Saturday, April 28, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Christian morality provides the standards for political legitimacy in America, but most Christians support a president who represents the vices rather than the virtues taught by Jesus.  Christianity has lost its moral authority in American politics. It will take a religious and political reformation to restore the virtues taught by Jesus as standards of American political legitimacy.

Jesus put reason over religious rules and disobeyed Jewish laws that prohibited good works on the Sabbath.  Jesus said, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), and then asked, Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill? (Mark 3:4)  Jesus called sinners, not the righteous (Mark 2:15-17), and taught that all those who did God’s will were his brothers and sisters in the family of God. (Mark 3:31-35)

Jesus debunked Jewish dietary laws as standards for moral purity or virtue, teaching that our vices are unrelated to what we eat, since they come from our hearts, not our stomachs: ...Out of men’s hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. (Mark 7:20-22)

The story of the rich man seeking salvation at Mark 10:17-27 illustrates the danger of the love of riches.  The story tells us that Jesus loved the rich man and told him to give his wealth to the poor and follow him, but the rich man turned and sadly walked away.  Perhaps he felt that God had rewarded him with his wealth, since he told Jesus he had been obedient to Jewish law.

Jesus gave his disciples a lesson on humility in leadership when they were arguing over who was the greatest among them.  Jesus told them, If any one wants to be first, he must be the very last and servant of all.  And when James and John asked Jesus to allow them to sit at his right and his left in God’s kingdom, Jesus told them he could not do that. (Mark 9:35)

When the other disciples became indignant with James and John for seeking favoritism, Jesus told them: You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-43)

Jesus refrained from condemning Roman leaders, but he condemned religious leaders for their hypocrisy and sanctimony (see Mark 12:38,39; Matthew 23 and Luke 1:37-53).  Those vices can be seen in religious leaders and politicians today when they promote their own power at the expense of the common good.

The moral teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Mark 12:28-33)  But just who are our neighbors?  Jesus answered that question in the story of the good Samaritan, where a hated Samaritan stopped to help a wounded Jew.  Jesus taught that our neighbors include those of other races and religions--even those we dislike. (Luke 10:29-37).

St. Paul affirmed the principle of love over law and the greatest commandment when he wrote the Romans: The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” Do not steal,” Do not covet,” and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no harm to its neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. (Romans 13:8-10)  And there is no more beautiful description of altruistic love than in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (I Corinthians 13)

The teachings of Jesus are summed up in the greatest commandment to love others--all others--as we love ourselves.  It is a standard of political legitimacy that requires balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, and resisting the temptations of money and power.  That’s a difficult standard for anyone, let alone politicians; but the Christian stewardship of democracy requires that voters hold their elected officials morally accountable.  

The church has failed to promote the stewardship of democracy, and that has allowed the moral corruption of American politics.  To save Christianity and the American civil religion from further moral decline, the church must restore the primacy of the altruistic teachings of Jesus in both the faith and politics among those who call themselves Christians.

The teachings of Jesus on the moral virtues of political legitimacy are provided in an interfaith study guide, The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, Lessons 1-15 at pp 16-71, posted in the Resources at

According to a recent poll Donald Trump’s favorability rating  among white born-again Christians is at an all-time high (75-22), compared to an unfavorable rating of 45-22 among all Americans. See
A recent poll of S. C. voters indicates that “a majority of self-described Republicans agree the GOP president is ‘Christian,’ ‘godly,’ ‘moral,’ and ‘strong.’  However, the evangelicals who make up a major part of the S.C. GOP are more split on Trump. While 61% of S.C. Republicans said Trump was moral, 51% of evangelicals said that term was ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ inaccurate in describing the president.  And while 65% of S.C. Republicans agreed that Trump is a Christian, 48% of evangelicals said that description is somewhat or very inaccurate.” Overall, Trump’s approval rating has gone up in S.C., from 42% to 46%, with Trump’s disapproval rating down from 50% to 47%.  “The poll confirms South Carolina remains a deeply religious state, with 90 percent of South Carolinians saying they believe in God or a ‘universal spirit.’ Three-fourths say they have donated money to their church or religious organization within past year, and two-thirds believe the Bible is the word of God. Of those, 55 percent said the Scripture should be taken literally, word for word.  But many also expressed discontent with religion. Half of those surveyed said churches and religious organizations focus too much on rules. Another half said churches are too concerned with money and power. Forty-four percent said churches are too involved in politics, but half said they were not.” (See

Michael Gerson writes hopefully that a few evangelicals are forging a path back to God’s kingdom.  See  But if some evangelicals have seen the error of their ways, many are rallying to support Republicans before the 2018 elections.  See

The moral corruption of Donald Trump and his Republican Party is evident in how they have promoted the interests of the rich and powerful ahead of providing for the common good.  See

It appears that Republican politicians haven’t properly understood the gospel accounts.  See

A picture, or in this case, a political cartoon by Tom Toles, can be worth a thousand biblical words.  See
Related commentary:

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(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
(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(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
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(10/29/16): A Revelation in American Politics and Religion
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(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
(5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(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  
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion  
(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
(10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/9/17): Religion, Race and Identity Politics
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy?
(1/6/18): The Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/10/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Spirituality and Politics
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The mission of the military is to “support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  That mission requires an authoritarian military regime within a libertarian democracy.  It’s a paradox that can create divisive civil-military issues of legitimacy that are different from those faced by the U.S. military overseas (see last week’s commentary).  

There has always been tension between military and civilian values.  Without a popular war to ease that tension, civilian support for the military wanes.  And it works both ways. Phil Klay recalls military personnel demeaning civilians, saying “While we’re at war, they’re at the mall.”  That reflects a sense of isolation among the one percent of Americans who serve in the military; many perceive an indifference of the other ninety-nine percent to their mission.   

America is polarized by a two-party duopoly that has evolved into divisive radical-right versus radical-left identity politics.  A rift in civil-military relations along party lines could endanger the fabric of American democracy, and that is a real danger with a narcissistic, belligerent, impulsive and unpopular president and commander-in-chief who sees a war as a way to bolster his popularity and that of his political party.  

The U.S. military is essential to protect national security interests and doesn’t need a war to justify its existence; but it does need to be integrated in the society it protects.  The military wields awesome lethal force and will always be a small percentage of the civilian population. But while it is the last bastion of defense for America’s freedom and democracy, it can also be a danger to democracy if it becomes isolated from the civilians it is duty bound to protect.

In 1957 Samuel P. Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State, a treatise on civil-military relations that argued that the military should be isolated from politics.  In 1993 Huntington wrote “The Clash of Civilizations” in which he saw the world at war over traditional religious and cultural differences interwoven in politics.  In today’s world of clashing cultures, military leaders must be knowledgeable of the strategic political issues that create armed conflict.

Carl von Clausewitz was a 19th century Prussian general who once famously said, war is an extension of politics by other means.  Military operations are a lethal extension of a nation’s foreign policy, and since the American Revolution, the citizen-soldiers of the National Guard and Reserve components have been the glue that has held U.S. civil-military relations together.  The military establishment in America has never been isolated from the civilian society it serves.

But that could be changing.  Phil Klay has raised issues related to the recent ambush and killing of Special Forces (SF) soldiers in Niger that should concern all Americans: Why were they in combat?  What was their mission, and when are SF advisory missions used as a cover for combat missions? Such issues of military policy should not be considered partisan issues, but most often they are, and that exacerbates partisan polarization.

Klay noted that after a public outcry over the incident in Niger “a former SF member” posted a vitriolic message on social media saying “We did what we did so that you can be free to naively judge us, complain about the manner in which we kept you safe “ and “just all around live your worthless sponge lives.”  Klay characterized those negative comments as “just a more embittered form of sentiment that he indulged in as a young lieutenant in Iraq.”

Klay also cited John Kelly, a retired Marine general who is now Trump’s chief of staff, who “...complained that nothing seemed to be sacred in America anymore, not women, not religion, not even the ‘dignity of life,’” and that “there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required.”  

There’s truth in Kelly’s assertion that civilian values are now at odds with traditional values.  The Army values of loyalty and duty to the Constitution, respect for others, honor, integrity and personal courage in the face of moral and physical threats are traditional values ignored by most civilians.  While the military is only one percent of America’s population, its mission is to protect all Americans, so that civil-military relations is a vital concern for all of us.


On the paradox of an authoritarian military in a libertarian democracy, the conflict between military and civilian values, the Soldier and the State, and conflicting views on military and civilian leadership, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996), chapter 5, posted in Resources at

Related commentary:

(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy
(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace
(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
(8/26/17): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War
(9/2/17): The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies
(4/14/18): Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy