Institute on Religion & Democracy

When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an amalgamation of three other Lutheran denominations, formed 29 years ago. When mainstream American journalists talk about "Lutherans," this is usually the crowd they are talking about.

The ELCA is also, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a church confronting changing times. In other words, this body is part of the ever-evolving world of liberal Protestantism, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline.

The paper's story begins with a typical journalistic scene-setter, at least the kind that is used when journalists are fond of the group that is being profiled:

Redeemer Lutheran Church is not your typical Lutheran outpost. Summer means the bike store and coffee shop are humming, kids camp and Zumba classes are in gear, and the young adults renting its apartments are mentoring children in this north Minneapolis neighborhood.
It represents a new model for the Lutheran Church, which is transforming itself to attract younger and diverse members, be more relevant to neighbors below its steeples and shake its image as a Scandinavian bastion best known for hot dish, Jell-O and Ole and Lena.

Anyone who regularly listened to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" stemwinders about life in and around Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, will recognize the stereotype, even if Keillor was actually raised in a Plymouth Brethren congregation.

The Minneapolis paper continues explaining, however, There is a dark cloud on the horizon:

Minnesota, with the largest number of Lutherans in the nation, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the faith. Time is of the essence: 37 percent of the churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest denomination in Minnesota and the U.S. -- now have fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers. ...
Membership at the ELCA plunged from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million today. In Minnesota, numbers fell from 782,000 to about 679,000.

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In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have scumbled long-standing visions of America's role in the world. During times past, the then-regnant “mainline” Protestantism might have addressed matters, but its intellectual impact has eroded. Are any resources from this or other segments of American religion equipped to provide moral guidance on foreign policy for such a confusing time?

 That’s a big fat story theme, which brings us to the current boomlet to reclaim the “Christian realism” of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was deemed the nation’s “greatest living political philosopher” by his ally Hans Morgenthau, a noted foreign policy analyst. In more recent times, Niebuhr has been lauded by former Democratic Presidents Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Yet, surprisingly for a theological liberal and longtime Socialist, Niebuhr also has moderate and conservative disciples. Jack Jenkins proposed in a May 18 ThinkProgress piece that President Trump’s “greatest ‘conservative’ opponent may turn out to be” Niebuhr. Others utter hosannas in a Niebuhr documentary premiered in January at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 32 years.   

Another fan, of all people, is the hyper-newsworthy James Comey, late of the FBI, who mentioned this to New York Magazine years ago. In March, Ashley Feinberg of gizmodo.com even unmasked Comey as a Twitter user under Niebuhr’s name. The Comey angle is fleshed out in “The F.B.I. and Religion,” co-edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (University of California Press) and in a May 19 Weitzman article for Christianity Today.

Comey’s 1982 senior thesis at William and Mary compared the Reverend Niebuhr’s political theology favorably over against that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Both men cited Scripture and advocated Christian political involvement, Comey observed, but Niebuhr always recognized the ambiguities and shunned “America-first” fulminations.  

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