It's been a full week since the Convention concluded. As I have stepped back to assess and reassess what happened, I remain unconvinced that the "Jesus First" (sic) political action group was really all that effective in accomplishing its goals. Oh, I readily agree that much of what happened was comfortable to "Jesus First," and compatible with its agenda. But I am mainly of a mind that this was far more a matter of momentum and coincidence than any great political success. Perhaps that seems a pointless distinction, given the end results either way. Yet, I believe it is important to consider what has actually happened, and why, lest we take our cues and draw our conclusions from superficial appearances, and be misled even further away from the heart and substance of the Church.
To be sure, "Jesus First" was impressive in its organization and presentation, both leading up to and at the Convention. Clearly, a great deal of time and energy were expended, and what must have been a lot of money was invested (in something other than fanning the flames of Ablaze!). At least nine mailings of glossy, full-color newsletters to all of the delegates, as well as multiple "letters" from individual delegates, a professionally-printed voting guide (not that "Jesus First" is in favor of telling people how to vote, normally, but desperate times call for desperate measures), a daily bulletin handed out to delegates as they left their hotels in the morning, a display table in the Convention center, and well-identified workers available on every hand. It is not hard to imagine the long hours and sleepless nights that were required to make all of this happen, since I have good friends and colleagues who engaged in the same kind of efforts for the conservatives three years ago. It's all well-intentioned, no doubt, on everybody's part. But does it actually do any good (even aside from whether one's positions are right or wrong)?
My Mom always said that it takes two to argue or fight, and I warrant that is no less true on the level of national synodical politics. Political sparring tends to be self-perpetuating, in my opinion, and can easily become an all-consuming distraction from the very things for which we all contend. I've said before that, without a conservative counterpart to butt heads against, I think "Jesus First" primarily came off looking bad, perhaps even a little silly, at this year's Convention. I'm sure their ardent supporters didn't think so, but the non-partisan lay delegate sitting next to me became increasingly frustrated and impatient with the "Jesus First" posturing and propaganda as the week wore on. I never said a word against "Jesus First," but as far as he could tell, the people representing that group were primarily interested in preventing discussion and debate. From my perspective, he was not the only one who quickly grew weary of having the same two or three gentlemen stand up and call the question after only one or two speakers. That ploy worked for the first day or two, before the delegates got the feel of parliamentary procedure, but the assembly became less and less tolerant of terminating debate prematurely.
The fact of the matter is that "Jesus First" was in an agreeable and advantageous position going into this Convention. There is no secret that it has been supportive of the current LCMS administration (with the exception of the Board of Directors), and sympathetic to the President's agenda. Indeed, the main line of argument from "Jesus First" for the past four or five years has been that we must "trust our respected leaders" (except for the Board of Directors). It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that the business at hand throughout this Convention tended to be in line with the "Jesus First" agenda. The incumbent administration will always have the momentum, just as incumbent officers are normally a shoe-in for re-election (barring any major guffaws). The Floor Committees, appointed by the President, for all intents and purposes control what comes before the delegates, and of course the Chair determines and directs how things are handled. That's not a fault of the present administration, but an aspect of our polity, be it good, bad or otherwise. Sometimes one interest group has the advantage, sometimes another, and that's just the way it goes.
In view of the advantages that "Jesus First" had this time around, and given the tremendous amount of time, energy and money it devoted to accomplishing its political goals, the real surprise is not what it achieved, but what it did not. The "Jesus First" voting guide, the "One List," was somewhat successful, but not overwhelmingly so. The resolutions that we dealt with as delegates were largely agreeable to "Jesus First," yet they did not come to us from "Jesus First," but from the Floor Committees. Despite my own frustrations and disappointments with Floor Committee 8, positive adjustments in many of the other resolutions were brought about through open hearings with the other Floor Committees. Those preliminary amendments by and large reflected the concerns and constructive criticism of conservative delegates, who spoke on the basis of their personal considerations and convictions. The process worked.
As resolutions came to the floor of the Convention, amendments and substitutions were largely resisted, but not entirely so. Where discussion and debate were permitted to happen, there were further corrections and improvements made. Some resolutions were tabled and died, and at least one resolution was defeated. Here, too, the process was working: that is to say, the real political process of the Convention itself, in contrast to the lobbying of para-synodical political action groups. There was give and take, and productive argument in the best sense of the word. Bad things were avoided, and good things were accomplished. In my opinion, nobody "ran away with the show." Certainly, there was plenty of stuff that didn't go my way, but I'd frankly be shocked and a little nervous if it had (or ever did). I surely don't have all wisdom, but I am prone to pride and presumptuousness; so on both counts I pray that the Church at large would assist me in correcting my errors, curbing my ego, and clarifying my confession of Christ.
Thus far, I've been analyzing the elections in particular, and that has been interesting. Despite the prejudicial comments of the Chair and one of the newly re-elected vice presidents of Synod, floor nominations were permitted and received (as the democratic process and the rules of good order require). Even so, and not surprisingly, the floor nominees did not do well in the elections. But that was true across the board. "Jesus First" included four floor nominees in its "One List," and all four of them made it onto the Big Ballot, but none of them were elected. The "United List" called for many more floor nominations, and most of them made it, but only one of them was elected. There can be no question, therefore, that incumbents and the initial slate of candidates from the Nominations Committee had a decided advantage, irrespective of political alignments. What is more, in almost every case where there needed to be a second ballot for any given office, the nominees receiving the most votes on the first ballot were then elected, again irrespective of anyone's voting guide. These things suggest that delegates were taking their lead from a variety of sources and considering a variety of factors. As it should be.
A couple of outstanding examples are the elections of the vice presidents, the Secretary of Synod, and the Board of Directors. Naturally, these are the offices to which "Jesus First" directed the bulk of its attention, but it honestly didn't do very well in these cases. True, its candidates for President, First Vice-President, and three of the other vice presidents were elected, but all five of these were incumbents, and their winning majorities were not impressive. Chaplain John Wohlrabe not only did respectably on the presidential ballot, but came very close to winning the office of First Vice-President, and was then elected as Third Vice-President of the Synod. The "Jesus First" candidates who weren't already incumbents didn't come close. Similarly, Rev. Ray Hartwig was handily re-elected as the Secretary of the Synod, despite the rhetoric of "Jesus First" against him, and Rev. Robert Kuhn was re-elected to the Board of Directors, even though no one has been subjected to greater criticism by "Jesus First" than he has been for years.
Well, these are simply examples that I have noted, and I am aware that exceptions to the rule can always be discovered. I'm not suggesting that "Jesus First" was entirely unsuccessful, but I am arguing that its impressive political efforts were a poor investment on its part. More to the point, and aside from the fact that I disagree with "Jesus First" pretty widely on most things, I am more and more convinced that political posturing and propaganda does more harm than good (by almost any criteria). I know there were conservative political efforts, as well, but I'm glad they didn't amount to much organization or any spit and polish. That's in spite of the fact that I am sympathetic to, and largely in agreement with, conservative goals and intentions. I just don't believe that para-synodical political groups are the right means to those ends.
I do encourage everyone to discuss elections, nominations and candidates, overtures and resolutions, and even our synodical polity and processes. I'm not inclined to frown upon voting guides, either, because I doubt that anyone can possibly know everyone on the ballot; the laity probably know fewer than a handful of the people, and little biographical paragraphs can be as misleading as they are helpful. We ought to be talking to like-minded colleagues and peers, but also to colleagues and brothers in Christ with whom we don't see eye-to-eye. Not simply for the sake of argument (though genuine argument is usually beneficial), nor only to correct what we believe to be errors in our neighbor, but for the sake of correcting and strengthening our own understanding of the Christian faith and life. We are in a precarious position indeed, if any one of us ever presumes to be the anchor of orthodoxy. Come, let us reason together in the fear of the Lord, in the faith of Christ, in the true wisdom of His Word and Holy Spirit. Amen. Maranatha!