Michele Bachmann is practically synonymous with political controversy, and if the 2008 presidential election is any guide, the conservative Lutheran church she belonged to for many years is likely to add another chapter due to the nature of its beliefs—such as its assertion, explained and footnoted on this website, that the Roman Catholic Pope is the Antichrist.
Bachmann was a longtime member of the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn., which belongs to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a council of churches founded in 1850 that today includes about 400,000 people. WELS is the most conservative of the major Lutheran church organizations, known for its strict adherence to the writings of Martin Luther, the German theologian who broke with the Catholic Church and launched the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. This includes endorsing Luther's statements about the papacy. From the WELS "Doctrinal Statement on the Antichrist":
Since Scripture teaches that the Antichrist would be revealed and gives the marks by which the Antichrist is to be recognized, and since this prophecy has been clearly fulfilled in the history and development of the Roman Papacy, it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright nearly derailed his quest for the Democratic nomination after video surfaced of Wright's extreme pronouncements. Similarly, the views of Bachmann's church toward the papacy—which are well outside the mainstream of modern political discourse—could pose a problem as she pursues the Republican nomination.
Seeking to better understand WELS theology and how voters should regard it, I called the Rev. Marcus Birkholz of Salem Lutheran Church in Stillwater. When I identified myself, he hung up. Turning the other cheek, I called WELS and had slightly better luck. While I didn't get to speak to a pastor, as I'd hoped, Joel Hochmuth, the communications director, did his best to oblige. On the matter of the Antichrist, he said, "Some people have this vision of a little devil running around with horns and red pointy ears. Luther was clear that by 'Antichrist' [he meant] anybody who puts himself up in place of Christ. Luther never bought the idea of the pope being God's voice in today's world. He believed Scripture is God's word." Hochmuth hastened to add that despite the lengthy doctrinal statement, the belief that the pope is the Antichrist "has never been one of our driving principles."
Hochmuth also revealed that Bachmann is no longer a member of the WELS congregation. "I do know that she has requested a release of her membership," he said, adding that she took the unusual step of formally requesting that release in writing. "She has not been an active member of our fellowship during the last year." Hochmuth wouldn't speculate on whether her presidential ambitions factored in this decision—the nation's 70 million Catholics (who lean Republican) might not respond kindly to the pope-as-Antichrist stuff—but he did emphasize that "it's not something you're going to hear preached from our pulpits every Sunday."
Nevertheless, the statement alarmed prominent Catholics. "Clearly, that is anti-Catholic," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a national organization devoted to protecting Catholic civil rights. "This kind of hatred is reminiscent of Bob Jones. I believe [Bachmann] has in the past condemned anti-Catholicism. But there's no question—all you have to do is read it—that they clearly have anti-Catholic statements up there." Donohue said he would refrain from making any judgments until he heard from Bachmann, who he said must address the matter promptly. "We never went after Obama for sitting there for 20 years listening to Rev. 'God Damn America' Wright. I don't want to give him a pass, but I saw no bigotry on Obama's part. Similarly, I have seen none on Bachmann's part. But it's clear that the [synod]'s teachings are noxious and it's important for her to speak to the issue. Obama had to answer for Wright, McCain had to answer for [the Rev. John] Hagee, and this is something that Bachmann has to answer for."
For context, I spoke to theologians familiar with Lutheran church history, who generally agreed with Hochmuth's characterization of Luther's views on the Antichrist. Some suggested that it would be useful to think of WELS as sitting well to the right of the two other major Lutheran organizations in America, the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (4.5 million members) and the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (2.4 million). "The Wisconsin Synod is a relatively small, conservative church body," said Terrence P. Reynolds, the chair of the Theology Department at Georgetown University, who trained in the Missouri Synod and got his PhD. from Brown University. "They believe that the Christian Church's task, and their role, is to proclaim the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. For some church bodies, the understanding of the pure gospel can be largely limited to the proclamation that we are 'saved by Christ'; for others it can involve a rich and substantial context of doctrinal understandings that surround that claim. The WELS understanding of the pure gospel would fit well in the latter category."
This strict adherence to doctrine, and an awareness of how sharply it conflicts with modern societal norms, probably accounts for the church's nine-page statement on the Antichrist. Hochmuth's protestations notwithstanding, the church's position on the pope and the Antichrist is perfectly clear—those who consider themselves strict Lutherans cannot simply dismiss Luther's teachings—even as its discomfort with that conclusion is plain to anyone who reads the full statement. For instance, it goes out of its way to make clear its position that it considers Roman Catholics to be Christians (a point Hochmuth made to me, as well).
In fact, the only person really disputing any of this is Bachmann herself. Confronted during a candidate's debate in 2006, she denied her church's position on the Pope:
Pat Kessler, WCCO (debate moderator): We'll start with [state] Senator Bachmann. Religion and politics that has crept into this campaign over and over again. The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune reports today, Senator, that the church you belong to is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which, it says, regards the Roman Catholic pope as the Antichrist. Is this true, do you share the views of your church, and why should any Catholic in the Sixth District vote for you if it is true?
Bachmann: Well that's a false statement that was made, and I spoke with my pastor earlier today about that as well, and he was absolutely appalled that someone would put that out. It's abhorrent, it's religious bigotry. I love Catholics, I'm a Christian, and my church does not believe that the pope is the Antichrist; that's absolutely false.
Bachmann's campaign did not respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
Reynolds, of Georgetown University, says that this view of the papacy, alarming though it may be to the modern political world, has, over the centuries, endured in some forms of Protestantism. "The discussion of the papacy arose during the vitriolic exchanges Luther had with the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation," he explained. "Luther thought [the Scripture] proclaimed clearly that we are saved by grace and that faith alone is what justifies us before God; for Luther those claims were the fundamental teaching of the Scripture and should be the focus of the Church's proclamation."
But the Roman Catholic Church insisted that faith alone was insufficient, and that good works dictated and overseen by the church were necessary for salvation. "As the debates continued," Reynolds said, "Luther became more and more frustrated with Rome's rejection of justification by grace alone through faith and began to link the Church's intransigence on this matter with Scriptural references to the Antichrist. According to the Scripture, anyone who seeks to undermine the purity of the gospel and the clear teaching of Scripture in the name of the gospel—or anyone who becomes anti-gospel—is the Antichrist. So Luther made the claim** that the pope is the Antichrist, insofar as the pope insists upon obedience to his office and on work righteousness, both of which demean the atoning work of Christ."
That's the theological basis for the WELS claim. It may be up to Bachmann to furnish a political one.
**For anyone interested in further reading, Reynolds says the claim that the pope is the Antichrist appears in the Lutheran Confessions, in the Smalcald Articles, where it is declared that "this teaching shows forcefully that the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ, because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power, which, nevertheless, is nothing, and is neither ordained nor commanded by God " (Smalcald Articles, Part II, Article IV; Of the Papacy).
[CORRECTION] I mistakenly wrote that Prof. Reynolds had trained in the Wisconsin Synod -- this sentence has been updated and corrected to say that he trained in the Missouri Synod and later at Brown University.