Sunday, March 29, 2015

God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Sovereignty is about the power to rule.  It is shaped by our concepts of legitimacy and is where our obligations to God and country converge and sometimes conflict.  Until the 17th century the sovereignty of God was undisputed and exercised through the divine right to rule; then the Enlightenment challenged the divine sovereignty of God with the secular sovereignty of man based on the libertarian political ideals of democracy, including a social contract to rule, human rights and the secular rule of law.  Those concepts are interwoven with our politics and religion and were tested in the 19th century by the U.S. Civil War, in the 20th century by World War II, and are now being challenged by the holy war and terrorism of radical Islam.

            Jesus was once questioned by his critics on the issue of sovereignty.  When he was asked whether he should pay taxes to Caesar, a Yes would have been blasphemous under Mosaic Law, and a No seditious under Roman law.  But Jesus knew their hypocrisy.  Why are you trying to trap me?  Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.  They brought the coin and he asked them, Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription? "Caesar's," they replied.  Then Jesus said to them, Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. (Mark 12:15-17)

            In his evasive answer Jesus implicitly acknowledged a dual sovereignty of God and man, with its conflicting obligations to God and country, but he never elaborated on which duties took precedence over others.  Jesus never affirmed or rejected Mosaic Law as God’s law and he never challenged the legitimacy of Roman sovereignty and law, but he asserted the moral supremacy of God’s kingdom over worldly kingdoms with the primacy of love over law.

None of the great prophets, including Jesus and Muhammad, addressed the libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment since they were unknown in their time and place.  The secular freedoms of libertarian democracy, including the freedoms of religion and speech, originated in natural law, not religion, but they have been embraced by all religions in the West.  The resulting political sovereignty is exercised through a secular rule of law, but believers put God’s moral sovereignty with its governing principle of love over law over the political sovereignty of man.

That is not the case in Islamic regimes in the Middle East and Africa where the political sovereignty of God was never displaced by the libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment.  Today Islamist regimes, some of which are democracies, enforce Islamic law (Shari’a) and deny the freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws.  That denial of individual freedom under the guise of the sovereignty of God is at the heart of ongoing religious violence.

Islamist regimes are not the only examples of religious oppression in the name of God.  Christian governments in Puritan New England were equally oppressive, and some kept blasphemy laws on their books well into the 19th century.  In ancient times Joshua exercised the ban at Jericho to exterminate all non-Jews in the Holy Land, and today Israel seems on the verge of creating a religious apartheid in the Middle East to prevent the growing number of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories from exercising their democratic right to vote.

There is another issue arising out of conflicting concepts of the political sovereignty of man and the moral sovereignty of God in libertarian democracies like the U.S.  It involves balancing libertarian individual rights with providing for the common good—more particularly with caring for the poor and needy—which is a moral imperative in all the ancient scriptures. 

Christian conservatives in the U.S. have often asserted the need to protect their individual liberty from the encroachments of big government.  While they acknowledge their personal responsibility to care for the poor and needy through charity, they resist public welfare programs that make it a government responsibility.  In so doing they ignore both the inability of charities to meet all public welfare needs and also the capability of democratic government to be a legitimate means for individuals to fulfil their collective responsibilities to care for the poor and needy—a means that was unavailable in ancient times, so that it was never mentioned by Jesus.

If Jesus had considered modern libertarian democracy as an alternative to the sovereignty of Caesar, he might not have made such a distinction between what we give to government and to God.  Empowering democratic governments to provide for the common good includes both protecting civil liberties such as the freedoms of religion and speech, as well as providing social welfare programs that assist the poor and needy.  Both are obligations to government and to God, and we can expect legitimate differences of opinion on how to best balance those obligations.

The Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an ignore individual rights and assert the sovereignty of God’s law.  Jesus taught that God’s ultimate standard of legitimacy was that of love over law, leaving room for individual rights to be balanced with providing for the common good.  While most Jews do not consider Mosaic Law as coercive, most Muslims believe Shari’a should be imposed as law, with one prominent Islamist cleric asserting that God is the only legislator.

On Palm Sunday Jesus made a powerful statement about God’s sovereignty.  Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers of Jews who were expecting a messiah who would overturn the oppression of Caesar’s rule and restore the power and glory of ancient Israel as God’s kingdom.  But Jesus sent a mixed message.  He did not challenge Roman rule but entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey, not a white stallion, and the events of the next week would leave Jews and Roman authorities wondering just what Jesus was trying to say about the sovereignty of God's kingdom.

The teachings of Jesus say it all, and they are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  It is a common word of faith that can reconcile Jews, Christians and Muslims on conflicting issues of sovereignty and legitimacy, so long as we can love our unbelieving neighbors, as illustrated in the story of the good Samaritan.  True justice requires not only sharing our resources with those in need, but also sharing the freedoms of religion and speech and the equal protection of the law for women and religious minorities in order to liberate the oppressed.  That is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

Notes and References to Resources:

This blog is on Lesson #12 in the J&M Bookon Church and state: Conflicting concepts of sovereignty (Mark 12:13-17).

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 is generally considered to have ended the era of the divine right to rule under the sovereignty of God.  The seminal work of Hugo Grotius On the Law of War and Peace (1625) set the stage for the secular sovereign state governed by international law. 

The bancommanded Hebrews to kill “anything that breathes” in “the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 20:16, 17)

On love over law, see Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; on the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, posted January 25, 2015; other related blogs are Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted on December 15, 2014; Is Religion Good or Evil?, posted on February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted on February 22, 2015; Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice, posted on March 8, 2015; and The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, posted on March 15, 2015.    

On God as the only legislator, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law at page 14, note 52.

For a compilation of Islamic laws (Shari’a) and Jewish Mosaic Law, see the Appendices to the J&M Book at pages 469-651.  

De Oppresso Liber: To liberate the oppressed, is the motto of the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Power of Humility and the Arrogance of Power

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Humility is defined as the lack of pride, and is more a state of mind than a virtue.  It is the way we see ourselves in relationship to others and should be distinguished from noblesse oblige, which is the duty of the privileged and powerful to be charitable to the less fortunate.   Humility is based on the belief that we are all equal in the sight of God and it is expressed in loving others as we love ourselves (the greatest commandment), especially those we would rather avoid. 

The power of humility is diametrically opposed to the arrogance of worldly power, and Jesus distinguished the two when he told his disciples: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)  Earlier, Jesus had told his disciples, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

            The disciples believed that the coming kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus would restore the power and glory of ancient Israel, and they wanted to participate in that power and glory.  Jesus disabused them of that idea, and distanced himself from those Jewish zealots of his day who were committed to overthrowing Roman rule.  The kingdom of God did not require a political revolution and would not rest on worldly power, but was instead based on the power of humility and the love of God and neighbor, as this teaching attests.

            The arrogance of power and the power of humility are as incompatible as oil and water.  Worldly power is a corrupting force, as stated in Lord Acton’s razor: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We see the truth of that maxim every day, with the powerful exploiting and controlling others, not serving them.  Humility in social matters avoids humiliation (Luke 14:7-11) and unlike ostentatious giving it seeks nothing in return (Matthew 6:1-4).  Jesus taught that the redeeming power of humble service, like the transforming power of God’s love, is reciprocal in nature and must be given in order to be received (Luke 6:36-38).

            President Obama related humility to our faith and freedom at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015:  
President Obama said we must rely on basic principles, such as humility, to protect our rights to freedom of speech and religion and the rights of others to the same.
"The concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment, and if in fact we defend the legal right of a person to insult another's religion, we're equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are targets of such attacks," he said.
Obama told those in attendance, including the Dalai Lama, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, politicians and faith leaders, that the right to free speech can and should be used to defend others, too.
"Just because you have the right to say something, doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't question those who would insult others in the name of free speech," the president said. "Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they too are full and equal members of our countries."
Obama said the Founding Fathers had it right when they outlined the distinction between faith and government.  "They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech," He added, "that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both."
Ashley Alman, Obama Calls for Balancing Free Speech with Respect for Religion, The Huffington Post, February 5, 2015 (see URL in Notes below),

It is ironic that President Obama speaks of humility, since he, like other Presidents, is known more for his arrogance of power than for his power of humility.  But here he is right, and Jesus would likely say about him what he said about the religious leaders of his day: So you must obey them and do whatever they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matthew 23:3).                

With the exception of Jewish prophets like Jesus, there was little emphasis in Judaism or Islam on humble service and no distinction made between the power of God’s kingdom and that of worldly kingdoms.  While ancient Hebrew prophets condemned those rulers who abused their power, none before Jesus suggested that God’s kingdom was based on the power of altruistic love and humble service, nor did Muhammad, for whom there was little room for humility in asserting the domination of his religious regime over others (Islam means submission to God).

            The power of humility conflicts with worldly power, but is an essential element of God’s redemptive love and at the foundation of God’s kingdom, which is eternal while worldly kingdoms are only temporary.  Sharing the transforming power of God’s love through humble service to others is the only way to experience God’s kingdom, which is a metaphor for our salvation and reconciliation into the family of God.  That makes the power of humility far superior to worldly power and the arrogance associated with it.

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is from Lesson #11, Humility: leaders as servants (Mark 9:35; 10:41-44) at pages 54-56 of the J&M Book.  The following topics in the J&M Bookare related to humility and pride (or sanctimony) and hypocrisy: Child-like faith (Mark 10:13-16) at page 66; Ostentatious giving (Matthew 6:1-4) at page 107; Hypocrisy: practice what you preach (Matthew 23:1-12) at page 175; Give in order to receive (Luke 6:36-38) at page 212;  Humility in social matters (Luke 14:7-11) at page 253; Serving the least of those rather than friends (Luke 14:12-14) at page 255; Sanctimony and humility(the parable of the Pharisee and the publican at Luke 18:9-14) at page 289; Jesus Washing the disciples’ feet(John 13:12-17) at page 320. 

Related blogs are Faith and freedom, posted on December 8, 2014; Faith and new beginnings: salvation and reconciliation in the family of God, posted on January 4, 2015; The greatest commandment: a common word of faith posted on January 11, 2015; Religion and human rights posted on February 22, 2015: and The kingdom of God and the Church, posted March 15, 2015.

Alman at

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The coming kingdom of God is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus, but its nature was never clearly described, perhaps because it wasn’t possible to do so.  To describe the mystical kingdom of God Jesus used parables that likened it to something familiar, like a small mustard seed that could grow into a large bush (Mark 4:30-32).  Parables were often used by religious teachers like Jesus to explain inexplicable mysteries of faith such as God’s kingdom.       

Most Jews of Jesus’ day expected the coming kingdom of God to be a restoration of the power and glory of the ancient kingdoms of David and Solomon.  Some believed it referred to a spiritual transformation similar to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, while others believed it referred to eternal life in heaven after death, similar to the Islamic concept of paradise.  The nature of God’s kingdom and when it will come have remained great mysteries.  The earliest Christians believed that Jesus would return in an apocalyptic parousia within their lifetimes, but history has proved them wrong.  Even so, some believers are still awaiting the end times and the return of Jesus to usher in God’s kingdom on earth, and Muslims share that same expectation.  

Despite their different views on the nature of God’s kingdom and when it will come, all believers have similar questions about it:  If we pray in The Lord’s Prayer that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, what are we praying for?  If God’s kingdom is unlike the kingdoms of the world, what is its relevance to worldly kingdoms?  If there is no sex, wealth or poverty in God’s kingdom, and if the first will be last and the last will be first in that kingdom, how do those radical concepts relate to how we live in the world today?  And until Jesus returns to usher in God’s kingdom, what is the role of the Church?

The Church is made up of many diverse Christian institutions, from the mammoth Roman Catholic Church to the smallest independent Baptist church, and each considers itself to be the closest thing to God’s kingdom on earth.  They all promote belief in Jesus as God’s one and only Son who was crucified as God’s blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers, and aside from universalists, the Church condemns all unbelievers to eternal damnation.  

Until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the Church shared political power with authoritarian rulers who claimed the divine right to rule.  The Enlightenment not only rejected the divine right to rule with democracy, but it also evicted the Church from government to guarantee the freedoms of religion and speech.  While churches were required to separate their institutional structures from government, they remained free to influence politics.  In fact, for any religion to be relevant, it must always seek to influence politics.  

The separation of the Church from government power was an innovation in religion and politics.  Constantine had made the Church a dominant partner in Roman politics in the  4th century, and until the Enlightenment the powers of the Church and worldly kingdoms had been inseparable, with popes, bishops, dukes and kings sharing and sometimes competing for political power and the divine right to rule.  And worse, the Church sanctioned violence to gain and maintain its political power, as evidenced in the Crusades and Inquisitions.              

The mix of religion with political power was not limited to Christianity.  It was evident in the Islamic caliphates of the Middle Ages and with the creation of the modern Jewish state of Israel.  While Moses and Muhammad sanctioned the often violent mix of religion and political power, Jesus did not. Today religions in pluralistic democratic cultures influence government but cannot be part of it to ensure the freedoms of religion and speech; but in Islamic cultures--even in democracies where Muslims are in a majority--governments unabashedly promote Islam with apostasy and blasphemy laws that effectively negate those fundamental freedoms.  

The freedoms of religion and speech can exist only when religions advocate voluntary moral standards rather than coercive laws as standards of legitimacy.  That is the norm in the libertarian democracies of the West but not in Islamic cultures, where Islamists claim that such liberties allow unacceptable depravity and decadence.  But religious laws that seek to prohibit moral depravity at the expense of the freedoms of religion and speech do more harm than good.  

The test of any religion is what believers do voluntarily, not by government coercion; and the test of any enlightened government is to balance individual liberties with providing for the common good.  Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all taught the obligation to provide for the common good, but none taught the virtues of political liberty since it had no relevance to their time and place.  The challenge for believers today is to adapt those ancient teachings to the libertarian values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law--even to the principles of capitalism--while providing for the common good.  To that end, the teachings of Jesus on love over law are more useful than the ancient laws of Moses and Muhammad.    

A government that promotes any religion is incompatible with the freedoms of religion and speech.  Before the Enlightenment the Church corrupted worldly kingdoms with an unholy mix of religion and politics and demonstrated that it was unsuited to represent God’s kingdom in the world.  Today Jews, Christians and Muslims should embrace the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, and apply reason to their religion and freedom to their faith.  In doing so they can help God’s kingdom come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to Lesson #13, The kingdom of God, at pages 51-53 of the J&M Book.

On the end times, see pages 183-189 of the J&M Book.   
On Religion and reason, see blog posted on December 8, 2014; on Faith and freedom, see blog posted on December 15, 2014; on Religion, violence and military legitimacy, see blog posted on December 29, 2014; on The Greatest Commandment: a common word of faith, see blog posted January 11, 2015; on Love over law, see blog posted on January 18, 2015; on Religion and evangelism, see blog posted on February 8, 2015; on Religion and human rights, see blog posted February 22, 2015.  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            There has been much political commentary on how the increasing wealth of the richest Americans and the stagnation of wealth in the middle class are creating disparities that raise issues of economic justice, but little has been said about the role of religion on those issues.  The stories of Jesus and the rich man and the poor widow relate to faith and economic justice, but they predate concepts of capitalism and democracy that have since complicated those issues.

            The rich man was a devout Jew who came to Jesus seeking eternal life.  By his account he had obeyed Mosaic Law since he was a boy and he undoubtedly considered his wealth and power God’s reward for his obedience; but Jesus told him that if he wanted to find eternal life he should give up his wealth and follow him.  The rich man could not part with his wealth and sadly turned away from Jesus, who then told his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:17-27)

            Later Jesus was watching people putting their money in the temple treasury.  While the rich contributed large sums a poor widow put only a few coins in the temple treasury.  Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more in the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)
            Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all taught that economic justice required the wealthy to care for the poor.  The Qur’an requires Muslims to give a zakat (2.5% of one’s wealth each year) to the poor.  The Hebrew Bible mandates support for widows, orphans and the poor, but the Jewish tithe (10% of wealth produced each year) was to support Jewish priests, not the poor.

            The teachings of Jesus did not provide a specific standard of giving to the poor but instead emphasized that his followers make a total commitment of their resources to doing God’s will, as in the story of the rich man and the poor widow.  Jesus called his disciples to leave everything—family, jobs and wealth—to follow him, and the early church experimented with voluntary communism (Acts 4:32-37), but that did not last long.  Committing all of one’s wealth to the common good is a standard that few can accept.

            Neither Jesus nor Muhammad considered it a sin to have wealth and power.  The sin is to love wealth and power, and that is a form of idolatry that separates a person from the love of God.  Capitalism is driven by the desire for wealth and power, and objectivism is the religion of capitalism that makes greed a virtue, even as Jesus condemned it as a vice (Mark 7:20-23).  Even so, capitalism has proven compatible with democracy and essential to economic prosperity, while political Communism has failed as an alternative system of governance.        

            Authoritarian regimes governed during the ancient times of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.  Until the 19th century there was no libertarian democracy to protect individual freedoms and give people a voice in shaping their own governments.  Since then democracies have provided for the common good, including social welfare programs for the poor, but often wealth and power have become secular idols in libertarian materialistic and hedonistic cultures. 

            Judaism and Christianity have embraced the libertarian values of the Enlightenment and capitalism, but most Muslim cultures have not, and Muslims view the materialism and hedonism of Western democracies as decadent.  Decadence is an undesirable by-product of freedom, but it does not justify denying individual freedom.  It requires laws to restrain the excesses of freedom and to provide for the common good with social welfare programs for the poor and needy.

            Since the economic crisis of 2008 the middle class has diminished and the disparity between it and the wealthy has increased dramatically.  A strong middle class is necessary for political stability in any democracy, and any further erosion of the middle class by the wealthiest 10% of Americans could threaten political and economic stability.
            The challenge for America is to balance individual political and economic freedom with providing for the common good, and that requires government regulation of big business to prevent the unfair exploitation of the middle class as well as providing adequate assistance for the poor.  But true economic justice requires more than coercive laws and welfare programs.  It also requires charity: the volunteer sharing of resources with the poor and needy.  

            Today the self-centered objectivism of Ayn Rand seems more prevalent than the altruistic values of traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  But unless growing economic disparities are reversed, the stability of libertarian democracy will be threatened by a majority of have-nots that could elect populist demagogues who would sabotage democracy and human rights.

            The accumulation of wealth is a fundamental right of political and economic freedom, but greed and great disparities in wealth are a threat to political stability and economic justice.  In authoritarian Islamic nations like Egypt vast disparities in wealth have not been corrected with the zakat or by government welfare programs; the only Islamic nations that have mitigated poverty are oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia.  While there are worrying economic disparities in democracies like America, their hybrid religious, libertarian and capitalist ideals continue to produce more prosperity, freedom and economic justice than do authoritarian Islamic regimes.

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to Lesson #8, Riches and salvation (Mark 10:17-27), and Lesson #9, the Widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44), at pages 45-50 in the J&M Book.  

On the relationship between faith and wealth, see Treasures and the heart(Luke 12:33-34) at pages 235-238 of the J&M Book, and the commentary of Waleed El-Ansary at page 237 distinguishing the zakat (2.5% of one’s wealth) from voluntary alms (sadaqah).    

On Faith and freedom, see blog posted on December 15, 2014.

On Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism compared to the selfless love for others advocated by Jesus, see

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Religion as a Source of Good and Evil (with Addendum on Atheism as a Source of Evil)

 Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and has done some of his best acting in the synagogue, church and mosque.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all done much good, but each religion has also been the source of evil.  Today a virulent variation of Salafist Islam known as ISIS is using medieval atrocities to establish a caliphate in the name of God; but the ISIS jihadists are opposed by most Muslims who will ultimately define the nature of Islam.
            How do we determine when religions are the source of good or evil?

            Religions are a source of good when they accept religious diversity and promote belief systems that emphasize forgiveness, love and reconciliation with those of other faiths.  Good comes from religions that conform their concepts of divine truth and law as revealed in their ancient scriptures to advances in knowledge and reason, and that accept concepts of libertarian democracy and human rights as God’s will, even though they are not mentioned in their scriptures.          

            Religions are a source of evil when they use hate and violence to promote exclusivist belief systems that condemn other religions, and seek to impose their religious laws on others.  Evil comes from fundamentalist religions that base all truth and law on their ancient and immutable scriptures and deny any new knowledge and reason that conflicts with those sacred truths. 

            A religion’s standards of legitimacy are the norms of behavior for its believers, and when they seek to impose their religious standards as laws governing others they oppose libertarian democracy and the freedoms of religion and expression.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have fundamentalist forms, but radical Islam (e.g. ISIS and al Qaeda) is the greatest source of concern today because of its use of violence to enforce its radical standards of legitimacy.

            The libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment transformed religions in the West and stifled religious fundamentalism, but not in the East where fundamentalist Islam enforces Islamic laws that oppress women and religious minorities.  Religions that promote voluntary standards of legitimacy and love over law are compatible with libertarian democracy and human rights.  They are not a source of evil, and include most Jews, Christians and Muslims in the West. 

            Thomas Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment who promoted its libertarian political values in the formative years of the U.S.  As a slaveholder in the Antebellum South he was an unlikely proponent of individual liberty, but he authored the Declaration of Independence with its inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and was largely responsible for putting the freedoms of religion and speech first in the Bill of Rights.

            Jefferson understood that religion is a primary source of our standards of legitimacy.  He considered the teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and put together his own selection of the teachings of Jesus in what has become known as the Jefferson Bible.  Jefferson also studied the Qur’an and Islamic law and used his knowledge of Islam as Secretary of State and later as President in confronting the first Islamic terrorist threat to the US: the Barbary Pirates in North Africa (see Notes below).
            Jefferson advocated the natural law principles of reason and libertarian democracy over religious revelations of divine law as essential to the freedoms of religion and speech, and they are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.  While Jefferson admired the moral teachings of Jesus, he opposed the exclusivist doctrines of the Christian church.  That distinction can help people of all faiths understand how the teachings of Jesus on love over law can help integrate libertarian political ideals into religious doctrines, and why human rights require that religious standards of legitimacy be limited to voluntary standards of morality rather than coercive laws.

            Before the Enlightenment transformed Western culture and its religions, Christian regimes rivaled ISIS in their ruthless oppression of Jews and Muslims in the name of God.  By way of contrast, the Islamic caliphates of the Medieval period treated Jews and Christians better than Christian regimes treated Jews and Muslims.  Unfortunately, since the Enlightenment that trend has been reversed.

            The libertarian political theories of the Enlightenment that produced democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law can minimize the evils of religious hatred and violence today.  The great thinkers of the Enlightenment like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson revealed truths of natural law that have proven to be as relevant today as they were 250 years ago.  That is obvious when comparing the religions of libertarian democracies with those in authoritarian regimes that promote Islamist fundamentalism.  The good produced by religions in libertarian democracies far outweighs the evil of human decadence and depravity that will be present in any free society.

Atheism as a Source of Evil
 Rudy Barnes, Jr., March 2, 2015

            In an article published in Salon yesterday Jeffrey Tayler raised the issue of whether atheism, or more precisely the new atheism or anti-theism, can have the same evil characteristics of the religions it condemns. (see

            We will use Tayler’s definition of atheism and anti-theism:  “Atheism denotes one thing and no more: the absence of belief in God or gods; and anti-theism, the rejection as undesirable of the existence of God or gods.”  Tayler could have added, “…or to the religions that promote a belief in God.”  Tayler argues vigorously that “Neither atheism, new or old, nor anti-theism, possesses a canon calling for violence against believers or in any way suborning it.”

            Anti-theism is based upon a belief system that elevates reason to the highest ontological levels and leaves no room for a supernatural power that is beyond reason.  New atheists like Tayler are zealous in their advocacy of reason as a supreme value, but have not yet resorted to violence to promote their anti-theist beliefs. 

            That may have changed with the killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill on February 10, 2015.  The accused killer is Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year-old avowed anti-theist who claims to hate all religions, not just Islam.  There is no evidence that Hicks targeted his victims because they were Muslims.  Instead, a “preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”

            Despite the lack of evidence, many have claimed that the murders were a hate crime directed against Muslims, even a terrorist act, and that has generated a lively exchange between new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Tayler and religious believers like Stoker Bruenig.  She echos Reza Aslan in warning against what she calls an aggressive new atheism, distinguishing it from the benign old-fashioned variety of atheism.

            Tayler ends his article praising atheists for promoting the “lofty, laudable concepts” of reason, consensus and secularism, which are devoid of any belief in God.  Deists are not mentioned, but they were children of the Enlightenment like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson who promoted reason over revelation in their day.  They championed libertarian democracy and human rights and debunked oppressive religions, but they believed in God and knew that religions could be a source of both good and evil.  Unfortunately there seem to be no advocates for reason in religion today.  Where have all the Deists gone?  Maybe they have been reincarnated as Unitarians, or even Nones.

Notes and References to Resources:

For related blogs, see Religion and Reason, posted on December 8, 2104; Is Religion Good or Evil?, posted February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; and Religion as a Source of Good and Evil, posted on March 1, 2015.

On the religious and evil nature of ISIS, see Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic, March 2015, at  On how US policy should treat ISIS as a threat, see Fareed Zakaria, An ideological war America must watch, not fight, Washington Post, February 26, 2015, at

For references to Jefferson and his Bible see the Introductionto The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart ofLegitimacy at pages 10-11.  On the Enlightenment and religious fundamentalism, see pages 12-14 and 333-335 in the J&MBook.  

On Jefferson’s interest in and involvement with Islam, See Denise A. Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2013.  Jefferson was a Deist who emphasized reason over revelation.  In his notes on a 1777 legislative proposal Jefferson suggested that Jesus was a proponent of reason: "Jesus chose not to propagate [his teachings] by coercions...but to extend it by its influence by reason alone." (page 118).  On Jefferson’s involvement with Muslims engaged in North African piracy from 1784-1788, see chapter 4, and from 1801-1806 see pages 214-218.  Jefferson was critical of Islam (and other fundamentalist religions) for putting revelation over reason as the source of law (pages 230-233).

On Jefferson's views on religion and politics, see Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Random House, NY, 2006, at pages 56-58, 72-77, 80-86-104, 105, 231, 232, 247-250, 263, 264, 389.

On Jefferson's religious beliefs and The Jefferson Bible, see Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, Random House, NY, 2012, at pages 471-473.   

On Love over law, see blog posted on January 18, 2015; on Jewish and Islamic laws, see pages 469-651 in the Appendices of the J&M Book