By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
America’s civil religion is a composite of politics and religion that has been corrupted by radical-right nationalism and exclusivist religion. Together they promote a divisive “us versus them” mentality in a world of increasing racial and religious diversity. To counter this corruption America needs a moral revival to promote a universalist politics of reconciliation.
Religion doesn’t make people moral, but in a religious nation God’s will is the primary source of the moral standards of its civil religion; and if God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, then Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. Unfortunately, Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the church, mosque and in politics.
Christians believe that the teachings of Jesus are God’s word, but a majority of Christians have followed misguided evangelical leaders who promote a self-centered and materialistic prosperity gospel that more closely resembles the objectivist morality of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus, and they elected a narcissistic demagogue as their president.
Most American Christians have become hypocrites by allowing nationalism and partisan loyalty to supersede the teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as they love themselves—including their neighbors of other races and religions. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Both Christianity and Islam are exclusivist religions that promote nationalist radical-right politics. In Islamic nations apostasy and blasphemy laws deny the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, and are often used by oppressive leaders to silence their opposition. Islam will soon surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion, so that it creates long term issues.
World peace depends upon universalist religious and political beliefs taking precedence over divisive parochial religious beliefs and nationalist politics. Christians should lead the way by promoting a politics of reconciliation that subordinates exclusivist Christian doctrines and radical-right politics to the universal and altruistic moral teachings of Jesus.
That will not be easy. Orthodox Christian and Islamic beliefs assert that there is only one true faith and that all others are false. Promoting the universal belief that God’s love and mercy extends to those of other races and religions (and even to unbelievers) will deny to Christianity and Islam their claims of exclusivity that have given them their worldly popularity and power.
In medieval times Christianity used its exclusivist orthodoxy to exterminate heretics with witch trials in Europe and in Puritan New England. More recently nationalist demagogues like Hitler and Stalin have used similar tactics to eliminate political heretics. Without human rights to constrain radical-right demagogues, it’s not hard to imagine it happening again.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer left the security of America to challenge Hitler’s Nazi regime after most German Christians became complicit with it, just as most white American Christians are complicit with the immoral politics of Donald Trump. For Bonhoeffer, the cost of discipleship was high. Could the Trump era be creating a Bonhoeffer moment for American Christians?
A politics of reconciliation doesn’t have to eliminate all of our political and religious differences—only those that conflict with the greatest commandment as a universal common word of faith. But Christians and Muslim conservatives continue to support divisive “us versus them” politics and religion. It’s still too soon to tell if universalism and altruism can overcome the corrosive effects of nationalist politics and exclusivist religion in America’s civil religion.
Mustafa Akyol has asked, Does religion make people moral? After noting that Turkey’s Erdogan has recruited conservative Islamists who support his use of Islamic law to negate human rights and purge Erdogan’s political opponents in the name of nationalism, he says “The religious conservatives have been corrupted by power.” Akyol observed that Jesus criticized Jewish religious leaders who were “confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” and “stripped morality from religion.” Akyol affirmed that such self-righteousness can cause an “us versus them mentality that can corrupt and radicalize any religious community.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/does-religion-make-people-moral.html.
Paul Miller has noted that “Nationalism has always been the enemy of true diversity…The nationalist delusion is that we can unify our attachments under the umbrella of a single, overarching, holistic identity. That is not only impractical, but it is also dangerous and, for religious believers, wrongheaded and insulting. The things Trump says about the nation I believe to be true about the church. Nationalism mimics religion in its claim on our ultimate loyalty and its pretension to provide “the fullness of the life intended by God.” See http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/03/trumps-nationalism-is-arbitrary-dangerous-incoherent-and-silly/.
The Economist has provided a comprehensive overview of nationalism, noting that its narcissistic (radical right) forms are dominant today. The following are excerpts from the article:
Wherever you look, nationalism is rising. Sometimes it takes the form of self-declared nations demanding the right to determine their future. More often it is a lurch to the populist and reactionary right: Turkey is militant, Japan is shedding its pacifism, India is toying with Hindu supremacy, China dreams of glory and Russia is belligerent.
Most remarkable is the nationalist turn in the United States. It has always seen itself as a place apart. But for most of its history this exceptionalism has been a form of self-regarding universalism; in time, the rest of the world would catch up. Now it has an angry, nativist president who sees America not leading, but being left behind—and vows to make it great again.
Nationalism is an abiding legacy of the Enlightenment. It is not an aberration. It is here to stay. Like religion, nationalism is capable of bringing out the best in people as well as the worst. It can inspire them to bind together freely in pursuit of the common good. But it can also fill them with a terrifying, righteous certainty, breeding strife and injustice.
Sadly, the new nationalism plays to the paranoid, intolerant side of this legacy.
But nationalism has liberated oppressed people as often as it has fired up anti-Semites. After the first world war, when Woodrow Wilson, America’s president, championed the principle of national self-determination, these new nations emerged, blinking, into sunlight, a process typically accompanied by national anthems that sounded like subpar Verdi.
As empires have fallen apart, Wilson’s principle of national self-determination has spread around the world. The philosophy that nations are sovereign and uniquely able to say what suits them is incorporated into the bedrock of the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions and the whole of international law. Everything else follows from it.
Indeed, nationalism has become so much a part of the backdrop that you hardly notice it—except, as today, when there is a crisis.
Lori Brandt Hale and Reggie L. Williams have asked, “Is this a Bonhoeffer moment?” They noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued, “As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle, nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for his neighbor.” Bonhoeffer spoke of “costly grace” and made a distinction between Christian religion and discipleship. Hale and Williams assert that “We live in a time of moral obscurity,” and that “Bonhoeffer’s context—specifically the church context within Nazi Germany—provides a helpful lens for reflecting on our current situation.” They point out that the Catholic Church and Protestant churches in Germany “became more than bystanders. Their explicit support of Hitler…made them perpetrators.” “Bonhoeffer wrote that that the church has the right and responsibility to ask whether the state is fulfilling its duty to preserve justice and order.” Bonhoeffer “was living in a complicated time when evil was disguised as good.” See https://sojo.net/magazine/february-2018/this-bonhoeffer-moment-American-Christians.
Edward Simmons has imagined that if Jesus walked among us today he would likely criticize sanctimonious and hypocritical evangelical Christian leaders who preach a prosperity gospel and live a life of luxury while promoting radical-right politicians who favor the rich and ignore the needs of the poor, just as Jesus criticized sanctimonious and hypocritical Pharisees and scribes of his day who emphasized religious beliefs and purity and ignored the needs of their neighbors. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/jesus-as-critic-of-hypocrisy-then-and-now/.
Catherine Rampell has considered America’s nationalism under Trump a cultural revolution similar to that of the 1966-1976 cultural revolution in China under Mao Zedong. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/americas-own-cultural-revolution/2018/01/01/1f53438e-ef38-11e7-b390-a36dc3fa2842_story.html?utm_term=.ad4800189b4c&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On Why Europe’s wars of religion put 40,000 “witches” to a terrible death, see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/witchcraft-economics-reformation-catholic-protestant-market-share.
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