The Christ of Culture and the ELCA
Robert Benne

In the classic Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr famously argued that religious traditions tend to move from the “Christ against Culture” stance through several mediating positions toward the “Christ of Culture” position, the one in which the religious tradition blends into the culture of the day. He argued in an earlier book—The Kingdom of God in America—that this was precisely what happened to American Protestantism as it moved from Puritanism through evangelicalism to liberal Protestantism. The last state is characterized by a full accommodation to culture in which, as he devastatingly put it: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

It seems that the two great branches of Lutheranism in America have engaged in that sort of movement. One—the Missouri Synod—has at least partially accommodated to conservative American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and the other—the ELCA—has almost completely accommodated to liberal Protestantism of the sort that Niebuhr so sharply judged. Both branches were once protected from the allure of American culture by their thriving ethnic enclaves, but that day is over. We’re all Americans now.

Missouri’s story is more complex than the ELCA’s because it continues to remain something of an enclave that preserves a good deal of its classical Lutheranism. Yet in an earlier day it adapted to American fundamentalism as a strategy to maintain biblical authority. Now it flirts with American evangelicalism as a strategy to grow its churches. Quite a story, a fuller version of which need not be told now.

The fresher story is that of the ELCA and its accommodation to liberal Protestantism. The ELCA Church-wide Assembly in August took the fatal step into liberal Protestantism by leaving the Great Tradition of Christian teaching on sexual ethics and joining the declining United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church USA on these matters. It was the first confessional church of any size to succumb to liberal Protestantism’s allure. A harsh critic might say that it rendered itself a sect and became schismatic at the same time.

There is a general route to the Christ of Culture position taken by liberal Protestantism and a more specific one taken by the ELCA. Let’s unpack each. Liberal Protestantism had its origin in the effort of European Protestantism to come to terms with the challenges of the Enlightenment in general and the natural sciences in particular. No longer willing to press Christianity’s dogmatic assertions—especially those that entailed supernatural claims—the pioneers of liberal Protestantism either retreated into religious self-consciousness (Schleiermacher) or ethics (von Harnack, Ritschl). Christianity became a religion of either religious feeling or of sublime, universalistic ethics. Liberal Christianity took the latter turn. On American soil it was translated into the Social Gospel movement which gradually found its way into the whole of mainstream Protestantism. This movement was aided by the social sciences—history, economics, sociology, social psychology—which, in the process of aiding liberal religion, sometimes swallowed that religion whole by exerting its own redemptive claims. John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (1991) traces how the social sciences were intended to replace theology as explanations of the world. In utilizing them, liberal Christianity often watered itself down by giving up crucial ground.

The movements of liberation of the 1960s gave enormous new energy to the Social Gospel tradition. Those original movements were essentially secular in character, but many in the Mainline Protestant denominations took notice of their negative critique of inherited religion, even in its liberal Protestant form. The liberation movements—feminism, multi-culturalism, gay and black liberation, anti-imperialism, and the environmental movement—exercised a withering critique of those religious traditions most likely to be responsive to them—the white, middle-class mainstream Protestant denominations. Convinced of their guilt, these denominations devoted themselves to the internal struggle against the oppressive ideologies and practices that the critique had unveiled.  They sought cleansing within while they committed themselves to the external struggle for social, political, and cultural liberation.

Compared to this heady brew, such things as preaching the Gospel, forming persons into the Christian life, Christian education, and evangelism seemed fairly tepid. The central core of belief and practice became fuzzy and uninteresting while social and political transformation became “where it was really at.” The problem was that these liberating movements not only were debatable fruits of the Gospel, but they were not the Gospel itself. If you wanted intense attention to the core, the headquarters of liberal Protestantism didn’t offer much. And if you really wanted to immerse yourself fully and effectively in these liberating movements, it was better to join their secular manifestations, which were unencumbered by the religious inertia of the grassroots. These skewed commitments led to dramatic membership losses among the liberal Protestant denominations.


The ELCA has been tugged by this general Protestant movement, but it has had its own history of accommodation to elite liberal culture.  The mid-1980s planning stage of the ELCA was dramatically affected by a group of 1960s radicals who pressed liberationist (feminist, black, multiculturalist, gay) legislative initiatives right into the center of the ELCA structures. Among them was a quota system that skews every committee, council, task force, synod assembly, and national assembly toward the “progressive” side. There are quotas for representing specific groups in all the organized activity of the church. 60 percent must be lay, 50 percent must be women, and 10 percent must be people of color or whose first language is other than English. The 10 percent quota was trimmed down from its originally proposed 30 percent.  The losers, of course, are white male pastors. Our Virginia delegation to the 2009 Church-wide Assembly, for example, had only one male pastor among its eight elected members. Further, the prescribed structure distanced the sixty-five bishops from the decision making of the church. The bishops have only influence, not power. Aware of the divisiveness of the Sexuality Task Force’s policy recommendations to the 2009 Assembly, the bishops voted 44–14 to require a two-thirds majority for their enactment, but the bishops were ignored by both the Church Council and the Assembly. Further, theologians were given no formal, ongoing, corporate role in setting the direction of the ELCA. They, too, were kept at a distance and actually viewed as one more competing interest group.

In this decisive moment, the liberals in the ELCA intended to smash the authority of the influential theologians and bishops who had informally kept both the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America on course. They wanted many voices and perspectives, especially those of the “marginalized,” put forward in the ongoing deliberations of the ELCA. They were so successful that now after twenty years there is little authoritative biblical or theological guidance in the church. There are only many voices, and no doctrinal discipline is ever exercised on any voice.

At a time when it is becoming exceedingly difficult to transmit a religious tradition to a new generation deeply influenced by a highly individualistic and relativistic culture, the liberals injected into the DNA of the ELCA a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding the inherited tradition. Thus, it is unclear and fuzzy about core Lutheran/Christian doctrine, but it is dogmatic about liberationist causes. No one can really challenge the ELCA commitment to quotas, its persistent pro-choice stance on abortion, its relentless purging of masculine images and pronouns for God, its fixation on Israel as the real problem in the Middle East, its heavy commitment to liberal policies in its advocacy efforts, its increasing temptation to substitute religious dialogue for missionary activity, and its full commitment to liberal strategies against global warming.

It would be inaccurate, though, to argue that significant elements of the orthodox Lutheran tradition are absent from the ELCA. It is important to distinguish between the headquarters or “commanding heights” of these churches and their grassroots congregations. The former lean heavily toward “progressive Christianity” while many of the latter proclaim the classic Gospel. But the headquarters will indeed affect the congregations in due time. Additionally, the ELCA’s Constitution, except for its neutered language, is a strong document that could provide the rallying point for a new confessionalism in the church. There are many faithful congregations led by faithful pastors who are deeply committed to the Lutheran construal of the faith. Further, the classic language can be spoken by leaders in the “commanding heights” of the church.  But none of these lingering elements seem to make much difference in fending off the allure of the Christ of Culture. The “commanding heights,” unfortunately, will keep commanding in the same direction.



Robert Benne is director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society.

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