by Alex Massie
If I may intrude on the entertainingly-gruesome race for the Republican party's presidential nomination, may I say that the fact her former church considers the Pope the antichrist is the least important of the many reasons why Michele Bachmann cannot pass – to use a phrase much-favoured this week – the "fit and proper person" test.
Over at the Atlantic, however, Joshua Green has a piece explaining this pseudo-controversy. Naturally it is written in the hushed tones that hint at something awful without ever quite explaining what's so very terrible about a Lutheran church that, when you get to the bottom of the matter, thinks the Pope is wrong.
Green claims that the views of the churches that makes up the Wisconsin Evengelical Lutheran Synod (circa 400,000 subscribers) "are well outside the mainstream of modern political discourse". That's a matter of perspective. They'd be pretty familiar to anyone who recalls Dr Iain Paisley. Reverend Paisley, leader for many years of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and, as importantly, his own church, also considered the Pope the antichrist. This is an old-fashioned view, not often heard in public but it rests, as Green makes clear, on a distinct definition of antichrist:
While I didn't get to speak to a priest, 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."
While it may be unfashionable to insist this remains the case, more people still subscribe to this view than you might think. Indeed years ago when I was sent on assignment to hear Dr Paisley preach in Belfast, his sermon denounced the evils of the World Council of Churches and the heresies inherent in any accomodation with ecumenism. His view, shared I suspect by some of the stricter type of Lutheran, is that doing so means supping with people who are doctrinally suspect.
Paisley's church – the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster – is pretty tiny and so too are the ever-splitting Calvinist churches of my ain heath, Scotland. They too take a stern line on Popery. In a famous 1989 case, Lord Mackay of Clashfern (who served as Lord Chancellor in Margaret Thatcher's government) was suspended from his position within the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland having offended traditionalists by attending mass at the Roman Catholic funeral of a close friend. This split the Free Presbyterians asunder, leading to the formation of the Associated Presbyterian Church. (Neither should be confused with the Free Church – often known as the 'Wee Frees' – which, naturally, has also split and the latest splitters bear the terrorist-sounding moniker Free Church of Scotland, Continuing.)
Gosh, I digress. Anyway, the point is that a church on nodding terms with Lutheran or Calvinist tradition or, for that matter, the Westminster Confession is likely to disapprove of the Papacy. As far as individual Roman Catholics are concerned, I believe good form permits one to hate the sin while forgiving the sinner.
Still, Green gets this reaction:
"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."
Well golly gosh. You mean to say supporters of one team think they're right and supporters of another team are wrong? I appreciate that in matters of faith it is indelicate to point this out but, blimey, I seem to recall Pope Benedict also suggesting that protestants are theologically mistaken too. At some fundamental serious adherents to any sect must believe in the righteousness of their interpretation of the scriptures and, consequently, that alternative beliefs lack substance.
Green helpfully provides – if you need these things – a one-paragraph summary of the Reformation (Justification through faith alone etc) which leads to a reasonable conclusion that the illegitimacy of the Papacy demands the incumbent be considered an anti-christ. That this narrow definition of antichrist is not the fashionable one today is not the fault of Lutherans or Calvinists. Nor do I see why holding it should necessarily exclude one from office; then again nor should rejecting Jesus Christ do so either.
So, in the end, Michele Bachmann used to be a pretty conservative Lutheran. Which means she's not a Roman Catholic and her church is not likely to be impressed by the Bishop of Rome. Big deal! Next: Red Sox fans disagree with Yankee fans. Amazing!