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Faith-based Advocacy with Today's United States Government: Summary at Lutheran Ethicists Gathering 2020


[1] Lutherans can participate in the governing structures as naturally and faithfully as they make use of God’s other good gifts. This summation of Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession (AC) stands in contrast to the views of other protestant groups of the time, some who condemned civic participation as incompatible with the Christian life while still others sought to establish their own governments. Distinct from these extreme view points, AC makes clear that civic structures are part of God’s ordering of life and serve to fulfill God’s purpose. “Christians, therefore, are obliged to be subject to political authorities and to obey its commands and laws in all that may be done without sin.” [i]

[2]  At the same time, there are limits to the church and state relationship. Article XVI counsels that “if a command of the political authority cannot be followed without sin, one must obey God rather than any human beings(Acts 5:29).”[ii] Government, like all of God’s gifts, can be warped by sin through abuse of power or corruption at all levels by self-serving priorities,= and by disregard or ambivalence towards the impact of policies on vulnerable populations or creation.         

 

[3] At a 2009 Lutheran World Federation consultation “Churches Holding Governments Accountable,” Dr. John Stumme presented a paper titled “Distrust but Value Government,” which outlined two moral obligations of government: to “prevent tyranny” and to “prevent anarchy.” In the paper he notes that Martin Luther knew that governments do not want to be held accountable.

“Rulers, Luther writes, “declare that whoever rebukes them is seditious, rebels against the authority ordained by God, and defames their honor.” He calls this tactic “a new device,” but it is both very old and very contemporary. Rulers, “ultimate desire,” he continued, “is to be able to do whatever they wish, without hindrance or rebuke, without shame and fear, and with honor and glory, so that they become that noble, praiseworthy folk…‘who live according to their own self-will and do what they please”’(2 Peter 3:3). Luther’s insight into the self-serving and self-protecting dynamics of political power makes us aware that holding governments accountable is necessary as well as very difficult.[iii]

      The ELCA’s Theological Ethical Commitment to Political Advocacy

[4] The ELCA as a denomination has, since its beginning and in its predecessor bodies, been committed to a relationship with the state that starts with partnership and collaboration towards the common good while also exercising robust public policy advocacy to inform, shape, and correct governmental action. Today, this relationship is continued by individuals, congregations and synods as well as by the ELCA Advocacy’s federal policy office in Washington D.C. whose staff is devoted to work in the areas of domestic, international, migration, and environmental policy. The ELCA also supports a network of 21 state public policy offices and collaborates with the Lutheran World Federation at the Lutheran Office for World Community at the United Nations. Shaped by the ELCA’s social teaching documents and the experiences of its congregations, ministries and partners, the mission of the ELCA’s advocacy with state, federal and global governments is to end world hunger and stand up for policies that create opportunities to overcome poverty, promote peace and dignity, preserve God’s creation, and promote racial equity and gender justice.

 

[5] The Statement of Purpose of the ELCA Constitution grounds the advocacy of the church by outlining commitments that guide civic engagement and institutional advocacy.  The church is to

 

a.               Serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, caring for the sick and the aged, advocating dignity and justice for all people, working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless and committing itself to their needs. (Chapter 4.01 c.)

b.                Lift its voice in concord and work in concert with forces for good, to serve humanity, cooperating with church and other groups participating in activities that promote justice, relieve misery, and reconcile the estranged. (Chapter 4.03g)

c.               Study social issues and trends, work to discover the causes of oppression and injustice, and develop programs of ministry and advocacy to further human dignity, freedom, justice, and peace in the world. (Chapter 4.03l)

d.               Work with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction. (Chapter 4.03n)

 

[6] All these entities at the state, federal and global levels apply ELCA social teaching to pressing public issues, using Lutheran theology and ethics to analyze legislative and regulatory proposals, discern advocacy strategies, and frame messaging to law makers. Some advocacy priorities are also determined by Churchwide Assembly action, which in 2019 provided directives for advocacy related to the issues of watersheds, suicide prevention funding, and gun violence.

[7] This form of public witness is not always understood in the United States or in the ELCA as part of the call and ministry of Christ’s church. A November 2019 PEW Research Center report on US attitudes towards religion and politics found that:

a.               Most US adults want religious groups to stay out of politics (63%) and 76% say that religious groups should not come out in favor of candidates.

b.               Slightly more (37%) respondants think houses of worship have too much influence in politics compared to those (28% ) who say houses of worship have too little influence.

c.               A majority of respondents (55%) say religious organizations do more good than harm, while similar numbers of respondents agree that faith groups and churches strengthen morality and bring people together.[iv]

This snapshot of public opinion shows that religious entities are considered beneficial to society at large through faith-based community service addressing human needs. Less expectedly, the survey shows support for the value of doctrinal teaching and faith practices that shape the moral base for society in positive ways. Yet once these same faith commitments and values are put into action (for example, to shape the policies that drive growing income inequality, restrict access to healthcare, or harm the environment) public support for religious advocacy groups decreases.

[8] The attitudes of ELCA Lutherans display similar ambivalence to advocacy in the church. The ELCA’s own information on congregational public engagement reveals that only half of respondents conducted advocacy-related action over the course of a year. The 2017 report “Form C - Summary of Congregational Information” included responses to a question on types of advocacy engaged that year. Almost half of respondents reported taking no action. Those who did engage in advocacy prioritized educating and conversing on issues rather than direct action as seen in the following responses to the question: In what types of advocacy have you engaged this year?

 

•           Education and Conversation                     3,485

•           Voter Registration Drives                         223

•           Letters to Elected Decision-Makers         717

•           Regional/Natl Advocacy Network           964

•           No Response to Any                                3,063[v]

 

     Origins and History of ELCA Advocacy in the United States

[9] The origins of ELCA advocacy can be traced to 1945 when United States military service personnel were returning to post-World War II America. That year the churches of the National Lutheran Council (NLC) moved from their wartime ministries to add another dimension of service. As a ministry to those returning veterans, the eight ELCA predecessor churches began an official presence with the federal government in Washington, D.C. During those early years, the international aspect of church-state relations played a significate role as German church leaders conferred with State Department officials about the problems of German reconstruction.

[10] The year 1948 marked a turning point. The NLC expanded its service to its participating bodies in order to keep them informed of important congressional activities and to channel information about the churches and their work to key government officials. Special relationships between the churches and the government developed around programs of relief and rehabilitation as well as the movement and well-being of refugees.

 

[11] The focus of the nation turned to civil rights and racial equality in the 1960s. The Lutheran churches spoke out through their Washington office as staff worked with Lutheran legislators and ecumenical colleagues on civil rights and justice issues. At the beginning of the decade, the eight NLC churches merged to become The American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). The office now represented a two-church presence.

 

[12] The 1960’s was a generative era for Lutheran reflection on church state relationships. ELCA predecessor bodies adopted understandings of a government that relates to the church through a position of “benevolent” or “wholesome” neutrality. This summary affirmed the non-establishment clause of the US Constitution while presuming a government favorably disposed towards religious institutions, their social service ministries, and the constructive role they play in society.

 

[13] I From 1967 to 1987, the American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church of America were joined by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the cooperative work of the Lutheran Council in the USA. The cooperative Office of Public Affairs continued the functions of representing the interests of the church bodies, analyzing public issues, informing government officials of church body positions, and planning and conducting seminars.

 

[14] In 1979, the Lutheran Council in the USA, a cooperative agency of the American Lutheran Church, Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, Lutheran Church in America and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod issued “The Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government.” This statement and recommendations were prepared to address “rising concern within its participating bodies over governmental laws, rulings and regulatory procedures in matters affecting the churches and their ministries” particularly about governmental action that would define the nature, mission, ministries and structure of religious organizations.[vi]

 

[15] The four church bodies expressed the relationship between the churches and the government as one of “institutional separation and functional interaction.” Through “institutional separation,” they affirmed the integrity and autonomy of church and state from one another.  The phrase affirms Lutheran support for the principle of separate structures of church and government and the constitutional safeguard of the rights of all persons to the free exercise of religious beliefs. The document makes policy recommendations in the area of institutional separation including for example, issues about religious liberty, taxation, private school desegregation, the church’s exemption from unemployment insurance, and the importance of maintaining the charitable income tax deduction.

 

[16]  “Functional interaction,” summarizes the areas of mutual concern and engagement in society which calls for their cooperation for the common good. The document specifically names mutual endeavor that includes “the role of the churches in informing persons about, advocating for and speaking publicly on issues and proposals related to social justice and human rights.”[vii]

    The ELCA’s Current Advocacy

[17] Since 1988, the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs (LOGA), now called ELCA Advocacy, has served as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Washington, D.C. office for advocacy to the U.S. governments. ELCA Advocacy seeks to enable effective interaction between the church and the federal government. Through providing education and information, it witnesses for social justice on domestic and foreign policy issues facing the nation, educates, informs and enables effective interaction between the ELCA and the federal government, and represents the ELCA's positions within the arena of public debate.

 

[18] The church’s social policy statements provide guidance on the church and state relationship. Primary definitions are drawn from the follow documents:

a.               Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective (1991) This foundational document affirms that God institutes government “to serve the good of society and the role of law is to protect life and liberty and uphold the common good.” 

b.               For Peace in God’s World (1995) states that politics is the process through which “God restrains evil and promotes the common good" which includes attention to nonviolence, diplomacy, peaceful resolution of conflict and protection of minority rights.

c.               Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All (1999) defines the common good as limiting or countering narrow economic interests and producing what is needed for sufficiency for all. Achieving this requires government to invest in health, education, infrastructure and sustainable development as well as to enforce regulations against discrimination, unfair labor practices, fair minimum wage and other elements of civic life.

d.               Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor (2003) frames government as the guarantor of justice and promoter of general welfare by balancing interests and ensuring equity, including equitable access to healthcare.

e.               The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries (2013) states that "God uses civil government and the criminal justice system to structure human life and to provide food, shelter, safety, education and many other material and social benefits" towards a common good that contributes to human flourishing.

f.                Faith, Sexism and Justice (2019) notes that government itself must be shaped to be most responsive to human needs, “As Lutherans, we understand that God intends not only individuals, but also cultures and governments, to develop in ways that enable all people to flourish.”

[19] In addition, ELCA Advocacy functions today as a small but integral part of the ELCA World Hunger program, which provides funding for federal and state advocacy aligned with its goals and strategic priorities towards “a just world where all are fed.” Not everyone who donates to ELCA World Hunger may realize that their support goes beyond direct service ministries to advocacy. But one bad law can negate a thousand acts of charity or the most successful fundraising. Through the addition of advocacy that interprets the experiences of ELCA ministries and that conveys the human needs and amplifies the voices of those who struggle with hunger at the policy level, the church can respond to help people at scale.

 

[20] For example, ELCA Advocacy works during the federal budget appropriations process to ensure sufficient funding for safety net programs. In 2019 ELCA advocates exerted influence that saw the first substantial increase for domestic anti-poverty programs in the federal budget since 2010. The recent trend of increased use of federal regulations to cut or curtail human need programs warranted pointed and direct response from ELCA advocacy network members. These included proposed rules that could cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance for 3.7 million people and eliminate the automatic eligibility of 1 million children to free or reduced-priced school meals. Lutherans also mobilized to oppose housing measures that would reduce protection from discrimination against people with disabilities, against seniors, and against people of color. The ELCA also mobiliizd to oppose the eviction from public housing of 100,000 legal immigrants whose families include undocumented people.

 

[21] ELCA Advocacy understands hunger as a symptom of systemic inequities and injustices that are sometimes caused, intensified or perpetuated by public policy. The church responds to these ills through prioritization of root causes of hunger in the US and globally. These causes include lack of access to health care, wage inequality, racial inequities and gender-based discrimination, climate change, and a global migration crisis.  The church’s commitments to racial equity and gender justice demand that the church’s selection of issues and resulting policy proposals include analysis of the impact of structural racism and sexism on issues while prioritizing racial and gender equity in any proposed solution.

     The Unique Advocacy of the ELCA: A “Purple” Church

[22] Advocacy in the ELCA today takes place in a church whose membership is spread across the political spectrum. According to the PEW Religious Landscape Survey, 43% of ELCA Lutherans identify as Republican or Republican leaning while 47% identify as Democrat or Democratic leaning.[viii] This diversity in the pews, which is sometimes framed as an impediment to acting in the public square, can also be seen as an ELCA strength for advocacy leadership. There are many faith-based advocacy groups that self-brand as either right or left leaning and unite like-minded individuals in their advocacy. Their influence faces limits, however, when trying to reach lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, or when their members are not represented in key Congressional districts.

 

[23] The ELCA, because of its geographical and political diversity, can mobilize voices to speak to the government in ways that other organizations may not. ELCA advocacy is conducted in a bipartisan manner. In almost every instance, the ELCA does not support bills that do not have bipartisan support. The constant ebb and flow of political majorities on Capitol Hill means that advocacy for the long haul requires relationships, access, and credibility on both sides of the aisle.

 

[24] There are many examples of how this approach can work. Lutheran presence in Iowa, with access to key Congressional leaders, made a difference in advancing criminal justice reform legislation in recent years. The ELCA’s sizable commitment to combatting poverty globally brings experiences and relationships to bear that helped prevent proposed massive cuts in foreign aid in recent years. Partnership with ministries in Central America brings credibility to advocacy that supports human rights and migration policy. Partner synod relationships, such as the relationship with the Lutheran Church in Liberia, drove successful advocacy that permanently lifted Deferred Enforced Departure status of Liberians at risk of deportation in 2019. This along with the 2019 passage of the Global Fragility Act built on ELCA global relationships and demonstrated the ELCA’s persuasive voice.

 

[25] The ELCA’s interaction with the U.S. government is conducted in close partnership with ecumenical and interreligious partners. The 2019 ELCA policy statement “A Declaration of Inter-religious Commitment" upholds that the church is called to “cooperate with our neighbors of other religions and worldviews as instruments of God’s justice and peace,” including the commitment to “seek counsel from other religious groups in its discernment of and advocacy for the common good.”[ix] This cooperation takes place daily in Washington, with over 20 issue-based working groups composed of representatives of over 60 faith-based groups on Capitol Hill. Many times, a call to action from the ELCA is issued in similar form from multiple mainline Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other groups. The ongoing information-sharing, collaboration, and strategizing with inter-religious colleagues and policy organizations is a concrete living out of the ELCA’s inter-religious commitment that strengthens and amplifies a powerful faith voice based on shared principles.

 

[26] Also, the ELCA is unique among protestant denominations in its long-term commitment to state public policy.  This work is currently conducted through 21 state advocacy ministries. Some of these are entirely Lutheran, others are housed in ecumenical or interfaith organizations and give depth and reach to church-state work. These offices work directly with local congregations to educate about ELCA social teaching, prepare resources for synods and congregations, lead discernment on current issues, and conduct advocacy based in the experience of local ministries which informs and impacts state-level decision-making. Theodore Roosevelt’s once opined that that all politics is local. In the many instances when the U.S. Congress is gridlocked or when states must implement national programs, state action can achieve significant success not available at the federal level. For example, despite the inability to advance federal voting rights legislation, state advocacy in the ELCA has recently helped restore voting rights in many states through its advocacy for the expansion of early voting and its address of voter suppression.

     The Future of ELCA Advocacy

[27] There are several ways that the advocacy of the ELCA and church state interaction is growing and changing. The first is happening through application of the accompaniment model developed by ELCA Global Mission that guides relationships with global partners to the church’s public voice. This requires a shift from advocacy defined as speaking for populations to advocacy understood as witnessing alongside the oppressed.  The stories of Jesus’ healing ministry start with Jesus seeing and making visible human suffering. Similarly, the church has the responsibility to hear, and to build bridges so that those in power hear the voices of those most impacted by poverty, injustice, or discrimination. ELCA Advocacy convenings, which for many years equipped Bishops to advocate effectively, now also include grassroots leaders who convey lived experience of the issue. Together, the moral voice and representation of denominational leaders , combined with those who have a personal story to tell make for impactful advocacy that amplifies values, experience and voices.

 

[28] Many Lutherans can do more to teach a theological understanding of Christian vocation that includes public service. Augsburg Confession Article XVI states, "Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and justices, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws…” and more.[x] In an era when public service is often maligned and vocation to government service is disparaged, Lutherans must dust off this affirmation to public service in faith formation ministries. Vocation to government service is one concrete way to love the neighbor that deserves support from the church.

 

[29] The church forms disciples who are also citizens. Participation in civic life is a concrete expression of neighbor love, and the church  has an important role to play in forming Christians who understand this expression in their call to follow Jesus. “The Church also relates to the interests of the state by contributing to the civil consensus that supports it. Especially under the US system, which provides for wide participation, the church has the responsibility to help create a moral base and legal climate in which just solutions to vexing political problems can take place.”[xi] The church cultivates civil virtue through forms disciples who are also citizens.  The church cultivates civil virtue through catechesis, study of Scripture, and theological education as well as through opportunities for ministries of service and justice.  

[30] Some Lutherans are not yet ready to engage in issue-based policy advocacy. For those looking for other avenues, the ELCA provides other avenues for engagement. In 2020, the ELCA became an official partner of the U.S. Census. This partnership emphasizes the importance of the census for addressing human needs and political representation for the next ten years. The popular ELCAvotes campaign provides faith-rooted, non-partisan guidance for election year activities for congregations.

[31] The deepened political polarization in our nation calls for faith formation in the church that takes place in a spirit of listening, love and commitment to faithful communal solutions. The most requested advocacy resource is not one related to a specific issue but  is for resources that demonstrate how to hold conversations and communal discernment in divisive times.  Happily, Lutheran tradition has much to say on this topic. Lutherans have strong social teachings about the need for humility in discourse rather than an ethic of triumphalism. The triumphal nature of political discourse and political messaging is understood as a theological problem. Lutherans believe that public policy advocacy built on an understanding of works righteousness undercuts our community of the church and our national unity.

[32] Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine continues to be taught and used as a convenient summary of how church and state relate.  Yet, the two kingdoms are often confused or merged with the U.S. constitutional provision that government neither established nor favors any religion and the tradition of the separation of church and state. Additionally, some Lutherans misunderstand the kingdom of the left hand, (the world of politics, power and policy), thinking it is a more sinful and less redeemable kingdom than the kingdom of the right. The forthcoming social statement on church and state will do much to clarify Lutheran understanding, relationship and responsibilities with the state. For now, Lutherans can rely on the central affirmation that God is present in both church and government and that God works through both realms.

     Concluding with Hope

[33] A former colleague when reviewing any statement of the ELCA on a social issue would always ask, “Where does it express hope?” If the letter or statement only expressed disapproval or negative critique, he questioned whether the church should advocate with it. This was not an evaluation of the issue itself, but an interrogation of the church’s public voice.  The central role of the church’s public proclamation and advocacy is providing a witness to faith in Christ and our hope in God’s future. “The presence and promise of God’s reign within the brokenness of the world prompts both hope and clear-eyed realism.”[xii] “In God we place our hope for the fullness of shalom promised.  Confident in the presence and promise yet to come of God’s reign we yearn for a greater measure of justice now.”[xiii] As the people of God called and sent to the world, our public testimony is always an opportunity to proclaim a hope-filled witness to the Good news of Jesus Christ, the God who calls us to do Justice.

 

Rev. Amy Reumann serves as Director for Advocacy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.



[i] “The Augsburg Confession,” XVI. Concerning Civic Affairs,  Latin Text in Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 49.

[ii] Ibid, 50

[iii] Stumme, John. “Distrust but Value Government”, October 19-21, 2009 at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva conference, “Churches Holding Governments Accountable,”  1-2. 

[iv] Americans Have Positive Views About Religion’s Role in Society, but Want It Out of Politics, Pew Research Center, November 15, 2019. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/11/15/americans-have-positive-views-about-religions-role-in-society-but-want-it-out-of-politics/

[v] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Form A - Summary of Congregational Statistics as of 12/31/2017” https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Summary_of_Congregational_Statistics_as_of_12-31-2017.pdf

[vi] The Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government (Lutheran Council in the USA, 1979), 2.

[vii] Ibid, 3.

[viii] Michael Lipka, “U.S. religious groups and their political leanings,” Pew Research Center, February 23, 2016 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/23/u-s-religious-groups-and-their-political-leanings/

[ix] A Declaration of Inter-religious Commitment, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Inter-Religious_Policy_Statement.pdf

[x]Augsburg Confession” XVI, Concerning Civic Affiars, 48.

[xi] The Nature of the Church and Its Relationship with Government, 3.

[xii] “Hearing the Cries: The Church and Criminal Justice,” 17.

[xiii] Ibid, 48.


Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​


© April/May 2020
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 20, Issue 2