Saturday, March 18, 2017

Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Religion is the primary source of the moral standards of legitimacy that define what is right.  Ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasized the moral obligation to provide for the common good, especially caring for the poor and helpless.  The Enlightenment of the 18th century shifted the focus in politics from providing for the common good to individual rights, and that, coupled with capitalism, created moral ambiguity in both religion and politics.

Moral ambiguity pervades American politics today.  Voters who elected Donald Trump put their individual rights and wants ahead of their responsibility to provide for the common good, and most of those voters were white Christians.  The irony is that Trump’s self-centered narcissism and nativism is the antithesis of the altruistic morality taught by Jesus. 

Most Americans claim to be Christians, but there is great diversity among them on the moral standards they apply to their politics.  That diversity ranges between the altruistic morality of the gospel of Jesus and the self-centered prosperity gospel.  Trump tapped into the prosperity gospel, which accommodates objectivist moral standards that even Ayn Rand could embrace.

The prosperity gospel is the unlikely progeny of a Christian religion that evolved from the altruistic morality in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to a gospel of individual salvation and worldly success.  The social and moral norms of American politics and religion were transformed by the “the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” coupled with capitalism and the Puritan work ethic.

The institutional church has fostered moral ambiguity in religion and politics.  The strength of the church, like other social institutions, depends on its popularity; and religious beliefs that emphasize individual salvation and worldly success are more popular that the moral teachings of Jesus that emphasize self-denial and helping the poor and needy.        

The moral teachings of Jesus have never been popular, so that followers of Jesus are not likely to be successful politicians.  Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own—much less an exclusivist religion like Christianity—and those who try to follow his moral teachings today are not likely to achieve any worldly success that requires popularity.

America’s individualistic values contrast sharply with the more collective values in Europe and Islamic cultures.  European nations emphasize individual freedom, but their socialist political values are less influenced by religion than those in America.  And in most Islamic nations individual rights and freedom are subordinated to Islamic law, or shari’a.

In America, some Christians have used the free exercise of religion to deny same-sex couples the equal protection of the law, and concepts of morality that ignore the common good are complicating issues of health care, climate change, national security, human rights and immigration policies.  In Islamic nations apostasy and blasphemy laws deny any freedom of religion or speech, and shari’a denies women and non-Muslims the equal protection of law.          

Christians and Muslims make up well over half the population in a world of increasing religious diversity, and the greatest commandment is a common word of faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.   If people of faith were to affirm its altruistic moral standard and balance individual rights and wants with providing for the common good, they could stem the tide of dysfunction and division caused by moral ambiguity in religion and politics.          

Notes and commentary on related topics:

On Americans losing trust in their institutions as a result of a shift from collective to individualistic values, see

On a current trend among conservatives beyond the objectivist, individualistic views of Ayn Rand toward a Dark Enlightenment of nationalism and fascism, see


On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see

On love over law: a principle at the heart of legitimacy, see

On God and country: conflicting concepts of sovereignty, see

On freedom and fundamentalism, see

On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see

On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, see

On legitimacy as a context and paradigm to resolve religious conflict, see

On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see

On irreconcilable differences and the demise of democracy, see

On discipleship in a democracy: a test of faith, legitimacy and politics, see


  1. Getting the balance right between individual and collective needs is about as trenchant a problem in this world as the Israeli vs Palestinian disputes over the West Bank and Jerusalem. Both issues require all parties to compromise. What sort of situation(s) will lead most humans to negotiate and compromise? I can think of one situation - the world following the end of WWII and the Holocaust as well as the dropping of two atomic bombs in Japan that led to major compromises such as The Marshall Plan, The United Nations, and even NATO. What comes after these global forces/institutions have lived out their useful purpose? More war and carnage? Is that how ignorant we have become?

  2. You are right. War--like WWII--is a uniting force for a divided people, and demagogues know that and will use war to force their opponents to join them or be perceived as unpatriotic, or worse. That's a scary thought considering who's now commander in chief of our military.

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  8. I agree. I think of God as an ineffable power beyond all powers whose will is that we are all reconciled as children of God by the transformative power of God's altruistic love. That includes those of all religions and those of no religion.