Saturday, August 11, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics

  Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Changing religious standards of morality among the myriad forms of Christianity today and their ambiguity in politics raise a question: Will religion continue to be the primary source of our values and moral standards of legitimacy in the future, as it has been in the past, or will secular reason and common sense play a larger role in shaping the American civil religion?       
           
Christian standards of morality have long shaped concepts of political legitimacy in America, but as with the rights of women and homosexuals, changing secular values have also shaped our politics.  The 2016 election demonstrated that partisan political values can subvert traditional Christian values. Machiavellian morality has corrupted both Christianity and politics. The vast majority of white Christians who elected Donald Trump acknowledge his values are the antithesis of those taught by Jesus, yet they continue to support him as their political messiah.

The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  It is based on the timeless and universal altruistic principle of love over law.  It’s simple but difficult to apply in democracies where levying taxes is never popular and where the use of lethal force in law enforcement and military operations will always be problematic.

The greatest challenge for Christian morality in a democracy is to balance individual wants and rights with providing for the common good.  That purpose is frustrated by Christians who promote distorted “family values” that condemn homosexuality as a sin, and the many who follow a materialistic prosperity gospel that promises worldly wealth to the faithful.

The evangelical charlatans who promote radical right politics have overwhelmed and corrupted Christian morality beyond redemption, leaving only a minority of Christians to support the altruistic teachings of Jesus in their politics.  Given the pervasive ambiguity and dysfunction of Christian morality, secular humanitarian values are likely to replace Christian morality in defining the standards of political legitimacy in America.

One thing seems certain.  In America’s materialistic and hedonistic democracy there will never be a ruling majority that embraces the altruistic and sacrificial values taught by Jesus, so that Christians who are faithful to the teachings of Jesus should expect to remain a minority.  Jesus acknowledged that his teachings on sacrificial love were a narrow way, not a broad and popular way that could produce the majorities needed to win elections in a democracy.

The one time that altruistic morality prevailed in American politics was during the Great Depression.  It will not likely be repeated unless and until a majority of Americans once again find themselves on the short end of the stick.  That’s likely to happen again this century, but only after most of the rich and powerful have anticipated the crisis and left America with their wealth.  

Todays’ corrupted Christian morality is the result of mystical and exclusivist church doctrines that trump the moral teachings of Jesus.  That priority could be reversed if more Christians accept the views of Thomas Jefferson, the Jesus Seminar and the reclaiming Jesus movement of Jim Wallis and restore the primacy of the altruistic teachings of Jesus to their faith and politics.  If that happens, America’s salvation won’t have to wait until its next Depression.

Christianity has failed the test of moral leadership in America.  Only a minority of Christians promote the altruistic teachings of Jesus in their stewardship of democracy.  Since Christianity has lost its moral authority in American politics, most Christians will be left behind to promote their mystical and exclusivist beliefs that have isolated Christianity from other religions.


Notes:

The categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant is altruism in its purest philosophical form (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative), in contrast to Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy that emphasizes self-centered existential morality (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand). Jesus taught altruism in the language and idiom of his first century Jewish audience, as summarized in the greatest commandment.  

Thomas Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” See p. 10 and end Note 2 in the Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html.

The scholars of the Jesus Seminar recognized Thomas Jefferson as an early visionary who, like themselves, “scrutinized the gospels with the intent to separate the real teachings of Jesus, the figure of history, from the encrustations of Christian doctrine.”  See Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1993, pp. 10, 11.

Jim Wallis has described the meeting between Putin and Trump in Helsinki and its aftermath as clarifying, and challenged the church in its myriad forms to reclaim Jesus and clean up the moral and political mess Christians have made in America.  See https://sojo.net/articles/helsinki-was-clarifying.


Related Commentary

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(6/30/18): Who Are We? Musings on How Our Faith Shapes Our Politics and Who We Are http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/06/who-are-we-musings-on-how-our-faith.html.
(7//7/18): Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/07/whose-america-is-this-musings-on.html.
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(7/21/18): Musings on America’s Moral and Political Mess and Who Should Clean It Up
(7/28/18): Musings on the Polarization of Christian Morality and Politics
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/08/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.


Saturday, August 4, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Two Facebook friends prompted this topic with assertions that religion should be kept out of politics, and that religion is not the answer but the problem in politics.  Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians. The moral standards of their faith shape their politics, but they can differ dramatically. Christian morality ranges from the altruistic teachings of Jesus to distorted doctrines of “family values” and a prosperity gospel that contradict the teachings of Jesus.

Religion has been a problem in politics since the 4th century when the Roman Emperor Constantine co-opted and corrupted Christianity with worldly power.  That led to the Crusades and Inquisitions, followed by the Protestant Reformation and the 100 Years War. In 2016, an unholy mix of religion and radical right politics produced a political apocalypse in America.

Today there are two major problems with religion in politics.  The first is moral ambiguity caused by mystical religious beliefs that obfuscate the moral standards of faith.  The second is the divisiveness caused by exclusivist beliefs that condemn unbelievers. Unprincipled leaders exploit these problems to mobilize their religious supporters with divisive us versus them politics.  

The solution for those problems requires a consensus among competitive religions to refute religious exclusivism and promote altruistic morality based on the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves.  That love command is taken from the Hebrew Bible, it was taught by Jesus--a Jew whose teachings are at the heart of the Christian religion--and it has been accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith.

The greatest commandment is a summary of the teachings of Jesus.  Thomas Jefferson considered them the most sublime moral code ever devised by man.  Jefferson may have been a hypocrite on political liberty as a slaveholder, but he was an enlightened man of reason who understood that the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus could preserve American democracy, while exclusivist church doctrines could unravel the fabric of democracy.

Over the years advances in knowledge and reason have debunked ridiculous religious doctrines that have corrupted religion and politics, and history has affirmed the universal truth of the moral teachings of Jesus; but evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump continue to ignore the moral imperatives taught by Jesus and promote distorted and divisive doctrines that more closely resemble the self-centered gospel of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus.

If progressive Christians are not able to counter the radical right politics of evangelical Christians, then their shrinking numbers will ultimately do just that.  More and more “nones” are defecting from the church, but most retain their faith in God’s transforming power to enable a politics of reconciliation--with or without the church.  But the decline of evangelical Christianity will take time, and in the meanwhile America’s democracy could suffer irreparable harm.

America’s political problems are moral problems, and because religion is the primary source of morality, political problems are infused with religion.  The vast majority of Americans who consider themselves to be Christians should practice the stewardship of democracy based on the teachings of Jesus, but most white Christians have either exempted their politics from those teachings or followed the distorted doctrines of evangelical charlatans.  That’s hypocrisy.

Jesus taught that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem all people, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer.  The problem is that Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church and in politics. Unprincipled religious and political leaders have used distorted religious doctrines to support immoral and divisive politics in the name of God.  Americans who ignore the problem of religion in politics do so at their peril.


Notes:

Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but expressed contempt for the distortions and misuse of those teachings by Christian religious leaders. Jefferson wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378. While many Christians considered Jefferson a heretic, Jefferson wrote of himself: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other.” (p 334) For Jefferson, being a Christian meant following Jesus as God’s word rather than worshiping him as God’s son. He emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus over the mystical, and in so doing emphasized discipleship over orthodox Christian beliefs, a distinction elaborated by Robin R. Meyers in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, HarperCollins, 2009.

As a professed Christian, Vice President Pence has outdone the hypocrisy of Jefferson.  Pence gave a talk on the moral qualities of a president at Hillsdale College in 2010. Conor Friedersdorf reported that Pence emphasized the virtue of humility in a president, and went on to say that “The Constitution and the Declaration should be on a president’s mind all the time, as the prism through which the light of all question of governance passes, though we have—sometimes gradually, sometimes radically—moved away from this, we can move back to it. ...Pence also spoke of the bully pulpit and its potential for abuse: ‘Is the president, therefore, expected to turn away from this and other easy advantage? ...He must know when to withdraw, to hold back, and to forgo attention, publicity, or advantage. ...It is not his job or his prerogative to redefine custom, law, and beliefs; to appropriate industries; to seize the country, as it were, by the shoulders or by the throat so as to impose by force of theatrical charisma his justice upon 300 million others….You must always be wary of a president who seems to float upon his own greatness.’” Friedersdorf concludes, “A sensibility such as this, and not power, is the source of presidential dignity, and must be restored. It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline, and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic, but life itself. It communicates that the president feels the gravity of his office and is willing to sacrifice himself; that his eye is not upon his own prospects but on the storm of history, through which he must navigate with the specific powers accorded to him and the limitations placed on those powers both by man and by God.  President Trump does not strike anyone as a man who is willing to sacrifice himself; if Americans were ranked by that metric, he might be last. Power, however, seems very much a part of his sensibility. That he lacks dignity is beyond question.”
By the standards that Pence set forth before he joined his political fate and his legacy to the president, Trump would appear to be an utter catastrophe.  Said Pence near the end of his speech, “I have never doubted that Providence can appear in history like the sun emerging from behind the clouds, if only as a reward for adherence to first principles.”  But will Providence save America from hypocritical leaders? See

There are progressive Christians in America’s churches who are countering radical right politics with moral principles taught by Jesus.  In addition to Jim Wallis’ reclaiming Jesus movement, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have taken a political stand with the following declaration:  
“As confessing Christians, we trust God, whom we know through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray as others pray in other names.
We are obligated to declare our concerns about the direction towards autocracy that our country is taking.
We say Yes to God’s power of love and justice for the neighbor as well as the self, and we say No to demonic power that urges hate of the other, scatters blame, and creates civic discord.
We say Yes to our imperfect democracy with one person, one vote, and No to any corruption of our elections.
We say Yes to universal health care and No to care based on the ability to pay.
We say Yes to safe schools, houses of worship, and public gathering places; and No to civilian access to assault and/or military-style weapons.
We say Yes to core human values and No to dividing our humanity by ideology and partisanship.
We say Yes to bridges and preservation of families and No to walls.
We say Yes to affirming and celebrating the full spectra of human identity and No to discrimination and bigotry.
We say: ‘In life, and in death we belong to God.'”
“I think that to not do it is to not to be true to who Jesus is calling us to be. It’s a question of how we do it, I think,” said Ted Church, executive of the Presbytery of New Hope, which oversees 170 churches from Mebane to the Outer Banks.
Still Churn said the declaration, which includes oblique references to Trump’s administration, is likely to cause controversy in many congregations.
“I do not go out and say to the churches that this is what your session needs to affirm,” he said. “I go out and say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about this.'”
According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members are Republicans and 47 percent are Democrats.
There is no deadline for churches to decide whether they are on board with the declaration, and denomination leaders said all voices are welcome to stay at the table, regardless of their decision.
“I know there are some who struggle and we’re not on the same side of the issue, but we need to be able to talk about it,” Churn said.  See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/presbyterian-church-usa-takes-stand-on-political-issues/


Related Commentary

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(3/22/15): The Power of Humility and the Arrogance of Power
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