By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Religion has two purposes: A mystical purpose that defines our relationship with God, and a moral purpose that defines our relationships with each other. Jesus emphasized following his teachings as moral standards of legitimacy, but Paul’s atonement doctrine emphasized a mystical belief in Jesus as a divine being. In the 4th century, the church gave precedence to mystical belief in Jesus as God in the flesh over following Jesus as the word of God.
Until the 16th century Protestant Reformation Catholic doctrines required both faith and works for salvation, but Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide (salvation through faith alone) made moral deeds irrelevant to salvation. Luther emphasized Paul’s atonement doctrine and justification by faith, and challenged the assertion in the Gospel of James that true faith requires good deeds: As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:26)
Among evangelical Christians the doctrine of sola fide has evolved into Christian beliefs that ignore moral standards in politics. That trend culminated with the election of Donald Trump, who exemplifies the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus. Trump’s election was made possible by supporters of the evangelical prosperity gospel, which more closely resembles the self-centered objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus.
Contemporary evangelical leaders like Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Paula White and Robert Jeffress have promoted the prosperity gospel and “family values” that conflict with the moral teachings of Jesus. They consider abortion as murder, homosexuality as sin and promote racist and nativist policies; and they consider Donald Trump as chosen by God and condemn their opponents as Godless.
The worldly power of a religion depends upon its popularity. Christianity became a popular and powerful religion when the church subordinated the unpopular moral teachings of Jesus on self-denial and sacrificial love to belief in the divinity of Jesus as the only way to salvation. In short, the popularity of Christianity is based on cheap grace and a plastic Jesus.
While the majority of Americans claim to be Christians, they have allowed evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump and a radical-right GOP to hijack and corrupt Christianity. It’s little wonder that Trump can lie with impunity to the Canadian Prime Minister about trade, and that billionaire Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, can commit massive fraud and receive only a modest fine for her egregious exploitation of the public.
We live in a time of polarized politics and pervasive immorality despite the fact that over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians. The future of Christianity and democracy in America depends on a politics of reconciliation based on shared values--the values of altruistic love taught by Jesus. They 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.
Christianity is at a crossroads. It must make following Jesus as important as worshiping him, and make the stewardship of democracy a matter of faith as well as politics. That requires applying altruistic values in politics to balance individual rights with providing for the common good, and determining when and how lethal force can be used to protect people from those who would do them harm, as well as when and how military force is used to protect national security.
Christian values such as self-denial and sacrificial love as taught by Jesus are not popular in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture, but such altruistic values must be the standard of political legitimacy for the American civil religion to preserve American democracy from self-destruction. If Christians continue to elect narcissistic and immoral leaders like Donald Trump, both American democracy and Christianity are doomed to fail.
Michael Warren Davis has compared the seemingly fanatic public adoration of totalitarian leaders like Kim Jong-un and Hitler with Trumpsim “which bears a close resemblance to the Roman imperial cultus.” It “is a kind of Protestantism” that considers the Constitution as a sacred document. Davis concludes that “...our Anglo-American political tradition is native to orthodox Christianity. ...It evolves slowly, adapting to changes in the environment. Uproot it and it begins to wither, or else mutate beyond recognition. So we may confidently repeat Maistre’s warning. All true philosophies must opt between these two hypotheses: either we find our politics in authentic religion, or some weird new sect will arise from its choked and twisted roots.” See http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/all-politics-is-religion/.
In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, Bart Ehrman traces Christianity’s path from ‘forbidden religion’ to a ‘triumph,’ and attributes the triumph of Christianity over pagan religions to the alleged superiority of the Christian God over other gods, not to the moral teachings of Jesus:
“Why would somebody give up religious practices that had been going on in their family for generations, millennia, in order to follow a new religion? The answer seems to be that the Christians were meeting the pagans on their own grounds. The reason pagans were worshipping their gods is because the gods could provide them with things that they could not provide for themselves. It was all about divine power. We can't control if it rains. We can't control if the livestock reproduce. We can't control what happens when we get sick. We can't make ourselves well, but the gods can.
What the Christians argued was that the Christian God was more powerful than any other god, that this God was active in the world. He not only brought salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, he continues to act in the lives of his followers. He heals the sick. He casts out demons. He raises the dead. This God is very active and he is more powerful than any of the others, and so it came to be a competition between the gods, where the Christians were trying to convince people that their God was the superior one.” See
Ironically it was Thomas Jefferson, a deist, who considered the teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” At the same time Jefferson condemned church doctrines as “detestable and execrable.” See Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, p. 10 and note 2 at p 425, posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/.
On Trump acknowledging in a fundraising speech that he made up trade claim in meeting with Justin, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2018/03/14/in-fundraising-speech-trump-says-he-made-up-facts-in-meeting-with-justin-trudeau/?undefined=&utm_term=.4dd32d952ef0&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
On Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes charged with “massive fraud,” see https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2018/03/14/theranos-founder-elizabeth-holmes-charged-massive-fraud/424670002/.
On the difficulty of finding the shared values needed for political reconciliation in American politics, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/03/18/americans-generally-dont-think-their-political-opponents-share-their-values/?
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(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
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(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(10/11/15): Seeking, Being and Doing on Our Journey of Faith
(11/22/15): Dualism: Satan’s Evil Versus God’s Goodness
(1/2/16): God in Three Concepts
(1/16/16): Religion, Politics and Public Expectations
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
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(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
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