Saturday, August 4, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Two Facebook friends prompted this topic with assertions that religion should be kept out of politics, and that religion is not the answer but the problem in politics.  Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians. The moral standards of their faith shape their politics, but they can differ dramatically. Christian morality ranges from the altruistic teachings of Jesus to distorted doctrines of “family values” and a prosperity gospel that contradict the teachings of Jesus.

Religion has been a problem in politics since the 4th century when the Roman Emperor Constantine co-opted and corrupted Christianity with worldly power.  That led to the Crusades and Inquisitions, followed by the Protestant Reformation and the 100 Years War. In 2016, an unholy mix of religion and radical right politics produced a political apocalypse in America.

Today there are two major problems with religion in politics.  The first is moral ambiguity caused by mystical religious beliefs that obfuscate the moral standards of faith.  The second is the divisiveness caused by exclusivist beliefs that condemn unbelievers. Unprincipled leaders exploit these problems to mobilize their religious supporters with divisive us versus them politics.  

The solution for those problems requires a consensus among competitive religions to refute religious exclusivism and promote altruistic morality based on the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves.  That love command is taken from the Hebrew Bible, it was taught by Jesus--a Jew whose teachings are at the heart of the Christian religion--and it has been accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith.

The greatest commandment is a summary of the teachings of Jesus.  Thomas Jefferson considered them the most sublime moral code ever devised by man.  Jefferson may have been a hypocrite on political liberty as a slaveholder, but he was an enlightened man of reason who understood that the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus could preserve American democracy, while exclusivist church doctrines could unravel the fabric of democracy.

Over the years advances in knowledge and reason have debunked ridiculous religious doctrines that have corrupted religion and politics, and history has affirmed the universal truth of the moral teachings of Jesus; but evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump continue to ignore the moral imperatives taught by Jesus and promote distorted and divisive doctrines that more closely resemble the self-centered gospel of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus.

If progressive Christians are not able to counter the radical right politics of evangelical Christians, then their shrinking numbers will ultimately do just that.  More and more “nones” are defecting from the church, but most retain their faith in God’s transforming power to enable a politics of reconciliation--with or without the church.  But the decline of evangelical Christianity will take time, and in the meanwhile America’s democracy could suffer irreparable harm.

America’s political problems are moral problems, and because religion is the primary source of morality, political problems are infused with religion.  The vast majority of Americans who consider themselves to be Christians should practice the stewardship of democracy based on the teachings of Jesus, but most white Christians have either exempted their politics from those teachings or followed the distorted doctrines of evangelical charlatans.  That’s hypocrisy.

Jesus taught that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem all people, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer.  The problem is that Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church and in politics. Unprincipled religious and political leaders have used distorted religious doctrines to support immoral and divisive politics in the name of God.  Americans who ignore the problem of religion in politics do so at their peril.


Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but expressed contempt for the distortions and misuse of those teachings by Christian religious leaders. Jefferson wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378. While many Christians considered Jefferson a heretic, Jefferson wrote of himself: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other.” (p 334) For Jefferson, being a Christian meant following Jesus as God’s word rather than worshiping him as God’s son. He emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus over the mystical, and in so doing emphasized discipleship over orthodox Christian beliefs, a distinction elaborated by Robin R. Meyers in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, HarperCollins, 2009.

As a professed Christian, Vice President Pence has outdone the hypocrisy of Jefferson.  Pence gave a talk on the moral qualities of a president at Hillsdale College in 2010. Conor Friedersdorf reported that Pence emphasized the virtue of humility in a president, and went on to say that “The Constitution and the Declaration should be on a president’s mind all the time, as the prism through which the light of all question of governance passes, though we have—sometimes gradually, sometimes radically—moved away from this, we can move back to it. ...Pence also spoke of the bully pulpit and its potential for abuse: ‘Is the president, therefore, expected to turn away from this and other easy advantage? ...He must know when to withdraw, to hold back, and to forgo attention, publicity, or advantage. ...It is not his job or his prerogative to redefine custom, law, and beliefs; to appropriate industries; to seize the country, as it were, by the shoulders or by the throat so as to impose by force of theatrical charisma his justice upon 300 million others….You must always be wary of a president who seems to float upon his own greatness.’” Friedersdorf concludes, “A sensibility such as this, and not power, is the source of presidential dignity, and must be restored. It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline, and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic, but life itself. It communicates that the president feels the gravity of his office and is willing to sacrifice himself; that his eye is not upon his own prospects but on the storm of history, through which he must navigate with the specific powers accorded to him and the limitations placed on those powers both by man and by God.  President Trump does not strike anyone as a man who is willing to sacrifice himself; if Americans were ranked by that metric, he might be last. Power, however, seems very much a part of his sensibility. That he lacks dignity is beyond question.”
By the standards that Pence set forth before he joined his political fate and his legacy to the president, Trump would appear to be an utter catastrophe.  Said Pence near the end of his speech, “I have never doubted that Providence can appear in history like the sun emerging from behind the clouds, if only as a reward for adherence to first principles.”  But will Providence save America from its hypocritical and immoral leaders? See

There are progressive Christians in America’s churches who are countering radical right politics with moral principles taught by Jesus.  In addition to Jim Wallis’ reclaiming Jesus movement, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have taken a political stand with the following declaration:  
“As confessing Christians, we trust God, whom we know through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray as others pray in other names.
We are obligated to declare our concerns about the direction towards autocracy that our country is taking.
We say Yes to God’s power of love and justice for the neighbor as well as the self, and we say No to demonic power that urges hate of the other, scatters blame, and creates civic discord.
We say Yes to our imperfect democracy with one person, one vote, and No to any corruption of our elections.
We say Yes to universal health care and No to care based on the ability to pay.
We say Yes to safe schools, houses of worship, and public gathering places; and No to civilian access to assault and/or military-style weapons.
We say Yes to core human values and No to dividing our humanity by ideology and partisanship.
We say Yes to bridges and preservation of families and No to walls.
We say Yes to affirming and celebrating the full spectra of human identity and No to discrimination and bigotry.
We say: ‘In life, and in death we belong to God.'”
“I think that to not do it is to not to be true to who Jesus is calling us to be. It’s a question of how we do it, I think,” said Ted Church, executive of the Presbytery of New Hope, which oversees 170 churches from Mebane to the Outer Banks.
Still Churn said the declaration, which includes oblique references to Trump’s administration, is likely to cause controversy in many congregations.
“I do not go out and say to the churches that this is what your session needs to affirm,” he said. “I go out and say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about this.'”
According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members are Republicans and 47 percent are Democrats.
There is no deadline for churches to decide whether they are on board with the declaration, and denomination leaders said all voices are welcome to stay at the table, regardless of their decision.
“I know there are some who struggle and we’re not on the same side of the issue, but we need to be able to talk about it,” Churn said.  See

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