Saturday, March 10, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Spirituality and Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Webster has defined a maverick as “an independent, as in politics.”  The spiritual but not religious (SBNRs) are religious mavericks whose journeys of faith have taken them beyond the beliefs of institutional religion.  They represent a growing number of people of faith, if not religion, who are destined to make a difference in American religion and politics.

While SBNRs reject institutionalized religion they retain individualistic spiritual beliefs.  Their independence in matters of faith reflects the libertarian values of the Enlightenment that were derived from secular natural law rather than theology.  SBNRs have conformed their faith to advances in knowledge and reason that contradict many of the ancient beliefs of orthodox religion. Their maverick beliefs represent a changing American civil religion.

The American civil religion is a fusion of religion and politics, with its moral standards based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus.  Those moral standards require individual rights and wants to be balanced with providing for the common good. That balance is now jeopardized by a prosperity gospel that has displaced the altruistic teachings of Jesus with  a materialistic and self-centered prosperity gospel that promises wealth and power for the faithful.

     President Trump exemplifies values that are the antithesis of the altruistic values taught by Jesus. Trump exemplifies narcissism, arrogance, bigotry, greed, dishonesty and deceit, yet Christians make up his political base.  Derek Newton has described Trump supporters as “value voters” who don’t really care about his morality. They represent a corruption of Christianity that supports radical right politics; and it has converted many disillusioned Christians into SBNRs.

The distorted values of evangelical Christianity are undermining the legitimacy of America’s religion and politics.  The church must restore the altruistic teachings of Jesus over evangelical doctrines that ignore those teachings, or it will forfeit its legitimacy.  That’s a daunting challenge that Robin Meyers has described as Saving Jesus from the Church.  It depends on Christians (and the church) rejecting Trump’s values and opposing him politically.

If the teachings of Jesus are restored to primacy in Christianity and interpreted in light of reason and advances in knowledge, they can restore the crumbling moral foundation of the American civil religion.  The greatest commandment is a summary of the teachings of Jesus: We love God by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions.  That love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Jesus was a maverick SBNR of his day—a radical Jewish rabbi who sought to reform Judaism but who was condemned as a blasphemer by his own religious leaders.  The resurrection should have validated the teachings of Jesus as the word of God, but church fathers subordinated those teachings on self-denial and sacrificial love to belief in St. Paul’s atonement doctrine, which held that God sent Jesus as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers.

The worldly success of any religion today depends on its popularity, and that requires a religion to be both easy and exclusivist (the one true faith).  The cost of discipleship taught by Jesus was neither easy nor exclusivist; but church fathers overcame that issue by subordinating the self-denial and sacrificial love taught by Jesus to belief in the atonement doctrine.  That made Christianity easy and allowed it to become a popular religion.

     Perhaps maverick SBNRs can build a new Christian religion based on following Jesus as the word of God (discipleship) rather than worshiping him as God.  It would not be a popular religion, but it would be true to the teachings of Jesus that emphasize the moral imperative of altruistic love rather than belief in the atonement doctrine of St. Paul.  It would also recognize Jesus in the gospel of John to be more symbolic of the risen Christ than of the historic Jesus.

The evolution of evangelical Christianity has created an unholy alliance of religion and politics.  I would like to believe that those Christians who voted for Trump will reject him and his values and reclaim the altruistic values taught by Jesus, and that our polarized two-party duopoly will once again provide American voters with candidates committed to provide for the common good.  But I must confess that’s only a hope and not an expectation.


On SBNRs in Canada, see

On Derek Newton’s assertion that Trump’s core supporters won’t reject him since it would mean rejecting their own values, see

Many evangelical Christians consider President Trump chosen by God to lead America through difficult times, comparing him to Cyrus, a pagan, who once liberated Jews from Babylonian captivity.  The comparison to Cyrus allows Trump’s evangelical supporters to ignore his pervasive immorality:
For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest.
For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a ‘vessel theology’ around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.
According to John Fea, this narrative works because it allows evangelicals to capitalize on Trump’s “strongman” persona — in practical terms, his ability to get votes — while allowing them to justify their support theologically and preserve their sense of Trump as a God-backed candidate.
Andrew Whitehead says the idea that God plays a divine role in politics is nothing new. When it comes to the presidency, narratives of divine intervention have been woven into American cultural discourse from the beginning of what Whitehead calls America's “civil religion,” which he describes as a fusion of political and religious imagery.
Fea concurs. Throughout the early history of America, he notes, American exceptionalism and a particular blend of Christian nationalism — seeing America as a kind of new chosen land for God’s intervention on a parallel with the Israel of the Old Testament — went hand in hand. He references the ideal of the “city on a hill,” an image from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, used by Puritan settler John Winthrop to describe how the new American colonies would serve as a model for Christian living.
This sense that God has “chosen” America as a special people, or that he acts directly in American affairs, has, Fea argues, given us quintessentially American historical phenomena such as Manifest Destiny, the imperialist expansion of the United States across North America.
Therefore, at the very least, the idea that God intervenes directly in American political affairs, and uses American political figures as vessels to effect divine will, is deeply rooted in centuries of Christian nationalism.”  See

Reference is made to Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.

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