The American Religion and Politics in 2016
By Rudy Barnes, Jr., March 6, 2016
The American religion is an amalgam of religious and secular values that have evolved over the years into a diverse hodgepodge of religions, most of which claim to be Christian. This fragmentation of religion was precipitated by advances in knowledge, reason and the libertarian political concepts of the Enlightenment, which challenged traditional religious doctrines and created a backlash of religious fundamentalists who considered advances in knowledge and reason a threat to their traditional beliefs. More recently, an increasing number of Nones have disavowed any religious preference for individualized spiritual faith.
Fundamentalist Christians known as evangelicals now make up approximately 50% of GOP voters and support right-wing candidates who share their traditional values, which include the prohibition of abortion, the condemnation of homosexuals, and opposition to immigration. Their “Christian” values are an anomaly since they were never taught by Jesus, as is their support of Donald Trump, whose misrepresentation of the truth, bullish megalomania, bigotry and nativism are the antithesis of the humility and selfless love taught and exemplified by Jesus.
At the other end of the political spectrum is Senator Bernie Sanders who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President, and Nones now represent 25% of Democratic voters. Sanders is a non-practicing Jew and avowed democratic socialist who has been popular among young people and Nones. His socialist agenda is an anomaly—if not anathema—in American politics, but it is more in line with the teachings of Jesus than are the xenophobic proposals of GOP candidates who are supported by evangelical Christians.
The popularity of Trump and Sanders represents a deep dissatisfaction and distrust of government. Trump is rude and arrogant and insults those who take issue with his campaign, while Sanders advocates socialistic proposals beyond the sensibilities of most Democrats. Their popularity represents the dysfunction of the American religion and politics. Edmund Burke once warned Americans that in a democracy we forge our own shackles. The evolution of our religion and politics indicates we are doing just that.
Christians in America have differing political orientations. Fundamentalist evangelical Christians promote traditional “family” values that were never taught by Jesus. Libertarian Christians emphasize civil and political human rights that were never taught by Jesus, but they also support providing for the common good, which distinguishes them from Tea Party neo-libertarians. Socialist Christians promote government programs that promote economic equality, even when they undermine economic freedom.
The traditional values of fundamentalist Christians are derived more from secular cultural values than from the teachings of Jesus. Libertarian values were popularized by 18th century Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson who advocated libertarian democracy, human rights, and the secular rule of law. Socialist values to provide for the common good are found in all the ancient religions, while libertarian values were not embraced by Western religions until after the Enlightenment.
Locke and Jefferson were deists—men of faith who, like modern Nones, rejected institutional religion. Jefferson considered the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and he emphasized the freedoms of religion and speech as the most fundamental of civil or human rights. It’s too bad that Trump and his evangelical Christian supporters don’t share those enlightened beliefs; but then politicians would have a hard time getting elected if they practiced the humility and self-denying love for others taught by Jesus.
Religion and politics are inextricably woven together in America. The separation of church and state is taken from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It prohibits the powers of the state from establishing or promoting any religion, but does not require a separation of religion and politics. Christians who seek to follow Jesus should apply his teachings to political as well as personal issues. Evangelical Christians who do otherwise are not following the teachings of Jesus, but the dictates of a man-made religion, or of deceivers seeking power.
Modern Christians are challenged to apply the moral imperatives of the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as themselves to political as well as personal matters, and to look beyond their ancient scriptures for the meaning of loving others in a modern political context. Those living in libertarian democracies value their freedom as a precious right. To love their neighbors they should liberate the oppressed with human rights and care for the poor and needy as matters of faith and politics. To do that Christians need to support elected officials who can balance individual rights with providing for the common good.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; 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; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, March 15, 2015; May 10, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The Evolution of Faith, Religion and Spirituality, February 20, 2016.
The Editorial Board of the Washington Post considers Trump a threat to democracy. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/voters-shouldnt-reward-trumps-assault-on-democracy/2016/02/29/2bada96a-df0b-11e5-846c-10191d1fc4ec_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
Kathleen Parker believes Trump supporters are inoculated against the truth. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-supporters-are-inoculated-against-the-truth/2016/03/01/08c6a12c-dff1-11e5-846c-10191d1fc4ec_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
One explanation for evangelical Christians voting for Trump is that they have been losing for so long. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/evangelical-christians-are-so-sick-of-losing-that-theyre-voting-for-trump/2016/02/26/d0efa184-da39-11e5-925f-1d10062cc82d_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
Peter Wehner can’t understand how any Christian can reconcile support for Trump with the teachings of Jesus. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/01/opinion/campaign-stops/what-wouldnt-jesus-do.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.
On Trump’s threat to limit the freedom of expression and press for those who criticize him, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2016/02/26/donald-trump-just-declared-his-intent-to-destroy-american-democracy/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
On the role of evangelical Christians (50% of the GOP) and Nones (25% of Democrats) in the election, see http://www.religionnews.com/2016/03/01/177328/.
On the role of Nones as the biggest faith constituency in the Democratic Party, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/meet-the-nones-the-democratic-partys-biggest-faith-constituency/2016/02/28/85e5b68e-d588-11e5-b195-2e29a4e13425_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines.
Suggested readings on the evolution of the American religion in matters of faith and politics: Harold Bloom, The American Religion, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1992; Mark Noll, America’s God, Oxford University Press, 2002; Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2003; Jon Meacham, American Gospel, Random House, NY, 2006; Matthew Paul Turner, Our Great Big American God, Jericho Books, NY, 2014.