By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Religion is the primary source of the moral standards of legitimacy that shape our politics—for good or bad. Christianity and Islam are the world’s two largest religions, and both are exclusivist. Each claims to be the one true faith and asserts the inerrancy of its ancient scriptures—fundamentalist beliefs that produce conflicting concepts of political legitimacy.
The best way to reconcile religious differences is through dialogue, but dialogue cannot reconcile exclusivists who believe that they must try to convert those of other faiths. Such proselytizing denies respect for other religions; and fundamentalist beliefs in the inerrancy of ancient scripture as God’s truth oppose freedom, democracy and the secular rule of law.
Religious exclusivism and fundamentalism are intrafaith issues within each religion as well as interfaith issues. Fundamentalists within each religion have supported radical-right politicians who oppose equal justice under law, and they include evangelical Christians in the U.S. and fundamentalist Islamists in the Middle East and Africa.
Christian and Muslim fundamentalists resist progress and modernity with belief in their ancient scriptures as God’s unchanging moral and legal standards of legitimacy. Christians go a step further and subordinate the teachings of Jesus to man-made church doctrine that asserts that God sent Jesus as a blood sacrifice of His one and only Son to atone for the sins of all believers.
More progressive Christians and Muslims interpret the dictates of their scripture based on reason and advances in knowledge. While Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus, they consider him a prophet like Muhammad, so that his teachings are considered the word of God. This gives the teachings of Jesus the moral authority to resolve both intrafaith and interfaith issues.
Jesus was a Jew who never promoted his or any other religion. His teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves. That altruistic and universalist love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
While there are many similarities in the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad, there are also many differences that can be attributed to their contrasting contexts: Jesus lived under Roman rule, but he never engaged in secular politics. Muhammad was more like Moses and Joshua. They lived in hostile environments that required religious leaders to assume political and military leadership roles to provide law and order and protect their people from violence.
Moses and Muhammad emphasized obedience to holy law while Jesus emphasized love over law. There is no place in a libertarian democracy for coercive religious law, and religious moral standards must be compatible with the love command to enable Jews, Christians and Muslims to be good stewards of democracy and promote a politics of reconciliation.
The most contentious political issues today relate to social and economic justice and involve a volatile mix of religion and race. The church is the best place to initiate interfaith dialogue on morality in religion and politics since religion is the primary source of the standards of legitimacy that shape our politics, and since over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians.
Neither Jesus nor Muhammad considered issues of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law since those topics were not relevant to their ancient time and place. The challenge for interfaith dialogue is to relate the ancient teachings of Jesus and Muhammad to contemporary political issues, balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.
Once altruistic and universalist principles grounded in the greatest commandment take precedence over exclusivist religious doctrines, then reason and advances in knowledge can overcome fundamentalist beliefs that consider ancient scriptures to be perfect and immutable. Only then can interfaith dialogue reconcile difficult issues of morality in religion and politics.
Evangelical Christian leaders who have supported Donald Trump and radical-right Republicans illustrate the moral ambiguity of Christian morality in politics—that is, if the teachings of Jesus as summarized in the greatest commandment are considered the Christian standard of morality. But in the wake of Trump’s “s***hole” remarks on immigration policy, some evangelicals are acknowledging their hypocrisy. See http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/01/13/evangelical-rift-intensifies-over-trump-immigration-remarks.html.
Mustafa Akyol affirmed the relevance of the teachings of Jesus to Islam, noting that Jesus “called on his fellow Jews to focus on their religion’s moral principles rather than obsessing with the minute details of religious law. …He also taught that outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy. Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/opinion/what-jesus-can-teach-todays-muslims.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2FMustafa%20Akyol&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=Collection®ion=Marginalia&src=me&version=column&pgtype=article.
Mustafa Akyol asked, Does religion make people moral?, and then pointed out that religious conservatives [Islamists] in Turkey have “come to dominate virtually all institutions of the state, as well as the media and even much of the business sector. In short, they have become the new ruling elite. …The religious conservatives have morally failed because they ended up doing everything they once condemned as unjust and cruel.” They “have become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/does-religion-make-people-moral.html.
Carl Krieg has advocated that Christians “replace the word God with the word love in the context of humanist/Christian dialogue”, citing 1 John 4:16: God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. He then makes reference to the greatest commandment and the story of the good Samaritan in which Jesus answers the question, Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37). See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/tillichs-challenge-the-search-for-new-vocabulary/.
Paul Chafee has cited a practical extension of interfaith dialogue and relationships conducted by St. Philip’s Centre in Leicester England that has “goals and strategies that are carefully considered and crafted in an environment that treasures listening, embraces differences, and thrives on inclusivity.” The interfaith project is described in Learning to Live Well Together by Tom Wilson and Riaz Ravat. See http://www.theinterfaithobserver.org/journal-articles/2017/12/12/review-learning-to-live-well-together-wilson-and-ravat.
Edward Simmons describes Jesus as Critic of Hypocrisy, Then and Now. He notes that Jesus taught that you can tell legitimate spokesmen for God from the false by their actions: You will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). Simmons cites the standard of the greatest commandment and the story of the good Samaritan as the message and example taught by Jesus for our time and all time: Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:37). See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/jesus-as-critic-of-hypocrisy-then-and-now/.
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(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
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