By Rudy Barnes, Jr., May 5, 2018
Christianity is in transition and in decline, so it’s only natural that Christians are nostalgic about the “good old days.” But when nostalgia distorts reason and blocks progress it corrupts both religion and politics. That’s what happened when most white Christians elected as their president a narcissistic and belligerent charlatan whose moral standards are the antithesis of those taught by Jesus in the vain hope that he would make America great again.
Religions that reject progressive change are destined to decline and fade away. Since the 18th century Enlightenment, the threat of change based on reason and advances in knowledge has produced fundamentalist Jews, Christians and Muslims who have been motivated by religious nostalgia to protect their ancient religious doctrines from any change.
Since the 1950s, an unholy alliance of big business, the Republican Party and fundamentalist Christian neo-evangelicals have evolved into a powerful radical right political force with a prosperity gospel that has its theological roots in ancient Jewish beliefs that God rewards the faithful with worldly success. It contradicts the altruistic social gospel taught by Jesus that has been at the heart of traditional evangelicalism since the 19th century.
Neo-evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Joel Osteen, Paula White, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins and Ralph Reed have promoted the prosperity gospel, but mainline Protestant pastors have not challenged them—perhaps since most of their white congregants support Trump and his Republican minions. A minority of evangelicals, however, like Michael Gerson and Jim Wallis have challenged Trump’s neo-evangelicals and the cheap grace of their prosperity gospel.
Christianity is a religion of great diversity, including Catholics, traditional Protestants, Pentecostals, Progressive Christians and many other variations that differ primarily in their mystical beliefs. But all Christian denominations revere the moral teachings of Jesus as the word of God—all except those neo-evangelicals who support Trump and his prosperity gospel.
While Christians differ in how they relate their faith to politics, none deny the relevance of the moral teachings of Jesus to the stewardship of democracy. Jesus never addressed the topic of democracy since it was not relevant in his ancient time and place; but the virtues of altruistic love taught by Jesus are not only relevant to modern democracy but essential to its greatest challenge, which is to balance individual rights with providing for the common good.
The wistful and sometimes hostile nostalgia of neo-evangelicals causes them to look backward through rose-colored glasses rather than forward. Making America great again is euphemism for maintaining the white privilege of the past, but demographics indicate the days of white privilege are slipping away with a future that will belong to a more pluralistic world.
Nostalgia—a love for the past—is an obstacle to progress in religion and politics when it negates reason; and religious leaders who promote nostalgic religion at the expense of reason and progress are not only denying the teachings of Jesus but also aiding and abetting demagogues like Donald Trump. If the church does not refute the prosperity gospel by restoring the teachings of Jesus as the heart of its standards of legitimacy, then Jesus must be saved from the church.
Christianity is not alone in promoting the past at the expense of the future. Islamists are to Islam what neo-evangelicals are to Christianity. Like Christian neo-evangelicals, Islamists appeal to religious nostalgia and a fear of change by promoting ancient religious laws (Sharia) unsuited for modern times, sometimes with violence. Muhammad, like Jesus, emphasized altruistic moral standards; but like Moses and Joshua, Muhammad also led his people in battle.
Both Christianity and Islam must conform with progressive change if they are to survive in a modern pluralistic world. They already have a common word of faith to guide them; it is the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors—including their neighbors of other races and religions—as they love themselves. It should be a common word of both faith and politics.
Michael Gerson is an evangelical lamenting that Trump evangelicals have sold their souls (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-evangelicals-have-sold-their-souls/2018/03/12/ba7fe0f8-262c-11e8-874b-d517e912f125_story.html?utm_term=.843013911d7c&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1, and that Trump evangelicals are motivated by cultural nostalgia (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-do-we-tame-trumpisms-virulent-nostalgia-for-an-old-status-quo/2018/04/26/f96e13).
Jim Wallis has joined with other prominent evangelical leaders concerned about neo-evangelicals corrupting their faith and advocated reclaiming Jesus from the Trump evangelicals. See https://sojo.net/articles/reclaiming-jesus-trump-evangelicals. Wallis has traced evangelical Christianity from 1970s Chicago to 2018 Wheaton: a timeline of evangelical backsliding. See https://sojo.net/articles/1970s-chicago-2018-wheaton-timeline-evangelical-backsliding.
Stephen Carter has cited demographics that indicate the future of Christianity belongs to blacks, Hispanics and Asians, not white people. See https://apple.news/ALGqSBzDtSZOoiEPUCCsw8g.
John Bennison has discussed the transitory nature of beliefs, noting Robin Meyers’ (author of Saving Jesus from the Church) view that faith is about being, not believing; the multiplicity of Christian creeds, and Bishop John Shelby Spong’s vision of a form of progressive Christianity. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/the-transitory-nature-of-beliefs-part-i/.
Hanadi Jordan, a Muslim, argues that religion needs an organizational reformation, noting the manipulation of Muslims by their religious leaders. He is critical of religious leaders who are obstacles to progress by using their authority to discourage criticism of Islam. He says, “This creates a culture of incurious people who comply with teachings, laws and rules without question.” See https://theaggie.org/2018/04/10/religion-needs-an-organizational-reformation/.
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(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(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
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
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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.
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
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(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
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(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality