Writing in the Atlantic, Joshua Green notes that Michelle Bachmann’s (now former) church holds some, shall we say, unflattering views about the papacy:
Bachmann was a longtime member of the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn., which belongs to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), a council of churches founded in 1850 that today comprises about 400,000 people. WELS is the most conservative of the major Lutheran church organizations, known for its strict adherence to the writings of Martin Luther, the German theologian who broke with the Catholic Church and launched the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. This includes endorsing Luther’s statements about the papacy. From the WELS “Doctrinal Statement on the Antichrist”: “Since Scripture teaches that the Antichrist would be revealed and gives the marks by which the Antichrist is to be recognized, and since this prophecy has been clearly fulfilled in the history and development of the Roman Papacy, it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.”
Bachmann, it seems, never subscribed to the belief in question, and left the church sometime last year. Nevertheless, some are drawing comparisons between the views of Bachmann’s former church and those of President Obama’s former pastor, Jeramiah Wright.
I confess that I am of two minds about this story. On the one hand, Mollie Hemmingway is right. The fact that a traditional Lutheran group subscribes to Martin Luther’s views on a papacy is hardly surprising. On the other hand, the idea that someone in the 21st century could look at the papacy, and still believe this does seem kind of strange. If subscribing to Luther’s theology requires accepting that John Paul II or Benedict XVI were antichrists (and I’m not saying that it does require this), then there are a lot of other denominations out there you might want to look into.
Suppose it turned out that Jon Huntsman was part of the fringe fundamentalist Mormon church that still believes in polygamy (I know, I know, don’t laugh). Presumably no one would defend him on the grounds that, “well, Mormons did originally practice polygamy, so what do you expect?” For that matter, if the WELS website said that, as faithful followers of Martin Luther, the church of course subscribed to the views expressed in On the Jews and Their Lies, I somehow suspect even Ms. Hemmingway would not be so sanguine about this.
Lurking below the surface of this whole controversy is the issue of whether “anti-Catholic” is somehow synonymous with bigotry. Bill Donohue is quoted in the Atlantic article as saying that “[t]his kind of hatred is reminiscent of Bob Jones,” and that “all you have to do is read it — that they clearly have anti-Catholic statements up there.”
In one sense Donohue is clearly right. The view that the Pope is antichrist is certainly anti-Catholic in that it is opposed to Catholic dogma. But so is the view that the Pope is not infallible. All non-Catholics reject at least some of the claims of the Church, but we wouldn’t want to say that all non-Catholics are by definition anti-Catholic. In this context, anti-Catholic connotes a kind of prejudice, akin to anti-semitism, and it’s not clear to me that rejecting Catholic doctrine, or even accepting contrary doctrine that reflects badly on the Church, is necessarily based on prejudice or bigotry. In particular, where a negative belief about the Catholic Church is based not on hatred but on a desire to adhere to the traditions of one’s own religious denomination, calling that belief anti-Catholic seems to involve an halfway stolen intellectual base.