By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Can the church survive in America’s dysfunctional democracy, even if it survives the Trump era? Religious charlatans have stoked fear and anger to make distorted doctrines of Christianity the new opium of the public. If the church hopes to reclaim its legitimacy and save American democracy from the decadence of human depravity, it must promote a new Moral Majority based on altruism and reason to supplant the corrupt politics of the old Moral Majority.
More than 70% of Americans consider themselves Christians, but they are divided in their religion and politics. Most white Christians in mainline denominations avoid mixing their religion and politics in church, but vote Republican. White evangelical Christians have no such qualms and actively support Republicans, while black Christians actively support Democrats.
The racial divide in partisan politics is evident in gerrymandered political districts and in the racial segregation of most churches. There are explanations for racial segregation in the church and politics, but they do not justify the racialism that has polarized our democracy. The church must oppose all forms of racial segregation if it hopes to reclaim its legitimacy.
Pastors are church leaders, much as politicians are political leaders. Both shape the standards of legitimacy in their overlapping domains of religion and politics, and both depend upon public support. Moral standards are the province of pastors, and politicians make the law; and both are constrained to follow the moral standards of their constituents, or lose their jobs.
The morality of Republicans is in the distorted “family values” of evangelical Values Voters. As successors to Jerry Falwell’s old Moral Majority, Republicans proclaim abortion and homosexuality to be sinful, although Jesus never mentioned either as such. Democrats are more utilitarian; they measure political morality by support of the identity politics of their constituents.
A major challenge for both pastors and politicians in democracy is balancing individual rights with promoting the common good. Evangelical Republicans advocate religious freedom that allows them to discriminate against same sex couples who they consider sinners. Democrats use a reverse rationale to promote social welfare programs at the expense of individual rights.
Theological issues complicate this political balancing act. While the Bible emphasizes promoting the common good and helping the poor and needy, it does not mention democracy or individual rights since they were irrelevant in those ancient times. Evangelical Christians preach “obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority, belief in the sacrifice of Jesus as the source of salvation, the need to be “born again,’ and work to spread their [exclusivist evangelical] gospel.”
Discipleship should be a priority for pastors. Jesus taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him, but most pastors reverse those priorities since the cost of discipleship can be high, and few Christians are willing to pay the price. It’s understandable that most pastors avoid promoting discipleship, just as politicians avoid promoting taxes. Jesus would never have been a pastor or a politician, but pastors need to be more like Jesus for the church to survive democracy.
I know. Been there, done that; and I’ve talked to other pastors who have confirmed my experience. Most Protestant pastors are primarily concerned with the wellbeing of their congregations and don’t want to upset them with contentious political issues. But Jesus had no qualms about bringing contentious issues into holy places. He once upset religious leaders by overturning tables in the Temple, and he was crucified for his disruptive efforts.
The only way that the church can survive in America’s contentious democracy is if its pastors restore the priority of the teachings of Jesus over exclusivist mystical beliefs that ignore immoral politics. If pastors promote the stewardship of democracy based on the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including those of other races and religions—as we love ourselves, then the church and democracy might survive the 21st century.
Charles Mathewes has asserted that White Christianity is in big trouble, and that it’s its own biggest threat. He notes that Christians have allowed fear to overcome their faith, even after Jesus emphasized that they should fear not, and that there is no fear in God’s love. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/12/19/white-christianity-is-in-big-trouble-and-its-its-own-biggest-threat/?utm_term=.46c2e360c0fa.
Neal Gabler thinks that “the real lesson of the 2016 elections lies not in politics but religion.” He states that “True religion begins in doubt and continues in spiritual exploration. Debased religion begins in fear and terminates in certainty.” Gabler goes on to say, “Just as I don’t think politics is the real engine for the Trump movement, I don’t think that politics is entirely the solution. Religion, which in its corrupted form is an engine, may be—by which I mean the moral and spiritual underpinnings of life. Rather than abandon our values or downplay them, as some suggest, I think we should double down on them.” See http://billmoyers.com/story/what-happened-america/#.WjVh6qNv-hN.facebook.
Samuel Kimbriel has noted that Christianity is political. But America’s politically active Christians seem to be forgetting that. He pointed out the shifting priorities of politics and inner virtues in Christianity, and how worldly power has once again subsumed virtue. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/11/21/christianity-is-political-but-americas-politically-active-christians-seem-to-be-forgetting-that/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.de8387cc1374.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey has noted that after Trump and Moore, some evangelicals are finding their own label too toxic to use. Bailey cites the historian David Bebbington for a four-part definition of evangelical faith as “1. Obedience to the Bible as theultimate authority, 2. Belief in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the source of salvation, 3. The necessity of a ‘born again’ conversion experience, and 4. Work to spread the [evangelical version of ] the Gospel.” Bailey notes “that definition has helped distinguish many evangelical churches from more theologically liberal mainline Protestant churches, as well as from stricter fundamentalist churches.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/after-trump-and-moore-some-evangelicals-are-finding-their-own-label-too-toxic-to-use/2017/12/14/b034034c-e020-11e7-89e8-edec16379010_story.html?undefined=&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
Using the term, Fox Evangelicals to describe evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump, Amy Sullivan questioned how Christian voters could support Donald Trump, “who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity.” Sullivan found that “Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.” Sullivan cited a recent survey that indicated “that while one quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, ‘evangelical’ effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/opinion/sunday/war-christmas-evangelicals.html.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey has described a spiritual battle among white evangelicals, citing a recent poll in which 55% of evangelical Christians said they were more likely to support a candidate who voted the way they want than one who lived a moral life (36%). Bailey then cited Collin Hansen, editorial director of the Gospel Coalition: “Political partisanship and a disdain for outsiders have become unifying driving factors for white evangelicals instead of the gospel of Jesus Christ. …Recent political changes have exposed the moral and theological rot in the evangelical church. There will not be a coherent evangelical movement to emerge from this political season.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/13/a-spiritual-battle-how-roy-moores-failed-campaign-tested-evangelicals/?wpisrc=nl_evening&wpmm=1.
Peter Wehner has described his estrangement from the radical right evangelical movement and the Republican Party in Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/09/opinion/sunday/wehner-evangelical-republicans.html.
In asking Can evangelicalism survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore? Timothy Keller has elaborated on Peter Wehner’s lament, described the history of evangelicalism, and concluded that it is too diverse to be defined by the radical right supporters of Donald Trump. See https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/can-evangelicalism-survive-donald-trump-and-roy-moore.
Citing the divisive political controversies surrounding Roy Moore, Jerusalem and LGBT rights, Daniel Burke, the Religion Editor for CNN, has asked, Why is Religion so Divisive? See http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/08/us/religion-divisive/index.html.
Jim Wallis is a progressive Christian who has long advocated altruistic Christian morality in politics in contrast to the distorted doctrines of radical right evangelicals. On Republican tax reform, see Great Injustice Calls for Great Action at https://sojo.net/articles/great-injustice-calls-great-action. On Religion and Power Were Intertwined. Then Jesus Challenged It All, see https://sojo.net/articles/religion-and-power-were-intertwined-then-jesus-challenged-it-all.
Robin Meyers has described how the church can survive in democracy in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus (Harper One, 2009).
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(12/9/17): Religion, Race and Identity Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/religion-race-and-identity-politics.html.
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