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“Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod” – A book from James C. Burkee that has me thinking about my former denomination

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) is a denomination with which I’m intimately familiar, having grown up therein, studied at its schools, gone to one of its universities, and being related or knowing several pastors. Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity by James C. Burkee explores the way conservatives took control of the Missouri Synod and worked to rid it of those with whom they disagreed. It has a special focus on “Seminex” – a time when one of the LCMS Seminaries had such a conflict that many there went into “exile.”

Burkee’s analysis of the way conservatives came to power within the LCMS is exhaustively documented. Burkee quotes from letters, interviews, publicly available records, newsletters, and more as he meticulously draws out each stage of the conservative takeover of the LCMS.

The LCMS in the 1950s-1970s faced a crossroads. Many within the denomination were following contemporary scholarship, noting some difficulties with some interpretations taught or put forward by LCMS pastors or others, and making a push for joining the call for action on civil rights. For example, in 1964, the moderates within the denomination pushed for more action on civil rights, arguing that because of the Civil Rights Act, the longstanding LCMS interpretation of the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms meant that the LCMS needed to take greater strides for integration and for future progress (50-51). These moderates received massive pushback, and it came in the actions of people like Herman Otten, a man who essentially built a conservative movement through his writings, and J.A.O. Preus, who would rise to become President of the Synod. Otten especially stirred up readers of his periodical, Christian News, calling supporters of Civil Rights “commies,” eviscerating anyone who would push for ecumenical work as “liberals” or “communists,” and comparing any dissent from what he saw as necessary doctrines as following Baal (see, eg. 64-65). The tactics Otten used weren’t subtle, but they were effective. Among the doctrines Otten and other conservatives held most dear was that of inerrancy. Moderates, on the other hand, argued that for conservatives, inerrancy of the Bible frequently equated to the inerrancy of the LCMS (25).

What becomes incredibly clear upon reading the book is that the seizing of power within the LCMS was not, as it is sometimes portrayed, some glorious blow struck in behalf and with the help of the Lord. Those who seized power did so through power politics, including backroom deals, threats, and maneuvering of voting blocs. Outlining the way this played out would effectively require tracing an overview of the book, but suffice to say Burkee demonstrates time and again how sometimes minority actors within the LCMS were able to stir up enough dissent and manipulate votes in order to take over the Synod. With the same breath, many of these conservatives condemned political takeovers while using the very tools they pledged to reject.

One thing the book had me contemplating is how things could have been. An endnote revealed a surprising (now) set of resolutions the LCMS had passed before the conservative forcible takeover. They pledged to work to combat racism, promote universal healthcare, and more (241, note 49). It’s incredibly unfortunate that this work was abandoned and even actively worked against after the conservative takeover.

Perhaps the most alarming thing I learned from reading this book was how the dog whistles used back in the 1960s-1970s within the LCMS to cover for outright racism or other ills persisted into my own time. I know this will likely be dismissed by many insiders, but I want to share my own experiences. Time and again, I recall people in positions of authority within the LCMS calling any move to fix societal ills communist. Insinuations about MLK were made that included him being communist. Communist, as Burkee has shown, was an easy way to code for “dismiss this person/concern/etc.” In other words, it was a useful dog whistle. I also have observed some within leadership utilizing even more overt language. One conversation I had with a pastor included them lauding a specific football program for not having many black players. They explicitly stated that was a reason to prefer that program to others. Less overt were the many times I observed lived experience being dismissed. One example was a report about youths who’d left the LCMS, in which the analysis included saying that the racism one youth reported was spurious and/or a localized event that was surely not emblematic of any systemic issues. “Liberal” is another dog whistle employed, a signal that tells insiders to ignore the words that certain teachers, professors, or anyone critical of the Synod might use.

Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod is an absolutely fascinating read. It’s well-documented, and the revelations Burkee brings forward cannot reasonably be denied by any objective reader. What’s more alarming is that many of these same issues persist into today.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

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