By Timothy S. Goeglein
Tiny Woodstock, Va., is a mere 94 miles from giant Washington, D.C. It is a quiet, peaceful community. But it was the site of one of the most dramatic and effervescent Sunday morning sermons in the history of American Lutheranism.
Early in January 1776, the year of the American Revolution, Pastor Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg sermonized from the Book of Ecclesiastes to his little rural flock of parishioners: “The Bible tells us ‘there is a time for all things,’ and there is a time to preach and a time to pray. But the time for me to preach has passed away; and there is a time to fight, and that time has now come.”
Muhlenberg would come to be known as the ‘fighting parson’ because of the seamless manner in which he wove his bravery, tenacity and faith. He knew well Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine — derived from Augustine’s view that there exists a city of man and a city of God. He believed the role of the church and the role of government are separate and distinct, yet not mutually exclusive.
Muhlenberg was comfortable that the same God who had ordained His church with an elemental role had also ordained government with its role, and that we Christians were not to separate ourselves from the public square. Instead, as Luther taught, men and women of faith were to serve their countries by bringing their faith in Jesus Christ to the most cutting-edge issues, and indeed to the very center of public life: in the military, in the arts, in education, in government, and as formers, shapers and impacters of the culture of nations.
After Muhlenberg concluded his sermon that chilly Sunday morning, he promptly removed his vestments in front of his congregants. His parishioners could see for the first time that beneath his clerical garb was the uniform of a colonel in the 8th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army. None other than Gen. George Washington, an Anglican, had recruited his Lutheran friend Muhlenberg for the militia.
An hour after the service concluded, no less than 162 fellow Lutherans from that same congregation had joined their pastor to battle for liberty — and especially religious liberty — against the most powerful empire in world history, the British.
The author Joe Loconte has written of Muhlenberg and his fellow Lutherans: “The ‘fighting parson’ was a common sight in the American Revolution. Why? Because American Christianity — anchored in a Protestant understanding of religious liberty — gave its blessing to democratic self-government.”
In the 21st century, that same boldness, civility but unapologetic defense of religious liberty continues. Our Lutheran faith and theology were recently brought to bear in the halls of power in a dramatic Capitol Hill hearing, at the highest echelons of policymaking.
The stakes for our religious liberty, as in the 18th century, remain high and contested. The issue is none other than our constitutional right of conscience.
Some 236 winters after Muh-lenberg stepped into the arena, the president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, did the same. He brought to that congressional hearing the same “two kingdoms” doctrine that Muhlenberg and his fellow Lutherans had displayed on the battlefields of revolutionary Virginia.
Harrison’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee showed the same moral imagination and courage as Muhlenberg’s, rooted in our foundational, inalienable right of religious liberty.
I sat behind President Harrison in the hearing room that February morning as he told all those who would listen: “We [Lutherans] fought for a free conscience in this country, and we don’t give it up without a fight. To paraphrase Martin Luther, the heart and conscience has room only for God, not for God and the federal government. We must obey God rather than men, and we will.”
You could have heard a pin drop; it was a transcendental moment when Athens and Jerusalem seemed to contend.
The LCMS has not taken a position on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, per se. But the Synod is strongly opposed to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services birth-control mandate that is a provision of the law.
This “HHS mandate” stands as the very heart and soul of the national health care reform legislation advocated by President Obama, passed into law by his congressional allies, and upheld by a single vote by the United States Supreme Court the last Thursday in June.
The mandate says some religiously affiliated groups and institutions will be forced to pay for contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and abortions themselves. There are no requisite conscience protections in the new law as part of the health care coverage those groups provide for their employees. A failure to pay for such mandated services will result in major fines. This law is a violation of the most deeply held moral and religious principles and liberties of millions of American Christians.
Harrison’s testimony to the assembled congressmen and women was of a crystalline nature, worthy of Luther himself: “I’m here to express our deepest distress over the HHS provisions. We are religiously opposed to supporting abortion-causing drugs … we are deeply concerned that our consciences may soon be martyred by a few strokes on the keyboard as this administration moves us all into a single-payer system … Religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government.”
As of now, the religious-liberty violations contained in national health care reform have been concretized into American law. A bevy of lawsuits are pending. The fate of that legal action is up to individual courts, and is uncertain.
As American Christians, we are objectively less free than we were before national health care became the law of our land. President Harrison has laid down the gauntlet, echoing Muhlenberg. The rights of conscience of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and millions of our fellow believers remain disturbingly in the balance. It is a new and fraught era, unparalleled in our nation’s history.
Timothy S. Goeglein is vice-president of Focus on the Family, a senior visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Va. He is the author of the highly regarded memoir, The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, which is widely available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.
Posted Aug. 3, 2012