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.
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.
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(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