By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Donald Trump once questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama as President, and now Congressman John Lewis has questioned the legitimacy of Donald Trump on the eve of his inauguration as President. Both men are wrong. The elections of both Obama and Trump were legitimate. Their legitimacy depends upon their character and their actions.
Legitimacy is based on public perceptions of what is right and is measured by values and moral and legal standards. Every four years Americans elect a President who presumably exemplifies their values and standards of legitimacy. President Obama began his administration eight years ago proclaiming the audacity of hope, and he ended his term asserting the reality of hope. But whether there is any hope for American democracy is yet to be seen.
America is a religious nation, and religion is the source of its standards of legitimacy. Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, and most of them voted for Donald Trump, who represents the antithesis of altruistic Christian standards of legitimacy. Trump is an exemplar of Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism, with his own rude, crude, egocentric and narcissistic style. It is supremely ironic that Trump’s election was made possible by evangelical Christians.
It resulted from the transformation of the American (Christian) Religion from its altruistic Judeo-Christian roots that took place in two stages. First, when the Founding Fathers embraced the libertarian values of the 18th century Enlightenment. They are summarized in the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence.
The second stage was when big business formed an alliance with evangelical Christianity to counter FDR’s socialistic New Deal policies. That unholy alliance linked freedom with free enterprise and piety with patriotism. It was promoted by evangelical preachers like James Fifield, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell, who, with their sons, shaped evangelical Christianity into a political force that produced Republican Presidents from Eisenhower to Trump.
Today American politics and religion are polarized, and concepts of legitimacy are in disarray. Politics are polarized along party lines, reflected in the encounter between Lewis and Trump, and most Christians have abandoned the altruistic values taught by Jesus to support radical right politics as God’s will. Political and religious moderates have been marginalized, with the majority now being at the right and left extremes of the political spectrum.
The greatest challenge for American democracy (and religion) today is to balance the individual rights and freedom promoted by the right with the collective obligation to provide for the common good emphasized by the left. It is a classic conflict between libertarian and socialist ideologies, and pits older white Americans against younger and more racially diverse Americans.
Some kind of political and religious reconciliation must take place in America if democracy is to survive the current polarization, but any politics of reconciliation must be based on common standards of legitimacy. The concept of altruistic love is such a standard. It is set forth in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, and it is considered a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
The Apostle Paul put the reality of hope into proper perspective with love. He affirmed that loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the purpose of the law (Romans 13:8-10), and after describing the nature of love as the most excellent way, Paul concluded that of faith, hope and love, the greatest of these is love (I Corinthians 13:1-13).
Religion is interwoven with politics in America, but the standards of legitimacy for patriotism and faith are different—at least for those who put love for others at the foundation of their faith. To ignore the difference between patriotism and faith is to invite the political evil that destroyed libertarian democracy in Nazi Germany. It happened when Christians sacrificed the moral imperatives of their faith to a distorted sense of patriotism.
Conflicting concepts of legitimacy underlie international conflicts and often promote violence. That’s because standards of legitimacy vary dramatically among cultures and are exacerbated by religion. In libertarian democracies fundamental freedoms that begin with those of religion and speech are given a high priority, while in Islamic cultures those fundamental freedoms are denied by the apostasy and blasphemy laws of shari’a.
Christians in America and Muslims in Islamic cultures have jeopardized their freedom and sacrificed the altruistic standards of their faith to support radical right demagogues. The survival of libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law depends on a politics of reconciliation based on loving our neighbors as ourselves—even those neighbors of other races, religions and political parties. It is the only way to avoid forging our own shackles and to preserve our freedom in our great experiment with democracy.
On how competing claims of political legitimacy made by John Lewis and Donald Trump has exacerbated a polarized partisan environment on the eve of the Trump inauguration, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-lewis-feud-could-be-harbinger-of-new-round-of-hyper-partisanship/2017/01/14/f72db5a2-da8d-11e6-9a36-1d296534b31e_story.html.
In One Nation Under God (Basic Books, 2015), Kevin Kruse has chronicled how big business (Wall Street) has coopted and shaped the American (Christian) Religion into a force of piety and patriotism that that has abandoned the altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus and empowered the rich and powerful of the radical right.
On the definition of legitimacy and how it relates to military operations, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium, Frank Cass, 1996 (see manuscript posted at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3gvZV8mXUp-VmpMUV9sSU9kaDA/view).
On conflicting concepts of legitimacy, see Barnes, Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy at https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/5473-barnesreligion-and-conflicting-concepts-of.
On balancing individual rights with the collective responsibility to provide for the common good, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/balancing-individual-rights-with.html.
Michael Gerson has noted that “Without a passion for universal dignity and worth—the commitment to a common good in which the powerless are valued—politics is a spoils system for the winners. It degenerates into a way of one group to gain advantage over another. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-party-of-lincoln-is-dying/2016/06/09/e669380a-2e6b-11e6-9de3-6e6e7a14000c_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
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 religion and human rights, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/02/religion-and-human-rights.html.
On a fundamental problem with religion, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/05/a-fundamental-problem-with-religion.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.