Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod by James C. Burkee

Who is excited to read a book about the history of the LCMS? Show of hands…none of you. Well, then, perhaps this is a pointless book to review. But, let me make a case for reading the history of our church body. As young adults we are gaining more responsibilities. Not only is this true in our homes and in our places of work, but also in our churches. Soon, we are going to be called upon to be spiritual leaders within the places where God has us worship Him among the people with whom we have been called to worship. You can take part in the life of the church, whether it is in your own congregation or even at a Synodical convention. So, it is important for us to be aware of the history we share with the people of God whom we are closest to. Some of this history will give us cause to rejoice. Some of this history will upset, shock, or even depress us. But, all of this history is given to teach us how we are and are not to live as the people of God.

Perhaps James C. Burkee has taken on the task of analyzing one of the more controversial periods in American Lutheran history in his book “Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod.” He looks at the major players and the political attitudes that dominated our church body from the late 1950s through the early 1980s. Burkee spends the majority of his book looking at the political in-workings of the LCMS’s conservative team. Primarily, he suggests that Herman Otten, the man behind the infamous newspaper, Christian News, and JAO Preus II, the Synod’s president from 1969-1981, were the men who controlled the conservative side of the church. Ultimately, through back-room politics and ethically questionable strategies, these men and their cohorts helped “purge” the Synod of left-wing theological liberals who had gained much influence in some of the Synod’s colleges, it’s flagship seminary in St. Louis, and the Synod’s bureaucracy.

Burkee demonstrates that at this time the conservative branch of the Synod did not operate as a united front, but banded together around a common enemy: liberalism. Once this enemy had been seemingly run out of town, the conservatives turned on each other. Many backed President Preus and how he ran the Synod. Others didn’t think he went far enough in his purge. Preus was a very divisive figure. To some he was a hero, to others a villain.

This book is a fascinating study in church politics (can you believe there is such a thing!) and how mankind handles power. The interviews and firsthand accounts of the events give us tremendous insight into the actions and attitudes of those who took part in the events. The effects of many of these events are still felt today. In fact, Burkee notes in his introduction to the book that many of the wounds from the events that took place during this era have not healed over. The politicking, the power plays and the paranoia caused a tremendous amount of heartache and pain among those brothers who lived through this time. In fact, many who were involved in these events refused to be interviewed for the book. Thus, Burkee effectively demonstrates the sorts of dangers that arise when politics gains too great of an influence in the church.

The book lacks in a few areas. First, the book does not present a full picture of the Synod’s political scene during this time period. Instead, Burkee focuses mainly on what was taking place among the conservatives. Though some time is spent discussing them, the so-called “moderate” side does not get nearly as much ink.

Second, Burkee seems to present the situation in the Synod as being almost primarily, if not entirely, political. And though politics played a key role in the controversies, there is very little space given to the theological issues at stake. False doctrine had crept into the church and had begun to exert a dangerous influence upon many pastors and churches. For example, the liberal influence in the Synod had caused many to question the reliability and authority of the Scriptures. As all Synodical presidents do, President Preus had a responsibility to guard the church from such teachings. He certainly used political maneuvering to accomplish this necessary goal. Had he done nothing, our Synod might have gone down some very dangerous theological paths.

Finally, much of the content in this book comes from interviews with those who were involved. To speak with some of the main characters in a historical study is a remarkable asset to any historian. However, it would seem to me that some of the information given in these interviews was taken at face value without much historical analysis. I am no historian, but there are points in the book where a story is told to Burkee in an interview and then is presented as a fact with no further corroboration. In other words, it looks as though hearsay is presented as history.

For example, in chapter three under the section “Preus’s Statement and the Blue Book,” Burkee quotes a section from John Tietjen’s book “Memoirs in Exile”. Teitjen was the “moderate” president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. His faculty members were the ones who had been accused of teaching false doctrine. In Tietjen’s book he claims President Preus continually told him that many political problems could be solved if he would just fire some professors. However, in a class lecture given by President Preus he suggests that he made no such proposal. (That lecture can be found on iTunesUwhich offers a number of courses from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. The particular course that discusses the controversy dealt with in this book is called Controversy in the LCMS-1960s-1970s.It is Part 1 of the April 12thclass.) So which is true? It would seem more work needs to be done to present the whole truth. If nothing else, the footnotes should at least alert us to Preus’s side of the story.

With all of this being said, I do think this is an important book to be engaged by those who are hoping to take part in the life of the LCMS. First, this book gives remarkable insight into a fascinating era of American Lutheranism. This is no dull read by any stretch of the imagination. If one wants to understand why the American Lutheran church is divided the way it is, this book will help clarify some of what led us to this point. Second, as stated at the beginning of this review, it is important to know where we have come from so we know where we are going. If we do not learn from our past, we are going to repeat it (how many clichés can I sneak in here?). Thus, knowing the history of our corner of the church will benefit us as we move forward in God’s mission. Finally, Burkee demonstrates how messy life becomes when the life of the church is mixed with politics. The church is a messy place to do business. The church we belong to is full of sinners (including this reviewer). Even when we are working with the best intentions we can be found operating with the tools of the world and sinning against our brothers. However, this is why Christians need the gospel just as much as non-Christians. Thank God that all we do as the church takes place under the Lordship and forgiveness of our crucified Jesus.