Saturday, July 14, 2018

Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.


The emphasis of church doctrines on mystical and exclusivist Christian beliefs rather than on the moral teachings of Jesus has fostered moral ambiguity and divisiveness in American religion and politics.  The morality of Donald Trump more closely resembles the self-centered objectivist gospel of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus, but ironically the vast majority of white Christians support Trump and his Republican minions.  

The many diverse Christian sects in America range from biblical fundamentalists and prosperity gospel evangelicals to traditional mainline denominations, but they all have one thing in common: All but a relatively few progressive Christians emphasize worshiping Jesus as God rather than following his teachings as the word of God.  That misplaced emphasis has enabled Christianity to be the world’s most popular religion, but it has cost Christianity its credibility.

The subordination of the moral imperatives of discipleship taught by Jesus to mystical and exclusivist church doctrines is a form of cheap grace.  It offers a short-cut to salvation but has profound moral implications. Asserting that Christianity is the one true faith and condemning unbelievers has discouraged interfaith reconciliation, and in a world of increasing religious diversity that has fostered religious competition, hatred and violence.

The teachings of Jesus are altruistic and universal--not exclusivist.  Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own. His teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love your neighbors--including neighbors of other races and religions--as you love yourself.  That love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that can foster religious reconciliation.
                     
Jesus taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him, and he emphasized the reconciliation of all who seek to do God’s will.  Popular religions seek to divide and conquer with exclusivist beliefs that condemn other religions. Martin Luther’s Reformation doctrine of sola fide (saved by faith alone) denigrated morality, or works of reconciling love, as a matter of faith.  To their credit, Catholic doctrines emphasize both faith and works as essential to salvation.

Popular religions emphasize exclusivist mystical beliefs to attract converts.  Mystical religious beliefs are common to every religion and are varied by their very nature since they defy rational proof and understanding.  Aside from those beliefs that condemn those of other religions, mystical beliefs do not polarize religion or politics. Only divisive religious moral standards that counter the altruistic teachings of Jesus promote fear, hate and polarized politics.

If all Christian sects were to make the teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment a common word of faith and politics, they could reconcile the divisive moral standards of political legitimacy that threaten the fabric of American democracy without eliminating healthy differences on how to apply Christian morality to politics.

The prosperity gospel that promises wealth and prosperity for the faithful and the distorted family values of evangelicals who support Donald Trump and his Republican minions both conflict with the moral imperatives taught by Jesus.  To save the church from irrelevance and to prevent the further demise of American democracy, church leaders must put the reconciling moral teachings of Jesus ahead of divisive exclusivist Christian beliefs.     

The conflict between moral standards and exclusivist religious beliefs plagues Islam as well as Christianity.  In a world of increasing religious plurality Islam is expected to surpass Christianity as the world’s most popular religion before the end of this century.  Those two great competing religions must emphasize the greatest commandment as a common word of both faith and politics to coexist and promote peace in a world beset by religious hatred and violence.       

Christianity remains the dominant religion in America, and it has proven its power to influence politics; but because of its ambiguity on moral principles it is losing ground, especially among millennials, and its competing factions are polarizing American politics.  By giving the teachings of Jesus priority over mystical and exclusivist religious beliefs, the church can promote a politics of reconciliation and save itself and democracy from their demise.


Related commentary:

(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/13/16): We Are Known by the Friends We Keep
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics

(7/22/17): Hell No!
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(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  
(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.
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): 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.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(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
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(6/23/18): Musings on the Separation of Church and State and Christian Morality in Politics
(6/30/18): Who Are We? Musings on How Our Faith Shapes Our Politics and Who We Are

(7/7/18): Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/07/whose-america-is-this-musings-on.html.   

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

On July 4 the United States celebrated its 242nd birthday.  Over the years America has become more culturally diverse, but today over 70% of Americans still claim to be Christians.  While the primary source of moral standards of legitimacy in America is Christianity, its myriad forms offer conflicting standards of legitimacy that foster contentious partisan divisions.

There is the prosperity gospel that more closely resembles the self-centered objectivist gospel of Ayn Rand than the gospel of Jesus, which remains the moral guide for traditional Christians.  Then there are Christian fundamentalists who believe that the entire Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God with its more than 600 provisions of Mosaic Law. And then there are the remaining 30% of Americans who are none of the above.

Whose America Is This?  The conflicting standards of legitimacy among those who call themselves Christians are evident in a nation bitterly divided by partisan and racial polarization.  In American politics it’s us versus them, with radical right white Republicans squared off against minorities in a radical left Democrat Party.  There’s no room left in either party for moderates.

It’s not the first time Americans have been dangerously polarized.  In 1860 political polarization led to a terrible Civil War that cost the lives of 600,000 Americans, and it would be another 100 years before black Americans were guaranteed their civil rights.  Racial hatred still permeates and defines our polarized bipolar politics, and few voters are willing to consider a third party option that could break up partisan gridlock and promote a politics of reconciliation.

Donald Trump’s campaign logo was to Make America Great Again  It opened the door to old racial and religious hatreds and undermined the political values that made America great in the past.  Those values included the willingness of Americans to aid the oppressed around the world and to defend political freedom by promoting human rights and democracy.  Today Donald Trump seems hellbent on undermining the policies that made America great in the past.

Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority energized the Republican neo-evangelical movement in the 1980s, and it culminated in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  Until then Congress was able to compromise on major issues, balancing individual wants and rights with providing for the common good. But that changed after the election of Trump in 2016.

Donald Trump is a consummate narcissist who has been known for his unrestrained greed.  With the support of a loyal Republican majority in Congress, Trump has promoted radical right domestic and foreign policies that are antithetical to the moral teachings of Jesus and that conflict with America’s traditional emphasis on liberty in law.  But most white Christians elected Trump to office and continue to support him. They should be ashamed of themselves.

America’s birthday is a good time to reflect on what it should be and who it belongs to.  Most colonists at the time of the Declaration of Independence were recent immigrants. Their grievances against the tyranny of King George III assert “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”  That would make Donald Trump a tyrant, most notably on his zero tolerance immigration policies.  

The church in its myriad variations must find unity in the teachings of Jesus as moral imperatives of faith to save itself and America from the ravages of moral depravity.  The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  That love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

America belongs to all of its people, and as long as Christianity is the dominant religion in America it must assume the moral stewardship of politics and promote a politics of reconciliation with altruistic standards of moral legitimacy.  The church must oppose racist and nativist immigration policies that separate children from parents seeking asylum in the U.S., and support international alliances needed to protect U.S. national security and provide world peace.


Notes:

Fox and Friends went to Williamsburg on July 4 to chat with one “Thomas Jefferson” on the Declaration of Independence.  They may have been surprised when a reading of the Declaration revealed that the oppressive policies of of King George III were remarkably similar to those of Donald Trump.  See https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2018/07/05/fox-friends-gets-punked-by-thomas-jefferson/?utm_term=.80108fd5abf3&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1.

Jim McDermott has looked to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to define the American Dream: “Ask a hundred people today to describe the American Dream and most will give an answer inspired by the best-known phrase from the Declaration of Independence: ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Americans have long looked to these three ideas as the fundamental expression of our aspirations; and yet the most striking element about them is how often we employ them while ignoring that none of them acknowledge the broader context in which we live.  But there is another document at the heart of our nation’s founding, and it offers a very different American Dream: the Constitution. ...The Constitution’s purpose was in fact to describe our aspirations. What did we hope for? What did we want for our lives?
...[and] What is the American Dream? It is a community of justice, peace and safety for all, with an eye on always improving the general welfare, built and maintained by everyone. There is no us and them here, no sense of accepted winners and losers. ...To live the American Dream is not only to choose to help others when they are in need, but to embrace that we need others to build that more perfect society we long for. It is to acknowledge not our own desire but others’ needs, not our rights but others’ wisdom, not our individual positions but our common, ongoing work.”  See

Most pastors of white mainline Protestant churches in South Carolina avoid mixing their religion and politics in  the pulpit. That’s because it’s risky business to preach the politics of loving your neighbors of other races and religions to those who support Donald Trump.  But discipleship involves the risk of preaching God’s truth to political power, and that requires calling out those who support a President who has made a mockery of God’s truth, patriotism, and the moral imperatives of our faith.  One dismayed California pastor did just that, but then he only had a few Trump supporters in his congregation. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/dismayed-on-the-fourth-of-july-a-ministerial-journey-with-donald-trump/.
 
David Brooks has criticized modern meritocracy for its “misplaced notion of the self” and the failure to be truly open to all, lacking “...a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/28/opinion/failure-educated-elite.html
On Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy as it relates to the moral and legal concepts of Islamist extremism and how those standards of legitimacy conflict with human rights and traditional Christian moral concepts of legitimacy, see Barnes, Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy at https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/5473-barnesreligion-and-conflicting-concepts-of

Related commentary:

(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/13/16): We Are Known by the Friends We Keep
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/05/the-arrogance-of-power-humility-and.html(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(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  
(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.
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): 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.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(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
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(6/23/18): Musings on the Separation of Church and State and Christian Morality in Politics
(6/30/18): Who Are We? Musings on How Our Faith Shapes Our Politics and Who We Are
http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/06/who-are-we-musings-on-how-our-faith.html.