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Luther's influence in the US

October 30, 2017

In the American Midwest, Luther is as relevant today as he was 500 years ago. In this Reformation year, American Lutherans are showing a particular interest in Germany, writes Carsten von Nahmen from Iowa.

Luther College in Iowa
Image: DW/C. von Nahmen

"We all believe in one true God." The phrase echoes through the auditorium during morning prayers at Luther College in Decorah, in the US state of Iowa. The profession of faith in the form of a hymn – written in 1524 by Martin Luther.

Read more:Why Luther was an unsuspecting revolutionary

Here, in the predominantly Protestant American Midwest, Luther the reformer is as present today as he has ever been. And Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, guest preacher, lecturer, and one of the "attractions" of this year's Reformation celebrations at the Christian university, stresses the relevance of Luther's message today: "God's grace is the heart of our faith. That is as important today as it was 500 years ago."

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber
Not your average pastor: Nadia Bolz-WeberImage: Nadia Bolz-Weber

Sin, forgiveness, second chances

Bolz-Weber is a star among Lutherans in the United States – although, or perhaps because, she doesn't seem to fit the usual image of a Christian minister. She stands on stage in a calf-length jeans skirt in a packed-out auditorium, tattooed from head to foot, speaking to the students about sin, forgiveness and second chances – and about the pressure to be "good" and perfect. "Too often we forget that God loves our real selves, and not some ideal," the 47-year-old told DW.

Read more: How Luther became a pop star

When speaking on this topic, this unusual pastor comes across as authentic. She herself grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, and as a young woman she rebelled against her parents' strict expectations. She led a life on the brink: "Too much alcohol, drugs, sex. I felt like a social outsider," is how she herself describes at that time.

Who was Martin Luther?

It was only after 10 years that she calmed down, sobered up, married, worked as a stand-up comedian. And finally found her calling. She studied Lutheran theology, and in 2008 she was ordained a minister.

Why Luther?

"The Lutheran Church gave me words for what I'd experienced in my life," is Bolz-Weber's explanation for why, in the land with an endless variety of denominations, she chose Luther. She says it was only through "the wholly undeserved grace of God" that she was able to overcome her addiction to alcohol and drugs, "because I didn't have the strength to follow this path of my own accord."

Nadia Bolz-Weber has written several books about her experiences as a young woman and her path back to Christianity. Two of them even ended up on the New York Times bestseller list: "Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint," and "Accidental Saints: Finding God In All the Wrong People."

'House for all sinners and saints'

Luther merchandise in college in Decorah
Luther merchandise is a big hit in Decorah, IowaImage: DW/C. von Nahmen

She has founded her own, very special congregation in her home state of Colorado: The "House for all sinners and saints" in Denver aims to be a home to the socially excluded and the desperate in particular – people who are insecure, struggling with themselves and the world, and who are now able to find fresh support in the "unconditional love of God" that Bolz-Weber takes as the center of her work.

Read more: Wartburg - the most visited Reformation site

It's not an easy congregation. But it's also a very creative group that initiates unusual campaigns to reach people well beyond the Lutheran Church's usual clientele – their T-shirts, for example, promoting Luther and his message with the slogan "Lutherans – Nailing shit to the church door since 1517." Even the bishop of the Rocky Mountains Synod, Jim Gonia, wore one, Nadia Bolz-Weber reports with a satisfied grin.

Home game for Germany

The American Midwest is more or less a home game for Germans: Many Americans in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota have German and Scandinavian roots. And this area is also home to the majority of the USA's almost eight million Lutherans.

They shape the culture and mentality of the region. "At the heart of our faith is the grace of God," says the campus pastor Mike Blair, "but there are, of course, other elements, like the Protestant work ethic and a certain straightforwardness, which are part of our sense of who we are."

And while Lutherans are only a comparatively small minority among the approximately 230 million American Christians, their influence is nonetheless felt across the country, Blair says. "There's a network of Lutheran universities, hospitals run by the Church, and a lot of social institutions, refugee aid, for example, with which we're able to have an effect and make our voice heard."

Mike Blair, Luther College in Iowa
Mike Blair likes the Protestant straightforwardnessImage: DW/C. von Nahmen

All eyes on the Church Congress

On thesubject of refugees in particular, the Lutheran Church in the United States is closer to the position of the German government than that of Washington. This is true not only of the Church's leaders but also of next generation, the grassroots.

"In conversations here, I've had a lot of positive feedback about the way Germany has dealt with the refugee crisis," reports the diplomat Stefan Buchwald. There's considerable interest in Germany overall, he says; at the Lutheran universities in particular a large number of students had asked about possibilities for study and work trips.