By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
What is truth? According to John’s gospel that was Pontius Pilate’s response when Jesus told him, I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. (John 18:37) Jesus had earlier told his disciples: If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31, 32) If the teachings of Jesus are indeed God’s truth, then how do we speak that truth to man’s power?
The teachings of Jesus can be summed up in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and that includes our neighbors of other races and religions. That’s a common word of God’s truth for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and it requires all of us to make that love command a moral imperative of our faith and politics.
America has always been a religious nation. Thomas Jefferson advocated the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well as the moral teachings of Jesus as ideals of the American civil religion. But since Jefferson was a slaveholder his legacy as an advocate of political freedom has been sullied. After all, slavery, the Civil War and their ugly progeny of racism were great exceptions to the American ideal of political freedom.
The political polarization that characterized the election of Donald Trump last year recalled those dark days of racism, and most white Christians made Trump’s election possible. It was a reminder that Christians have failed to hold man’s power in politics accountable to God’s truth. Perhaps that’s because Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church, mosque and in politics.
In today’s globalized world of increasing racial and religious diversity, speaking God’s truth to man’s power should focus on reconciling racial and religious differences that have polarized our politics; but both the church and the mosque have promoted divisiveness with doctrines of religious exclusivity. With a president who exemplifies the antithesis of Christian morality, it’s time to speak God’s truth to man’s power with a revival in religion and politics.
If needed reforms don’t begin in the church, they must begin outside the church. The church was born within Judaism and its Reformation began outside the Church; Likewise, John Wesley’s Methodists were organized outside his Anglican Church. Those reformations came from outside institutional religious structures as a result of speaking God’s truth to man’s power.
Institutional religions rely on ancient scriptures that make no mention of human rights or democracy to define God’s truth, and they resist progressive change as a threat to those truths. There are few progressive churches today that tolerate challenges to exclusivist church doctrines, so that those believers who challenge such doctrines as obstacles to religious and political reconciliation must meet in dialogue groups outside the church to avoid recrimination.
Dialogue groups can include those of all faiths who oppose exclusivist church doctrines and share the moral teachings of Jesus as God’s word—Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, was an example. The eight points of progressive Christianity offer Christians alternatives that transcend inflexible church doctrines and welcome interfaith dialogue.
Speaking God’s truth to man’s power must make the love of neighbor—including those neighbors of other races and religions—a moral imperative of both faith and politics. If the church can’t lead the effort to promote a politics of reconciliation as a matter of discipleship in democracy, then interfaith dialogue groups should initiate a new Christian reformation to do so.
For a discussion of John 8:31,32 and John 18:37, see pages 407-409 and pages 330-331 in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy posted at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3gvZV8mXUp-aTJubVlISnpQc1U/view. John’s Gospel does not include the greatest commandment, but its new command to love one another (John 13:34) says essentially the same thing (see discussion at pages 325-326 at the above URL).
Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but considered the church an obstacle to freedom. 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 https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3gvZV8mXUp-aTJubVlISnpQc1U/view.
Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf consider Jefferson a prophet of American civil religion:
As a young man, Jefferson embraced the tenets of “natural religion,” or deism, rejecting conventional Christianity and any use of religious dogma as a tool to control people. As he aged, however, Jefferson undertook a spiritual quest that focused his attention intensively on the New Testament. He…sought to hear Jesus’ original, uncorrupted voice, imagining himself in his teacher’s presence. Jesus preached to the “family of man,” anticipating the humane and cosmopolitan precepts of the enlightened age that Jefferson was convinced would inevitably arrive. He adhered to the “philosophy” of Jesus while rejecting “mystifications” that offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of religious strife.
Jefferson…believed that religion, stripped of the supernatural, should always be an integral part of American society. He even created a guidebook, of sorts.
Far from being an atheist, Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called “civil religion,” the moral foundation of a truly free and united people.
On The Eight Points of Progressive Christianity, see https://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/.
For a model for interfaith dialogue groups, see Interfaith Fellowship: Seeking Reconciliation through a Common Word of Faith at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3gvZV8mXUp-RFhMaTRYOTZIVm8/view.
Related commentary posted at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/:
(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
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(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
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/the-evolution-of-religion-politics-and.html.
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/8/17): Hell No!