Why Not Poverty, The Environment, and Immigration? Broadening the LCMS Political Agenda


Why Not Poverty, The Environment, and Immigration? Broadening the LCMS Political Agenda

Jeff Walz, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, Concordia University,  Wisconsin

2004: An Opportunity for Dialogue Missed

To many Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) members, the choice in the 2004 presidential election was clear: incumbent Republican candidate President George W. Bush was, without question, preferred over Democratic challenger John Kerry. My Concordia University Wisconsin (CUW) colleague, James Burkee, and I thought the choice was perhaps less clear cut, and we acted on those beliefs. During the fall of 2004, we visited 20–25 Lutheran churches, mostly LCMS parishes but some ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations as well, promoting a discussion of candidates Bush and Kerry. We authored an article in The Lutheran Witness, “Bush, Kerry, and the Christian Voter,” another effort to encourage thoughtful Christian citizenship. Both efforts were designed to open dialogue and discussion on the important issues of the day, including social ministry and social justice concerns.

To our disappointment but perhaps not to our surprise, our initiatives were not always received warmly, in both ELCA and LCMS congregations, and in the LCMS at large. At our first outing at a Milwaukee-area LCMS church, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Heinen’s story described me as being like “Daniel in the lion’s den” as I, a pro-life Democrat, made the case for a Kerry administration. Our Lutheran Witness article received an enormous amount of written feedback, though it could hardly be called fan mail, as many writers assailed us for having the temerity for even suggesting there was a discussion to be had in the Bush-Kerry contest. Much of the criticism focused on the candidates’ abortion positions; very little of the feedback addressed areas where the government can play a role, along with the church and interest groups, in helping those Jesus identifies as “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40).

However, the differences in the 2004 campaign between Bush and Kerry in the social ministry and social justice areas were indeed significant. In December 2002, President Bush signed an executive order creating a Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI), designed to empower religious organizations to better meet Americans’ social needs. Kerry criticized Bush’s FBCI, suggesting it abridged the country’s separation of church and state. Moreover, Kerry cited James 2:14 (“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but no deeds? Can such faith save them?”) to question Bush’s commitment to works of compassion. The candidates also sparred over the wisdom of Bush’s tax cuts and their impact on social ministry and social justice areas. To help the least of those among us Kerry favored public spending on welfare and health care, while Bush called for compassion and individual responsibility. Sadly, in the churches we visited, the LCMS single-issue focus on Kerry’s pro-choice position and the ELCA single-issue focus on Bush’s Iraq War overshadowed another crucial conversation we all should have had in 2004: Which candidate’s plans in the social ministry and social justice areas could best help the most people locally, nationally, and internationally?

LCMS in Political Context: Social Ministry and Social Justice Issues

Like in 2004, the LCMS today is challenged when it comes to serious debate and dialogue on government actions to help the least of these in the social ministry and social justice areas. The rollout of the LCMS “Free to be Faithful” initiative in 2012 targeted several areas, with significant attention to abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom. Though this initiative also included the work of social service organizations and the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate among its concerns, these issues have largely been overshadowed. In addition, this initiative may be viewed largely as a defensive strategy, an effort to halt the alleged intrusion of government into the affairs of the church and its members. The newly established Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., is the latest effort in this area. More LCMS attention is needed in the social ministry and social justice areas, and the focus should be more positive, uplifting, and energizing. To live out the Gospel message in its entirety to those around us, the LCMS and its members should embark on a concerted effort to teach, preach, and practice the most effective ways government can engage social ministry and social justice areas.

Such an approach could certainly have traction within the LCMS, as anecdotal and survey data evidence suggest laity and clergy within the LCMS care about how government addresses social ministry and social justice areas, albeit in different ways and with different points of emphases. In 2006, James Burkee and I conducted a national survey of ELCA, LCMS, and WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) clergy and laity, focusing on theology, politics, and worship practice. We received 3,195 laity responses and 1,892 clergy responses to the lengthy survey from throughout the country, including 969 LCMS clergy and 2,059 LCMS laity responses. We used a diverse sampling method, including mailed and on-line responses, to ensure that our sample was representative of Lutheran laity and clergy in 2006. Our data suggest that in social ministry and social justice areas, there was noteworthy support for government action to help the least of these, and that this support tended to be stronger among LCMS laity than among LCMS clergy, as the literature and other studies of which I have been a part indicate.

Part of the study asked respondents for their degree of agreement or disagreement with 20 statements connected to several areas of government policy. The Table 1 categories report the percent of LCMS laity and clergy respondents who strongly agreed or agreed with the statements related to those policy areas. The five-point Likert scale also included responses for not sure, disagree, and strongly disagree. The data are 10 years old and some of the Synodical context has changed, but the data illustrate patterns that tend to persist among us. (I am unaware of any more recent data that has probed these same types of questions with this response rate.) LCMS clergy data from 2009 are in line with 2006 clergy data, and more will be known in 2017 when LCMS clergy will be surveyed as part of a larger, post-election, project.

Table 1

The Policy Positions of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Laity and Clergy, 2006


% Agreeing & Strongly Agreeing(n) 
% Agreeing &Strongly Agreeing(n) 
The federal government should do more to solve social problems such as unemployment, poverty, and poor housing. 44.6(919)  37.5(363)
More environmental protection is needed, even if it raises prices or costs jobs. 39.1(804)  32.7(317)
I oppose capital punishment. 15.9(327) 12.4(121) 
Public policy should discourage ownership and use of handguns. 26.3(541) 21.2(205)
We need government-sponsored national health insurance so that everyone can get adequate medical care. 34.5(710) 24.3(236)
Blacks and other minorities may need special government help in order to achieve an equal place in America. 14.6 (302) 18.4(178)
Current welfare laws are too harsh and hurt children. 9.6(199) 8.7(103) 
Source: Survey of American Lutherans: Theology, Politics, and Worship Practices, 2006

I classified our study’s 20 statements on government policy into five different categories, based on type of issue: International; Military/Security; Gender/Life; Education/Schools; and Social Justice. Even within the LCMS, a denomination with a history of social quietism and a more recent alignment with a Republican Party that tends to minimize government’s role in society, there was in 2006, especially among the laity, a desire for the government to do more to address social justice issues. LCMS members were more likely than LCMS clergy to take what could be considered pro-government positions on six of the seven issues, and there was a significant support gap between laity and clergy on several issues. Only on the perceived need for government to help Blacks and other minorities achieve an equal place in America did clergy support exceed that of the laity. Laity were significantly more likely than clergy to support the federal government’s role in solving unemployment, poverty and poor housing problems, and in a desire for government-sponsored national health insurance. Perhaps more importantly, more laity agreed or strongly agreed with increasing the government’s role in solving unemployment, poverty, and poor housing issues (44.6 percent) than disagreed or strongly disagreed (43.0 percent). LCMS laity in 2006—and I will also project in 2016—not only care about these social justice issues, but see the government as one means to address them.

A deeper look at the data suggests the depth of this social justice agenda gap between LCMS laity and clergy. It is striking that more than a third of laity (34.3 percent) in 2006 agreed or strongly agreed that we need government-sponsored national health insurance, while only 24.3 percent of clergy concurred. On an issue that has increased relevance today, the environment, there appeared to be some support for a green movement within the Synod. More laity agreed or strongly agreed (39.1 percent) that “more environmental protection is needed, even if it raises prices or costs jobs” than disagreed or strongly disagreed (37.3 percent). Of course, 2006 was a time of moderate economic growth prior to the great recession of 2008-2009, so these numbers may be different in 2016. Yet, many more LCMS clergy disagreed or strongly disagreed (48.8 percent) with this statement than agreed or strongly agreed (32.7 percent), portraying another issue divide between LCMS laity and clergy.

The literature often suggests a significant theological and political gap between ELCA clergy and laity, and that is indeed the case. However, LCMS clergy and laity too are not nearly as homogenous as one may think, including on social ministry and social justice issues.

Teaching Social Ministry and Social Justice Issues in the LCMS: Directions for Engagement

Based on the 2006 data and anecdotal evidence, there appears to be a desire among some LCMS laity and clergy for more opportunities to be engaged in the public square on social ministry and social justice issues. The LCMS has a strong and admirable track record of engagement on some issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty. I would encourage the LCMS and its members to increase its engagement with the world beyond these issues to additional concerns within the social ministry and social justice agenda such as poverty, income inequality, the environment, the federal debt, gun safety and violence, racial conciliation, and immigration, among others. This is what a church body which understands its doctrine of vocation within both God’s left-hand kingdom and God’s right-hand kingdom should be doing in 2016: Engaging the public square positively and in an informed way on issues that affect the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Such an approach is desirable for the Synod as an entity; for LCMS educational institutions, including day schools, universities, and seminaries; and for the Synod’s churches, clergy, and parishioners. Below, I provide several possible strategies for each.

The Synod

Robert Benne (1989) developed a model of church engagement with society that can be explicitly applied to social ministry and social justice areas. Benne’s four approaches are detailed in the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) 1995 study, Render Unto Caesar … And Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State, and they move from low-to-high level involvement. Benne’s first level is indirect and unintentional influence, where the church’s Gospel emphasis produces good works through the Holy Spirit. This is an excellent starting point, as parishioners develop a close relationship with God through the means of grace and prayer, and God brings members to help others in their midst through many ways, including our government. However, through our roles and contexts of vocation God also has placed people and institutions on earth to educate members on key issues of the day.

Therefore, Benne’s second level, indirect and intentional influence, should be central to the Synod in educating is members on social ministry and social justice concerns. This is where the Synod could emphasize “pro-life” issues beyond abortion, stem cell research, and physician-assisted suicide. Such issues could include poverty, the growing income disparity, the federal budget deficit, health care, adoption policy, and other concerns where government action (or inaction) may have a profound effect on all people, especially the least of these. During election campaigns, it would be valuable to provide for members a fair voter guide that moves beyond the issues and limitations of recent Christian voter guides. The key is to properly publicize these social justice agenda issues while providing information sources that are even-handed with multiple sources as possible, not simply those with either a typically conservative or liberal bent or leaning.

At times, a church body may feel so strongly about an issue that it rises to Benne’s third level, direct and intentional influence, where the denomination speaks as one on an issue of public concern. In the past, the Synod has addressed racism, child care, and prayers in public schools using this approach. An issue that may rise to this level today is the $19 trillion (and counting) budget debt, a moral issue which certainly is and can have an impact on a wide swath of the American populace. It may be helpful as well to speak out more firmly on immigration, even as Synod members may hold divergent views on the issue. For example, a statement on immigration could advocate that laws be followed and upheld even as greater efforts are made to help illegal immigrants among us. Also, such a statement could urge the government to craft new immigration policies at points of policy agreement.

Finally, the Synod may engage in Benne’s fourth level, direct and intentional action, by advocating for specific goals or policies in the public arena. However, the Synod has used this approach rarely, and only when the Bible supports a specific policy position, e.g., a ban on abortions, and thus it may not fit as well with social ministry and social justice issues. Synod members may certainly differ on the best means to achieve specific social ministry and social justice ends, such as reducing poverty, even as they concur on the desired outcome.

LCMS Schools, Universities, and Seminaries

LCMS schools, universities, and seminaries are already doing admirable work in social ministry and social justice issue areas, and I am undoubtedly unaware of many initiatives in place. Nonetheless, the following action item may be helpful. All educational institutions can better link already valuable service learning experiences to the political process. For example, my freshman orientation class this past December bought and prepared brunch for families at Milwaukee’s Ronald McDonald House, which provides accommodations to families with loved ones at children’s hospitals throughout the country. To better appreciate how our efforts fit into the bigger picture, our class could have researched what government assistance such families already receive at the local, state, and federal level, and whether we believe those levels to be appropriate. Moreover, I could have better equipped students to know how to contact government offices on an issue such as this, to be effective citizen advocates. More broadly, linking Lutheran two-kingdom theology to current social ministry and social justice issues may better demonstrate the important connection between theory and practice for the students in varied educational settings.

Congregations of Synod

LCMS congregations could do several things to better equip their parishioners to engage in social ministry and social justice concerns. First, clergy could make more efforts to address social ministry and social justice issues in their sermons, and to include ways that government can successfully impact the provision of goods for those in need. Second, clergy and pastors could engage more intentionally in Bible studies and study groups on current social justice issues. For example, it would be edifying to discuss with parishioners the immigration challenges today and biblical responses to them, recognizing the concept of adiaphora and that Scriptures does not provide for us prescriptions on how to address such issues. Third, by bringing guests into churches to discuss these issues, parishioners could hear from experts who may urge members to apply their theology to the trials of the day. Finally, churches can be better role models for their members by working with other church bodies on social ministry concerns. This model of collaboration may encourage parishioners to consider how they may engage and have dialogue with those with whom they disagree on social ministry and social justice agenda issues. Such civil dialogue is much needed in today’s dysfunctional American political system.

Conclusion: A New LCMS Path on Social Ministry and Social Justice Issues

It is often said that churches, interest groups, and individuals are better equipped than big government to address social ministry and social justice concerns, but government is and will continue to be a major player in issues such as assistance for the poor, immigration, health care, the environment, racial and religious conflict, and human trafficking. Some LCMS clergy and laity care about these issues. Importantly, many others in our society who also care about these issues desire government to play a role in addressing such concerns. One way to connect the Synod with people, especially Millennials (those born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s), is to care about the issues they do. Having taught politics and government classes for twenty years at Lutheran higher education institutions, it seems to me that students’ concerns have shifted. While some continue to exhibit intense concern regarding abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom, more seem to have gravitated to other issues and programs that care for the least of these. A Synod that puts more of its public emphasis on these issues, based on its rich theology, is well poised to make a positive and lasting impression both on its own members, and on an American society searching for meaningful and constructive sources of political discourse.


Benne, Robert. 1989. “The Church and Politics: Four Possible Connections.” This World 25 (Spring): 26-37.
Heinen, Tom. 2004. “Presidential Race Finds a Forum in Churches: Professors Frame Election Using Lutheran Ideals.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 19 September, A1.
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. 1995. Render unto Caesar … and unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State. St. Louis: LCMS.
Walz, Jeff, and James Burkee. 2004. “Bush, Kerry, and the Christian Voter.” The Lutheran Witness 123 (October): 6-9.

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