Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Changing religious standards of morality among the myriad forms of Christianity today and their ambiguity in politics raise a question about political legitimacy: Will religion continue to be the primary source of American political values and moral standards in the future as in the past, or will secular humanitarian values play a larger role in shaping the American civil religion?
Christian standards of morality have long shaped concepts of political legitimacy in America, but as with the rights of women and homosexuals, changing secular values have also shaped our politics. The 2016 election demonstrated that partisan political values can subvert traditional Christian values. Machiavellian morality has corrupted both Christianity and politics. The vast majority of white Christians who elected Donald Trump acknowledge his values are the antithesis of those taught by Jesus, yet they continue to support him as their political messiah.
The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. It is based on the timeless and universal altruistic principle of love over law. It’s simple but difficult to apply in democracies where levying taxes is never popular and where the use of lethal force in law enforcement and military operations will always be problematic.
The greatest challenge for Christian morality in a democracy is to balance individual wants and rights with providing for the common good. That purpose is frustrated by Christians who promote distorted “family values” that condemn homosexuality as a sin, and the many who follow a materialistic prosperity gospel that promises worldly wealth to the faithful.
The evangelical charlatans who promote radical right politics have overwhelmed and corrupted Christian morality beyond redemption, leaving only a minority of Christians to support the altruistic teachings of Jesus in their politics. Given the pervasive ambiguity and dysfunction of Christian morality, secular humanitarian values are likely to replace Christian morality in defining the standards of political legitimacy in America.
One thing seems certain. In America’s materialistic and hedonistic democracy there will never be a ruling majority that embraces the altruistic and sacrificial values taught by Jesus, so that Christians who are faithful to the teachings of Jesus should expect to remain a minority. Jesus acknowledged that his teachings on sacrificial love were a narrow way, not a broad and popular way that could produce the majorities needed to win elections in a democracy.
The one time that altruistic morality prevailed in American politics was during the Great Depression. It will not likely be repeated unless and until a majority of Americans once again find themselves on the short end of the stick. That’s likely to happen again this century, but only after most of the rich and powerful have anticipated the crisis and left America with their wealth.
Todays’ corrupted Christian morality is the result of mystical and exclusivist church doctrines that trump the moral teachings of Jesus. That priority could be reversed if more Christians accept the views of Thomas Jefferson, the Jesus Seminar and the reclaiming Jesus movement of Jim Wallis and restore the primacy of the altruistic teachings of Jesus to their faith and politics. If that happens, America’s salvation won’t have to wait until its next Depression.
Christianity has failed the test of moral leadership in America. Only a minority of Christians promote the altruistic teachings of Jesus in their stewardship of democracy. Since Christianity has lost its moral authority in American politics, most Christians will be left behind to promote their mystical and exclusivist beliefs that have isolated Christianity from other religions.
The categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant is altruism in its purest philosophical form (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative), in contrast to Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy that emphasizes self-centered existential morality (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand). Jesus taught altruism in the language and idiom of his first century Jewish audience, as summarized in the greatest commandment.
Thomas Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” See p. 10 and end Note 2 in the Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html.
The scholars of the Jesus Seminar recognized Thomas Jefferson as an early visionary who, like themselves, “scrutinized the gospels with the intent to separate the real teachings of Jesus, the figure of history, from the encrustations of Christian doctrine.” See Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1993, pp. 10, 11.
Jim Wallis has described the meeting between Putin and Trump in Helsinki and its aftermath as clarifying, and challenged the church in its myriad forms to reclaim Jesus and clean up the moral and political mess Christians have made in America. See https://sojo.net/articles/helsinki-was-clarifying.
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(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
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(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
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(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.
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(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
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