By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Cass Sunstein has depicted the good and evil that now defines America’s polarized partisan politics as political Manichaeism. Ross Douthat has noted that “so far the Trump presidency has clearly been an apocalypse--an unveiling, an uncovering an exposure of truths that had heretofore been hidden.” The ugly truth is that voters in America’s two-party duopoly consider their party good and the other party evil. There is no middle-ground in politics.
Jesus summarized the greater good in the greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbors—including those of other races and religions—as we love ourselves. God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s evil will is to divide and conquer; and Satan does a convincing imitation of God in both the church and in politics. Indications are that Satan is winning the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.
The election of Donald Trump has tested the limits of political legitimacy, and the white Christians who elected Trump have tested the credibility and relevance of Christianity. Few American Christians consider the teachings of Jesus as moral imperatives of their faith. They have subordinated those moral teachings to exclusivist religious beliefs never taught by Jesus. While over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, most oppose a politics of reconciliation.
Rather than loving those of other races and religions, most white Christians limit their love to people like themselves and a mythical nation of faded glory now threatened by changing demographics. To avert their loss of political power they support a demagogue whose morals are the antithesis of those taught by Jesus, but who has promised to make America great again.
In matters of faith, most white Christians have exchanged the Jesus of the gospels for a mystical savior who offers cheap grace and blesses a materialistic and hedonistic America. Their prosperity gospel promises them worldly wealth and power as a reward for their faithfulness, and they believe that God sent Trump to save them. They may be half right. God may have sent Trump as the antiChrist to destroy them and set the stage for the Apocalypse.
If there is a cosmic spiritual battle raging between the forces of good and evil, the church has ignored it with exclusivist doctrines that have done more to divide people of different races and religions than reconcile them. Jesus was a Jew who sought to reform his legalistic religion by putting love over law, and he knew that his teachings would not be popular. The church knew that, too, and promoted exclusivist doctrines to gain the popularity needed for worldly success.
For Christianity to avoid the dustbin of history in an increasingly pluralistic world, it must assert the prominence of the universal teachings of Jesus over its exclusivist religious doctrines. Since the institutional church is not likely to do that, Christians must find a way to reform or reinvent the church to promote discipleship as a priority of faith.
John Wesley provided a precedent for doing that. Wesley was a maverick 18th century Anglican priest who organized small groups called Methodists who met weekly to discuss the nature of discipleship and then put it into practice. Wesley had no intention to create a new Christian denomination. His purpose was to revitalize the heart of his Anglican church.
America’s Protestant church, like Wesley’s 18th century Anglican church, needs a moral reformation to reconcile people of faith based on the universal and timeless teachings of Jesus rather than dividing them with exclusivist religious doctrines. For the church to save itself from irrelevance and oblivion it must promote the stewardship of democracy in the American civil religion, beginning with how to distinguish the difference between good and evil in politics.
Cass Sunstein has observed a Manichainian good versus evil moral dichotomy in American partisan politics. As antidotes to Manichaeism in politics, Sunstein quoted Lincoln and MLK (there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us), but there is little evidence that reconciliation will overcome the deep divisions that plague American politics. See https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-05-22/americans-polarization-is-hardening-into-hatred.
Jim McDermott considered the Roseanne debacle a reflection of polarized American moral norms that have degraded to good versus evil, with little in between. He cited an “...Ignatian spirituality meditation known as “The Two Standards.” The retreatant is asked to imagine themselves standing on a battlefield; at one end flies the banner of Christ, at the other the standard of the forces of darkness. It is a 16th-century version of the cartoon angel and devil on our shoulders, with us in the middle, fielding the invitations and trying to figure out which is the path of life. Usually the decisions of our lives are nowhere near as obvious as all that; we struggle to decide between two good options, or two bad ones, or a good one and a bad one that in other circumstances might actually be pretty good. ...The most unsettling thing about the ABC-“Roseanne” debacle...was that it was pretty black-and-white: invest in stories like “Alex, Inc.” [cancelled due to poor ratings] that speak to our best selves, our aspirations, or make a big splash (and a quick buck) with a show that too often seemed interested in drawing out our worst instincts. …’Roseanne’ mostly featured characters belittling one another. At its roots it celebrated not working-class white America, but meanness and smallness. See https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/05/30/roseanne-and-two-standards-abc
Ross Douthat has cited the debunking of the venerable Paige Patterson by Southern Baptists for his support of traditional church doctrine on patriarchal authority and its tolerance of husbands abusing wives as a sign of the Baptist apocalypse, which Douthat considers a test of the church rather than a final judgment heralding the end times. Douthat concludes: “Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge? For Baptists as for all of us, the direction of history after Trump will be determined not just by Providence’s challenge, but by our freely chosen answer.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/opinion/paige-patterson-southern-baptist-convention.html.
Michael Gerson has described the evils of the Trump era as “a renaissance of half-witted intolerance,” and called for political leaders with “an aspiration of unity to speak the language of empathy and to emphasize our common goals, our common values and our common fate as a people. The GOP waits on leaders who will make these tasks their own.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-trump-era-is-a-renaissance-of-half-witted-intolerance/2018/05/17/09c8848c-59f7-11e8-8.
After Roseanne Barr’s Trump-like Tweet that resulted in ABC cancelling her show, Gerson wrote that Trump doesn’t just fail a moral standard. He enables further cruelty and abuse. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-doesnt-just-fail-a-moral-standard-he-enables-cruelty-and-abuse/2018/05/31/31a8bdf.
John Bennison has described the relationship between politics and the teachings of Jesus and politics as the synonymy of politics and religion, and criticizes those in the church who avoid mixing the moral imperatives of their faith with their politics. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/the-synonymy-of-politics-and-religion/.
Jim Wallis has led a distinguished group of Christian leaders to reclaim Jesus and reject evil in the church and in politics. See https://sojo.net/articles/reclaiming-jesus-call-answer; see also https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=sojourners+reclaimng+Jesus+video#id=1&vid=5170b28e1038d6ab03ee230ead010b76&action=view.
On the other side of the fence, a recent barnstorming crusade of Franklin Graham “to win California for Jesus” demonstrated the popularity of charlatan evangelists like Graham who distort the altruistic message of Jesus to promote right-wing politics based on hatred. See
America has become a pitiful nation due to the failure of the church to distinguish between good and evil in American politics. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was prescient when he wrote the following:
Pity the nation whose people are sheep,
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced,
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice,
except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation — oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.
― Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The interrelationship between religion, legitimacy and politics as they relate to the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad is described in the Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study guide posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/.
(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
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(3/1/15): Religion as a Source of Good and Evil (Atheism)
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
(7/26/15): Fear and Fundamentalism
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(10/8/16): Revolutionaries, Moderates and Reactionaries in a Polarized Democracy
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(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
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(6/10/17): Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-and.html
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(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
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics