Book Review: Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod

Book Review of James C. Burkee's Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011). 272 pages. Hardcover. Review by Martin Noland.


Martin Luther once said that a historian must be a “first-rate man who has a lion’s heart, unafraid to write the truth. For the greater number write in such a way that they readily pass over or put the best construction on the vices and deficiencies of their own times in the interest of their lords or friends and in turn glorify all too highly some trifling or vain virtue. . . . In that way histories become extremely unreliable and God’s work is shamefully obscured, as the Greeks are accused of doing and as the pope’s flatterers have done up to now and still do. In the end it comes down to this that one does not know what one should believe. Thus the noble, fine, and loftiest use of histories is ruined and they become nothing but bearers of gossip.” (AE 34:277).


Although the book Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod by James Burkee has some merits and usefulness, it would not pass the muster of Luther’s criteria. Burkee glorifies the “vain virtues” (Luther’s term) of the academic world over against the Missouri Synod’s alleged “anti-intellectualism” (Burkee, pp. 69, 70, & 72). One wonders whether Burkee wrote “in the interest of his lords or friends” (Luther’s term), since the book is a matter of personal interest to Martin Marty, who has been constantly attacked by Herman Otten’s Christian News (pp. 57 & 62; see also Marty’s foreword). Much of this book is little more than gossip, as one person being interviewed tells juicy stories and anecdotes about his enemy, and vice versa. All these characteristics of Burkee’s book result in exactly what Luther predicted, namely, that “the noble, fine, and loftiest use of histories is ruined.”


Having said that, I want to thank Dr. Burkee for telling the inside story of the Missouri Synod’s conservative leadership in more than a cursory way. When I was appointed director of the Concordia Historical Institute in 2002, I realized that someone had better get this story soon, before the leading characters were all deceased. Burkee is correct to note that most of the conservative leaders were reluctant to talk about their story. My impression, in talking with some of those former synodical leaders, is that they felt that what needed to be said had already been published. Anything more, they said, would simply be rubbing salt into old wounds on both sides of the conflict. After hearing this from many, I agreed that this was the kind and Christian thing to do.


Not all of the characters in this story had this attitude. Burkee lets his readers know up front that he was granted hours of interviews by protagonists Herman Otten, Waldo Werning, and Ralph Bohlmann (p. xv). Burkee also lets his readers know that “In this book I rely heavily on quotation” (p. 14). That is both the forte and the weakness of this book. It is the forte, because the quotes provide eye-witness testimony from the perspective of those interviewed. It is the weakness, because Burkee does not indicate to what extent, or for what reason, the people he interviewed might be biased or be distorting their testimony.


The biggest offenders in this respect are the testimonies that give unfavorable reports of what someone else did or said. How do we know that Rev. Pfarrherr (a hypothetical example), who was heavily committed to the liberal cause, did not distort what a conservative did or said; or vice versa? When an early draft of this book was released publicly, there was a flurry of activity as many people mentioned in the book said, “I didn’t say that” and “I didn’t do that.” So whom should we believe? How can we determine the truth between two conflicting stories? That is the essential problem with “gossip.” It can never provide grounds for writing an objective history. Maybe Burkee didn’t intend to write objective history. If not, then what is it?


I am not going to give a detailed list of what I think are errors or misguided interpretations in Burkee’s book, though there are many. I will limit myself to a critique of three central themes in his book. First, that Herman Otten was the father of conservatism in the Missouri Synod and its single most influential leader before 1969 (pp. 6-9). Second, that conservatism in the Missouri Synod was as much about cultural and political issues as about theology (pp. 4-5, 12-15). Third, the conclusion that the conflicts in this period were the cause of the Missouri Synod’s statistical decline (pp. 182-183).


With regard to the first theme, Otten was hardly the father of Missouri Synod conservatism. The synod was established as a conservative religious organization right from the start. Look at its founding primary purpose “to conserve and promote the unity of the true faith” (LCMS Constitution III.1). In Theodore Tappert’s classic Lutheran Confessional Theology in America 1840-1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), Tappert exhibited the treatises of C.F.W. Walther as “The Conservative Posture” among other Lutherans. With rare exceptions, the laymen and clergy of the Missouri Synod were religious, moral, and social conservatives from its founding up until the start of the postwar period in the United States. Whether they were politically conservative is another matter—and difficult to determine—primarily because the meaning of “American political conservatism” has changed several times in the Missouri Synod’s 160 year history.


Burkee gives the impression that the Missouri Synod would not have known about the liberalism at the Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis without Otten’s efforts. This gives too much credit to Otten and demonstrates that Burkee does not understand the social character of the synod. My mother’s family has been LCMS for six generations. Without reading Christian News, they knew early in the 1960s that something was wrong at the seminary.


One of my cousins, who was a student at Saint Louis, came home for Christmas in the 1960s arguing that many historical accounts in the Bible were myths. My father, a layman, was unable to convince my cousin otherwise, even though my dad had superior arguments. One of my uncles, who was an LCMS pastor, had constant problems with a neighboring LCMS campus minister—a 1960s Saint Louis graduate—who didn’t believe any doctrine of the Christian faith. By the middle 1960s, my LCMS relatives knew that the Saint Louis seminary was destroying the faith of its students and that it intended to change the faith of the whole church-body.


You might say that this was just the experience of our family. But the Missouri Synod is a small place; at least it used to be. We Missourians were a tightly knit social organization, due to our parochial schools, the old Walther League, and the former tendency for German-Americans to marry each other. News traveled quickly by word of mouth at semi-annual family gatherings about events and trends in the church. Older pastors talked for hours at their semi-annual district conferences and monthly circuit gatherings, both with their friends and with the newer pastors fresh out of the seminary.


Thus the laymen and pastors of the synod didn’t need Christian News to know that something had really changed for the worse at the Saint Louis seminary by the end of the 1960s. Before the advent of Affirm in 1970, concerned laymen and pastors relied on Christian News to provide the details of what was being taught at the seminary and why it was wrong. For that service, Herman Otten has his place in Lutheran history.


Herman Otten is not an enigma, if you get to know him. I know Pastor Otten. He is Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Captain Ahab was maimed for life by the white whale. Otten was vocationally maimed for life by the “white whale” of Concordia Seminary. The result was that, for Otten, Concordia Seminary became “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them . . . he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil . . . were visibly personified and made practically assailable in” Concordia Seminary (quotes from Moby-Dick).


With regard to the second theme, Burkee is right that political and social issues affected the debates and the conflicts in the Missouri Synod in this period of its history. But he doesn’t seem to understand that open advocacy for issues in secular politics were a new and upsetting thing for the synod. The Missouri Synod had followed the pattern of traditional Lutheranism by being politically passive, i.e., the church’s officers, agencies, and clergy avoided political partisanship or advocacy.


Lutheran laymen were free, of course, to vote their conscience or interests and be involved in the political process as they pleased. It was a great matter of pride if a Lutheran layman became a mayor or congressman, as it still is today. But the LCMS clergy traditionally did not tell such officers of the state what to do, and vice versa. Each knew their place, based on the Lutheran doctrine of the two-kingdoms. Even Reinhold Niebuhr, neither conservative nor Lutheran, understood the moral ambiguity of the political enterprise.


So when the editors of the Lutheran Witness “promoted racial progress and ecumenism with increasing frequency after 1960s,” (Burkee, p. 47), this was something new and suspect. In the Witness, LCMS clergy, officers, and agencies were telling Lutheran statesmen what to do and were trying to rally the electorate to the causes of the synodical elite. This was politics, pure and simple. Whether or not one thinks their political causes were good, it opened the door for secular politics as a source of conflict within the church.


When Herman Otten saw what the Lutheran Witness was doing, he replied with his own political opinions. Most LCMS conservatives found Otten’s journalistic ethics and political opinions noisome, and his opinions on the Jewish people particularly reprehensible. That is the reason that the synod’s conservatives formed other organizations and other news sources, beginning in 1964.


Burkee’s biggest failure in this matter is the inability to distinguish between political and theological conservatism. As a result, his interpretive model distorts what really happened in this period of synodical history.


With regard to the third theme, the statistical decline of the Missouri Synod, compared to conservative Evangelical churches (pp. 182-183), is a complex matter caused by any number of factors. Burkee should know better than to blame decline just on the 1960s and 1970s conflict. Let me mention ten factors that may be contributing to statistical decline:


1) The declining birth-rate and emigration out of the Midwest counties where 85% of the synod is located.


2) The declining birth-rate and emigration out of Lutheran-majority counties, where marriages are most likely to produce Lutheran families.


3) The movement of Lutheran populations in metropolitan areas, from the old German-Scandinavian-Baltic-Slovak compact “neighborhoods” to the scattered suburbs, which has affected the viability of parochial schools and weekday activities.


4) The decreased emphasis in the synod on the parochial school, in general, and specifically as a tool of catechesis, evangelism, and socialization.


5) The increased mobility of the US population has worked against the Lutheran way of socialization, which traditionally relied on a non-transient population; while the conservative Evangelicals’ approach to socialization is optimized for a transient population.


6) The LCMS, like other Midwest-based denominations, has been reluctant to intentionally shift its resources (manpower, money, etc.) to those regions in the US where the population is growing; instead, the trend has been to devote those resources to build huge churches at the outskirts of Midwestern cities, which are really only attracting LCMS people moving out from the urban and old suburban areas (e.g., Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Saginaw, Fort Wayne, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Saint Louis, and Kansas City).


7) Lutherans are not supported by the plethora of para-church organizations like the conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. Evangelical bookstores, Evangelical radio, Evangelical revivals, and Evangelical movements are sapping the membership of Lutheran churches, often with the consent of Lutheran pastors.


8) Many liberals did not leave with Seminex, but continued to fight against conservative leaders and traditional Lutheran theology, especially through organizations such as Lutherans Alive, Jesus First, Renewal in Missouri, Daystar, and sometimes the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. After the formation of the AELC in 1976, John Tietjen estimated that 950 congregations remained in the LCMS which continued to sympathize with Seminex and its ideology (see John Tietjen, Memoirs in Exile [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990], 269). This fight has sapped morale and energy in the LCMS for over 35 years.


9) Many LCMS circuits, which are supposed to be support networks for pastors and other church-workers, are sources of conflict and discouragement because of the ongoing fight between liberals and conservatives. This too saps morale and energy.


10) The growing conservative Evangelical churches have not suffered twenty-five years of assault on their creedal ideas, from WITHIN their organization, as the Missouri Synod suffered from 1945 to 1974. I define “creedal ideas” as the doctrines and practices that distinguish a church from its rivals and competitors. In addition, the synod has continued to suffer sniper attacks on its creedal ideas since 1974. There has been no peace; and apparently there will not be peace, until the last Seminex sympathizer passes from the scene.


I was disappointed by this book. Burkee makes an almost convincing case that secular politics is what drove the conflict in the Missouri Synod, but those of us who lived through it know better. It will only convince the ignorant. With regard to his argument that characters on both side of the conflict were fighting for personal power and prestige—I have no doubt of that. That happens in every church fight, even at the congregational level. But I know many of the characters personally.  The majority of them got involved only to defend their church and the Word of God; a few had less noble motives.


Finally, it appears that James Burkee, his dissertation readers at Northwestern University, Martin Marty, and the editors at Fortress Press were so committed to discrediting the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that they set aside the normal rules for the historical criticism of sources. No small irony there.


Martin R. Noland is Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Evansville, Indiana