Saturday, May 28, 2016

Nihilism as a Threat to Politics, Religion and Morality

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Twenty-five years ago the Cold War ended and the world proclaimed the victory of democracy over communism.  This year’s presidential primaries indicate that the declaration of victory for democracy may have been premature.  Our democracy of liberty in law is being challenged by the socialism of Bernie Sanders and the nihilism of Donald Trump.    

            Nihilism is defined as the denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge and the general rejection of customary beliefs in religion and morality.  In democratic politics, nihilism disdains all social, political and economic institutions.  Donald Trump exemplifies those principles, and could well make the Republican Party the Nihilist Party of America.

            Nihilism has revolutionized politics before.  Russian nihilists exploited fear and anger to undermine the legitimacy of the Czarist regime and pave the way for the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.  They created a political vacuum that was filled by Soviet Communism.  If American neo-nihilists are successful in putting Trump in power, our libertarian democracy will be in jeopardy.

            In the U.S. populist demagogues have gained political power using nihilistic tactics to exploit fear and anger.  At the end of the 19th century “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman built a political dynasty on racism in South Carolina; and in the 20th century, “the Kingfish”, Huey P. Long, did the same in Louisiana.  It’s not hard to imagine the damage that Trump could do to democracy in America with his nihilistic and nativist proposals if he were elected President.

            Nihilism can contaminate religion as well as politics.  Karen Armstrong has noted “…that there is an inbuilt nihilism in the more extreme forms of fundamentalism.”  She cited scandals of TV evangelists in the 1980’s as well as examples of Jewish and Islamic destruction and annihilation in the name of God/Allah.  Armstrong could have cited Jerry Falwell’s endorsement of the nihilism of Donald Trump this past year, as well as continued religious violence overseas.       

            Globalization and the increasing pluralism of America require that its politics reflect the ideal of reconciliation rather than the prevalent norm of divide and conquer.   Religion can help achieve that objective.  The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, including our neighbors of different races and religions, is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  Nihilism rejects such altruistic moral ideals and exploits fear and anger to promote a divisive politics that has become the norm in the U.S.

            The Democratic Party may look good relative to Trump’s Republican Party, but it has contributed to the political malaise that has given rise to populist demagoguery and nihilism.  Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians represent a corrupt wedding of partisan politics with special interest groups and the wealth and power of Wall Street.

            To combat the rise of nihilism in the U.S., our two-party system should be expanded. Instead of one party holding the reins of power and a single “loyal opposition” party, there would be other parties to provide shifting coalitions of power to prevent gridlock and provide more choices for voters.  Such multi-party systems have long been the norm in other democracies.
            In the realm of religion, history illustrates that Christianity and Islam have sought to divide and conquer rather than promote religious reconciliation.  Both religions have promoted exclusivist beliefs and a judgmental god who condemns unbelievers to eternal damnation.  That kind of proselytizing only leads to more interfaith division, anger and hostility.

            Thomas Jefferson was a Deist who promoted the moral principles taught by Jesus, but he had little use for institutional Christianity.  He wrote: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man.”

            Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers advocated individual rights beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech, but they understood that individual rights had to be balanced with obligations to provide for the common good to avoid populist demagoguery and nihilism.  Today, in their zeal to promote their individual freedoms and their exclusivist faith, Christians seem to have forgotten their communal obligations and argue that their religious freedom allows them to discriminate against those who do not share their traditional sexual preferences.

            A great irony of the current political season is that evangelical Christians have made Donald Trump the presumptive GOP nominee for President, even though his political views contradict the teachings of Jesus.  The most common rationale given by Trump supporters is: ”He stands up for what is right.”  Jesus defined what is right as sharing God’s reconciling love with others, and that reconciling love can defeat the divisive forces of nihilism.  There is no more important responsibility for Christians in a democracy than to apply God’s reconciling love to their politics, as expressed in the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as themselves.  If they don’t do that, their faith is as dead as a body without spirit. (James 2:14-26)

Notes and References to Related Blogs:

On nihilism in fundamentalist religions, see Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (Random House, New York, 2001) at p. x in a New Preface, Chapter 10 and in Afterword.
On how obsessive individualism and a distrust in government has produced a nihilistic “Patriot” movement armed with guns and the Constitution and that sees America under threat, see

On the views of Thomas Jefferson on the teachings of Jesus and how religion shapes concepts of legitimacy in politics, see the Introduction of The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy (the J&M Book), at pages 10-15 and 332-335 and End Notes, posted in Resources at and at

References to related blogs posted in the Archives at and at See Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, March 15, 2015; May 10, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Confronting the Evil Among Us, June 28, 2015;  Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity, July 12, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015;  Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics, February 27, 2016;  The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; Religion, Democracy and Human Depravity, March 19, 2016; Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016; Standards of Legitimacy in Morality, Manners and Political Correctness, April 23, 2016; The Relevance of Religion to Politics, April 30, 2016; Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation, May 7, 2016; and Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation, May 21, 2016.


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