Deliberation, Holism, and Responsibility: Moral Life in the ELCA


A Special Calling in History

[1] In 1998, in a series essay on the 21st century in Atlantic Monthly, Bill McKibben examines the population question and concludes as follows:

The bottom-line argument goes like this: The next fifty years are a special time. They will decide how strong and healthy the planet will be for centuries to come. Between now and 2050, we'll see the zenith, or very nearly, of human population. With luck we'll never see any greater production of carbon dioxide or toxic chemicals. We'll never see more species extinction or soil erosion. Greenpeace recently announced a campaign to phase out fossil fuels entirely by mid-century, which sounds utterly quixotic but could-if everything works out just right-happen. So, it's the task of those of us alive right now to deal with this special phase, to squeeze us through these next fifty years. That's not fair-any more than it was fair that earlier generations had to deal with the Second World War or the Civil War or the Revolution or the Depression or slavery. It's just reality. We need in these fifty years to be working simultaneously on all parts of the equation-on our ways of life, on our technologies, and on our population.[1]

[2] With McKibben, let us assume that our times are special-if not entirely unique. Let us assume that more could be said about the interlocking crises of human and planetary welfare that require serious and timely attention. With Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, let us assume that our task, which we should also commend to future generations, "is the long, difficult transition from an unsustainable way of life to an economically, environmentally, politically, socially, morally and spiritually sustainable world."[2] This, of course, is a task that encompasses and depends upon almost all human relations and communities. Given this, what about the social witness of the churches? Are American churches developing adequate social ethics for such times and such a task?[3]

[3] This essay examines the social thought and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and argues that this church deserves a largely positive appraisal. Formed in the late 1980s, the ELCA adopted in 1991 a foundational social statement ("The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective") which situates this church's moral life in a "diverse, divided, and threatened global society on a beautiful, fragile planet."[4] Two years later, in a social statement on the environment, the ELCA speaks of "the urgency" with which humanity must act to address various threats to a sustainable future which spring from and intensify longstanding social injustices.[5] In a 1995 social statement on peace and a 1999 statement on economic life, the ELCA sets out normative positions, which carry forward the early environmental statement.[6] While this common ethic does not animate all seven statements produced in the 1990s, it is arguably the main and richest in the corpus. Further, moral linkages can be established between these three statements and the rest. The three statements embody an integral social vision that serves a moral agenda for a sustainable world and a responsible humanity. Consistent with Luther, this is an ethic of neighbor love where Christians live out various social roles obligated to justice, which now includes a new material norm of responsibility for future generations of planetary life. Borrowing a construction developed by William Lazareth and recently retrieved by James Childs, "faith active in love seeking justice" has become the core, critical ethic of the ELCA.[7] This ethic correlates with a new holistic ecclesiology.

[4] Fifty years after American Lutherans began regularly to produce corporate social thought, ELCA thinking exhibits a new level of social responsibility. In addition to proposing norms that speak to our times and task, ELCA thought and practice seek to build relevant institutions and social capital, that the good might be enacted. For this, a Lutheran church can draw directly upon the concept of vocation, which the ELCA does. But the ELCA also champions a new form and fund for social participation and renewal. Drawing upon an ecclesiology first proposed by James Gustafson, the ELCA embraces "community of moral deliberation" as a basic expression of faith active in love seeking justice and thus a basic form of ecclesial social witness.[8] Even though an American context presents daunting obstacles to this project, ELCA thought projects striking hopefulness about the possibility of improved moral community - both within its churches and wider public life. Consistent with the paradoxical posture first noted by H. Richard Niebuhr and recently articulated by Robert Benne, this American Lutheran church wants to be both separate from and intertwined with the world.[9] Community of moral deliberation represents a bold move toward a public church identity, consistent with contemporary movements and proposals for social, civic, and political renewal.

Explanatory and Methodological Caveats

[5] Given the characteristics and procedures of the ELCA, the case for an ethical pattern raises a puzzle that cannot be solved here but should be noted. In addition to seven social statements to date, ELCA social thought also includes an impressive body of various other documents: messages, study documents, books, videos, and study guides.[10] These documents are the result of extensive collaboration, communication, consultation, and self-assessment. Some could be used to support the present analysis. But the burden of argument will be placed upon social statements, which are the most authoritative social policy texts. Years in the making, they are based upon extensive inputs and authorized at the highest levels of church polity. But herein lies the puzzle: social statements are also subject to the most inclusive and participatory processes of development. There are hundreds of fingerprints on any given text, different one to another: stakeholders, consultants, bishops, board members, assembly delegates. These actors do shape the careers of statements in substantive ways. Final drafts can be quite different from the first. First drafts can fail to progress to approval. Procedural requirements are quite modest. In principle, social statements can be a diverse lot.

[6] While various actors regularly evaluate social statement drafts relative to the Lutheran tradition, questions of consistency and adequacy across the corpus do not receive much attention. It would be unusual to object to a particular social statement proposal for being at odds with one approved two years earlier. The question of whether this church has or is building an integral social vision, it might be argued, should be the concern of the foundational social statement or a procedures and policies document.[11] But these ELCA documents are just that, statements in outline of the church's normative role in society. Beyond the call to promote justice and to assume responsibility for the well being of society and the environment, the texts are silent about middle axioms. Instead of dealing in the what of social witness, these texts deal in matters of why and how-motivation and procedure. Put differently, controls upon the material norms of ELCA social thought are relatively modest. There is no apparent "moral core," as Benne proposes, that regulates and transcends empirical ecclesial diversity.[12] The social statements of predecessor churches are viewed by the ELCA as "historical" documents with no binding authority. Consequently, there are more reasons to expect moral pluralism than consistency. One can rightly wonder how such a pattern has come to be. This, however, is another paper.

[7] Before we turn to the pattern, a word about interpretive procedure. Because ELCA social statement texts change from first draft to last and because texts always get shorter, early texts are richer in meaning and sometimes provide an interpretive lens for grasping the significance of the final statement.[13] When it comes to understanding the why and how issues of church in society, this is particularly true. The final draft of the foundational statement communicates less substance than the study draft. The final means more when read through the early materials.[14] The following case for a pattern employs this approach to the data.


Beyond Dualism and Quietism

[8] In her introduction to a recent multi-authored volume on American Lutheran ethics, Karen Bloomquist makes the following observation:

Overall these writers seem to give less attention to the role of contemporary knowledge or to principles or norms held in common with those outside of the church than have some Lutheran writers in the recent past. This shift does not imply that common address of social issues is less important today but that an internal or ecclesial deficit needs to be addressed now that was less evident in earlier periods.[15]

[9] Bloomquist's generalization serves also to illuminate ELCA social thought. In striking fashion, the three drafts of the foundational social statement focus increasingly upon ecclesiology. From a full section on "the world in which we live" in the first draft to one sentence in the approved draft, attention to historical context and social relations recedes with increasing emphasis upon the "Church" and her particular and distinctive identity.[16] As Bloomquist suggests, the shift of attention seems to point to certain problem areas. While ELCA churches today are subject to the many external assaults upon identity and vitality that other American churches feel, the turning inward in the foundational documents does not seek to refuse, deny or abandon the world.[17] Rather, in typical Lutheran fashion, the emphasis upon ecclesiology in the foundational statement appears to be a both/and move and not an either/or one-a relative inwardness for the sake of an emphatic outwardness. So, what is the problem?

[10] Beginning with the Social Gospel through the Second World War and into the 1960s, Lutheran social thought has been on the defensive through much of the 20th century-otherworldly, dualistic, quietistic, antinomian. Various thinkers, inside and outside of Lutheranism, have formulated severe critiques that have required serious reconsideration of central Lutheran ideas like the "two kingdoms doctrine" (so named and criticized by Karl Barth, among others). While some Lutheran ethicians continue to defend these ideas, nobody wants to deny that important 19th century expressions of Lutheranism were problematic and that these expressions have left deep imprints upon empirical Lutheran churches.[18] As James Childs observes: "Most of us who are the 'senior citizens' of Lutheranism in America, or nearly so, can testify to some form of this dualistic thinking as a staple of our theological formation."[19]

[11] The degree to which such thinking continues to shape the formation of American Lutherans today is obviously a complicated question. On the one hand, there is evidence to suggest that Lutherans, for various reasons, have given up quietism. According to one ELCA survey, almost all lay people now agree that the church should be "an active force in the world, challenging our society to be more like what God intended it to be."[20] On the other hand, another survey indicates that most lay people, say ELCA pastors, would put "social justice" at the bottom of a long list of images of their congregation. At the top of that list, they would picture their church as a "family."[21] Doubtless, the history of effects of 19th century thinking lives on. Doubtless, it is also losing potency. In any case, institutional reflection leading up to the adoption of the foundational social statements suggests that ecclesiology has been a principal concern in the formation of the social vision of the ELCA. According to John Stumme, a senior ELCA staff person from its beginnings, planning for the foundational statement included the perceived need to "set forth a convincing understanding of and rationale for the church speaking as a corporate entity on social issues."[22] Going further back to deliberations about ELCA design, planners held a guiding perception that Lutherans have yet to see congregations as important forms of the church's social witness. According to these planners, if ELCA structures could accomplish congregational acceptance of this role, this would add an element of newness in the new church."[23]

[12] Given this background information and what the drafts of the foundational document say, "church" stands out as a problem at all levels, from the congregational to the universal. For historical reasons, ELCA social thought does not presume that days of dualism and quietism are fully past. Consequently, the strong inwardness of the final approved draft of the foundational statement argues on behalf of a new outwardness. As the text says: "The Gospel does not take the Church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and to enter more deeply into the world."[24] As a sociological fact, dualism and quietism surely persist in the ELCA. But they do not merit mention in the approved foundational statement.[25] Instead, a new ecclesiological construct and its correlative ethic get the attention.

[13] Preliminary drafts of the foundational statement speak of a new "holistic vision."[26] Although the final statement drops this language, it carries forward a four-fold conception of the church's presence in and witness to society: 1) the baptized and gathered community of Word and Sacrament, 2) the callings of ordinary life, 3) community of moral deliberation, and 4) the organized voluntary public institution. As an antidote to dualism and quietism, "holism" conceives of the church as a series of overlapping social relations and spheres, with different roles and commitments, that are joined in a common moral vision funded by gratitude for the unconditional love of the living triune God. Faith active in love seeking justice unites and empowers these relations and spheres, where God is always already acting for life. All of these relations and spheres matter to God, including "the earth," which now joins "the neighbor" as the subjects of mutual giving and receiving. Consistent with Luther's emphasis upon the moral life as response to grace, the ELCA thinks of the church's witness to society as dependent upon "its identity as a community that lives from and for the Gospel." This identity "distinguishes the Church from all other communities." But the differentiation ends there. Joined in God's creation and redemption, the Church and the world share a "common destiny in the reign of God." Further, this eschatological hope requires the Church to affirm the world-"enter more deeply into the world"-by participating in its critical transformation. "The presence and promise of God's reign makes the church restless and discontented with the world's brokenness and violence."[27]

[14] Once Christian solidarity with and seriousness about the world are grounded in God's universal activities, a holistic ecclesiology follows. As God is active in all relations and spheres of life, so the Church should be omni-involved in the structures of life, holding them all accountable to God. For the ELCA, love as justice can encompass the manifold beings and relations of life-in a sinful, broken world. Justice is the summary term for the Church's responsibility to society. The work of justice, as we will see below, involves various goods, relations, and claims. Ecclesial "holism" views the complex welfare of the world as the Church's corporate calling. Whatever the Church can do to be fully invested in our world is required. As the world changes and evolves, so does the social witness of the Church. Here, the third and fourth spheres of ELCA ecclesiology are critically important.

[15] Before turning to that topic, the conclusion can be drawn that ecclesiology has been a principal concern of ELCA social thought during its first decade-and for good reason. In response to 20th century criticism and experience, this church has quietly but consistently and seriously been re-conceiving and enacting a new vision of the Church in society. As evidence of this, four social statements subsequent to the foundational statement-death penalty, racism, environment, and peace-all relate their constructive moral claims and commitments to multiple roles and spheres of Christian witness to society. Further, in 1997 when the ELCA adopted a revised policies and procedures document, the question of ecclesiology was again a principal concern, which the new document addressed through another formulation of and strategy for ecclesial holism. The procedural changes adopted in 1997-partly precipitated by the failure of a social statement on sexuality in 1993-were a reckoning with the major gap between the ecclesial ideals of the foundational statement and empirical reality in congregations.

Deliberation as Public Church

[16] The Studies Department sees its task not as prescribing or decreeing what shall be the ELCA's position on various social topics, but to facilitate processes by which the church might come to one or more positions through its own actions of deliberation. We recognize that diversity, disagreement and conflict are a legitimate part of this process. This many-faceted process is one that will help the ELCA reach some mutual understandings and a clear public voice on key issues of the day. The participatory process for getting there is as important a social witness as is the outcome itself [emphasis added].[28]

[17] Writing in 1988 as a senior ELCA staff person, Karen Bloomquist makes a striking statement about what has come to be termed "community of moral deliberation." For both Bloomquist and John Stumme, as they envisioned the work of the Studies Department, community of moral deliberation offered a new way of being a church.[29] It would be a social witness itself as well as a morally-imperative means for improving other forms: proclamation and prayer, the formation of civic virtue and social capital, the callings of the Christian person, corporate social teaching, political advocacy, social ministry organizations, and internal institutional practices. While all of these forms can benefit from community of moral deliberation, the foundational documents pitch the significance of this ecclesiology toward becoming a more self-conscious, more strongly organized public institution. As Robert Benne contends, "The church as an institution has a calling in a world of institutions. As a corporate body it is called to relate to the corporate structures of the world. The church is and has a social ethic."[30] But as any experienced church person knows, few Lutherans see or relate to the Church beyond the local congregation. Non-local actors and larger bureaucratic structures are mostly invisible, irrelevant, or illegitimate. Therefore, community of moral deliberation, following the pattern described above, represents a democratic turn to the local for the sake of a new "public church." It seeks both to broaden the participatory base and to extend the social presence and reach of the Church.

[18] As noted, the approved foundational statement says little about our context. One must examine earlier drafts to see the problems that community of moral deliberation seeks to correct. Informed by landmark books of the day (Habits of the Heart, After Virtue, and Ethics After Babel), ELCA foundational thought looks to community of moral deliberation as an antidote to various moral pathologies-radical individualism, moral pluralism, political cynicism, personal powerlessness-which undermine the common good and public life.

[19] With the breakdown of public life, persons disengage themselves from participation in the public arena where common values, attitudes, and worldviews are formed. They retreat into the private enclaves of home and family. In these enclaves the pains not addressed in the public arena come home to roost, as families struggle to bear up under the pressure and disappointments.[31]

[20] This retreat from public life to the troubled private haven (a contemporary moral equivalent of Lutheran dualism and quietism) includes even the local American congregation of personal choice. These communities are fragile associations ever threatened by schism over great questions of faith and life, precisely because they are voluntary groups in a post-Christian society where all members are quite free to leave over disappointed personal preferences. American Lutheran congregations, in these respects, do fit the cultural portraits of Robert Bellah, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Jeffrey Stout.[32]

[21] Such problems, particularly moral pluralism, are subject to different solutions. Community of moral deliberation is one and as such is a form of social capital.[33] As a way of discerning God's will and as a social institution, community of moral deliberation entails what I have elsewhere described as an "unruly" methodology of relatively unbounded inquiry into multiple sources of insight through open-ended dialogue among diverse agents who share a faith-based commitment to serious, democratic conversation about God and world.[34] As such, community of moral deliberation intends to apprehend and forge consensus around the truth, albeit elusive truth. It seeks a hard-won, rare experience of contemporary agreement where, having taken seriously various sources and questions, the community can finally say, in Martha Storz's terms, "It seems right to the Holy Spirit and to us."[35]

[22] The intention toward shared moral truth and the occasional, even rare, experience of agreement are crucial for the "public church" that the ELCA wants to be. But there are surely serious obstacles to this aim, perhaps some insurmountable ones. If James Davison Hunter's "culture wars" thesis holds up, community of moral deliberation as a social form cannot enjoy broad acceptance and vitality because it entails a contentious theory and method of moral knowledge, which an "orthodox" worldview will find unacceptable. For Hunter, even a shared ecclesial commitment to conversation-let alone contemporary agreements-will be plagued by incommensurable division.[36]

[23] While the ELCA project may get drawn into such conflict, this church is attempting to challenge any cultural obstacles to the pursuit of shared moral discourse and the generation of shared insight. If the fragmentation, babel, and strife cannot be transcended, public life will only continue to deteriorate. For the ELCA, community of moral deliberation, against all odds and barriers, is a moral imperative for the renewal of public life. Community of moral deliberation can be viewed as a revisionist moral epistemology. Against moral idolatry, it assumes that we need to engage others to transcend the limitations of particularity. But more importantly, the ELCA is interested in institutionalized reasoning together to draw isolated Americans toward shared, constructive moral endeavor, what James Childs calls "a quest for mutually acceptable truths."[37] As the first draft of the foundational statement contends:

Through such participatory processes we acquire a broader perspective on our world. We become more conscious of those large-scale institutional realities that often leave us feeling like passive recipients of products and decisions from which we feel alienated and powerless The hope is that more participatory and deliberative processes might renew public life and enable a sense of the common good to emerge. There are few places in society where this kind of moral deliberation that can help to mend the social fabric is encouraged and nurtured. It is our hope that the church, and particularly the ELCA, might be such an arena. The church has theological resources for undergirding such deliberation and a moral vision of justice for giving substance to this process.[38]

This language of "hope" acknowledges that the obstacles to renewal are daunting. Despite them, this church believes that it can cultivate some power to improve public life and that it has a special opportunity or calling to do so. Although the approved foundational statement outlines several goods that community of moral deliberation can serve, they all have a public interest. Situated in the local congregation and vitalized by the experiences and convictions of faith, community of moral deliberation offers a bridging institution between solitary individuals and various social wholes. This church has a timely opportunity to witness to society by modeling the good society. One needed "good" is procedural justice. Drawing upon Jeffrey Stout's contention that the "acids of injustice" are the main threat to contemporary public life, Karen Bloomquist holds that procedural injustice is also acidic:

We have become aware enough of the particularities and pluralism of perspectives that we cannot go back to some sense of a universal good that applies in the same way to all. But it may be possible to strive for greater procedural as well as substantive justice, that incorporates rather than discounts our diversity, and that empowers people inside as well as those outside the church, particularly in how we go about developing positions on public issues.[39]

Procedural justice is not sufficient for the good society, but it is necessary. Community of moral deliberation can help a democratic society still deficient in genuine and inclusive dialogue about the common good. With Bloomquist, "This sense of the common good cannot be imposed by hierarchical or coerced power or an idealistic construct, but it begins to take shape in the space of our relationality with one another, as we become more empowered participants in a process rather than passive recipients of its products."[40] In this way, community of moral deliberation, as social capital, is a condition for the possibility of a public church and perhaps the good society.

Responsible Love

[24] Robert Benne contends that a "persisting tendency in Lutheran ethics is to reduce the whole of the ethical life to the motivation touched off by justification." In response to the grace of Christ, Christians are "powerfully motivated to live the life of love." But Lutherans say little about the character and content of that life. Love, thinks Benne, "becomes both a permissive affirmation of any behavior and a rather amorphous serving of the neighbor." Despite what Luther taught, modern Lutherans do not want to ask what the Decalogue means for them.[41] To argue that ELCA Lutherans now stand for "love seeking justice" sounds like more formlessness. In fact, the six social statements of the 1990s employ and commend understandings of love which are arguably faithful to James Childs' translation of the Decalogue.[42] Consistent with the foundational statement which argues that God's activity in the world gives content to justice (which all people can know and should do), five statements specify various middle principles for justice.[43] Further, three of these statements exhibit a pattern that merits notice.

[25] This pattern is the effort to specify various principles of justice, which together constitute an integral social ethic that enables persons to think in coordinate and comprehensive ways about different moral questions. The statements on the environment, on peace, and on economic life use similar and identical conceptions of right-relations between humans and others that communicate a vision of the necessary, constitutive elements of normative life together. Further, the principles employed in these statements reinforce in explicit terms the sense of holism and interdependence implicit in this pattern of complexity and relation. While not breaking new moral ground in the wider literature, these three statements do fulfill the expectation of the foundational social statement that "new ways" be found to speak to the travail of our world.[44] They satisfy what Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda require of a minimally adequate Lutheran ethic, that it "recognize the complicated and interdependent relationships of humankind and the rest of nature."[45]

[26] That everything is related to everything is equally evident in the statements on the environment, peace, and economic life. They all propose multiple norms and action guides resulting in moral linkages between the topics. In the 1993 environmental statement four principles of justice are relevant to the state of the planet and biblical norms: participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability. All living things possess moral standing and rights; they are part of the same moral community; and they have basic needs that should be met without compromising the needs of future generations of life. Participation means that community of moral deliberation includes all of life. Solidarity entails care and accountability for the interdependence of life. Sufficiency and sustainability set limits and establish obligations for the interactions of humans with all of life. Each principle makes its own distinct claim, which both supports and stands in tension with the other principles.

[27] The 1995 peace statement and the 1999 economic life statement exhibit deep moral agreement with the 1993 environmental text. Arguing for the moral imperative of "sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all," the economic statement is a remarkable extension of the environmental statement. The text does not mention participation and solidarity, but these principles inform the moral community of the text: "'For all' refers to the whole household of God-all people and creation throughout the world. We should assess economic activities in terms of how they affect 'all,' especially people living in poverty."[46] In similar fashion, the peace statement adopts a global perspective and calls for a "multifaceted" peacemaking agenda that builds implicitly upon principles of participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability:

We affirm therefore that earthly peace is built on the recognition of the unity and goodness of created existence, the oneness of humanity, and the dignity of every person. Peace is difference in unity. It requires both respect for the uniqueness of others-finite persons in particular communities-and acknowledgement of a common humanity.[47]

While this statement could be more explicit about the principles that back its litany of justice claims, there is no question that its vision of peace incorporates environmental and economic justice and that these projects are all complexly related such that one cannot be realized without the other. Such extension and linkage of moral domains are characteristic of an ethic of responsibility. Among contemporary proposals, Wolfgang Huber's four criteria for responsible action overlap substantially with the integral vision of justice in ELCA thought: "prospective care for a shared natural, social, and cultural space of living together; fairness toward the weaker as the test of the legitimacy of actions; self-limitation with respect to the rights of future generations and to the dignity of nature; respect for the freedom of conscience for others as for oneself."[48]

[28] Participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability do constitute a new Lutheran ethic of responsibility. While this ethic is not necessarily complete and not consistently present in the first generation of ELCA social statements, the texts exhibit more pattern and substance than one might expect of an American Lutheran church.


Shared Moral Truth

[29] Assuming that the next fifty years are special, that sustainability (broadly construed) is the pressing moral task of humanity, and that we need, as McKibben says, "to be working simultaneously on all parts of the equation," how should we evaluate the social witness of the ELCA? What does this church offer that we need? Clearly, the nascent social teaching of the ELCA serves our times and our task. But it is more important for the internal life of this church than for wider public life, where many voices already speak this same moral language. While groundbreaking for Lutheran social thought, the 1990s social statements do not move the wider conversation forward. However, ELCA convictions about community as moral inquiry together do represent an important and distinctive social witness. The sustainable world we seek will not come to pass by the thinking of the few or the coercion of the powerful but by masses of diverse peoples cooperating in almost unimaginable ways. Somehow, if enough humans work together on all parts of the whole, the Earth may squeeze through the next fifty years. This appears to be possible only by way of consensual relations, public agreements, and common projects born of new associations like community of moral deliberation. The sustainable world must be a global democratic project, but the imperiled state of free and voluntary association (in the United States-let alone other societies) is one of the parts that needs much work.

[30] Two recent contributions to the civil society literature, one prescriptive and the other diagnostic, testify to the social significance of community of moral deliberation: A Call to Civil Society: A Report to the Nation from the Council on Civil Society and One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left and Each Other by Alan Wolfe.[49] For the Council on Civil Society (hereafter CCS), churches and other religious communities figure importantly in its vision of change. Further, its view of Church and society is quite Lutheran. Unlike CCS, Wolfe makes no case for a public church, but his analysis illuminates a principal obstacle before the CCS agenda.

[31] CCS enters the debate over social decline and its features by embracing public perceptions that we suffer from growing inequality and moral depletion resulting in social fragmentation, alienation, and incivility. Family values are declining, as well as respect for authority and personal responsibility. Americans increasingly worry about the loss of shared values and thus the bases for our project of self-governance. For some thinkers, this increasing social distrust should be correlated with a decline in vibrant civic institutions and voluntary associations (Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam). For CCS, the civil society needs families, neighborhoods, faith communities, civic groups, arts groups, local governments, schools, businesses, the media-all cooperating for good. But these cooperating social actors will rely for orientation and power upon underlying moral agreements. For CCS, shared moral beliefs, such as the dignity of one's neighbor and the possibility of moral knowledge through reason and good will, are foundational to the many habits and social patterns that engender the democratic enterprise.

[32] Put differently, effective civic engagement in a democracy presupposes and depends on a larger set of shared ideas about human virtue and the common good. In short, effective civic engagement requires a public moral philosophy. Absent a guiding set of shared moral truths, voluntary civic association can be just as harmful to human flourishing as any big government bureaucracy or big business bureaucracy.[50]

[33] Our deepest problems, then, are moral. They are more basic than democratic renewal through civic engagement. Although we need this, we need also to attend to the moral sensibilities that incline us to civic engagement at all and that enable us to discriminate between good and evil in society. "For these reasons, reverent regard for a public moral philosophy-an ensemble of knowable, objective moral truths-is our democracy's most indispensable foundation."[51] For CCS, civil society is the social sphere where moral formation typically occurs and should be engaged today in the moral renewal of our democratic project.

[34] What ails our democracy is not simply the loss of certain organizational forms, but also the loss of certain organizing ideals-moral ideals that authorize our civic creed, but do not derive from it. At the end of this century, our most important challenge is to strengthen the moral habits and ways of living that make democracy possible.[52]

[35] CCS's moral realism challenges the established notion that persons are self-originating and self-authenticating sources of valid moral claims. On this view, people are unencumbered by moral claims unless we choose them. In contrast, CCS contends that democracy-as the great American political classics testify-rests on that "higher law" (M.L. King, Jr.) authored by God, which enables us to see ourselves and others as "more alike than different" and as possessors of transcendent dignity. Formed as social beings, people realize their authentic selfhood in community, not apart from it. Service to human flourishing is the proper aim of all social institutions. The democratic civil society so widely sought should start with public agreements about the conditions for human flourishing.

[36] Of course, in a liberal society committed to a thin theory of the good ("Do as you please as long you do not hurt anyone."), the search for such agreements does not happen. Thus, CCS asks Americans to save democracy by becoming a different people. Against liberalism, we need to think of democratic civil society as a way of living that calls us to pursue, live out, and transmit moral truth. Were we to do this, CCS believes that we would be united by perceptions of common human dignity and sociality. We would cooperate with one another in discerning how to live together. In our disagreements, we would conduct ourselves with civility, openness, and reasonableness. To have this civil society, we need, then, a new public moral philosophy, which will also equip us to face the personal and collective challenges of the next fifty years.

[37] Among its numerous recommendations, CCS positions the faith communities as the leading institutions for the pursuit, living, and transmission of moral truth. This, in large part, is what they do. Yet, in the American situation, faith communities do this in a private context, in a voluntary association where members are free to come and go as they please. From now on, these communities should think of themselves as public forces at the center-not the fringes-of public life. Apart from noting the need for more permissive legislation and court decisions about religion from the federal government, CCS says little about how the churches and other faith communities might become potent public powers. But the call is clear: if the faith communities do not act, expect little or no renewal of our common moral life and little or no American renewal-with definite implications for our human and planetary future.

Morality Writ Small

[38] It hardly needs saying that community of moral deliberation fits the niche that CCS envisions for the churches. Suppose that the ELCA and other faith communities decide to go public as CCS envisions, what common moral realities would they find in contemporary American life? Such is the subject of Alan Wolfe's ethnographic study of middle-class morality. Wolfe wants to test the views of James Davison Hunter and others that middle-class Americans no longer share a common moral worldview. They are seriously and bitterly embroiled in a culture war between traditionalist and modernist visions. America, in this view, is increasingly morally divided into two incommensurable factions. In this respect, Wolfe examines the popular anxiety that CCS seeks to calm-that America is losing the shared values required for democracy. As the lengthy title of his book suggests, Wolfe wants to know a lot from the 200 people that he interviews in eight carefully selected suburbs across America. We will focus here upon the implications of his findings for the public churches that CCS wants to engender.

[39] In the end, Wolfe concludes that the culture wars are real, but only for an elite class of intellectuals. Most Americans live by the irenic, centrist bent expressed by one of Wolfe's interviewees: "I think America wants to be in the middle more than anything."[53] At the end of a century of breathtaking cultural changes, Wolfe sees a middle-class outlook largely characterized by maturity and moderation. These Americans have adapted to the pluralism of the late modern world. With the exception of homosexuality and bilingualism, middle-class people are tolerant. Nonjudgmentalism has become an 11th commandment. The virtuous life matters but not in a way that results in imposing it upon others. A moderate outlook means that extreme views about anything and extreme behavior are to be avoided. For the middle class, one can be too religious and too moral. When faced with difference that cannot be avoided, it should never be taken so seriously that incivility or violence ensues. Conflict, dissent, and controversy are to be overcome by a strategy of reconciliation. Middle-class Americans, thinks Wolfe, have largely escaped the culture wars because they have been quietly responding and adapting to beliefs and practices that challenge their core convictions. Middle-class people worry not about ideological purity. They embrace both the "traditional" and "modernist" thinking that intellectuals want to distinguish and battle over. Middle-class Americans would rather get along.

[40] But getting along comes with a price. The irenic, centrist tendencies of the middle class have implications for a common public philosophy, what Wolfe terms "morality writ small." Given a tendency to avoid engaging the other and to be moderate in the exercise of any virtue, middle-class Americans tend to restrict their social obligations to close relations. Moderation means not seeking to save the world but making a difference where one can. If one wishes to transmit moral values, one does so through personal example, not preaching or instruction. One should not promise or attempt too much on behalf of the other for that might undermine the obligation we all share for taking care of ourselves, for personal responsibility. A strong sense of individual responsibility combined with concern that one's efforts are noted and are effective tends to result in service to close relations in modest proportions. "I do not know about being my brother's keeper," says one of Wolfe's interviewees, "maybe my brother's helper."[54] Middle-class Americans are not for heroism. They look for moral standards that everybody can keep. By achieving modest expectations, we can think of ourselves as equally morally decent.

[41] This is enough to illustrate how Wolfe sees middle-class Americans working to create a moral center in a diverse society, an aspiration which CCS notes as well. Unlike the culture wars intellectuals, ordinary Americans want to believe that we can be one nation, after all. They see the ideological battling and, by way of morality writ small, seek a public moral philosophy that creates a moral union. Yet, the private moral philosophy of the middle class and the public moral philosophy sought by CCS are very different. CCS wants morality "writ large." It calls on Americans to come together-consistent with human sociality-for a great conversation about objective moral truth, which will create social and political unity by relativizing the sovereignty of the self. Common loyalty to moral beliefs creates the civil society where we all matter and belong and where we accept significant obligations to the common good as part of basic moral decency.

[42] CCS seeks a public moral philosophy that serves a renewed democratic politics. Wolfe's middle-class Americans have no pretensions to cure an ailing civil society, which would require robust civic engagment. They will concede that public affairs, political institutions, and collective social decisions are necessary. But government and politics still violate the aspirations of Americans to be obligated only to those whom they know and trust. Obligations to family, friends, and neighbors can be managed. The giving and the getting can be modulated and fine-tuned so that actors do not corrupt personal responsibility and fall into dependency. A situational ethics works in middle-class living, not so for the moral discourse of justice that serves the collective business of politics. Justice requires thick commitments to strangers that morality writ small has few resources to handle.

Seeking Together as Community

[43] Wolfe thinks that moderation and toleration are the bedrock principles of the middle class. They seek to swallow up extremist thinking and to make space for real difference in the private sphere, where people do as they please so long as others can do likewise. Accordingly, little in Wolfe' account of middle-class morality would support efforts by the faith communities to engender public dialogue about a shared moral philosophy. Wolfe reports that "there is not much support out there in middle-class America, at least among our respondents, for the notion that religion can play an official and didactic role in guiding public morality." This is to take religion too seriously-to think that it should guide how other people should live. Such a "politicized Christianity," says Wolfe, "is everything that an inclusive, nonabsolutist, modest, and nonjudgmental religious mentality is not."[55]

[44] During the last decades of the second millennium, American churches and religious communities have survived and even flourished in support of this private "quiet" faith of the American middle class. By relegating religion to the private, America has made space for but also contained its thousands of forms and millions of believers. Wolfe describes a pervasive and influential moral vision, which would not do well with churches that went public. People who work on behalf of a public church already know this. Yet the question remains, at our "special moment in history," do the faith communities, as CCS and others contend, have something vital and necessary to offer a society and world seeking another millennium on Earth? What would it mean for the ELCA to be the public church that the CCS thinks our human and planetary future requires? Should the ELCA respond to CCS's call to civil society?

[45] Given the substance of ELCA social thought to date, this church cannot refuse. ELCA thinking about moral deliberation offers both the kind of community that American society needs (re-empowering, local, inclusive, face-to-face civic interaction) and the kind of conversation that can nourish democratic institutions (foundational moral truth sought and discerned dialogically). It would be a distinctive and timely witness to society for the ELCA to answer CCS's call. As Glenn Tinder contends, it would also be a godly practice and a creative one:

Community does not consist solely in the possession of truth but also in the search for truth. Thus, Socrates declared that his wisdom lay only in the realization of his ignorance, and it is suggested in the Gospel of John that claiming the truth as a possession blinds us. If community consists in the search for truth, then communal relationships do not come about in holding common dogmas, but rather in inquiring together. Sharing uncertainty, so long as the uncertainty shared is hopeful and communicative, is more communal than sharing doctrinaire certainty. To put this in Christian terms, in revelation God simultaneously unveils and veils the truth. In Christ, the truth comes to us, but it comes as a mystery and not as a visible fact, plain to all. According to Christianity, then, we must inquire into Christ, into destiny. When we do this, we respond to God's command, "Seek ye my face." We engage, at the same time, in communication of the most serious kind and create the substance of community."[56]

[1] Bill McKibben, "A Special Moment in History," The Atlantic Monthly, May 1998, 78.

[2] Larry Rasmussen with Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, "The Reform Dynamic: Addressing New Issues in Uncertain Times," in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, ed. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 133.

[3] "Social witness" can be defined as a general rubric for the external relations of the Church. These relations can be manifest in various social roles and institutions. Broadly, "social witness" involves the Church&=javascript:goNote(39s intentional, critical interactions with other social groups. The precise meaning of "social witness" is always correlated to some larger ecclesiology with its attendant conceptions of society and world.

[4] "The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, A Social Statement on," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 28-September 4, 1991, 1.

[5] "Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice, A Social Statement on," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 23, 1993.

[6] "For Peace in God&=javascript:goNote(39s World: A Social Statement," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 20, 1995; "Economic Life: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, A Social Statement on," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 20, 1999.

[7] James M. Childs, Jr., "Ethics and the Promise of God: Moral Authority and the Church&=javascript:goNote(39s Witness" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 101-2.

[8] James Gustafson, "The Church: A Community of Moral Discourse," chap. in The Church as Moral Decision-Maker (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970), 83-96.

[9] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 149-89; Robert Benne, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 59-103.

[10] In addition to four texts cited above, these social statements are: "Abortion, A Social Statement on" Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 28-September 4, 1991; "The Death Penalty, A Social Statement on," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 28-September 4, 1991; "Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwde Assembly, August 31, 1993.

[11] "The Church in Society" (1991) and "Policies and Procedures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for Addressing Social Concerns," adopted by the Church Council and affirmed by the Churchwide Assembly, August 1997, as a revision of the former document, "Social Statements of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-Principles and Procedures," adopted by the first Churchwide Assembly, August 28, 1989.

[12] Robert Benne notes that the development and approval of the foundational statement did not precede the development of social statements. Two social statements were under development while the foundational statement was being developed. See Benne, Paradoxical, 73-76, 136-37.

[13] Regarding the typical brevity of American Lutheran social statements, John Stumme thinks that this is a concession to the fact that these statements are adopted by churchwide assemblies: "The necessary demand that a large legislative body be able to act upon them in a relatively short time restricts the nature of social statements." See John Stumme, "Building on our Legacy: Observations on the Social Statements of the ALC and LCA," a study paper prepared for the Advisory Committee of the Foundational Study Commission for Church in Society, ELCA, October 1988, 18.

[14] Study documents and preliminary drafts do not get reprinted and do not carry official institutional authority.

[15] Karen Bloomquist, "In Today&=javascript:goNote(39s Context" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 9.

[16] "The Church in Society: Toward a Lutheran Perspective," Study Draft, December 1989; "The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, A Social Statement on," Fall 1990 Draft; "The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, A Social Statement on," approved social statement, 1991.

[17] The ELCA was founded in an intellectual and cultural context in which it might have adopted what James Gustafson termed at that time "the sectarian temptation." See Gustafson, "The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church and the University," CTSA Proceedings 40 (1985): 83-94.

[18] See Carl F. Braaten with Robert Benne et al. "Two Kingdoms as Social Doctrine," Dialog 23 (Summer 1984): 207-12; William Lazareth, "Two Realms" in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, eds. James F. Childress and John Macquarrie (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 633-34; John Petty, "The Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and the Church Today," Dialog 31 (Autumn 1992): 313-19; Brent W. Sockness, "Luther&=javascript:goNote(39s Two Kingdom Revisited: A Response to Reinhold Neibuhr's Criticism of Luther," Journal of Religious Ethics 20 (Spring 1992): 93-110.

[19] Childs, "Ethics and the Promise of God" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 99.

[20] Stephen Hart and Kenneth Inskeep, Lutherans Say … Faith, the Church, and the World: How ELCA Members See the Connections" (Office of Research, Planning, and Evaluation, ELCA, 1989).

[21] Congregational Panel Survey 2, Clergy Reports (Department for Research and Evaluation, ELCA, 1995).

[22] Stumme, "Building on our Legacy," 14.

[23] Ibid., 33.

[24] "The Church in Society" (1991), 2.

[25] However, the question of quietism appears on the third page of the 1989 study draft.

[26] "The Church in Society: Toward a Lutheran Perspective" (1989), 6; "The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective" (1990), 3.

[27] "The Church in Society" (1991), 1-3. The use of eschatological theology to dethrone dualism may be indebted to Wolfhart Pannenberg&=javascript:goNote(39s work and to its recent appropriation in the work of James Childs. See Childs, "Ethics and the Promise of God" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 98-104 and Faith, Formation, and Decision: Ethics in the Community of Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 19-26.

[28] Karen Bloomquist, "Department of Studies&=javascript:goNote(39 Vision and Philosophy: Initial Reflections," February 1988, 2.

[29] Stumme, "Building on our Legacy," 34.

[30] Robert Benne, "Lutheran Ethics: Perennial Themes and Contemporary Challenges" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 17-8.

[31] "The Church in Society: Toward a Lutheran Perspective" (1989), 11-12.

[32] Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981); Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel: The Language of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).

[33] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

[34] Per Anderson, "In Defense of Unruly Discernment: Moral Deliberation in the ELCA, Currents in Theology and Mission 23 (April 1996): 104-18.

[35] Martha Stortz et al., "A Table Talk on Lutheran Ethics" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 165.

[36] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Harper Collins, Basic Books, 1991). In fact, ELCA community of moral deliberation does not fit neatly within Hunter&=javascript:goNote(39s "progressive" typology.

[37] Childs, "Ethics and the Promise of God" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 113.

[38] "The Church in Society: Toward a Lutheran Perspective" (1989), 12.

[39] Karen Bloomquist, "Moral Deliberation as a Public Witness of the Church," prepublication manuscript for Theology and Public Policy (April 1991), 2.

[40] Ibid., 6

[41] Benne, "Lutheran Ethics" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 27-28

[42] Childs, Faith, Formation, and Decision, 91-149.

[43] "The Church in Society" (1991), 3. The statement on abortion is the exception.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Rasmussen with Moe-Lobeda, "The Reform Dynamic" in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, 135.

[46] "Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All," 4.

[47] "For Peace in God&=javascript:goNote(39s World," 7.

[48] Wolfgang Huber, "Toward an Ethics of Responsibility," Journal of Religion 73 (October 1993): 589.

[49] Council on Civil Society, A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths (New York: Institute for American Values, 1998); Alan Wolfe, One Nation, After All: What Middle-class Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left, and Each Other (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998).

[50] Council on Civil Society, Call to Civil Society, 14.

[51] Ibid., 13

[52] Ibid., 15.

[53] Wolfe, 277.

[54] Wolfe, 267.

[55] Wolfe, 55, 58.

[56] Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity: The Prophetic Stance: An Interpretation (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 121-22.




© September 2001
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 1, Issue 1