Saturday, June 23, 2018

Musings on the Separation of Church and State and Christian Morality in Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not require the separation of religion and politics, it only prohibits government from establishing (or promoting) any religion.  On the other hand, Christian morality must be applied to our politics, or our faith is as dead as a body without the spirit. (see James 2:14-26).

Jesus never mentioned morality in politics since democracy was irrelevant to his time and place; but his moral teachings are relevant to the stewardship of democracy in our time and place, and 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.

The greatest challenge for American democracy is balancing individual wants and rights with providing for the common good.  In America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture, we love what we want for ourselves and often ignore the needs of others. As as result, American Christianity emphasizes Jesus as our personal savior who provides us personal salvation, and our politics reflect our religious preferences for personal wants at the expense of the needs of others.      

The moral teachings of Jesus on self-denial and sacrificial love were never popular.  To make Christianity popular church leaders subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to belief in exclusivist church doctrines and creeds.  The latter provided cheap grace and salvation without the cost of discipleship. In the fourth century Constantine initiated an unholy alliance between Christianity and worldly power when he made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire.

In the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century Martin Luther emphasized grace and faith (sola fide) as essentials for salvation and denigrated Christian morality.  The religious wars that followed did not end until The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  Then the Enlightenment introduced democracy and the political sovereignty of man to replace the divine right to rule and political sovereignty of God.  But democracy did not bring Christian morality to politics.

Martin Luther’s concept of two kingdoms separated God’s kingdom from worldly kingdoms and Christian obligations from those of politics.  Robert Jeffress recently revived Luther’s two kingdom concept when he asserted that “individuals are called biblically to be kind and caring, but not governments.”  He absolved those white Christians who supported Donald Trump and his Republican minions from the need to apply Christian morality to their politics.

President Trump reversed his policy to separate children  from parents seeking political asylum by Executive Order after a firestorm of public criticism, which included some church officials, that the policy was immoral.  But in red states where the vast majority of white Christians support Trump and his Republican minions, the silence of church pulpits on this and other immoral policies of the Trump administration indicates a corruption of Christian morality.

Michael Gerson has chided pastors for ignoring their “moral duty to oppose the dehumanization of migrants” and suggested a sermon that acknowledges political differences, but emphasizes “a common belief with unavoidably public consequences: Christians are to love their neighbor, and everyone is their neighbor.”  John Pavlovitch has gone further and suggested that “if your church is silent [on moral issues] this week, you may want to leave it.”

The Lord’s Prayer begins with the petition that “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It mandates that Christians bring God’s kingdom of light and love to worldly kingdoms beset by darkness and hate, and it requires the Christian stewardship of democracy to promote a politics of reconciliation based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus that are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor.

American democracy is threatened by racial and partisan political polarization.  Over 70% of Americans consider themselves Christians, but most of them voted for Donald Trump, who is antithetical to Christian morality.  Those who ignore the teachings of Jesus in their politics are hypocrites. Unless and until the church makes Christian morality a priority in politics, the church will continue to decline and ultimately be relegated to the dustbin of history.  

Notes:

Paul Chaffee cited Robert Jeffress’ two kingdoms theology, and Jeffress’ assertion that “President Trump is not only on the right side of history; he is on the right side of God.”  See
Chafee also noted the tactics of right-wing Christian evangelicals who are promoting a form of American Christian nationalism that would “use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.”  It is a form of “Christian” morality at odds with the teachings of Jesus and promoted as the free exercise of religion. See https://interfaith-observer.squarespace.com/journal-articles/2018/6/14/and-the-enemy-is-interfaith.  See also, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/26/opinion/project-blitz-christian-nationalists.html.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to support the President Trump’s policy of separating children from parents seeking asylum as a law “ordained by God.”  It was taken out of context (see Romans 12 and Romans 13:9-10) and history has proven it to be wrong. It should be noted, however, that the law does not require such separation.  It is Trump administration policy and can be remedied by Executive Order without changing the law--as it was. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/06/14/jeff-sessions-points-to-the-bible-in-defense-of-separating-immigrant-families/?utm_term=.7142ffedfb46&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.  See also https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-executive-end-family-separation-at-border-immigration-today-2018-06-20.

Father James Martin has asserted that blindly following the law is not “biblical” and described the Trump policy to separate children from parents seeking asylum as unjust law: See  https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/06/15/father-james-martin-blindly-following-law-not-biblical.  

The Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe of the United Methodist Church has denounced the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” and the separation of children from parents seeking political asylum, and condemned Session’s use of Paul’s letter to the Romans to justify that immoral policy as a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel.  See            
https://www.umcjustice.org/news-and-stories/a-shocking-violation-of-the-spirit-of-the-gospel-697.  Unfortunately such pronouncements are rarely made in the pulpits of white UMC churches.   

The United Methodist News Service reported “More than 600 United Methodist clergy and laity say they are bringing church law charges against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a fellow United Methodist, over a zero tolerance U.S. immigration policy — a policy that includes separating children from parents apprehended for crossing into the U.S. illegally.  ...Specifically, the group accuses him of ...separating young children from their parents and holding them in mass incarceration facilities; immorality; racial discrimination and ‘dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrines’ of The United Methodist Church.” See http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/church-charges-brought-against-sessions

After suggesting a sermon on the morality of immigration policies, Michael Gerson explained that “The proper role of Christians in politics is not to Christianize America; it is to demonstrate Christian values in the public realm. This was the spirit of the abolitionist movement, of the charitable and legal response to the human costs of the Industrial Revolution, and of the civil rights movement. This commitment does not lead toward a single party or ideology, but it does trace the outlines of an agenda: defending the rule of law, protecting minorities from discrimination and harm, fighting against trafficking and preventable suffering abroad, standing up for the rights of the disabled and vulnerable, shielding children from exploitation and abuse. ...If effective resistance happens at all, it will come from values-based, religiously motivated conservatives who can no longer stomach the moral putridity of Trumpism.” See   https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-case-study-in-the-proper-role-of-christians-in-politics/2018/06/21/39acd0bc-7578-11e8-b4b7-308400242c2e_story.html?utm_term=.16dc73b6b43b&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1  

John Pavlovitz has gone further than Michael Gerson in criticising pastors and churches that are silent on matters of Christian morality in politics, especially on immigration.  He has written If your church is silent this week, you may want to leave it.  See https://johnpavlovitz.com/ (June 19, 2018)

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
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
(8/20/16): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty and Law
(9/10/16): Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law, not God’s Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(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
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(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.
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(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.
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(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
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(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
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics


Friday, June 15, 2018

The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The belief that God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful is now embedded in American Christianity.  That’s evident in the prosperity gospel which has its roots in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), where Moses taught that those obedient to God’s law would be rewarded and the disobedient punished.  The only difference is that the standards of legitimacy that determine faithfulness in the prosperity gospel are partisan radical-right political ideals.

Jesus refuted the idea that God rewards the faithful with worldly prosperity and power.  In fact, Jesus taught that the prosperous and powerful would have a more difficult time finding salvation than the poor and meek, and that altruistic love for others—even those we would rather ignore—was God’s standard of righteousness.  That standard of love over law is summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

A nation’s moral and legal standards of legitimacy are derived from both religious and secular norms.  Religion shapes cultural norms just as secular cultural norms shape religion. Over 70% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians, and a majority of them are white evangelical Christians who have abandoned the teachings of Jesus to promote the values and politics of a materialistic and hedonistic culture.

For any institutional religion to be successful, it must be popular.  Jesus taught that the way to salvation was a narrow way of sacrificial love and self-denial, not the broad and popular way that leads to worldly prosperity and power.  That message never played well in Europe and America, where religious leaders reshaped Christian standards of legitimacy to conform to more popular materialistic and hedonistic cultural norms, or witnessed the demise of Christianity.

Popular Christianity has long subordinated the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, since such beliefs are a popular source of cheap grace.  But the prosperity gospel goes beyond emphasizing belief in a divine Jesus and ignores his moral teachings. It closely resembles the self-centered objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, and cannot be reconciled with the moral teachings of Jesus found in the four gospel accounts.

Since Emperor Constantine co-opted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, church doctrine has limited salvation to believers in a divine Jesus and condemned unbelievers to eternal damnation.  While the church has always put more emphasis on worshipping Jesus as God than following his teachings as the word of God, the prosperity gospel has made radical right politics the moral standard of Christianity.

The so-called family values and politics of the Republican Party are the moral standards of the prosperity gospel.  Its leader is Donald Trump, a narcissist whose values are antithetical to the altruistic values taught by Jesus. Trump and his Republican minions reflect the materialistic and hedonistic cultural values now prevalent in the U.S.  Those “Christians” who support Trump and his minions should be ashamed. They have sacrificed Jesus on the altar of politics.

Historically the Abrahamic religions have sought to conform immoral worldly standards of legitimacy to God’s will.  Moses, the Hebrew prophets and Muhammad emphasized religious laws as God’s standards of righteousness, while Jesus emphasized love over law, as summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors--including those of other races and religions--as we love ourselves.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity through the transforming power of God’s love, while the will of Satan is to divide and conquer humanity with the temptations of worldly power and prosperity.  In the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the church, mosque, synagogue and in politics. It’s obvious which side of that spiritual battle the prosperity gospel supports.


Notes:

Joel Osteen is one of the most popular (and prosperous) evangelical leaders who preach the prosperity gospel, and according to Eloise Blondiau, “Osteen tells us we have the power to obtain health and wealth if we believe enough, for long enough. “God’s got this!” he exclaims.  Osteen takes the idea that “nothing is impossible for God,” and runs with it. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, it suggests that since nothing is impossible for God, God will give health and wealth to those with the strongest faith in him. This line of thinking constitutes the prosperity gospel.  ...The sense of agency and justice that the prosperity gospel provides—whether offered by wellness advocates or preachers—is deeply attractive; it means that everything is within our control. But the implications of the prosperity gospel are less attractive: If the faithful are rewarded with health, are the terminally ill not faithful enough?”  See https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/06/07/who-deserves-be-healthy-prosperity-gospel-according-goop
Rev.Terri Daniel has addressed the question why not all terminally ill faithful are healed by their faith.  She has challenged traditional (and toxic) church doctrines of substitutionary atonement and faith healing, debunked the prosperity gospel and confirmed why church doctrine puts God’s rewards and punishment in the afterlife, not in this life: “Trying to match doctrine and dogma with lived human experience is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The square peg is a belief in divine reward and punishment. The round hole is the way life actually works. By the time most of us are young adults we have observed that the good are not necessarily rewarded and the bad are not necessarily punished. Real human experience proves that it just doesn’t work that way. So the only way the emerging church could sell the idea of divine reward or punishment was to locate it in the afterlife, where it could not be verified or validated.” See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/toxic-theology-%E2%80%A8religious-beliefs-that-hurt-instead-of-heal%E2%80%A8/
Edward Simmons has delineated three ethical approaches to salvation in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Salvation Ethics (a fundamentalist/evangelical approach at the foundation of the prosperity gospel), Golden Rule Ethics (a more secular approach based on treating others as you would want them to treat you), and Torah Ethics (based on the greatest commandment that combines the love of God with the love of neighbor).  Simmons argues against the first approach as “coercion in the name of righteousness” that leads to “the most cynical form of ‘political realism’--the end justifies the means.”  Simmons debunks biblical examples in which good and bad fortune were considered to be either God’s rewards or punishment based on obedience or disobedience to Mosaic Law, and points to more practical explanations for those ancient events.  See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/political-salesmanship-and-christian-morality/.

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
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(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
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(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.
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(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
(12/16/17): 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
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(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
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics