the gospel. You’ll rarely if ever hear politics coming from “confessional” (aka “orthodox”) Lutheran pulpits, nor will you see them marching in the streets (the one glaring exception being the annual March for Life).
But that doesn’t mean traditional Lutherans don’t have opinions or care about what’s going on in the culture around them. Take as one great example the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty. Part of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), the largest confessional Lutheran church body in the United States, the Center in its own words “provides input, education, advice, advocacy, and resources in the areas of life, marriage and religious liberty and seeks to engage in discussions in Washington, D.C., to establish partnerships and resources in our nation’s Capital for the sake of our churches, schools, universities, and seminaries.”
I asked Dr. Gregory Seltz, the Center’s director, to talk about contemporary religious-liberty issues. Dr. Seltz has been in involved in urban ministry in places like New York City, Dallas, and Los Angeles for more than 30 years. From 2011 to 2017, Seltz was also the voice for The Lutheran Hour, a Christian outreach radio program with over 1 million listeners, airing on more than 1,600 stations across North America, as well as on the American Forces Network.
Seltz holds a bachelor’s degree in New Testament/biblical languages from Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Mich., a master of divinity in systematics/New Testament, a master of sacred theology in systematics, and a Ph.D. in theology and culture from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (his thesis: “Black Liberation Theology and Its Challenge to LCMS Urban Ministry”). He was also awarded the doctor of divinity degree from Concordia University Irvine.
You’ve had a varied and rich career in academia, church startups, The Lutheran Hour. What motivated you to enter the world of religious liberty issues?
My initial foray into liberty issues started with dealing with the political reality of New York City as it pertained to launching ministries in the city. As an urban church planter in the 1990s in one of the most exciting yet politically challenging cities in the country, I found it maddening to discover that church work that “empowered” the neighborhood often conflicted with the city’s politics of dependency. We had to discover ways to deal with real issues such as preschool, childcare, even working with the poor, etc., as an extension of being the Church in the community for the sake of the community.
Another impulse had to do with Obamacare and its federal demand that we provide abortifacients as part of our private healthcare, which was clearly against our teaching and against the consciences of our members.
What are the biggest religious liberty issues facing churches today?
With the federalization of virtually every aspect of healthcare, the government is intricately woven into issues from the beginning of life to its end. The temptation of the government to stand against clear moral teachings that are fundamental to many Christians and religious people of the country is one thing, but the coercive capability of such an expansive intrusion into areas of conscience is another. We’ve seen that in the Obamacare mandates and more recently in the COVID-19 restrictions on the Church, virtually reclassifying it as a secondary institution. Such a reclassification stands in stark contrast to the constitutional protections of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment.
While those issues are troubling, the most pressing issue is the reclassification of gender identity as a protected class like race, sex (male/female), ethnicity, or religion. Differences of opinion are one thing, but the notion that the Church must change its teaching regarding marriage and the healthy, biblical directives for sexual expression within the marriage bond now stands not merely as a different understanding of sex, sexual practice, and intimacy—it may become “hate speech,” defining one side of the equation as constitutional and the other as not. We are seeing this already in Europe with the prosecution of Bishop Juhana Pohjola and Paivi Rasanen in Finland merely for publicly teaching that marriage is defined as the lifelong union of a man and woman and sex is part of the marriage bond.
To what extent have the COVID lockdowns and mandates affected religious liberty? How might they continue to affect it even post-COVID (assuming there ever truly is a “post-COVID” era)?
Again, the big concern was the government’s reclassification of the Church as a secondary institution. Doctors and nurses were vital. Grocery store workers were vital. Yet ministers and spiritual leaders and the worshipping/serving body of the churches were not. Worship services and hospital calls by pastors were deemed unnecessary. If doctors and nurses could be masked up for their service, surely pastors could as well. With people literally dying from COVID early on, the voice of the pastor sharing the gospel with them, praying with them, offering Communion to them especially at the possible moment of their death was much more vital than the mere physical issues associated with the pandemic.
Even worse was the politicization of health issues whereby free citizens were literally deprived of their right to work, to worship, and to deal with the risks of life on their own terms, faithful to their families, to their church, and yes, to their communities. The notion that one governing person has the power to make those kinds of decisions for 330 million was and remains ridiculous.
Lutherans have a reputation for political quietism, standing on the sidelines during the great social churnings, focusing strictly on gospel proclamation. Is that reputation deserved? If so, do you see yourself as trying to alter that image, opening up a space for Lutherans as Lutherans to enter the political arena?
I’m biased here, of course, but I think that the representation isn’t well deserved. Some would point to the German Lutheran state church and Hitler, but there were plenty of churches speaking out and even acting against the secular takeover of the state church and the state itself. Here in America, many of the foundational Supreme Court cases—Hosanna Tabor, Trinity Lutheran, and others—are the result of Lutheran churches standing up to government encroachment when the time is right. I think the label of “quietism” comes from a misunderstanding of our teaching of “Two Kingdoms.” Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture is a good example. There the Lutheran position is defined as Christ and culture “in tension” rather than in the proper differentiation of God the Father’s preserving work (through Caesar, through people’s vocations) and God’s unique saving work in Christ for all.
Differentiation does have a limited view of what “good” government can do, and that may be why we are not leading the charge on many of the political issues of the day. Such a view also supports a healthy limitation of what government “should do.” But that doesn’t imply nonaction.
I think my work in D.C. is trying to bring more clarity of that “engagement” strategy for the sake of the culture and the mission of the Church. So, yes, it is a change in what most people view the Lutheran position is vis-a-vis the culture in some sense. But it is also a needed response to the secularizing of our culture and our institutions.
What kind of response have you received from Lutherans in the pew to Center activities?
We’ve been very well received. There are a few people, of course, who think that we’re getting “more political,” which they think confuses people about the Church’s main work. But in reality we’re trying to “depoliticize” many of the issues of the day so the Church can bring its unique message to the people in one’s community. When the government can limit the “moral and gospel voice” of God at a time of overt trial and suffering (like with COVID), that is the issue that concerns us most.
How receptive have folks been on the Hill to Center initiatives and concerns?
There are many people who share not only our concern for government intrusion into issues where it doesn’t belong but also our view of the moral issues foundational for a civil, humane society, issues like the sanctity of all life, religious liberty/assembly, equal justice under the law, the dignity/equality of all people rooted in our being created by God and not defined by government. Of course there is another “religious” position on the Hill that tends to fuse the commands of the Bible to deal kindly with the poor and marginalized, not with the personal actions of believers in community, but with government action. Such a fusion of the gospel with government benevolence programs is not only bad preaching; it’s also bad government, since the government’s coercive capability undermines its “benevolence.” Those who hold that “fusion” view on the Hill don’t tend to receive our voice very well.
Most religious-liberty cases have been resolved in favor of churches, yet attempts to suppress the free exercise of religion continues. Is this more a hatred for religion, for Christianity, or is it a genuine concern for church-state violations?
People often argue that America is not a “Christian” culture because the Constitution isn’t overtly Christian. That’s an odd argument because the Constitution is a limiting document, not an expansive document. To limit the government to very specific things does not argue against the religious nature of the culture; it argues against the notion of an expansive state. The moral framework of the Ten Commandments is essential to self-government, and the key idea of our polity—that of universal, human dignity—is rooted in the allegiance to the God who created us, not the government that organizes us.
That said, there is a secularizing move in our culture and in all cultures of the West that seeks to supplant the Church and the biblical worldview as essential and foundational presuppositions for freedom and liberty. James Davison Hunter’s books (The Culture Wars, To Change the World, The Death of Character) are helpful in this regard.
As one example, however, of the vitriol toward religion today, this Robert Reich quote is instructive:
The great conflict of the 21st century will not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.
I believe that Reich, former labor secretary for Bill Clinton, is still teaching public policy at UC Berkley. It’s amazing that such vitriol exists for the Christian worldview today when the secular, benevolent state, often expressed in socialist and communist polities, were the centerpiece ideologies of the most brutal regimes in the most brutal century in human history, the 20th century.
If you could affect one key piece of legislation to secure religious liberty, what would it be?
Side-tracking the so-called Equality Act. That legislation is the greatest threat to religious liberty in the U.S. presently. The uncoupling of gender from its biological reality redefines the State’s coercive power in quasi-religious terms. The ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges and Bostock created a right to marriage that is not in the U.S. Constitution (neither for different-sex nor same-sex couples). The Church’s fundamental teachings on marriage, sex, and sexuality are now technically “unconstitutional.” The narrow perspective of the rulings is already being set aside for the greater goal of either changing the Church’s teaching or legislating its influencing voice out of the culture.
The Equality Act overturns First Amendment protections of religion, of conscience, and dismisses the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well. Making sure that the Equality Act does not become law is the key to securing religious liberty anew, then challenging the narrative that our identities are all wrapped up in race, sexual practice, and group identity rather than being in the “image of God.” We must also fight the caricature that moral, biblical limitations on the notion of sex and healthy sexual practice are “hateful” when they are in fact, directives from the loving God who created and redeemed us. That’s the work we must attend to now because legislation by itself will not ensure religious liberty if we lose the narrative battle in the culture.