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Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President Calls for Excommunicating White Nationalists

By Jack Jenkins and Emily Miller
white nationalists harrison
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison. (Photo courtesy of LCMS.org)

The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has called for the excommunication of unrepentant white supremacists in the church’s ranks, rebuking an extremist effort to exert influence within the conservative Lutheran denomination.

In a letter dated Feb. 21, LCMS President Matthew Harrison said he was “shocked to learn recently that a few members of LCMS congregations have been propagating radical and unchristian ‘alt-right’ views via Twitter and other social media.” He noted far-right members were causing “local disruption” for congregations and alleged that LCMS leadership and deaconesses had fallen victim to online threats, some of which he described as “serious.”

“This is evil. We condemn it in the name of Christ,” Harrison writes.

Harrison went on to rebuke the “horrible and racist teachings of the so-called ‘alt-right,’” listing ideologies such as “white supremacy, Nazism, pro-slavery, anti-interracial marriage, women as property, fascism, death for homosexuals, even genocide.”

He noted that while the LCMS is “not a top-down institution,” he would work with local pastors and district presidents “to address this matter wherever it arises among us and reject it.” Citing Scripture, he called on those spewing hateful ideologies to repent.

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“Where that call to repentance is not heeded, there must be excommunication,” he writes.

The letter comes in the wake of an article published this month by antifascist group Machaira Action alleging the “rise of a white supremacist faction within the Lutheran faith.” The post singled out Corey Mahler, who has reportedly been active in far-right circles for years and has posted about whiteness and “white genocide” on Twitter. Mahler also identifies as a Christian nationalist.

Asked whether Mahler would be excommunicated, a representative for the church he allegedly attends in Tennessee said the matter was being handled internally but declined to comment further.

In his letter, Harrison said extremists’ efforts were also the “genesis” of a recent controversy over a new edition of Luther’s Large Catechism.

lutheran church harrison
Logo for The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Courtesy Image)

Earlier this year, the president asked Concordia Publishing House, the denomination’s publishing partner, to pause distribution of the new “Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications,” citing an “online disturbance.”

The move came out of an “abundance of caution” over concerns expressed about the content of 50 new essays included in the volume to contextualize the catechism written by Reformer Martin Luther, according to an update from Harrison published by the Reporter, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s newspaper. The Large Catechism includes Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and other foundational Christian beliefs and is used by clergy in Lutheran denominations to help explain the faith to their congregants.

A one-star review on Amazon complains, “Women, forbidden from teaching according to Scripture, are afforded extensive opportunities to do just that in this sorry compilation.”

Others slam the accompanying essays as “woke” and accuse them of promoting pedophilia.

In particular, a popular Twitter thread by Ryan Turnipseed takes issue with essays acknowledging “economic and societal privilege” and same-sex attraction, as well as suggesting a Lutheran approach to social justice.

“I have had time to re-evaluate the controverted sentences and found that while some things might have been expressed more clearly, nevertheless, there is nothing in the content of the volume promoting critical race theory (CRT), confusion of sexuality issues, or any theological position at odds with biblical and confessional Lutheranism,” Harrison wrote in his update.

The effort has stoked responses throughout the denomination, including some vying for the denomination’s leadership. In an interview with Lutherans for Racial Justice earlier this month, the Rev. Pat Ferry, who is seeking nomination to be president of the denomination, was asked about allegations regarding the LCMS and white nationalists — some of whom also publicly identify as Christian nationalists — listed in Machaira Action’s article.

Ferry called on Harrison to launch an investigation.

“He should feel compelled to investigate this,” said Ferry, a former college president. He added: “This should be a time for pretty intense self-reflection among us.”

Jack Jenkins and Emily McFarlan Miller are national correspondents at Religion News Service.

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25 Responses

  1. I remember how, some years ago, a few ministers were concerned that Communists might be infiltrating their congregations and decided to insist on ideological purity alongside sound doctrine. Loyalty oaths, anti-Marxist struggle sessions, excommunications ensued, all came to be known under the derisive label of “witch hunts”. Not sure how the Lutherans are going to identify “unrepentant white supremacists”, but I don’t think they’ll be able to do it without things getting pretty ugly. Apparently preaching the Gospel and relying on the miscreants being convicted to the point of either reforming or leaving on their own is beyond the denomination’s reach and expectation.

    1. I appreciate your comment and certainly share your concern about what the parameters for excommunication would be, yet I think these parameters could and should be in line with any other “investigation” of unrepentant sin. In other words, “sin is sin,” and all sins, including white supremacist’s sin of outright refusal to treat all persons as those created in the image of God, can be denounced and used as grounds for excommunication. Thank you.

      1. Maybe, maybe not. but we have a relatively clear understanding of what constitutes abuse, and if people are being threatened or abused within the church, the church ought to put a stop to it. It is possible to do that without examining people for their adherence to the unspecified but “horrible and racist teachings of the so-called ‘alt-right,’” Setting weak men to chase after ill-defined ghosts will not end well.

        1. I appreciate your point. I do think it goes back to the sin of not loving God, not loving thy neighbor as thyself (“on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”), and not valuing all persons as children created in the image of God – that is something that the church has and will be able to tackle. Thank you.

  2. Interesting position taken by President Harrison considering history has shown the father of Lutheranism, Martin Luther, was an anti-Semite. Would President Harrison have Martin Luther excommunicated for the views he expressed?

    1. There is no dilemma there. I value the theological contribution of Jonathan Edwards, but if he were alive today I would have no problem in his not being allowed to continue as a church member in good standing if he insisted on owning slaves. Luther is a hero of mine in many ways, but his statements against the Jews are truly vile and if he or anyone else said them today, church discipline would be an appropriate response.

  3. This is all very interesting, but what should our response be when white supremacists, Blacks, and people of color all believe the same things?

    I have in my possession a book which denies the historicity of the Nazi holocaust. I purchased this book at a Black Afrocentric bookstore in Toronto, the Third World Books and Crafts.

    On one occasion I was in the store when the owner, a Black Canadian was expressing racist opinions about East Asians. His two Black customers nodded their heads in agreement.

    Also, a Pakistani Muslim Canadian co-worker had no qualms about his support for Adolf Hitler and used to bring the same anti-semitic drivel to work that one would find in White Power circles in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

    Finally, I have skin in this game as a number of years ago I dated a holocaust survivor. The lady had survived the Khmer Rouge holocaust in her native Cambodia and there are many disturbing parallels between what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and what happened in Europe during the Hitler years.

    1. Not sure I understand the point, Mark? No one group is a monolith. Not all “Blacks” believe the same things. Same for whites.

      1. If a communicant member of a Lutheran church locates virtue in being white, I think that that person has completely misunderstood the Gospel. [See Galatians, where Paul takes Peter to task (publicly) for withdrawing fellowship from Gentile Christians.] Being put out of the Lutheran communion would be a reality check, a way of showing such a person that they cannot and must not bring into the body of Christ a sense of superiority grounded in race.

        Reading the comments here is kind of discouraging but I view the president’s decision to push back against white nationalism commendable.

      2. The point, Marin, is that the starting point for the discussion about racism seems to be that racism is something that White people do to non-Whites. The examples I cited show that this is clearly not the case and I have many-a-time across the years listened to Black, Hispanic, Chinese, and South Asian people express opinions which, coming from a White person, would have led to a day in court charged with the willful promotion of hatred.

        1. Mark –

          The reason for that starting point is that from a social science standpoint systems are racist, and people are prejudiced (or, in extreme cases, bigoted). As systems are often put in place by the dominant group (and in the west, that group is white men), a study of racism is often a study of how and why certain systems were developed and enforced (disenfranchisement, segregation, redlining, etc), and how that impacted other groups (women, people of color).
          Other groups simply have not had the power to develop and enforce similar systems at that scale. That’s what is meant when people say “Black people cant be racist” (or “women can’t be sexist”). Anyone can be prejudiced or bigoted; in academia, usually “isms” like racism, sexism and classism are discussed from a systemic standpoint.
          This is why it’s important to anchor discussions in understanding terminology.

          I admit I am curious of how studies of racism put you in this “well what about THEM! They can be racist too!” mindset. It is defensive, lacks empathy, and creates a barrier to understanding.

          1. Marin –

            First, I would have responded to you sooner, but work commitments and staffing issues at my workplace have delayed my dealings with personal correspondence.

            You speak about systems put in place by White males. In the Cold War years, White males created the Berlin Wall which spoke of the need communism had to keep people locked in.

            By way of contrast, White males in America have created systems which evidently work so well that many see the necessity of a border wall to keep people out.

            Which leads to my next point. If America, Canada, and the U.K. (my country of origin) are really such hotbeds of systemic racism which negatively impact Blacks and people of color, would you tell Blacks living in Africa and the Caribbean who wish to come here that they would be making a poor choice? If not, why not?

          2. Hi Mark –

            No worries on delayed responses; I know we all have lives offline.

            You’re conflating many issues here. Are all systems created by white men bad? No. Do we avoid talking about the flawed ones with, “BUT what about the good ones over there?” No. That’s deflection to avoid addressing flawsthat have collectively disenfranchised and hurt generations of people physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and socioeconomically. You mention other countries: colonialism and its embedded systemic racism (created and implemented by white men) have impacted Black and brown populations throughout the world. Apartheid was just abolished in the 90’s – and South Africa is STILL recovering. We are literally STILL seeing Caribbean nations “ask” the UK for independence (most recently Jamaica). Have you realized these impacts are why many Black people emigrate?
            We have to talk about how we got here – the good, the bad and the ugly – regardless of who it makes uncomfortable. My question is, why does it make you uncomfortable? Why do you go to a defensive place of, “but what about this good over here?”
            We all know no one group of people is 100% good or bad. We read that in scripture. Why expect anything different?

            Also, for many Black and brown people, this is the only home we’ve known. And like all homes, there are things we love and hate. I have family members who fought for this nation, only to come home and be refused food in restaurants due to segregation. Yet many insisted on being buried in their uniform, proud of serving a nation that didn’t allow them to vote. THAT is patriotism. Why would we tell others coming here to leave?

  4. I stand with condemning white supremists and all racism. But what intrigues me is that I have a pastor in the deep south (New Orleans metro and San Antonio. TX( for 10 years; and in my experience I am simply not finding racism. I have not heard even once someone use the N word in the South. The churches are filled with loving people that accept and respect everyone, and both of the churches I pastor (or pastored) are racially integrated. Articles like this make it sound like racism is everywhere. My wife of 38 years is Mexican American and she has never once encountered discrimination against living in the deep south.

    1. Racism is a lot more than using slurs. I think a big problem we have is we think racism only looks one way (slurs, burning crosses, etc).
      And one person’s experience does not discredit another’s. I’m glad you and your wife are not experiencing any racism. But that doesn’t mean others are not. As a Black woman who grew up in the Deep South, my experience – both inside and outside of the church – has been marred with it.

      1. That’s true. We now live in a world where academicians and social justice activists are telling us that mathematics, reading comprehension, English grammar, jokes about bad haircuts, white paint, whiteboards, spelling and chicken and waffles for school lunches are racist.
        I am not looking forward to the day when this kind of thing stops being funny.

        1. Not sure how this is a response to my comment – or what “academics” are saying. I know what I have experienced, and it had nothing to do with math or reading comprehension or grammar.
          I DID grow up aware of problemmatic depictions of people of color in the media, even on down to cartoons (remember the Black woman who owned the cat in Tom and Jerry? yeah, PROBLEMMATIC). My parents used them as teachable moments, reminding me that the “intent” of the creators may be good (to entertain children and families), but the “impact” may be harmful to others (spreading stereotypes).
          It’s not about something “no longer being funny”. It’s about loving others by going beyond being so focused on proving and defending our intent, and being aware of our impact (intentional or not) on others.

          1. My point was, If everything racist, accusations of racism cease to be a method of calling sinners to repentance and altering behavior to produce a more Godly society, and move toward being an instrument of social control for people who have no interest in Jesus or the Gospel. We can laugh at research papers that claim “In particular, whiteboards display written information for public consumption; they draw attention to themselves and in this case support the centering of an abstract representation and the person standing next to it, presenting. They collaborate with white organizational culture [89], where ideas and experiences gain value (become more central) when written down.” (See, Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study, https://journals.aps.org/prper/pdf/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.18.010119), but when this kind of thinking is enforced with the power of the state, it will do nothing to encourage racial harmony. I think we will come to regret it. Well, the ones who are not at the top of the food chain making the rules will come to regret it.

    2. That’s very interesting, and I hope that your area becomes more the norm! I’m white and in the Midwest. I hear racist comments frequently and my Black, Latina, and Asian friends have had some pretty negative experiences. I’m glad the lcms is dealing with the problems my brothers and sisters in faith are experiencing.

    3. As often quoted.

      “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”

      The same could be said about racism. It’s out there and I’m glad the LCMS is doing something about it among their ranks.

  5. In my years of being raised and educated in the LCMS school system I have many things to say but only two for now.

    They are Fundamentalists with clerical collars.

    I know those who have verified hard core racists among the ranks or LCMS members and perhaps even pastors.

  6. Well I’m glad to hear of exceptions to a maybe-knee jerk view held by many – that most or all American white fundamentalists are generally racist/supremacist… I doubt I would be in agreement with this very conservative denomination, but I applaud this clear call to accountability. Now if only the SBC or similar denoms. were as clear and committed. It would probably raise the roof in uproar but maybe it would provide opportunity for some house-cleaning…

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