By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
There is a place for righteous anger in American religion and politics. That’s because the church has failed to provide the shared values needed for a politics of reconciliation. By failing to promote the moral teachings of Jesus in the stewardship of our democracy, the church has allowed partisan politics to become so polarized that they have ignored the common good.
In the recent election the black church promoted Democrat candidates, while the so-called evangelical church and most white Catholics promoted Republican candidates. The mainline Protestant church abstained, avoiding the toxic mix of religion and politics. And few Christians questioned those inconsistent positions of the church on the role of faith and politics.
The election revealed a dangerous political divide that threatens to unravel the fabric of American democracy. Americans have not been so deeply divided since they fought a Civil War to preserve their union. Today social, economic and cultural differences have once again polarized our politics and undermined the shared values so essential for a healthy democracy.
The American two-party duopoly is partly to blame for our political polarization and gridlock. Unlike parliamentary democracies with multiple parties that share power and mitigate against bipolar stalemate, the American two-party duopoly depends upon moderates within each party to avoid political polarization, making it vulnerable to partisan polarization and gridlock.
Political moderates have become a rarity in American politics. Partisan polarization has become the norm with a leftist Democrat Party that challenges traditions with an intellectual elite and a coalition of minority groups, and a radical-right GOP that is predominately white and blue collar, and that seeks to preserve traditions and return to the idyllic days of the past.
In the recent election, Donald Trump was more effective in motivating his radical-right supporters than was Hillary Clinton in motivating her leftist supporters—at least for electoral votes. But tribalism and contentious identity politics left a post-election landscape of polarized partisan politics, with little prospect for balancing group (or tribal) special interests with providing for the overall common good, which is essential for any healthy democracy.
The lack of political moderation in America is hard to understand. It is a nation where most identify as Jews, Christians or Muslims, and all share belief in the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as themselves as a common word of faith. But most voters defied that altruistic principle of faith and voted to make a nativist narcissist their President.
The civic obligation to provide for the common good is a matter of morality, not law; and religion is the primary source of moral standards. If voters don’t honor the altruistic moral standards of their faith, there are no shared values to hold the fabric of American democracy together. The 14th Amendment and civil rights laws guarantee equal protection of the law to all citizens, but the law cannot mandate a political commitment to care for others and provide for the common good. That is a moral obligation.
That distinction between the role of law and morality in democracy underscores the important role of religion in politics. The 1st amendment to the Constitution doesn’t require the separation of religion and politics; it only prohibits government from establishing or promoting any religion. In fact, any religion that doesn’t relate the moral imperatives of its faith to politics is impotent. It is as dead in a democracy as a body without the spirit. (See James 2:26)
There is a related principle of morality and law that relates to religion and politics. The enforcement of religious law distorts libertarian concepts of justice based on human rights and the secular rule of law, as when apostasy and blasphemy laws deny the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, and women and religious minorities are denied equal justice under law.
That happened in colonial America under the Puritans, and continues today in Islamic nations—even in democracies—where the primacy of Islamic law, or shari’a, creates a tyranny of the majority. Whenever religion uses coercive political power to impose its laws on others, it produces injustice. Without a commitment to provide for the common good of all, regardless of their race, religion or sexual preference, libertarian democracy is doomed to fail.
The election of Donald Trump was made possible by self-proclaimed Christians, like those of the prosperity gospel, whose religious beliefs subordinate the altruistic teachings of Jesus to selfish materialistic desires. That makes those who believe that the moral teachings of Jesus should be at the heart of Christianity angry—and it’s a righteous anger.
Professor Kathy Cramer has reported on the social, economic, cultural and political divide between rural residents of Wisconsin who supported Donald Trump and the urban elite who opposed him. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/08/a-new-theory-for-why-trump-voters-are-so-angry-that-actually-makes-sense/?tid=hybrid_experimentrandom_2_na.
Professor Stephen J. Pope has described Donald Trump as the antithesis of Christian morality and advocated deferring any political reconciliation until justice can be assured under his administration. See https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/not-time-reconciliation.
During the campaign Protestant leaders also condemned Donald Trump as the antithesis of Christian morality, but it seemed to have little effect on the way their followers voted. See http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/10/a-revelation-in-american-politics-and.html and http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/10/partisan-politics-after-election-back.html and notes to that commentary.
On the prosperity gospel as a distorted version Christianity that motivated Trump supporters, see
On a progressive form of Christianity that considers the teachings of Jesus to be moral imperatives of the faith, see http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/progressive-christian-unapologetics/.
On the failure of mainline Protestant churches to relate matters of faith to politics, see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/22/most-say-their-churches-remained-above-the-electoral-fray-this-year/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=5b04203837-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2016_12_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-5b04203837-399971105.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/jesus-meets-muhammad-is-there-common.html.
On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/08/balancing-individual-rights-with.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 religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation.html.