A Lutheran Tradition
on Church and State
John R. Stumme
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) summarizes its approach to church and state relations in its constitution's pledge to “work with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction.”1 This affirmation identifies a distinctive approach to church and state relations in a pluralistic society, one that emerges out of the experience of Lutheran churches in the United States. It offers a perspective in and for a contemporary context of religious freedom that depends on Martin Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. The affirmation voices a positive attitude toward government and sets forth a two-pronged principle—institutional separation and functional interaction—to govern this relationship.
To understand the ELCA's position, we need to recall the tradition of reflection and definition of which it is a part. A 1963 study first used the phrase “institutional separation and functional interaction,”2 and in subsequent social statements the phrase came to characterize an official Lutheran approach to church and state relations.3 In what follows I describe and interpret what these social statements say about institutional separation, functional interaction, and religious freedom. In order to see what gave rise to this tradition, I begin by placing it within a broader historical context. I conclude by drawing out what it might mean for the church's continuing public witness at the intersection of church and state.
Historians of Lutheranism in the United States in the twentieth century tell the story of a quietistic tradition that developed a growing sense of social