election earlier this month revealed irreconcilable differences between America’s
two political parties that threaten the demise of democracy. It is analogous to a divorce where irreconcilable
differences justify the dissolution of a marriage.
experienced a violent political divorce 156 years ago in its Civil War, and it’s
debatable whether the split was ever reconciled, except when America went to
war with other nations. Recalling
Lincoln saying a house divided against
itself cannot stand, Garrison Keillor suggested that America’s polarized
parties get a divorce and move to a duplex.
That’s better than Lincoln’s approach to save the union/house by
destroying the party seeking to secede.
that secession is not a viable option, where do we go from here? A politics of reconciliation is essential for
our democracy to survive, but most are not willing to reconcile with their
political adversaries. For
reconciliation to work, there must be common values shared by both sides. They seem elusive in the contentious tribal
divide between a party of identity politics that seeks to change traditions while
the other seeks to return to the halcyon traditions of the past.
multi-party model of parliamentary democracy seems better suited than the
American two-party duopoly to avert political polarization. Third parties can mitigate against the
polarization of two dominant parties.
But in America there is no place for third parties at the national
level. To be legitimate a political
party must be able to elect candidates to office, and that requires political
infrastructure that only the two dominant parties can provide.
partisan divide is ironic. Trump is a
radical-right Ayn Rand objectivist whose crude and rude showmanship garnered
him the support of evangelical Christians; and Hillary Clinton represented a
corrupt dynasty of politics as usual who led a center-left party of disparate minorities
and the intellectual elite. Election
results indicated that the GOP tribe of working class whites were more
motivated to vote than the disparate tribes of the Democrat Party.
irreconcilable differences are rooted in conflicting priorities of individual
rights and providing for the common good.
In a healthy democracy the two must be balanced, but radical-right objectivists
emphasize the former at the expense of the latter. They believe “the proper moral purpose of
one’s life is the pursuit of happiness” and that the only political system
consistent with that morality is one that emphasizes individual rights in
way of contrast, political moderates seek to balance individual rights with
providing for the common good. The latter
is a moral imperative of the Abrahamic religions, and one that requires the
regulation of the mega-banks and corporations of Wall Street. Individual rights did not become an integral
part of politics in libertarian democracies until the Enlightenment of the 18th
century, and have not yet taken hold in Islamic nations where the fundamental
freedoms of religion and speech are still denied by apostasy and blasphemy laws.
objectivism that drives the unrestrained greed of Wall Street and its wonder
child, Donald Trump, denies the collective responsibility to provide for the
common good. While individual rights that
foster free enterprise are essential components of libertarian democracy, so is
providing for the common good. Both
foster a strong middle class that represents economic opportunity for all, and
also provide protection against the ravages of poverty.
shared political values that made America
the Beautiful are derived from the
greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love
ourselves. America is a religious
nation, and the greatest commandment
is a common word of faith for Jews,
Christians and Muslims alike. That love
command once crowned our good with
brotherhood from sea to shining sea, and confirmed our soul in self-control, and our liberty in law.
can Americans promote a politics of reconciliation based on altruistic moral
principles in a democracy now controlled by self-centered objectivists? It requires reconciliation with those who share
political values that balance individual rights with providing for the common
good, while rejecting the irreconcilable differences of those who promote objectivist
values. It applies the moral imperative
of the greatest commandment to
politics, and that must be affirmed as an act of faith as well as politics in America’s
synagogues, churches and mosques.
this time of globalization and increased racial and religious pluralism, Americans
must recognize that diversity can be our strength rather than our weakness. To make America
the Beautiful again we must relate our faith to our politics and collectively
love our neighbors—even those of other races and religions—as we love ourselves. That means embracing a politics of inclusion
and rejecting a politics of exclusion.
greatest threat to the U.S. is an “us versus them” mentality toward those who
are not like us. Edmund Burke once
warned Americans that in a democracy we would forge our own shackles. To avoid that fate and to preserve our union
against irreconcilable differences, we must reject politicians who exploit our insecurity
and fears. We must seek leaders who
promote a politics of reconciliation based on the shared value of loving others
as we love ourselves.
America’s politics are polarized, and conflicting values are at the heart of the political divide. The only way to begin a meaningful process of reconciliation is to find shared values, and since the vast majority of Americans are religious, those values should be a matter of faith. At the heart of the political divide is a conflict between traditionalists who revere past values and progressives who favor change. It’s the same conflict that separates religious fundamentalists from progressive believers. Fundamentalists seek to preserve past religious traditions against the threat of change, while progressives are open to change based on reason. The conflict is about more than educational and economic differences. In South Carolina, most Trump supporters were educated white Republicans with economic security. Those with the least economic security and education were blacks who voted Democrat. The election reflected a long-standing partisan divide based on conflicting values—and race. There is no political quick fix. Voters ignored third parties as an alternative to a polarized duopoly and gave Democrats and Republicans 95% of their vote, leaving less than 5% of the vote to be split among four third parties. America’s political polarization will require a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, not more political parties. Values originate with religion. Most Americans consider themselves Christians, and most white Christians voted for Trump. They are part of a church that is declining in popularity. The church must be born again and put the teachings of Jesus ahead of exclusivist church doctrines that promise salvation based on worshiping Jesus as God rather than following him as the word of God. The church can restore its credibility and legitimacy by promoting a politics of reconciliation based on the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that supports racial and religious reconciliation and that can provide a balance between individual rights and providing for the common good, a balance essential for any healthy democracy. The election revealed an electorate polarized with a politics of “us against them,” based along partisan and racial lines, with most Republicans being white and most blacks being Democrats; but there is one thing they all have in common: They are predominately Christian. For America’s racial and religious diversity to be its strength rather than its weakness, the church must promote a politics of reconciliation based on those shared values in a common word of faith. It is simply loving our neighbors—all of them—as we love ourselves. There is no shortcut to reconciliation. It must avoid a politics of fear, anger and hate. Reconciliation must be based on the shared values of altruism and respect for others rather than on the self-serving and exploitative values that have polarized our politics. The problem is not new. Both religion and politics have long been gravitating toward the current polarization. Jesus was a radical change agent, but the church has promoted traditional values and resisted change to gain popularity and institutional power. Church fathers subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist doctrines of belief that were a form of cheap grace. They guaranteed salvation without the discomfort of loving the least, the last and the lost. The Enlightenment of the 18th century transformed both politics and religion in the West with libertarian concepts of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law. Those concepts of natural law and justice transformed progressive religions in libertarian democracies, but religious fundamentalists continue to reject change as a threat to their religious traditions. Change is inevitable with advances in knowledge and reason, and it requires balancing individual rights with providing for the common good. There are different approaches to that balancing act. A libertarian approach emphasizes individual freedom with the least amount of government, while a socialist approach subordinates individual rights to government programs providing for the common good. The contentious issues that arise from the two approaches can be resolved through compromise if both sides are motivated by the altruistic love for others. That is why it is essential that there should be consensus on the shared value of altruistic love before addressing contentious issues. From the use of lethal force by law enforcement and the military to health care, all issues that involve human rights and justice should be considered within the parameters of loving others—all others—to avoid stifling polarization. The term “family values” has been a rallying cry for the religious right since the 1970s. It distorted the fundamental value of loving all others into the political objective of preserving traditional family norms and a white ruling class. Such family values did more to polarize our religion and politics than to reconcile the increasingly pluralistic elements within our nation. There is a moral malaise in American religion today. Is there a church that will sponsor a process to reconcile our polarized politics and religions based on the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves—even those neighbors of other races and religions? Hopefully so, but if not, it may well be the end of white Christian America. Notes and related commentary: Colbert King captured the moral malaise in the American church today when he cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail: “King wrote…that when he was “catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Ala.,” he felt the white church would support him. Instead, he discovered some white ministers were outright opponents; others were “more cautious than courageous and . . . [they] remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” King expressed disappointment at seeing white church leaders, in the midst of blatant racial and economic injustices, “stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” He spoke of traveling on “sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings” and looking “at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward.” “Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’ ” “Where were their voices,” King asked, when the lips of their governors dripped with words of bigotry and hatred? “Where were their voices of support?” On the recent election as evidence of the end of white Christian America, see
President-elect Trump. What hath democracy wrought for America?
apocalypse is a dramatic revelation. In
Christian theology it is associated with the end times when Jesus Christ
returns to defeat the anti-Christ in the cosmic battle of good against evil. Muslims also believe that Christ will return
in the end times when good triumphs over evil, and Jews have an analogous
apocalyptic tradition for a long-awaited messiah.
Trump may be the antithesis of Jesus, but he’s probably not the anti-Christ of
the Biblical prophesies. Even so, he has
fulfilled the 18th century prophesy of Edmund Burke who said that
America would “forge its own shackles” with democracy. And it won’t be the first time—that was the
American Civil War. America the Beautiful hasn’t always looked so good.
needs a politics of reconciliation to
make its diversity in race and religion a strength rather than a weakness. There is no virtue in reconciling with a
politics of fear, hate and anger. Reconciliation
is a virtue only when based on loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the
greatest commandment, which is a
common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike—even if it is
recognized more in its breach than compliance.
Christians who often speculate on the meaning of Revelation and the anti-Christ
have brought this political apocalypse upon themselves. Most of them voted for Donald Trump. The church has utterly failed in its
stewardship of democracy. It has either
failed to make faith relevant to politics, or failed to make love for others
the focus of its faith.
church offers four paradigms for relating Christianity to politics. The Catholic Church has traditionally related
its faith to politics, and while Catholics do not always follow the Pope’s
dictates, most have made love for others a priority in their politics. The same cannot be said for Protestant
churches. The evangelical Christians, heir
to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, have promoted the radical right politics of the
GOP and elected Trump their President. Black
Christian churches have promoted liberal politics that favor minorities and
support Democrats. White mainline denominations
do neither; they have avoided mixing their religion with politics.
United Methodist Church (UMC) is a hybrid.
It is racially united in its overall structure, but most of its churches
have segregated congregations. Black UM
churches address political issues from the pulpit, while white UM churches avoid
mixing religion and politics. While the
Christian church in America is in decline overall, white UM churches, like other
white mainline denominations, are losing members at a faster rate than evangelical
and black churches.
moral quality of a democracy depends upon the shared values of its voters. For the church to be a good steward of American
democracy it must give the moral teachings of Jesus priority over mystical and exclusivist
church doctrines, and relate those moral imperatives of its faith to politics. That is the only way the church can be relevant
in a democracy. Otherwise, to paraphrase
James, the church is as dead as a body without the spirit (James 2:26).
relevance of any religion to politics is measured by concepts of liberty and
justice. Ancient religions said little
about liberty and defined justice in terms of religious law, while contemporary
justice is defined in terms of liberty in
law as set forth in libertarian human rights. Fundamentalist religions continue to subvert
liberty to the primacy of religious law.
In many Islamic nations shari’a denies the freedoms of religion and
speech, and in the U.S. Christian fundamentalists claim the right to
discriminate against homosexuals based on religious freedom.
defect of democracy is that it values the quantity
of votes over the quality of ideas
and values. That was obvious in the “Christian”
Jim Crow South, where a racist white majority imposed discriminatory laws and vigilante
action against blacks, and in “Christian” Germany of the 1930s where distraught
and angry Germans gave Hitler the reigns of power. In democracies the popular will has often been
seen as a virtue, and later regretted.
popularity of Trump’s appeal to “Make America Great Again” is reminiscent of
the expectations of ancient Jews for a messiah who would restore the power and
glory of ancient Israel. The chants of
Trump supporters to Lock her up! and Jail her! were echoes of the crowds who
had shouted Crucify him! Crucify him!
to Roman authorities over 2,000 years earlier.
current demise of democracy is not unique to America. Radical right movements in Europe are
challenging concepts of liberty and justice, while Muslim majorities in
Erdogan’s Turkey and al Sissi’s Egypt support oppressive regimes that violate
human rights. And in the Philippines President
Duterte has used vigilante tactics to kill those suspected of drug
offenses. Christianity and Islam are
complicit in these forfeitures of freedom for authoritarianism.
democracy is at risk. More than ever a
politics of reconciliation is needed to moderate the fear, anger and hate that
has pervaded American politics. That will
require the church to recognize the relevance of the Christian faith to politics
and promote policies of liberty and justice that can reconcile us, rather than
exclusivist religious doctrines that divide us.
diversity should be its strength, but contentious issues of race and religion
have made it our weakness. We need to
remember Lincoln’s admonition that a house divided against itself cannot
stand. Perhaps then we can be reconciled
and redeemed as America the Beautiful,
and crown our good with brotherhood, from
sea to shining sea; and also confirm
our soul in self-control, our liberty in law. I hope that’s not just wishful thinking.
Michael Gerson cited Judge
Learned Hand on the spirit of liberty as an inspiration for a politics of
to look for inspiration? In 1944, speaking to a group of newly minted citizens
in New York’s Central Park, Judge Learned Hand explained his vision of
America’s most basic commitment. “What then is the spirit of liberty?” he
asked. “I cannot define it. I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of
liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of
liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and
women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit that weighs their interests
alongside its own without bias . . . the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him
who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never
learned, but has never quite forgotten, that there may be a kingdom where the
least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”
the spirit of our times, but seldom more needed.
Equal Justice under law is engraved on
the U.S. Supreme Court building, and it captures the spirit of our standards of
legitimacy (what is right) and justice.
Religions are a primary source of the legal and moral standards of
legitimacy that define justice. Ancient Judaism
and Islam defined their standards of legitimacy and justice by divine law,
while Jesus summarized them in the moral imperative to love God and neighbor in
the greatest commandment.
the 18th century the Enlightenment transformed religion and politics
in the West with libertarian concepts of justice that included democracy, human
rights and the secular rule of law. In
the Islamic East, however, Islamic Law (shari’a) continued to prevail with apostasy
and blasphemy laws that prohibit the freedoms of religion and speech, and with other
discriminatory laws that deny women and non-Muslims equal protection of the
the early 20th century, human rights that begin with the freedoms of
religion and speech have been stated priorities of U.S. foreign policy. But in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan
and Turkey shari’a has prevented enforcement of those fundamental human rights,
and their violation has been ignored to avoid political conflict with those
shari’a asserts its supremacy over human rights and secular law, it denies justice
to minorities and produces a tyranny of the majority. Promoting the freedoms of religion and speech
along with equal justice under law for women and non-Muslims not only promotes justice
in Islamic nations, but it also undermines the legitimacy of authoritarian
leaders and radical Islamist terrorists who depend upon oppressive forms of
shari’a to stifle their opposition.
pragmatic point seems lost on President Obama.
He has rewarded El Sissi’s oppressive military regime in Egypt with U.S.
aid and assistance, failed to criticize Erdogan’s repressive policies in
Turkey, failed to criticize Saudi Arabia for propagating an extremist form of
Islamic fundamentalism (Wahhabism) worldwide, and failed to criticize Islamic nations
that use apostasy and blasphemy laws to deny the freedoms of religion and
hypocrisy reflects shortsighted political expediency that has taken precedence
over U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and Africa. When the U.S. does not condemn the violation
of human rights and discrimination against women and non-Muslims in Islamic
nations, it promotes authoritarian regimes and radical Islamist terrorism whose
legitimacy depends on denying political freedom to those who would oppose them.
functions much like a constitution in Islamic nations and defines standards of legitimacy
and justice differently than do constitutions in libertarian democracies. There can be no real justice when shari’a denies
fundamental human rights, and U.S. security assistance should not be provided to
any nation that denies libertarian human rights. That standard would mean no U.S. aid for those
nations that enforce apostasy or blasphemy laws.
conflict between ancient religious laws and libertarian concepts of justice is not
unique to Islam. Before the
Enlightenment, Judaism and Christianity enforced heresy and blasphemy laws. Since then fundamental human rights have been
protected by the constitutions of libertarian democracies and international law
under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The 1990 Cairo Declaration, however, takes
exception to the ICCPR, providing that shari’a is the last word on human rights
and justice in Islamic cultures.
that’s not the end of the story. Standards
of legitimacy, liberty and justice are dynamic, evidenced by the wide diversity
of opinion among Islamic scholars on those standards. Progressive Muslims promote interpretations of
shari’a that are consistent with libertarian concepts of human rights and
justice, while fundamentalist Muslims, like their Jewish and Christian counterparts,
resist any change to their ancient religious doctrines and laws.
The greatest commandment to love God and
our neighbors as we love ourselves is a
common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The Apostle Paul cited that commandment as a
precedent for justice in all religions when he asserted that Jewish Law was fulfilled
by the moral imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves (see Romans
13:8-10). While human rights were
unknown in Paul’s ancient times, his precedent for justice requires that today we
share the liberty we love for ourselves with our neighbors at home and abroad.
and Related Commentary: