Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves has been recognized as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  Last week we asked, Who is my neighbor?  This week we ask: How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And specifically, how does that moral imperative of our faith relate to our politics?

            Sheikh Ali Gomaa is a former grand mufti of Egypt who was a proponent of a common word and who is now an influential cleric at Al Azhar University.  He has condemned those protesting Egypt’s state of repression under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as “putrid people” and riffraff” and praised police and military leaders, saying “The angels are supporting you from heaven.”  That kind of politics doesn’t reflect how we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

            This past week Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, a self-proclaimed “Christian” school, endorsed Donald Trump as the GOP nominee for President and said of Trump, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”  If that’s the way Falwell and “Christian” evangelicals understand the greatest commandment, then their hypocrisy is even worse than that of Sheikh Gomaa and other Islamist scholars who offered the greatest commandment as a common word of faith.

            Trump’s outlandish and self-centered lifestyle and his arrogant, xenophobic and mean-spirited campaign represent the antithesis of loving God and our neighbors as ourselves—at least according to the teachings of Jesus.  That’s a no-brainer for anyone who has read the Gospel accounts, but it appears that the “Christian” evangelicals who support Trump don’t put much stock in the teachings of Jesus.  They follow instead the distorted doctrines of evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and his deceased father, who founded the “Moral Majority.”

            At the other end of the political spectrum on religion and politics in the U.S. are those obsessed with avoiding Islamophobia.  Their efforts to avoid any criticism of Islam are in stark contrast with politicians like Trump and Senator Ted Cruz—and their fellow-travelling right-wing evangelicals—who purposely foment Islamophobia to promote their political aspirations.           
            Islamophobia has been defined as “…a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social, and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise).  Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.”

            To characterize Islam as a religion of hate and violence is an example of Islamophobia, but it is not Islamophobic to oppose radical Islamism.  Like Christian fundamentalists, Islamists are exclusivists who believe that their religion is the one true faith and that God condemns all unbelievers to eternal damnation.  Such religious exclusivism contradicts the moral imperative to love our unbelieving neighbors as ourselves and encourages religious hate and violence.

            Advocates against Islamophobia have emphasized avoiding “…combative language (i.e. attack, battle, battleground, fight, etc.)”  and using “…the word ‘harmlessness’—a positive word to express the consciousness behind this initiative—connoting a recognition of the oneness or interrelatedness of all life and an unwillingness to harm even perceived enemies.”  Karen Armstrong has described the history of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as a Battle For God.   Radical Islamism is a fundamentalist form of Islam that motivates Islamist terrorism, so that to discourage criticism of Islamism as Islamophobia plays into the hands of Islamist terrorists.

            Both Islam and Christianity are diverse religions with fundamentalist believers who deserve criticism for how they mix their religion and politics.  The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—especially our unbelieving neighbors—is the best test for the politics of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  It requires countering Islamist terrorism with force while supporting progressive Muslims who are seeking to undermine radical Islamism with libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law; and that requires criticizing fundamentalist religions, including Islamism, while avoiding Islamophobia.            

Notes and References to Resources:          

Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?, October 25, 2015; Faith, Hope and Love in a World of Fear, Suspicion and Hate, December 5, 2015; and Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016.

On Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s praise for President al-Sissi’s oppressive policies in Egypt.  See

On how U.S. support for al-Sissi’s repressive regime has undermined democracy, legitimacy and the ultimate stability of Egyptian politics, see

On Jerry Falwell’s praise for Donald Trump as exemplifying the greatest commandment, see

John Esposito has been an advocate for libertarian values in Islam and linked U.S. politicians like Trump to Islamophobia; and Esposito has asked, Why have we normalized Islamophobia? See


  1. Before reading this, I was looking over an account* in today's NY Times about Ted Cruz's efforts to work up the evangelical vote. The reporter quotes one of Cruz's volunteers in Iowa praying for God's support of their candidate, and I was tempted to snicker about the volunteer's certainty that God was directly concerned in the caucus: "Many of us pray and believe that when we... have our hands behind the plow, Lord, that you are going to honor and bless that diligence, and allow us to have this man that we have a heart enter the White House. And Father, we would thank you so much for that."
    My scoffing impulse is countered by a sense that (a) this guy is putting his time and energy into the political process in a way I never have done, and (b) it isn't crazy to want a political system in place that reflects your own values. But the logic by which you try to justify projecting your own values onto the national scene is definitely crucial. There's the "God is behind our values and that's why they should determine the national scene," which is the logic your blog is criticizing here, and then there's a secular utilitarian logic that I would go for, as in, "our values will probably produce the best outcomes for the most people and that's why they should determine the national scene."
    Another volunteer, quoted a few lines later in the article, tells Iowa voters who wonder what Cruz stands for that Cruz "will not allow us to bash the gays but won't let anybody do jihad on the Christians." That line about jihad taps straight into the Islamophobia that your blog identifies as so toxic. I wonder if that sense that "we are under threat!" is why Falwell ended up endorsing Trump, not Cruz, who would have seemed to have earned the big evangelical thumbs up. Trump is the one who directly said, at Liberty, that Christianity is under siege and he is the one to protect and defend it. That claim takes the "God is on our side, and that's why our guy should be president" and amplifies it with a sense of threat: "God is on our side, but there are forces arrayed against us, and since God is on our side, those forces are by definition bad and must be eliminated." It may be that Trump was more effective at yoking that sense of fear and embattlement than Cruz was.
    I think I'm just reiterating what you've already said very well above! But I was struck by the resonance between your remarks above and this account of Cruz's political campaign. I have to admire the earnest engagement of his supporters with the democratic process. But when that energy comes from an "us vs. them" fear (which flows from an exclusivist vision, as you would point out), it's not so good for democracy. "Us vs. them" has always been part of American democracy, though, and maybe we'll make it through this year's version mostly intact.


  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ashley.
    It’s the us versus them dichotomy that is the problem, and it’s exacerbated whenever politicians use religion and politics to mobilize one side against the other.
    Putting aside the threat of Islamist terrorism—something all candidates oppose—promoting the idea that Islam is a threat to Christianity is about as divisive and dangerous to a stable democracy as a politician can get. At the same time, promoting politically correct notions of Islamophobia that condemn criticism of Islamic fundamentalism (Islamism) is just about as bad.
    The beauty of a healthy democracy and the fundamental freedoms that sustain it is the ability to share differences and to disagree agreeably on matters of religion and politics. When fundamentalist religions—whether those of Islam or Christianity—become involved in the political process and promote politicians based on exclusivist religious viewpoints, it creates a dangerous us versus them contest that polarizes the electorate and can morph from suspicion to hatred and even on to violence.
    It’s a shame that the top GOP candidates are all vying to outdo each other in promoting divisive religious and political issues rather than seeking to reconcile them. As for Christians—even evangelical Christians—it should be obvious that such divisiveness contradicts the teachings of Jesus—not to mention that it’s just bad politics.