By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
American politics are mired in moral depravity, with a narcissistic president setting new standards of moral corruption; yet his Christian evangelical followers continue to support him. This degradation of morality among Christians requires a moral reformation to restore the primacy of the altruistic teachings of Jesus to Christianity. Only then can providing for the common good be restored as a political priority of the American civil religion.
A 21st century Reformation would require religious revolutionaries to challenge religious and political institutions that have contributed to the current moral malaise. Jesus set the example when he challenged the religious leaders of his day who were teaching that obedience to Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness. Jesus refuted those teachings with an emphasis on love over law, and that radical word of love cost Jesus his life.
Jesus announced a coming kingdom of God based on altruistic and unconditional love. He called his disciples to follow him as God’s word, not to worship him as God. It was Paul who asserted the divinity of Jesus with an exclusivist atonement doctrine that considered Jesus God’s blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers. The Apostles’ Creed confirms that the letters of Paul had a greater influence on shaping Christian beliefs than did the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus and Paul were both Jewish religious revolutionaries, but with different missions. Jesus sought to reform Judaism while Paul promoted a new religion based on the divinity of Jesus. It’s understandable that as a 1st century Jew Paul considered Jesus a sacrificial lamb who died to save believers from sin; but today the resurrection is better understood as God’s validation of the teachings and example of Jesus as God’s living Word that will never die.
More than 2,000 years after the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus should have the last word on God’s will. It’s summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to believe that God sent Jesus to save us from sin; it just means that following Jesus as God’s word should take precedence over worshiping Jesus as God. That’s the meaning of discipleship.
Since Jesus and Paul there have been many religious revolutionaries within Christianity, among them Martin Luther, John Wesley, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. In the 16th century Reformation Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide denigrated the moral imperatives taught by Jesus with an emphasis on faith alone, but in the 18th century John Wesley countered Luther’s sola fide with James’ moral imperative that a faith without deeds of love is dead. (James 2:26)
In the rising tide of evangelical Christianity in 20th century America, Billy Graham tried to balance evangelical beliefs with the moral imperatives taught by Jesus, but the ease of an exclusivist belief in a divine Jesus unencumbered by altruistic morality was a form of cheap grace exploited by evangelical leaders. By the 1980s, Jerry Falwells’s Moral Majority was supporting GOP candidates with a religious fervor, and that led to the election of Donald Trump.
History illustrates that Christianity has often emphasized exclusivist doctrines and ignored the altruistic teachings of Jesus in its zeal to gain worldly power. That was evident in the Crusades and medieval Inquisitions, and even with the Puritans in colonial America. That didn’t change until Thomas Jefferson, a deist inspired by the moral teachings of Jesus and a child of the Enlightenment, transformed religions in America with the freedoms of religion and speech.
The American civil religion is a mix of religious and political values shaped by Christian morality, since over 70% of Americans are Christian. A Christian reformation is needed to restore altruistic morality to the American civil religion. Christian revolutionaries are needed to save Jesus from the church, or better yet, to save the church with the teachings of Jesus. But no moral reformation can succeed without public support, and sadly, that support seems lacking.
For examples of President Trump’s consummate narcissism in his own words, See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/nobody-is-humbler-than-trump/2018/04/04/f246044c-3840-11e8-acd5-35eac230e514_story.html?utm_term=.3cecd1dc80c6&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
The moral corruption of Donald Trump and his Republican Party is most evident in putting their own selfish and partisan interests in wealth and power ahead of providing for the common good. See http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/04/corruption-is-trumps-greatest-political-liability.html.
Jim Wallis and a distinguished group of Christian clergy have advocated Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis to counter the moral corruption of Trump and his evangelical supporters. See
https://sojo.net/articles/reclaiming-jesus-how-confessing-faith-can-respond-moral-and-constitutional-crisis; see also, https://sojo.net/articles/reclaiming-jesus-trump-evangelicals.
John Bennison has cited Robin Meyers from Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, (Harper One, 2009) and Bishop John Shelby Spong in describing how the emphasis of the church on belief in exclusivist church doctrines and creeds has denigrated the teachings of Jesus and undermined the moral relevance and legitimacy of Christianity. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/the-transitory-nature-of-beliefs-part-i/.
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(1/2/16): God in Three Concepts
(1/16/16): Religion, Politics and Public Expectations
(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
(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
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(10/29/16): A Revelation in American Politics and Religion
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(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
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(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
(9/30/17): The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: What Does It Mean Today? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-500th-anniversary-of-protestant.html.
(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.
(10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/9/17): Religion, Race and Identity Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/religion-race-and-identity-politics.html.
(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.
(1/6/18): The Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/10/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Spirituality and Politics
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(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