Saturday, November 4, 2017

What to Believe? Truth or Consequences in Religion and Politics

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            In religion and politics, finding truth can be elusive, but the failure to distinguish truth from falsehood has its consequences.   In presenting his version of truth, President Trump has denigrated traditional media sources with fake news.  In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God’s truth is found in their holy scriptures.  That’s why those religions are called religions of the book.

            St. Augustine stated the conundrum of understanding and believing truth this way: Do not seek to understand so that you may believe, but believe so that you may understand.  Discovering God’s truth requires reason, but reason alone is not enough.  A leap of faith is needed to bridge the gap between worldly reality, reason and the ultimate truth, which can come in many forms.

            There are two categories of religious truths: the mystical and the moral.  Mystical truths relate to the ineffable nature of God.  They are ultimately speculative and known only by faith and experience.  Moral truths define our human relationships and come in the form of voluntary moral standards of legitimacy or in coercive religious laws.  Religious laws have no place in libertarian democracies, and voluntary moral standards of legitimacy are subject to reason.

            Thomas Jefferson understood the distinction between mystical and moral matters of faith, and asserted that only moral standards were relevant to our politics.  In politics Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and he discounted mystical religious beliefs “that don’t pick my pocket or break my leg.”       
            What is truth? (John 18:38)  That rhetorical question of Pontius Pilate has echoed down through the ages.  Jesus had earlier told his disciples: I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6; see commentary on these verses at pp 330-331 and 416-417 of The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy at   

            John’s Gospel is unique.  It presents Jesus as the mystical Logos, or Word of God (John 1:1-18), and is more like a gospel of the Holy Spirit than of the man Jesus.  John 14:6 is problematic.  If taken literally it supports exclusivist Christian doctrine that limits salvation to those who believe in Jesus as God’s one and only Son; but if considered the word of God (Logos), it can be considered a universal truth compatible with all three religions of the book.

            In our democracy, the way, the truth and the life taught by Jesus relates to our politics, and the new command to love one another (John 13:34) summarizes the moral imperatives taught by Jesus.  It complements the greatest commandment in the other three gospels to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. 

            The love command is considered a common word of faith for all three religions of the book, and all three religions recognize Jesus as a great prophet.  If Christians were to emphasize following the teachings of Jesus as the word of God rather than worshipping Jesus as God, they could promote religious and political reconciliation.  Without a politics of reconciliation based on shared moral values, continued polarization will likely lead to the demise of our democracy.

            If we are truthful, we will acknowledge that truth and morality are relative and we tend to believe whatever we want to believe; and the internet contributes to that ambiguity by providing false truths that are congenial to every viewpoint.  But for those who are sincerely seeking God’s truth, it begins with loving our neighbors—even those we don’t like—as we love ourselves, and then struggling with its uncomfortable applications in our social relations and politics.               

            God’s truth can be problematic.  Loving all people requires that we protect them from those who would do them harm, and the latest terrorist attack in New York illustrates the paradox.  One dysfunctional hate-filled man has reignited fear and hatred toward Muslims, but rooting out potential terrorists requires the cooperation of all Muslims.  If hatred in the name of God is part of the problem, then love in the name of God must be part of the solution.

            The truth is that our love for others is our only real defense against hate.  God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity in a flawed world, while Satan seeks to divide and conquer—and Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the mosque, church and politics.  The consequences of ignoring God’s truth are dire: further religious and political polarization, hate and violence.


On how Trump broke conservatism with his assault on truth by asserting lies, discrediting sources of opposition and then declaring victory based on media applause, which in a democracy gives lies legitimacy, see
On fraudulent news and the fight for truth, and how to create order out of media chaos and disinformation, see; see also, the pro-free speech way to fight fake news at
Kurt Andersen has a presented a dire and fantastical picture of religion in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (Random House, 2017).  Andersen sees the Reformation as allowing Protestants to reject the Vatican and start their own religion, then reject that religion and “start their own new religions again and again.”  Then “The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever…and in the marketplace of ideas, [it was assumed that] reason would win.”  Andersen asserts that reason never won this religious and political free-for-all in the marketplace of ideas and the internet, and he cites Emanuel Kant’s explanation that religion is burdened by questions “it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also unable to answer.”  Today fantastical doctrines of religion circulated on the internet continue to trump more practical moral doctrines (pages 52, 53).  It should be noted that Andersen’s book emphasizes the mystical side of religion and does not address its moral imperatives.

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
(1/25/15): Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
 (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
 (6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(6/21/15): Christians Meet Muslims Today
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity
(8/2/15): Freedom and Fundamentalism
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(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 (11/8/15): Tough Love and the Duty to Protect Life and Liberty
(11/22/15): Dualism: Satan’s Evil Versus God’s Goodness
(12/19/15): Taking Lives and Liberty in the Name of God
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
(4/16/16): Religious Violence and the Dilemma of Freedom and Democracy
(4/23/16): Standards of Legitimacy in Morality, Manners and Political Correctness
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(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
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism 
(8/19/17) Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(9/2/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart
(9/30/17): The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: What Does It Mean Today?
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus

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