By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The emphasis of church doctrines on mystical and exclusivist Christian beliefs rather than on the moral teachings of Jesus has fostered moral ambiguity and divisiveness in American religion and politics. The morality of Donald Trump more closely resembles the self-centered objectivist gospel of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus, but ironically the vast majority of white Christians support Trump and his Republican minions.
The many diverse Christian sects in America range from biblical fundamentalists and prosperity gospel evangelicals to traditional mainline denominations, but they all have one thing in common: All but a relatively few progressive Christians emphasize worshiping Jesus as God rather than following his teachings as the word of God. That misplaced emphasis has enabled Christianity to be the world’s most popular religion, but it has cost Christianity its credibility.
The subordination of the moral imperatives of discipleship taught by Jesus to mystical and exclusivist church doctrines is a form of cheap grace. It offers a short-cut to salvation but has profound moral implications. Asserting that Christianity is the one true faith and condemning unbelievers has discouraged interfaith reconciliation, and in a world of increasing religious diversity that has fostered religious competition, hatred and violence.
The teachings of Jesus are altruistic and universal--not exclusivist. Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own. His teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love your neighbors--including neighbors of other races and religions--as you love yourself. That love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that can foster religious reconciliation.
Jesus taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him, and he emphasized the reconciliation of all who seek to do God’s will. Popular religions seek to divide and conquer with exclusivist beliefs that condemn other religions. Martin Luther’s Reformation doctrine of sola fide (saved by faith alone) denigrated morality, or works of reconciling love, as a matter of faith. To their credit, Catholic doctrines emphasize both faith and works as essential to salvation.
Popular religions emphasize exclusivist mystical beliefs to attract converts. Mystical religious beliefs are common to every religion and are varied by their very nature since they defy rational proof and understanding. Aside from those beliefs that condemn those of other religions, mystical beliefs do not polarize religion or politics. Only divisive religious moral standards that counter the altruistic teachings of Jesus promote fear, hate and polarized politics.
If all Christian sects were to make the teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment a common word of faith and politics, they could reconcile the divisive moral standards of political legitimacy that threaten the fabric of American democracy without eliminating healthy differences on how to apply Christian morality to politics.
The prosperity gospel that promises wealth and prosperity for the faithful and the distorted family values of evangelicals who support Donald Trump and his Republican minions both conflict with the moral imperatives taught by Jesus. To save the church from irrelevance and to prevent the further demise of American democracy, church leaders must put the reconciling moral teachings of Jesus ahead of divisive exclusivist Christian beliefs.
The conflict between moral standards and exclusivist religious beliefs plagues Islam as well as Christianity. In a world of increasing religious plurality Islam is expected to surpass Christianity as the world’s most popular religion before the end of this century. Those two great competing religions must emphasize the greatest commandment as a common word of both faith and politics to coexist and promote peace in a world beset by religious hatred and violence.
Christianity remains the dominant religion in America, and it has proven its power to influence politics; but because of its ambiguity on moral principles it is losing ground, especially among millennials, and its competing factions are contributing to the polarization of American politics. By giving the teachings of Jesus priority over mystical and exclusivist religious beliefs, the church can promote a politics of reconciliation and save itself and democracy from oblivion.
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/13/16): We Are Known by the Friends We Keep
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(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
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(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
(9/9/17): 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
(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
(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
(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
(6/23/18): Musings on the Separation of Church and State and Christian Morality in Politics
(6/30/18): Who Are We? Musings on How Our Faith Shapes Our Politics and Who We Are
(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.