By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
President-elect Trump. What hath democracy wrought for America?
An 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.
Donald 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.
America 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.
Pious 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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).
The 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.
A 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.
The 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.
The 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.
American 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.
America’s 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.
The Washington Post noted that “Americans are not and never have been united by blood or creed, but by allegiance to a democratic system of government that shares power, cherishes the rule of law and respects the dignity of individuals.” It went on to say that Americans must support Trump if he supports such a system, and support the system whether Trump does or not. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/president-trump/2016/11/09/037114be-a530-11e6-8fc0-7be8f848c492_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On Erdogan’s Turkey as a free society that is rapidly destroying itself, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2016/11/04/turkey-was-once-a-free-society-now-the-country-is-rapidly-destroying-itself/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
Michael Gerson cited Judge Learned Hand on the spirit of liberty as an inspiration for a politics of reconciliation:
Where 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.”
Hardly the spirit of our times, but seldom more needed.
Fareed Zakaria identified two sins that defined this election: Elitism and racism. He could have added a third sin: Voting for change without considering the character of the change agent. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-two-sins-that-defined-this-election/2016/11/10/97fdfcf2-a78b-11e6-ba59-a7d93165c6d4_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims today, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/jesus-meets-muhammad-is-there-common.html.
On the need for a politics of reconciliation in a polarized democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/10/the-need-for-politics-of-reconciliation.html.
On Donald Trump’s campaign as a dark revelation of American politics and religion and the challenge it poses for America, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/10/a-revelation-in-american-politics-and.html.
On religion, liberty and justice at home and abroad, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/religion-liberty-and-justice-at-home.html
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