By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Not since the Civil War has America been so divided. It has become balkanized by race and religion, as evidenced in our partisan gridlock, gerrymandered congressional districts, and divergent doctrines of Christianity. To avoid further polarization we need to promote a politics of reconciliation that can provide functional pluralism for an increasingly diverse population.
Where to begin? Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, so that a politics of reconciliation should begin in the church. The first step is for Christians to acknowledge that the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus should be applied to their politics. Otherwise their Christian religion is as spiritually dead as a body without the spirit. (see James 2:26)
Every Christian in America has the moral duty to be a steward of our democracy. That requires applying the moral imperatives taught by Jesus in our democratic processes, especially in electing our leaders. When Christians ignore their duties of discipleship in politics, they not only undermine U.S. democracy, but also the moral legitimacy of the Christian religion.
Black Christians and evangelical Christians have long related their religion to their politics, but mainline white denominations have avoided mixing religion and politics. Even so, partisan politics have become defined by race, and gerrymandered voting districts have institutionalized partisan politics along racial lines, resulting in dangerous political polarization.
The greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves is a common word of faith that can break the religious and political gridlock. When Jesus was asked, Who is my neighbor? he answered with the story of a good Samaritan who stopped to help a wounded Jew. (Luke 10:25-37) That was a radical message for Jews who detested Samaritans as apostates.
With partisan politics polarized along racial lines and more political animosity than ever, Christians need to be reminded that loving their neighbors of other races, religions and even those they detest is a moral imperative of their faith. Christians who exempt politics from their faith are hypocrites—and while Jesus taught love for others, he condemned hypocrites.
Christians need to make their faith relevant to their politics with the stewardship of democracy. They should consider the values of candidates and political issues without making political endorsements. In the past churches have considered issues of slavery, temperance, civil rights—even the lottery. Today they are facing contentious issues of sexual preference that are polarizing religion and politics, but regrettably these issues are not being discussed in church.
In promoting a politics of reconciliation, there will always be contentious issues. That’s the nature of a pluralistic democracy. Christians need to learn to disagree agreeably as they discuss how to relate their Christian values to candidates and political issues such as tax reform, health care, immigration and foreign policy; and prior to elections they should invite candidates to church hall meetings, where a church venue should promote more enlightened political views.
The church offers a big tent for all legitimate political preferences, from libertarian politics that emphasize individual rights to socialistic politics that emphasize the common good, but populist demagoguery must be opposed. Unfortunately, white South Carolina Christians have supported populist demagogues from “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman to Donald Trump.
The greatest challenge for democracy today is to balance individual rights with providing for the common good; but achieving that balance will be difficult with America polarized by a two-party duopoly that is split along racial lines. A moral revival is needed to promote a politics of reconciliation, and that revival should begin in the church. Its purpose should not be to promote political unity, but to make Christians better stewards of their pluralistic democracy.
Michael Gerson has lamented the deplorable state of morality in politics, “With two very sick political parties that have a monopoly on political power and little prospect for reform and recovery.” Gerson has pessimistically predicted that our two political parties cannot save themselves (and us) from a political earthquake that will make America’s future “uncertain, maybe unknowable.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/our-political-parties-cant-save-themselves/2017/11/06/0304c3f8-c321-11e7-84bc-5e285c7f4512_story.html?undefined=&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
David Brooks has noted that 2017 is the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, when Lenin and Trotsky took over Russia with a new authoritarian moral order under communism. That was possible because Russian democrats and the Russian Orthodox Church failed to assert their moral authority. A similar moral default may be undermining democracy in the U.S. today. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/opinion/the-week-trump-won.html.
David Bentley Hart has asked, Are Christians supposed to be Communists? based on a teaching of Jesus in Luke 14:33 that requires giving up everything as a condition of discipleship. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/04/opinion/sunday/christianity-communism.html.
Mitchell T. Rozanski has opined that reconciliation among Christians may be closer than we think. He promotes a Christian unity, or reconciliation, among Christian denominations that respects diversity but eliminates acrimony over religious and political differences. See
On how the prosperity gospel explains Donald Trump’s popularity with Christian voters, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/07/15/how-the-prosperity-gospel-explains-donald-trumps-popularity-with-christian-voters/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On President Trump praising Robert Jeffress as a wonderful pastor who says Satan founded the Catholic Church, see https://www.thedailybeast.com/president-trump-promotes-book-by-wonderful-pastor-who-says-satan-founded-the-catholic-church.
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(8/2/15): Freedom and Fundamentalism
http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/freedom-and-fundamentalism.html (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
(2/18/17): Gerrymandering, Race and Polarized Partisan Politics
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(4/23/16): Standards of Legitimacy in Morality, Manners and Political Correctness
(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
(9/17/16): 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
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/19/17) Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(9/30/17): The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: What Does It Mean Today? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-500th-anniversary-of-protestant.html.
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus
(11/4/17): What to Believe? Truth or Consequences in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/11/what-to-believe-truth-or-consequences.html.