That one time a bunch conservative Lutherans voted Republicans out of office…

It never seems to end. From the halftime show to the State of the Union Address, this week has been, like many weeks before and many weeks to come, filled with punditry. It is easy to get caught up in it. My side is right. Your side is wrong. Never the twain shall meet. I’m not convinced, though, that we are more polarized than at any other point in time in history. Certainly lines have been drawn, we have safely entered into our echo chambers, and are scarcely ready to engage with thoughts, ideas, and perspectives different than our own. This is how people are to a certain extent. Confirmation bias is a real and dangerous thing. 

One of the reasons I’ve devoted some of my academic pursuits to the study of history is because of the balanced perspective it can bring. I say “can” because it doesn’t do that automatically. Knowing dates and supposed facts doesn’t balance a person out. Dates and facts are important, but we should remember that perspective factors into how we account for facts and their relative value. There is always a story to be told. History is never as clean and tidy as is often suggested. 

Take for example the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. True enough. But what did it mean to be a Republican at the time Abraham Lincoln was one? What differences are there to what it means to be one today? There is in actuality quite a bit of difference between the Republicans of Lincoln’s time and those of our own. But that nuance doesn’t make headlines and it doesn’t win elections. So we leave it out, we state a “fact” and hope no one looks at the man behind the curtain. 

The title for this post is intentionally misdirectional. It is true that a bunch of conservative Lutherans and Roman Catholics once banned together to vote some Republicans out of office. But there is nuance to the story that ought not be missed. In 1889 the Republican led Wisconsin legislature passed the Bennett Law which required English to be the language used to teach all major subjects in both public and private schools. This was during the era when the Republican platform sought to expand the powers of governmental control and the education was seen as a way to force Americanization. In the city of Milwaukee this meant that German immigrant families would be forced to have their children taught in a language which was not their mother tongue. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod saw this as problematic. The old stories about English being the “devil’s speech” or that “loosing German means we loose the Gospel,” play into their reaction. German immigrant church bodies like the Wisconsin and Missouri Synod held on to their language partially by creating and maintaining parochial schools. The tongue used in church was the tongue used in school. The Bennett Law threatened that. So a bunch of WELS and LCMS leaders, along with others from German Roman Catholic and other backgrounds, organized and voted the Republicans out of office in order to repeal the law. It worked. The LCMS would be able to hold onto German, and resist being Americanized, for another quarter of a century until a pair of World Wars forced us out of our parochial system. 

This is a story that I think can be a helpful corrective for our own day, one that can balance us out a little bit. On the one hand, we see that no particular party or ideal has been wedded to the church once and for all. Lutherans of a conservative and confessional posture have not blindly voted a straight ticket every election, they rallied around something that mattered. For us today, I know many rally around certain issues to guide our voting. On the other, we see that some issues that control us today will not be issues tomorrow. How many of us would fight against a law today which would prohibit us from teaching exclusively in German? I would venture to guess it would be the opposite and that many would like to see something like the Bennett Law passed mandating the use of English.

And so here is the real value of the story, it reminds us that there may actually be good and valid reasons for people doing things with which we disagree. Do issues matter? Yes. Does coming down on the other side of the issue than someone else mean that person is automatically wrong? No. I may disagree with my conservative Lutheran forebears on the dangers of the English language, but that doesn’t mean they were automatically wrong to fight against it. To them, German was the language they heard at font. It was the language in which they heard Gospel preached week after week. It was the language they heard when they knelt to receive our Lord’s body and blood. It was the language of Luther, Walther,  and all of the other the fathers of Lutheran Orthodoxy. It was in no small way the language of their faith. Honestly, I’d be surprised if they treated it any less seriously. So in a day and age where everything seems so polarizing, when it seems like the other side could not possibly have a valid opinion, remember that one time a bunch of conservative Lutherans voted republicans out of office and consider why they did even if you might not. 

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