If It Ain’t Politics, Then It’s Religion


Post-Sept. 11 prayer dominates Lutheran election
By BETSY TAYLOR, Associated Press
Posted: Saturday July 10th, 2004, 11:39 AM

ST. LOUIS (AP) – The Rev. David Benke caused a stir within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod by praying at a Yankee Stadium interfaith service days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Nearly three years later, that brief prayer will be a central issue in the denomination’s elections scheduled for Sunday.

The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, a first-term president of the conservative Missouri Synod, had approved Benke’s participation in the New York event. Some pastors objected, saying the service improperly mixed different religious beliefs, and they blamed Kieschnick for allowing Benke to join in.

The bad feeling lingers as about 1,200 church delegates prepare to vote in St. Louis on whether Kieschnick or one of four other candidates should lead the 2.6 million-member denomination from now on.

“I think it’s 50-50 as to whether he is re-elected or not. Conservatives are very intent on his defeat,” said the Rev. Russell Saltzman, editor of Forum Letter, a publication about Lutheranism.

“They have been in a true tizzy since David Benke delivered a prayer at Yankee Stadium.”

Benke, president of the synod’s Atlantic District based in Bronxville, N.Y., uttered a prayer of fewer than 300 words at the Sept. 23, 2001, service, asking God to provide strength and consolation. Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu clergy were among the participants, as were celebrities such as Bette Midler and politicians including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The objecting pastors said Benke’s actions violated denominational rules against syncretism – the mingling of Christian and non-Christian beliefs – and unionism – when people of different faiths worship together. The pastors filed formal charges against Benke and he was suspended for several months until a church review cleared him.

Kieschnick stands by his actions in the interfaith dustup.

“Our church body has a position that when a pastor is invited to offer a prayer, read Scripture or speak at an event sponsored by a government organization – as long as there is no restriction on his Christian witness – he can choose to participate,” Kieschnick said.

Kieschnick is generally viewed as more moderate than the two men considered his strongest challengers. They are the Rev. Daniel Preus, who is now the first vice president, and the Rev. Kurt Marquart, an associate professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“We cannot participate with pagan religions,” Marquart said. “When we pray together with official representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and who knows what, that is a public denial of the Gospel.”

The two other candidates are the Rev. Dean Wenthe, Concordia’s president, and the Rev. William Diekelman, president of the synod’s Oklahoma district. The conference runs through Thursday.

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