The Core of Lutheran CORE

Paul Harvey

Several posts down I put up an interview with our contributor Jon Pahl, my former colleague at Valparaiso Univ. and author of
Empires of Sacrifice, just out with NYU Press.

Jon has another piece, more specific to some issues within contemporary Lutheranism but I think of interest to some of you here (especially to the anonymous commentator who has complained about our lack of coverage of Lutheranism in the past): "The Core of Lutheran CORE," from the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Jon's piece is a blistering critique of this movement for reform within the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). Apart from a specific controversy within Lutheranism (especially, I gather, over sexuality, something like the same fights that are going on within Anglicanism and many other traditions), there are also substantive issues of the history of religious demography. A taste:

And, finally, in several recent jeremiads, Lutheran CORE leader Robert Benne imagines that the ELCA is in decline because it has accommodated itself to American "liberal Protestantism." "Skewed commitments," by which Benne means the liberalism of Lutherans in the ELCA, "led to dramatic membership losses."14 Apart from the fact that this is lousy history, it also reveals again American millennialist and dualistic scapegoating — someone must be to blame for declension — as a founding assumption underneath the movement.

[13] Historically speaking, in fact, immigration patterns and birth rates have far more to do with Lutheran membership ebbs and flows in America than anything else. It's not as if Lutherans used to be great evangelists and theologians and have now become lousy at both. Instead, as E. Clifford Nelson's classic
The Lutherans in North America documents, Lutheran growth in the United States can be traced directly to the waves of immigrants from European countries that hosted Lutheran majorities.15 Most of these early Lutheran immigrants to America also procreated enthusiastically; it was necessary to have large families to counter high infant mortality rates and to provide laborers for the farms most Lutherans worked to make a living.

[14] In recent decades, and especially since the dramatic changes in immigrant law established by Congress in 1965, immigrants to America have come primarily from Latin America, Africa, and from South and East Asia, and decidedly
not from Scandinavia and Germany.16 Couple that with the fact that in the late twentieth century Lutherans began to practice birth control and to have smaller families (to their moral credit, globally and ecologically speaking), and the causes for Lutheran "decline" clearly take root not in some imagined Lutheran doctrinal purity or its absence, but in documented demographic shifts.17

[15] Furthermore, it is not just liberal churches that are suffering numerically. Even culturally "conservative" churches associated with European enclaves (such as the LCMS and the Roman Catholic Church — if you subtract Latino/a membership increases due to the new immigration) are now losing numbers across North America.
18 And perhaps most substantively, for many decades, if not centuries, Americans have chosen churches less for their theological heft than because of their ethnic identity, geographical convenience or entertainment value.19 The millennial (if not apocalyptic) rhetoric of declension that marks Lutheran CORE masks demographic causes for change that can explain, without blame, why Lutheran congregations are closing and denominational budgets shrinking.

Robert Benne, a board member of CORE, responds to Jon's critique here. He writes:

But the strife over homosexuality is symptomatic of the larger debate, which has to do with the nature of the Gospel in its larger sense, the role of the Law in the Christian life (of which there seems to be none in Pahl’s rant), what is authoritative in the life of the church, how that authority is exercised, and what is central and what is peripheral in the life and mission of the Lutheran church. A large number of people in the ELCA — including some its most devout members — are deeply disturbed about the direction of the ELCA on these matters, and CORE takes them up as genuine concerns.

25 years ago Joan Scott published her well-known article "Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis," a staple of history graduate course readings still. I don't think she had religious history much in mind in that piece, but I'd like to see someone develop an article-length equivalent for religious history, something like "Gender as a Religious System: A Useful Category for American Religious History." That would shed much light on the coalescing gender/sexuality divisions that are so central to American religious institutions today, and certainly something I saw fought out emotionally and searingly during my two year sojourn at Valparaiso.


Janine Giordano said…
I couldn't agree more with this, especially the last part here. I have also fantasized about an article like that. The original title to my dissertation was "Religion and the Politics of History." Excited to read more!

Of course, it's ironic that Joan Scott now writes about religion, but not really the way we do. I had a discussion about this with her, and she said she sees increases in religiosity these days as a response to "modernity."
Jon Pahl said…
Thanks, Paul, for this link. There's a longer, more substantive response than Benne's supposedly forthcoming from CORE, to which I'll be responding. So this will, at least, surface some of the historical (and theological) issues for debate. Thanks again.