Saturday, July 1, 2017

Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            In 1804 Thomas Jefferson opined that the moral teachings of Jesus were “…the sublimest morality that has ever been taught.”  In 1831 Alexis DeTocqueville toured America and observed that its many Christian sects shared a “Christian morality” that produced common standards of legitimacy that defined what is right, and imbued American politics with its moral authority.

            Both Jefferson and DeTocqueville understood that the moral standards of religion that shape legitimacy and moral authority are relevant to politics, while those mystical religious beliefs that relate to the supernatural should remain personal.  Today America’s religion and politics are polarized by conflicting concepts of legitimacy that have undermined moral authority in politics—as has become evident in Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again politics.

            Thomas Friedman has cited Dov Seidman on the nature of moral authority, its rarity in politicians, and what it should look like, since we see so little of it.  Michael Gerson has described Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy of promoting authoritarian leaders and denigrating human rights as a morally repugnant path of arrogance, mediocrity and insurrection.  And Fareed Zakaria has noted a vast cultural divide that seems beyond partisan reconciliation.   

            It is time to reclaim moral authority in politics with the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including those of other races and religions—as we love ourselves.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and it begins with basic honesty, integrity and humility; but those virtues have been lost in the polarization of American religion and politics with its conflicting standards of legitimacy and moral values.

            The challenge is to translate the moral imperative to love others into altruistic standards of legitimacy that define moral authority in politics, and then balance individual rights with providing for the common good.  In America individual rights have often been emphasized at the expense of providing for the common good, while the opposite has been true in Islamic nations.

            Since the Civil War, individual rights and common values have allowed freedom and diversity to coexist in America.  But that is changing.  Undue emphasis on individual rights has eroded equal justice under law.  Fundamentalist believers claim their religious freedom allows them to discriminate against those they consider to be sinners.  And in Islamic nations apostasy and blasphemy laws under Islamic Law (Shari’a) deny the freedoms of religion and speech.

            Despite the polarization caused by religious fundamentalists, there is a growing interfaith coalition of progressive believers who share the greatest commandment as a common word of faith.  Progressives seek to reconcile diverse races and religions, while fundamentalists seek to divide and conquer.  It is a battle over conflicting concepts of legitimacy and moral authority.

            Human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech are essential to the common good.  Without those individual rights there can be no real freedom, and such freedom is essential to the common good.  Without human rights for minorities, even a democracy can produce a tyranny of the majority—and there is no worse tyranny than a religious tyranny.
            Jews, Christians and Muslims should reconsider their standards of political legitimacy that define moral authority.  Too often they contradict the moral imperative to love others as they love themselves.  That is evident in the lack of moral authority of those entrusted with political power, and they must be held accountable if political freedom is to coexist with diversity.       


Thomas Jefferson had great admiration for the moral teachings of Jesus but little use for the doctrines of the institutional church.  He wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man."  Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379.  See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2, posted at

On how Jefferson’s Bible contributed to America’s religious diversity in its early days, see

Alexis DeTocqueville, a French aristocrat who visited the U.S. in 1831, astutely observed:  Christianity, which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of God, will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law.  But, by a singular concurrence of events, religion is entangled in those institutions that democracy assails….
By the sides of these religious men I discern others whose looks are turned to earth more than Heaven; they are partisans of liberty...[who] invoke the assistance of religion, for they must know that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.
The sects which exist in the U.S. are innumerable.  They all differ in respect to the worship which is due from man to his Creator, but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.  Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all the sects preach the same moral law in the name of God. 
Moreover, almost all the sects of the U.S. are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.       
DeTocquevile, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, The Cooperative Publication Society, The Colonial Press, N.Y. and London, 1900 at pages 12 and 308.        

Thomas Friedman has cited Dov Seidman on the need for moral authority and political legitimacy: With shared truth debased and trust in leaders diminished, we now face a full-blown “crisis of authority itself,” argued Seidman, who distinguishes between “formal authority” and “moral authority.” While our system can’t function without leaders with formal authority, what makes it really work, he added, is “when leaders occupying those formal positions—from business to politics to schools to sports—have moral authority. Leaders with moral authority understand what they can demand of others and what they must inspire in them. They also understand that formal authority can be won or seized, but moral authority has to be earned every day by how they lead. And we don’t have enough of these leaders.”
In fact, we have so few we’ve forgotten what they look like. Leaders with moral authority have several things in common, said Seidman: “They trust people with the truth — however bright or dark. They’re animated by values — especially humility — and principles of probity, so they do the right things, especially when they’re difficult or unpopular. And they enlist people in noble purposes and onto journeys worthy of their dedication.”
Think how far away Trump is from that definition. In Trump we not only have a president who can’t lead us out of this crisis — because he has formal authority but no moral authority — but a president who is every day through Twitter a one-man accelerator of the erosion of truth and trust eating away at our society.  See Friedman, Where Did “We the People Go”? at

Michael Gerson has questioned the moral authority of U.S. foreign policy, asking:
Is the world now fundamentally different? Is the spiritual ideal now outdated or overmatched by distorted but powerful appeals of nationalism and religious fundamentalism? 
It is the theory of “America first” foreign policy that this ideal is outdated. The urgency of defeating terrorism, in this view, requires the active cooperation of Middle Eastern leaders, and it matters little or nothing how oppressive they are at home. “We are not here to lecture,” President Trump said in Saudi Arabia. “We are not here to tell other people how to live.” Trump has extended this approach, in various forms, to President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt (doing a “fantastic job”), to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and to President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (doing an “unbelievable job”). 
This foreign policy approach assumes that the current order in oppressive countries can be indefinitely preserved — as long as it is not destabilized by meddling outsiders. In reality, the instability of oppressive governments emerges from within. They prevent the diffusion of choice and power, which is the source of economic and social success in the modern world. Monopolizing power encourages cronyism, corruption, resentment and discontent. Strongmen can succeed for a time by feeding hatred of enemies, real and imagined. But this is the path of arrogance, mediocrity and insurrection.
 The message is thereby sent that the United States values the good opinion of strongmen more than the dignity and liberty of the people they rule. This is resented, and remembered. 
Fareed Zakaria has noted that America’s polarized politics are cultural, going beyond partisan political issues and undermining civility and essential democratic values with conflicting concepts of legitimacy.  See; See also, Michael Gerson at

Moral authority begins with honesty.  For a compendium of Trump’s Lies, see

Related commentary posted at

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(12/15/14): Faith and Freedom
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/22/15): Religion and Human Rights
(3/22/15): The Power of Humility and the Arrogance of Power
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(5/10/15): Religion, Human Rights and National Security
(5/17/15): Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/16/15): How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(8/20/16): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty and Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(5/13/17): Voices of Reason and Hope in the Cacophony over Religion, Human Rights and Politics
(5/20/17): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Where Human Rights Begin
(6/3/17): When Winning Trumps Mercy and Losing is Evil
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?

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