Saturday, January 20, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality in Religion and Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Religion is the primary source of the moral standards of legitimacy that shape our politics—for good or bad.  Christianity and Islam are the world’s two largest religions, and both are exclusivist.  Each claims to be the one true faith and asserts the inerrancy of its ancient scriptures—fundamentalist beliefs that produce conflicting concepts of political legitimacy.

            The best way to reconcile religious differences is through dialogue, but dialogue cannot reconcile exclusivists who believe that they must try to convert those of other faiths.  Such proselytizing denies respect for other religions; and fundamentalist beliefs in the inerrancy of ancient scripture as God’s truth oppose freedom, democracy and the secular rule of law.

            Religious exclusivism and fundamentalism are intrafaith issues within each religion as well as interfaith issues.  Fundamentalists within each religion have supported radical-right politicians who oppose equal justice under law, and they include evangelical Christians in the U.S. and fundamentalist Islamists in the Middle East and Africa. 

            Christian and Muslim fundamentalists resist progress and modernity with belief in their ancient scriptures as God’s unchanging moral and legal standards of legitimacy.  Christians go a step further and subordinate the teachings of Jesus to man-made church doctrine that asserts that God sent Jesus as a blood sacrifice of His one and only Son to atone for the sins of all believers.
 
            More progressive Christians and Muslims interpret the dictates of their scripture based on reason and advances in knowledge.  While Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus, they consider him a prophet like Muhammad, so that his teachings are considered the word of God.  This gives the teachings of Jesus the moral authority to resolve both intrafaith and interfaith issues. 

            Jesus was a Jew who never promoted his or any other religion.  His teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves.  That altruistic and universalist love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. 
 
            While there are many similarities in the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad, there are also many differences that can be attributed to their contrasting contexts: Jesus lived under Roman rule, but he never engaged in secular politics.  Muhammad was more like Moses and Joshua. They lived in hostile environments that required religious leaders to assume political and military leadership roles to provide law and order and protect their people from violence.   

            Moses and Muhammad emphasized obedience to holy law while Jesus emphasized love over law.  There is no place in a libertarian democracy for coercive religious law, and religious moral standards must be compatible with the love command to enable Jews, Christians and Muslims to be good stewards of democracy and promote a politics of reconciliation.
           
            The most contentious political issues today relate to social and economic justice and involve a volatile mix of religion and race.  The church is the best place to initiate interfaith dialogue on morality in religion and politics since religion is the primary source of the standards of legitimacy that shape our politics, and since over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians.

            Neither Jesus nor Muhammad considered issues of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law since those topics were not relevant to their ancient time and place.  The challenge for interfaith dialogue is to relate the ancient teachings of Jesus and Muhammad to contemporary political issues, balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.

            Once altruistic and universalist principles grounded in the greatest commandment take precedence over exclusivist religious doctrines, then reason and advances in knowledge can overcome fundamentalist beliefs that consider ancient scriptures to be perfect and immutable.  Only then can interfaith dialogue reconcile difficult issues of morality in religion and politics.


Notes:

Evangelical Christian leaders who have supported Donald Trump and radical-right Republicans illustrate the moral ambiguity of Christian morality in politics—that is, if the teachings of Jesus as summarized in the greatest commandment are considered the Christian standard of morality.  But in the wake of Trump’s “s***hole” remarks on immigration policy, some evangelicals are acknowledging their hypocrisy.  See http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/01/13/evangelical-rift-intensifies-over-trump-immigration-remarks.html.

Mustafa Akyol affirmed the relevance of the teachings of Jesus to Islam, noting that Jesus “called on his fellow Jews to focus on their religion’s moral principles rather than obsessing with the minute details of religious law.  …He also taught that outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy.  Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/opinion/what-jesus-can-teach-todays-muslims.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2FMustafa%20Akyol&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=Collection&region=Marginalia&src=me&version=column&pgtype=article.

Mustafa Akyol asked, Does religion make people moral?, and then pointed out that religious conservatives [Islamists] in Turkey have “come to dominate virtually all institutions of the state, as well as the media and even much of the business sector.  In short, they have become the new ruling elite. …The religious conservatives have morally failed because they ended up doing everything they once condemned as unjust and cruel.”  They “have become corrupted by power.  But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.”  See  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/does-religion-make-people-moral.html.

Carl Krieg has advocated that Christians “replace the word God with the word love in the context of humanist/Christian dialogue”, citing 1 John 4:16: God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. He then makes reference to the greatest commandment and the story of the good Samaritan in which Jesus answers the question, Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37). See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/tillichs-challenge-the-search-for-new-vocabulary/.

Paul Chafee has cited a practical extension of interfaith dialogue and relationships conducted by St. Philip’s Centre in Leicester England that has “goals and strategies that are carefully considered and crafted in an environment that treasures listening, embraces differences, and thrives on inclusivity.”  The interfaith project is described in Learning to Live Well Together by Tom Wilson and Riaz Ravat.  See http://www.theinterfaithobserver.org/journal-articles/2017/12/12/review-learning-to-live-well-together-wilson-and-ravat.

Edward Simmons describes Jesus as Critic of Hypocrisy, Then and Now.  He notes that Jesus taught that you can tell legitimate spokesmen for God from the false by their actions: You will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44).  Simmons cites the standard of the greatest commandment and the story of the good Samaritan as the message and example taught by Jesus for our time and all time: Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:37).  See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/jesus-as-critic-of-hypocrisy-then-and-now/.


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?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity   http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/07/reconciliation-in-race-and-religion.html
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(1/2/16): God in Three Concepts
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(5/21/16): Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(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
(5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
(6/10/17): Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics    http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-and.html
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism 
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion 
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(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.
(1/6/18): The Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religions: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

           America’s civil religion is a composite of politics and religion that has been corrupted by radical-right nationalism and exclusivist religion.  Together they promote a divisive “us versus them” mentality in a world of increasing racial and religious diversity.  To counter this corruption America needs a moral revival to promote a universalist politics of reconciliation.

            Religion doesn’t make people moral, but in a religious nation God’s will is the primary source of the moral standards of its civil religion; and if God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, then Satan’s will is to divide and conquer.  Unfortunately, Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the church, mosque and in politics.

            Christians believe that the teachings of Jesus are God’s word, but a majority of Christians have followed misguided evangelical leaders who promote a self-centered and materialistic prosperity gospel that more closely resembles the objectivist morality of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus, and they elected a narcissistic demagogue as their president.

            Most American Christians have become hypocrites by allowing nationalism and partisan loyalty to supersede the teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as they love themselves—including their neighbors of other races and religions.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

            Both Christianity and Islam are exclusivist religions that promote nationalist radical-right politics.  In Islamic nations apostasy and blasphemy laws deny the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, and are often used by oppressive leaders to silence their opposition.  Islam will soon surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion, so that it creates long term issues.

            World peace depends upon universalist religious and political beliefs taking precedence over divisive parochial religious beliefs and nationalist politics.  Christians should lead the way by promoting a politics of reconciliation that subordinates exclusivist Christian doctrines and radical-right politics to the universal and altruistic moral teachings of Jesus. 

            That will not be easy.  Orthodox Christian and Islamic beliefs assert that there is only one true faith and that all others are false.  Promoting the universal belief that God’s love and mercy extends to those of other races and religions (and even to unbelievers) will deny to Christianity and Islam their claims of exclusivity that have given them their worldly popularity and power.

            In medieval times Christianity used its exclusivist orthodoxy to exterminate heretics with witch trials in Europe and in Puritan New England.  More recently nationalist demagogues like Hitler and Stalin have used similar tactics to eliminate political heretics.  Without human rights to constrain radical-right demagogues, it’s not hard to imagine it happening again.

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer left the security of America to challenge Hitler’s Nazi regime after most German Christians became complicit with it, just as most white American Christians are complicit with the immoral politics of Donald Trump.  For Bonhoeffer, the cost of discipleship was high.  Could the Trump era be creating a Bonhoeffer moment for American Christians?     

            A politics of reconciliation doesn’t have to eliminate all of our political and religious differences—only those that conflict with the greatest commandment as a universal common word of faith.  But Christians and Muslim conservatives continue to support divisive “us versus them” politics and religion.  It’s still too soon to tell if universalism and altruism in politics and religion can overcome the corrosive effects of nationalism and exclusivist religion.


Notes:

Mustafa Akyol has asked, Does religion make people moral? After noting that Turkey’s Erdogan has recruited conservative Islamists who support his use of Islamic law to negate human rights and purge Erdogan’s political opponents in the name of nationalism, he says “The religious conservatives have been corrupted by power.”  Akyol observed that Jesus criticized Jewish religious leaders who were “confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” and “stripped morality from religion.” Akyol affirmed that such self-righteousness can cause an “us versus them mentality that can corrupt and radicalize any religious community.”  See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/does-religion-make-people-moral.html.
  
Paul Miller has noted that “Nationalism has always been the enemy of true diversity…The nationalist delusion is that we can unify our attachments under the umbrella of a single, overarching, holistic identity. That is not only impractical, but it is also dangerous and, for religious believers, wrongheaded and insulting. The things Trump says about the nation I believe to be true about the church.  Nationalism mimics religion in its claim on our ultimate loyalty and its pretension to provide “the fullness of the life intended by God.”  See http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/03/trumps-nationalism-is-arbitrary-dangerous-incoherent-and-silly/.

The Economist has provided a comprehensive overview of nationalism, noting that its narcissistic (radical right) forms are dominant today.  The following are excerpts from the article:   
Wherever you look, nationalism is rising. Sometimes it takes the form of self-declared nations demanding the right to determine their future.  More often it is a lurch to the populist and reactionary right: Turkey is militant, Japan is shedding its pacifism, India is toying with Hindu supremacy, China dreams of glory and Russia is belligerent.
Most remarkable is the nationalist turn in the United States.  It has always seen itself as a place apart. But for most of its history this exceptionalism has been a form of self-regarding universalism; in time, the rest of the world would catch up. Now it has an angry, nativist president who sees America not leading, but being left behind—and vows to make it great again.
Nationalism is an abiding legacy of the Enlightenment.  It is not an aberration. It is here to stay. Like religion, nationalism is capable of bringing out the best in people as well as the worst. It can inspire them to bind together freely in pursuit of the common good. But it can also fill them with a terrifying, righteous certainty, breeding strife and injustice.
Sadly, the new nationalism plays to the paranoid, intolerant side of this legacy.
But nationalism has liberated oppressed people as often as it has fired up anti-Semites. After the first world war, when Woodrow Wilson, America’s president, championed the principle of national self-determination, these new nations emerged, blinking, into sunlight, a process typically accompanied by national anthems that sounded like subpar Verdi.
As empires have fallen apart, Wilson’s principle of national self-determination has spread around the world. The philosophy that nations are sovereign and uniquely able to say what suits them is incorporated into the bedrock of the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions and the whole of international law. Everything else follows from it.
Indeed, nationalism has become so much a part of the backdrop that you hardly notice it—except, as today, when there is a crisis.

Lori Brandt Hale and Reggie L. Williams have asked, “Is this a Bonhoeffer moment?” They noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued, “As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle, nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for his neighbor.”  Bonhoeffer spoke of “costly grace” and made a distinction between Christian religion and discipleship.  Hale and Williams assert that “We live in a time of moral obscurity,” and that “Bonhoeffer’s context—specifically the church context within Nazi Germany—provides a helpful lens for reflecting on our current situation.”  They point out that the Catholic Church and Protestant churches in Germany “became more than bystanders.  Their explicit support of Hitler…made them perpetrators.”  “Bonhoeffer wrote that that the church has the right and responsibility to ask whether the state is fulfilling its duty to preserve justice and order.”  Bonhoeffer “was living in a complicated time when evil was disguised as good.”  See https://sojo.net/magazine/february-2018/this-bonhoeffer-moment-American-Christians.

Edward Simmons has imagined that if Jesus walked among us today he would likely criticize sanctimonious and hypocritical evangelical Christian leaders who preach a prosperity gospel and live a life of luxury while promoting radical-right politicians who favor the rich and ignore the needs of the poor, just as Jesus criticized sanctimonious and hypocritical Pharisees and scribes of his day who emphasized religious beliefs and purity and ignored the needs of their neighbors.  See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/jesus-as-critic-of-hypocrisy-then-and-now/.
    
Catherine Rampell has considered America’s nationalism under Trump a cultural revolution similar to that of the 1966-1976 cultural revolution in China under Mao Zedong.  See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/americas-own-cultural-revolution/2018/01/01/1f53438e-ef38-11e7-b390-a36dc3fa2842_story.html?utm_term=.ad4800189b4c&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
   
On Why Europe’s wars of religion put 40,000 “witches” to a terrible death, see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/witchcraft-economics-reformation-catholic-protestant-market-share.

  
Related Commentary:

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(3/15/15): The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity   http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/07/reconciliation-in-race-and-religion.html
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(5/21/16): Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(2/11/17): The Mega-Merger of Wall Street, Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(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
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism 
(8/19/17) Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(11/4/17): What to Believe? Truth or Consequences in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/11/what-to-believe-truth-or-consequences.html.
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/9/17): Religion, Race and Identity Politics                   http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/religion-race-and-identity-politics.html.
(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.
(12/30/17): The Fat’s in the Fire, but We Haven’t Heard the Fat Lady Sing

(1/6/18): The Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy