By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Just what is Christian morality? According to Tony Perkins, Franklin Graham and other evangelical Christians, it’s about “family values” that oppose abortion, homosexuality, universal health care, the immigration of Mexicans and Muslims, and anything else promoted by leftist Democrats. Bottom line, it requires Christians to support radical-right Republicans like Donald Trump and Roy Moore to get God’s job done, even if they are not paragons of Christian virtue.
That should not be the last word on Christian morality in politics. The stewardship of democracy is a moral responsibility for all Christians, so all churches should define and apply Christian moral standards for political issues and for those seeking public office. Since Christian morality is rooted in scripture, the church should provide the exegesis and homiletics needed to understand what scripture meant to its ancient audience, and what it means for us today.
The foundation for Christian morality is the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. It’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, but it’s only a starting point. The real challenge is applying that love command to issues of economic and social justice, foreign policy and military operations, and balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.
A threshold issue in American politics that complicates issues of morality is a two-party duopoly that is polarized by race. Most white Christians are Republicans and black Christians are Democrats, creating a toxic “us versus them” polarization along racial lines. That has fostered a distorted evangelical Christian morality that supports a radical-right Republican Party and that is opposed by a radical-left Democratic Party hostile to tradition and religion in politics.
A politics of reconciliation is needed to end the polarization that threatens American democracy. It requires a moral standard of “love for neighbor” that can apply to harsh functions of government, such as law enforcement and military operations. Love in this context requires justifying the use of lethal force to protect the common good from all who threaten it. While Jesus never addressed that political need, Moses and Muhammad did so with religious laws.
There is no place for religious law in a democracy, but the moral standards of legitimacy derived from religion shape secular law in a democracy. Christians can rightfully criticize Islamic apostasy and blasphemy laws that deny the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, as well as other laws that deny equal justice to women and non-Muslims. But before Christians condemn Islamic standards of legitimacy they must first put their own moral house in order.
While Jesus never exercised political power as did Moses and Muhammad, his teachings on altruistic love are universal and provide the standards of Christian morality in politics. They assert the primacy of love over law and emphasize the virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation, humble service, honesty and assisting the needy, and they condemn the vices of deceit, sexual immorality, adultery, greed, malice, lewdness, envy, arrogance, and sanctimonious hypocrisy.
The altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus have often been subordinated to racist political priorities. So it was with slavery in the ante-bellum South, and with the racist Jim Crow policies that followed. Today those who support Donald Trump and his Republican minions favor a materialistic “prosperity gospel” that sanctifies the vices and trumps the virtues of Christian morality in the gospel of Jesus. What’s worse is that most claim to be Christians.
This reversal of moral priorities was made possible by traditional church doctrine that makes believing in Jesus as God more important to salvation than following Jesus as the word of God. That misplaced emphasis on exclusivist beliefs over morality has allowed Christians to make immoral political priorities articles of their faith. The church needs to correct those misplaced priorities of faith and clarify the standards of Christian morality in politics.
Dana Milbank has cited polls showing that Republicans redefine morality as whatever Trump does. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/republicans-redefine-morality-as-whatever-trump-does/2018/01/26/904fe5f4-02cc-11e8-8acf-ad2991367d9d_story.html?undefined=&utm_term=.956583d49b86&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1. What’s more damning for Christianity is that most white Christians vote Republican.
Michael Gerson has noted the positive influence of evangelicals like Billy Graham with U.S. presidents in the past, in contrast to the cynicism of current evangelicals like Graham’s son, Franklin, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Robert Jeffress. Gerson says that “Some Christian leaders are surrendering the idea that character matters in public life in direct exchange for political benefits to Christians themselves. …Trump’s court evangelicals have become active participants in the moral deregulation of our political life. Never mind whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is of good repute. Some evangelicals are busy erasing bright lines and destroying moral landmarks. In the process, they are associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception. They are playing a grubby political game for the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith. …Not long after Watergate broke, a chastened Billy Graham addressed a conference in Switzerland, warning that an evangelist should be careful not “to identify the Gospel with any one particular political program or culture,” and adding, “this has been my own danger.” The danger endures. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-trump-evangelicals-have-lost-their-gag-reflex/2018/01/22/761d1174-ffa8-11e7-bb03-722769454f82_story.html?undefined=&utm_term=.7df5466799c2&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
Edward-Isaac Dovere has noted the muted response of Tony Perkins to criticism of Donald Trump’s steamy affair with a porn actress four months after his wife Melania gave birth to their son, Barron. The irony is that Perkins heads the Family Research Council that promotes “family values” and supports Donald Trump. Perkins excused Trump’s immorality by saying that “evangelical Christians were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.” I have to interject that it’s hard for me to imagine Obama bullying Trump. See https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/23/tony-perkins-evangelicals-donald-trump-stormy-daniels-216498?cid=apn.
Shane Phipps is a Christian political centrist who bemoans how America’s polarized two-party duopoly has left people like him with few political options: “We could vote for an independent, but that is tantamount to throwing a vote away. No third party candidate stands a realistic chance, let’s go ahead and face that fact right now. So, ultimately, we are faced with having to swallow hard and bite the bullet–to set aside our belief about some issues in favor of the greater good. Therein lies a big part of the answer to the question of how we got to this point. Like it or not, religion has been taken hostage by politics.” Phipps concludes that “Those with good will and shallow understandings heard ‘Make America Great Again’ and thought it sounded swell. They were sold a bill of goods. Those with ill will heard the slogan for what it was—a dog whistle into the darkness echoing off of the bigotry, hatred and fear that mark the worst aspects of our history.” See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/how-did-we-get-here/.
Edward Simmons has provided a test of Christian morality for politicians. “The standard Jesus used to evaluate religious leadership was simple: look at their actions. How can we tell legitimate spokesmen for God from the false? ‘You will know them by their fruits.’ (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6: 44). How can we tell which religious leaders truly love God? They imitate the actions of the Samaritan who, not thinking of his convenience or righteousness or the worthiness of the victim, went out of the way to help someone in need. They do not side with the wealthy and prosperous against the needy, or celebrate their success by living in affluent enclaves; rather, they live among common people compassionately and non-judgmentally as they shun lives of extraordinary privilege. Loving God, according to Jesus, is best seen when people are treated as neighbors to be loved without judgment or compulsion. …The message and example of Jesus are clear for our time and for all time. The challenge for disciples then and now is to: “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/jesus-as-critic-of-hypocrisy-then-and-now/.
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(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
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(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
(7/26/15): Fear and Fundamentalism
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
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(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
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(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
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(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
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(6/10/17): Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-and.html
(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
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(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
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(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
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics