Saturday, September 16, 2017

The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Civil religion is where religion and politics meet to shape the concepts of legitimacy that define a nation’s values.  The libertarian values of the Enlightenment have been the traditional political component of the American civil religion, with Christianity its dominant religious component; but capitalism and its progeny, materialism and hedonism, have challenged both faith and freedom as priorities of the American dream and the American civil religion.   

            American democracy must balance individual rights, which are not mentioned in scripture, with providing for the common good or public welfare, which is a moral mandate in scripture.  Donald Trump was elected by evangelical Christians who are followers of the growing prosperity gospel.  It is a self-centered gospel that conflicts with the altruistic gospel of Jesus, and it emphasizes individual rights at the expense of providing for the common good.

            The prosperity gospel has its roots in pseudo Old Testament theology that assures the faithful that if they obey God’s law they will be rewarded with prosperity and health, while the disobedient will be punished with suffering—all in this world, not the next.  Jesus challenged that deontological standard of righteousness with the concept of love over law expressed in the greatest commandment to love God and your neighbors as you love yourself.    

             The American civil religion has ceded the moral high-ground it once held as a model of liberty and justice for all and become a symbol of materialism and hedonism, exemplified by Donald Trump.  Christianity in America has evolved from the altruistic gospel taught by Jesus into a self-centered gospel promoted by high-flying evangelists like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Paula White, Joel Osteen and Robert Jeffress, who all ignore the danger of riches

            Jesus did not teach that riches were evil, only that the love of riches corrupted the soul.  (e.g. the story of a rich man at Mark 10:17-27; parable of the rich fool at Luke 12:15-21; treasures and the heart at Luke 12:33,34; and you cannot serve two masters at Luke 16:13).  And St. Paul confirmed this, warning Timothy: People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap…For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

            In 18th century England John Wesley often preached on the danger of riches.  When it came to money, Wesley taught his Methodists to “make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”  That’s not only a good policy for individuals, but also for wealthy nations like the U.S.  Both individuals and nations have a duty of stewardship to protect and promote individual rights and to provide for the common good.

            A related challenge for American democracy is to avoid disparities in wealth that threaten political stability.  While middle-class income in the U.S. has increased since 2008, so has the disparity in wealth between the middle class and the rich, with the top fifth of earners receiving over half of America’s income.  That disparity should be reduced, but the rich have been able to protect their wealth from tax reforms that would make taxes more equitable.

            America is a rich and powerful nation, but its very soul—the American civil religion—is threatened by the danger of riches.  Self-centered materialism and hedonism have displaced the altruistic faith and collective civic responsibilities that are needed to provide for the common good, and polarized partisan politics are exacerbating that danger to democracy. 

            Perhaps it’s an idealistic illusion to believe that the American civil religion ever emphasized liberty and justice for all.  If it never did, then it should have—and America can still claim that ideal as the heart of its civil religion.  But that will require a revival in both American religion and politics that can balance individual rights with providing for the common good.            


On materialism eclipsing faith and freedom in the American dream (and civil religion), see

Alan Wolfe has quoted Max Weber, who once quoted John Wesley on the danger of riches:
A hundred years ago, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber quoted the great evangelical John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church:
I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.  See

On the cheap prosperity gospel of Donald Trump and [Joel] Osteen, see

Related Commentary:

(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
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(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
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics (6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(8/2/15): Freedom and Fundamentalism (8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/10/16): Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law, not God’s Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(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
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/19/17) Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation

(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart  

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