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 the moral ambiguity of modern religion, see http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-moral-ambiguity-of-modern-religion/article17408997.ece.
On Americans losing trust in their institutions as a result of a shift from collective to individualistic values, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/03/americans-have-lost-faith-in-institutions-thats-not-because-of-trump-or-fake-news/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On a current trend among conservatives beyond the objectivist, individualistic views of Ayn Rand toward a Dark Enlightenment of nationalism and fascism, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/03/ayn-rand-is-dead-liberals-are-going-to-miss-her/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On moral ambiguity in health care policies, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/03/09/the-poor-just-dont-want-health-care-republican-congressman-faces-backlash-over-comments/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On moral ambiguity in climate change, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/09/on-climate-change-scott-pruitt-contradicts-the-epas-own-website/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1; on how a lawsuit might influence climate change policies, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/09/this-climate-lawsuit-could-change-everything-no-wonder-the-trump-administration-doesnt-want-it-going-to-trial/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On moral ambiguity in national security and the use of military force, see http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/09/trumps-ramped-up-bombing-in-yemen-signals-more-aggressive-use-of-military/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=FP%203-10&utm_term=Flashpoints. See also
On moral ambiguity in promoting human rights, see http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/07/welcome-to-the-post-human-rights-world/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=FP&utm_term=Flashpoints.
On the immorality of Trump’s travel ban, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-half-baked-travel-ban-is-a-picture-of-american-shame/2017/01/30/1a0cd234-e6f4-11e6-bf6f-301b6b443624_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On faith and freedom, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2014/12/faith-and-freedom.html.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/the-greatest-commandment-common-word-of.html.
On love over law: a principle at the heart of legitimacy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/love-over-law-principle-at-heart-of.html.
On religion as good or evil, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/02/is-religion-good-or-evil.html.
On God and country: conflicting concepts of sovereignty, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/03/god-and-country-resolving-conflicting.html.
On a fundamental problem with religion, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/05/a-fundamental-problem-with-religion.html.
On the future of religion: In decline or growing?, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/06/the-future-of-religion-in-decline-and.html.
On freedom and fundamentalism, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/freedom-and-fundamentalism.html
On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/balancing-individual-rights-with.html.
On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/how-religious-fundamentalism-and.html.
On legitimacy as a context and paradigm to resolve religious conflict, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/legitimacy-as-context-and-paradigm-to.html.
On what is truth, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/what-is-truth.html.
On politics and religious polarization, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/09/politics-and-religious-polarization.html.
On who is my neighbor? see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/01/who-is-my-neighbor.html.
On the politics of loving our neighbors as ourselves, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/01/the-politics-of-loving-our-neighbors-as.html.
On the relevance of religion to politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/04/the-relevance-of-religion-to-politics.html.
On religion and a politics of reconciliation, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/05/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation.html.
On health care: a right or privilege? see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/06/health-care-right-or-privilege.html.
On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation_19.html.
On irreconcilable differences and the demise of democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/irreconcilable-differences-and-demise.html.
On discipleship in a democracy: a test of faith, legitimacy and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/12/discipleship-in-democracy-test-of-faith.html.
On saving America from the church, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/01/saving-america-from-church.html.
On the need for a revolution in religion and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/02/the-need-for-revolution-in-religion-and.html.