A Book That Could Change American Lutheran History?

Another review of: Power Politics and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) by James C. Burkee. This review by David Ramirez.


James C. Burkee’s recent book, Power Politics and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), has received a fair amount of attention in American Lutheran circles. It is not a definitive or comprehensive history of the struggle within the Missouri Synod during the mid-twentieth century, nor does it seek to be. It is best considered a supplemental text for those who wish to study the conflict. It is certainly not going to change American Lutheran history, or how we view it. Prof. Burkee is to be commended for the hard work and long hours that went into researching, studying primary documents, and interviewing key players in the conflict. However, it is a work weak in analysis with little proof for its many sweeping assertions.


Uncharted Waters?


Burkee obviously believes that not enough attention has been given to the political and cultural context of Missouri’s conflict, and he may be right. Unfortunately in his Introduction, he vastly overstates his case, “almost all of what little has been written about the period addresses the theological debate that divided the church, as if the schism happened within a contextual vacuum” (2). Who would be an example of a writer who treats this conflict as if took place in a “contextual vacuum”? It is true that many writers do not specifically dwell much on the American political context of the conflict. However, Marquart devotes almost a full third of his book, Anatomy of an Explosion, to the philosophical, cultural, and theological context. And certainly the liberal/moderate accounts are all very cognizant of the context, political and otherwise, describing the Missouri Synod emerging from the parochial “ghetto” into modern America. If anything, the complaint was and still has been made that the liberals/moderates were unwilling to admit the extent of the theological factors in the conflict.


Surveying the conservative writings of the time yields abundant evidence that they were aware of the context. In Crisis in Lutheran Theology (Vol. I)[i], John Warwick Montgomery goes so far as to explain that the reason for the rise of the liberal/moderate movement, “…is in many ways sociological. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is an immigrant Church, and the standard pattern among immigrant groups is to remain walled off from the new society by language and by tradition for a time, and then for a younger generation to react violently to its past and to seek to identify completely – generally to over-identify – with the new environment.” In a collection of essays by conservatives, Evangelical Directions for the Lutheran Church[ii], attention is given by several authors to the political, cultural, and philosophical context of the conflict.


Again in the Introduction, Burkee makes another exaggerated, and unproven, assertion, “I argue here what I believe everyone knows but few will confess: the schismatic history of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is about more than just theology” (2). Who are these people who won’t confess this? I have never met these people. I grew up in the AELC and then the ELCA amongst former Missourians and Seminex families. (My father is a graduate from Seminex ) I attended Valparaiso University with folks across the Lutheran spectrum. I graduated from Fort Wayne with plenty of “conservatives.” There has not been a time in my life that the Seminex conflict has not been a hot topic for discussion. I can recall no one who claimed it was only about theology! It is true that most of the writers thus far focused primarily upon the theological arguments. And it is helpful to have a study focused on the political context in which the conflict took place. However, a humbler thesis would be more appropriate.


Underlying Problems


Two of the greatest underlying problems with Burkee’s study are: first, errors concerning the time period discussed (and American Lutheran history in general); second, the lack of comprehension in regards to the theological arguments. It leads one to believe that Burkee does not have a firm grasp on the narrative and the theological issues of the conflict. His intense focus on the political parallels weakens and misleads his analysis in several places.


One erroneous claim that repeatedly occurs in the book is that Robert is the older brother of J.A.O. Preus! It is astounding that this error survived Burkee’s research into the topic, dissertation readers, and Augsburg Fortress editors. More serious is Burkee’s assertion that, “For much of its history, the LCMS enjoyed “fellowship” with one or more of the nation’s major Lutheran church bodies” (11). Historically, this is an indefensible statement. The Missouri Synod was in fellowship with the ALC from 1969 to 1981, however, 12 years hardly make up “much of its history”. And lest you think Burkee is referring to the Wisconsin Synod or other groups which were in the Synodical Conference, in the very next sentence he refers to the WELS as “a minor body.”


He grossly mischaracterizes the conservative response to the Social Gospel, civil rights, and their overall understanding of Christian charity. Burkee writes, “To Otten and his followers, one could not demonstrate the love of Christ through actions; it had to be spoken (apparently, spoken only)” (59). I would like to see this straw man produced, as I have never met a real person who has ever fallen into such an absurd false dichotomy. Ironically, Otten is shown to have a more complex position in the very next sentence when quoted saying, “the primary work of the Church is to preach the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Richard Klann in Evangelical Directions for the Lutheran Church[iii] goes so far as to say, “Members of the churches should assume responsibilities for social action in accordance with their callings, opportunities and abilities.” While commenting on Otten’s statement that, “Christians are to obey the laws of their government,” he claims that Otten was “reviving the pre-Brown vs. Board of Education doctrine of obedience” (59). We may safely assume that Otten, as a Lutheran pastor, had St. Paul more in mind.


Burkee’s weakness in historical theology is most clearly seen in his reaction to church politics:


Richard Koenig had dubbed the “conservative reaction” in Missouri a gathering of “fearful” men: I fully expected allusions to Nixon, but I did not expect this cloak-and-dagger, Deep Throat dynamic, surely not in a conservative Christian church (4).


It is not pleasant to think about church politics, especially dirty politics. And sin ought to be scandalous to the believer; it should not be glossed over. However, for a fuller historical perspective, one ought to remember the extensive church politics during every age of the church. There always has and always will be church politics this side of glory. And speaking of “cloak-and-dagger” shenanigans, consider what the Arian and the orthodox sides were willing to do, or call on the secular rulers to do, in order to stand victorious in their struggle. The partisans of that particular conflict make J.A.O. Preus and John Teitjen look like boy scouts. A student, much less a scholar, of historical theology cannot afford a naïve picture of the church militant.


Appropriation of the Liberal/Moderate Narrative of the Conflict


In a book that is presented in contrast to the “emotional, partisan, and triumphalist works” written thus far, it is disappointing to find a capitulation to the liberal/moderate meta-narrative of the conflict and overtly hostile jabs (many gratuitous) against the conservative side.


Burkee’s acceptance of the liberal/moderate narrative of the conflict is seen in a variety of places, yet a few examples will suffice. While describing the lead up to the conflict, he refers to “[Missouri’s] isolationist legacy,” which is a common, yet ahistorical, view of Missouri’s past made by liberals/moderates (20). Along the same lines, he makes an unsubstantiated claim that, “Anti-intellectualism resonated with some Missouri Synod pastors because until recently its seminaries had not encouraged intellectualism.” This serious charge is made without rationale or proof, and ought not be irresponsibly tossed about as if it were self evident.


Following the classic storyline of the liberal/moderate partisans, he considers that “[t]he years bracketing World War II had been the glory days for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.” The years following the conflict were “an era of chronic decline,” and, “a once-thriving church poised for growth had become an also-ran, struggling for existence and relevance” (2, 182). It is true that the Missouri Synod has declined in membership since the conflict. However, an in-depth analysis, including more than the scanty data Burkee offers, is required for this bleak description. (The most obvious explanation of Missouri’s declining membership isn’t even mentioned: Missouri Synod Lutherans are not having children at a rate anywhere near that they were a half century ago!) Throughout his book, Burkee heavily relies upon insights from Mary Todd and Richard Koenig to shape the narrative and guide his analysis. He also highlights Ralph Bohlmann’s influence by thanking him for “sage counsel” in the Preface (xv). When one follows such a pattern, one can hardly be considered nonpartisan.


One is truly disappointed to find salacious and unnecessary descriptions of conservatives littered throughout the narrative. Burkee engages in pop psychology when he states that “[Hermann] Otten was rapidly developing a messiah complex…” (36). And I still am not quite sure what was meant to be conveyed by calling David Scaer the “seminary altar boy” (34).  On the same page, “a bright young graduate,” “quick-minded [Martin] Marty,” makes mince meat out of the outclassed President Behnken in a debate. At times the descriptions of conservative figures seem purposefully cruel. William F. Beck, an expert in biblical languages, author of numerous books, and former professor at Concordia Seminary, is described as, “an eccentric Otten enthusiast who worked in a freezing office to keep his mind alert, translating the Bible with fingerless gloves and without socks” (169). This is an utterly unnecessary description that does not advance any germane point, but is merely gratuitous. The conflict does not need sensationalizing, it is dramatic enough already.


Perhaps the biggest “cheap shot” in the volume comes from Martin Marty while describing the conservatives in his Foreword:


To the surprise of no one who follows plots like this in religion or politics, Burkee follows the parties and plotters in statu nascendi as they gain in power through unitive activity that almost instantly gives way to factions fighting over the division of the spoils. It is not a happy story; there are side-glances at the divorces, alcoholism, perhaps abuse that colored the biography of significant participants, though Burkee does not exploit his knowledge of these.


This is like alluding to the oft-bemoaned, high rate of divorce and sexual misconduct of the former Missourians in the ELCA, so as to paint with broad strokes a dark and sinister background, before telling the wretched tale of theological deviancy in the Missouri Synod. The weakest shot also came from Marty when he writes,


[Burkee] concentrates on the theology, motives, and strategies of the conservative party. His range is wide, but what will be striking to the reader is how little gospel, good news, or anything positive shows up in the documentation on their side. I have asked some readers of the dissertation and asked myself with this book in hand, is there, even once, a paragraph or a couple lines that could be described as “spiritual,” “evangelical,” or “positive”?


To judge the conservative theological movement in the Missouri Synod by the testimony in one book, focused on the context and not the theology, is irresponsible and unscholarly. A cursory glance at the hundreds of articles, books, and sermons written by the conservatives quickly disabuses any fair-minded reader of such an unwarranted conclusion.


So Why Has Hermann Otten Promoted this book?


The answer to this question is simple. Hermann Otten comes out ahead of, and far better off, than those he has for a long time has termed “the organized conservatives.” Otten is given grudging respect from Burkee who contrasts him with many other conservative figures as one ready to do open battle against liberals. Furthermore, Burkee unquestioningly identifies him as the “most significant figure in modern LCMS history.” Otten is shrewd enough to know that this volume is not going to change anyone’s mind about the theological issues, nor does it even openly attempt to do so. Liberals/moderates will still hold him in contempt, and there is no doubt that his conservative enemies won’t be changing their minds anytime soon. But in Burkee’s book, he certainly gains some vindication, particularly concerning two points that he has hammered away on for decades. First, he and Christian News cannot be ignored by any serious historical investigation or conversation concerning the Seminex conflict and the modern Missouri Synod. And second, that many of the “organized conservatives” have indeed used him and acted duplicitously.


Where Do Your Loyalties Lie?


While considering the theology of Seminex in his review of Burkee’s book at LutheranForum.org, Paul Hinlicky finds precisely the right tone for analyzing the conflict, even if he hits the wrong note:


If Preus’s brand of Machiavellian duplicity and abuse in tandem with Herman Otten’s xenophobic, racist, sexist, crude, and vulgar extremism—amply documented from the horse’s mouth in Burkee’s book—was what one actually got from self-righteous upholders of the “third use of the Law,” we can and should cut Schroeder and his “Gospel reductionism” some slack. Indeed, Schroeder and his colleagues were right on all the major issues: biblical criticism is a fact of life today every bit as much as the heliocentric solar system; social justice is a gospel concern, if we are with the Bible preaching the gospel of the kingdom, not Gnostic flight to heaven for a handful of true believers; the ordination of women is matter of Christian freedom and missiological judgment; at the heart of Lutheran theology is the justification of the ungodly in the resurrection of the Crucified, the righteousness of God that prevails wherever and whenever the Spirit raises those dead to God to repentance and faith; the church is there wherever this message is effectively at work, thus the Gospel is the actual basis for ecumenical endeavor to overcome Christian disunity by a process of doctrinal dialogue admitting of degrees of fellowship. Moreover, when one contrasts these positions with what Burkee uncovers as the actual alternative being advocated at the time in the yellow journalism of Otten’s Christian News, namely, of “John Birch society extremism,” one can understand the provocation my teachers felt, and forgive, or at least contextualize, the one-sidedness of Seminex theology [iv]  (emphasis mine).


Except in the sterile and sectarian world of liberal and slightly less liberal Lutheranism, it is clear that the conservatives in the Missouri Synod were right on all the major issues: God’s Word does not lie; the primary work of the church is the proclamation of the Gospel in its purity for the sake of sinners; the ordination of women is a Gnostic absurdity in clear violation of the Holy Scriptures; false ecumenism based upon compromising the truth for the sake of outward harmony is always an enemy of true Christian unity.


I doubt a definitive history of the Seminex conflict, encompassing the theology, context, and major players of the period, will ever be written. In a couple decades, few will care about the plots, lies, and intimate stories of the parties involved. As with many defining struggles in the church, distance gives helpful perspective. The personalities, personal failings, and delicate details will fade and give focus to what was at the heart of the conflict- theology. Kurt Marquart’s account, Anatomy of an Explosion, will remain the definitive theological analysis of the conflict. His work will stand the test of time because Lutherans will be the only ones who will care about the studying the conflict, and they will not find a more faithful guide to the issues at stake.


What is a Churchman?


Is a churchman a man who is above the politicking and the muck of living in the church militant? If we take the example of our fathers in faith seriously, we see that those “churchmen” fought hard, and yes, and sometimes dirty. We should call their sin, when they fell into it, sin. We should not emulate their “less than stellar moments.” But life in the church militant looks much more like a turf war than a U.N. peace treaty. And this is a good thing since turf wars actually accomplish something! The failings of our forefathers ought not be swept under a rock or explained away, just as the failings of older and greater saints were not. But Lutherans can no more throw the conservatives of the Seminex era under the bus for their sins than we could throw Abraham, David, Peter, Athanasius, or Luther under the bus.


The Missouri Synod conflict of mid-century was (and still is) fundamentally about theology, about what we confess concerning the Living God. That is the primary reason why churchmen ought to continue to study it. Men in the Missouri Synod who sought to teach against the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church were fought by sinners who loved their Lord.


Doctrine is decided by the Word if God, yet historical observations many times point in the right direction, if you have the ears to listen. Surveying the modern Lutheran landscape ought to leave little doubt concerning the consequences of the beliefs espoused decades ago in the Missouri Synod. A parting question for those who wrestle with their evaluation of this conflict: As the chosen paths of the parties become further sundered, whose descendents, biological and theological, will remain Christians? If you can answer that question, you know where your loyalties lie concerning the great mid-twentieth century conflict in the Missouri Synod, commonly known as Seminex.  


David Ramirez is Pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Lincoln, IL

[i] John Warwick Montgomery, “Theological Issues and Problems of Biblical Interpretation in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” in John Warwick Montgomery, ed., Crisis in Lutheran Theology: Volume I (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Book House, 1967), 104.

[ii] Erich Kiehl and Waldo Werning, eds., Evangelical Directions for the Lutheran Church (Chicago: Lutheran Congress), 1970.

[iii] Richard Klann, "Shaping Society-Social Action," in Erich Kiehl and Waldo Werning, eds., Evangelical Directions for the Lutheran Church (Chicago: Lutheran Congress, 1970), 34.

[iv] Paul Hinlicky, “A Book That Could Change American Lutheran History,” January 22, 2011. http://www.lutheranforum.org/book-reviews/a-book-that-could-change-american-lutheran-history/  (accessed March 12, 2011).