Saturday, October 20, 2018

Lamentations of an Old White Male Maverick Methodist in a Tribal Culture

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

I am an old white male (OWM) alienated from my traditional tribes.  As a retired United Methodist pastor, I have rejected exclusivist church doctrines and left my religious tribe to be a progressive Christian.  I believe that God is bigger than any religion and I promote interfaith reconciliation as a priority of my faith; but few Christians in our tribal culture share that belief.

I am a progressive Jeffersonian libertarian in my politics--and that’s not an oxymoron.  I believe that protecting human rights should be a priority of government, but that individual rights must be balanced with the obligation to provide for the common good for democracy to survive.  Our two-party duopoly has made that balance difficult with radicalized and polarized politics.

I was a Republican during the 1970s, but I left that political tribe after the religious right  and neo-conservatives became dominant in the GOP. Since 2016 I have opposed Donald Trump and his radical right Republican minions, but have never supported the leftist identity politics of the Democratic Party.  As a political centrist I have no political tribe.
I practiced law for 50 years.  When I started in 1967, I believed the law was a noble profession.  I continue to respect many lawyers, but I am disappointed with the law profession.  Our legal system was envisioned to serve the public, but today it exploits the public.  It’s just another business that puts profit before public service and it denigrates itself with offensive ads.

I am a retired Army officer who remains part of the military tribe.  I have great respect for those in the military and law enforcement who risk their lives to protect others, and I oppose politicians who promote wars, most of whom have never worn the uniform.  It has been rightly observed that war is a terrible thing, and that the only thing worse than winning a war is losing it.

Religion is a primary source of a nation’s standards of moral legitimacy in politics, law and military operations.  Christianity has long shaped the American civil religion, but today the altruistic moral imperatives taught by Jesus are conspicuously absent in its politics.  It is ironic that in 2016 white Christians gave a man who represents the antithesis of Christian morality the reigns of political power, and in so doing threw Jesus under the bus.

Christians struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus no longer have a voice in our polarized partisan politics.  We live in a red and blue tribal culture, and our most intractable differences on matters of race, religion and sex have been polarized in a partisan duopoly.  Religious and political reconciliation in America is essential, but it seems an impossible dream.

Before churches can promote political reconciliation, they must acknowledge their complicity in promoting red and blue tribalism.  Most white Christians vote Republican and most blacks vote Democratic. Evangelical church pulpits promote Republicans and black pulpits promote Democrats, while most pulpits in white mainstream churches are silent on politics.

Christians need to hear their pastors preach on how the teachings of Jesus relate to the stewardship of democracy.  They could start with the greatest commandment to love God and to love their neighbors--including their neighbors of other races and religions--as they love themselves.  That’s a common word of faith and politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

I remember when most Americans cared about others, and lament that most Americans now follow the self-centered teachings of Ayn Rand rather than the altruistic teachings of Jesus.  America may seem just fine with low unemployment and a booming stock market, but it isn’t. America is polarized politically and economically--an us versus them tribal culture seething with resentment.  If we don’t find a recipe for reconciliation soon, we will be overcome by darkness.


The Kavanaugh confirmation process illustrated the deep divisions in the American tribal culture. “There is a split culturally, spiritually and socially,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.); and William J. Bennett said, “This is the second most divided time in our history, comparing the current moment to the breakdowns that preceded the Civil War.  Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said “There is a real question of whether we can all move forward amid these cultural and human challenges and the raw partisanship. The damage will be enduring to the court and the country.” Under the pressure of these divisions, no public official has been able to rise above the fray to chart a path forward toward greater national unity and mutual understanding. Moral outrage has been accepted as the basic currency of political debate, opponents regularly attack each others’ motives along with their positions, and honest reflection, when it cuts through the maw, is often dismissed as a sign of weakness or posturing.  Americans from the halls of Congress to the kitchen table were forced to fill in the blanks themselves. Public polling showed they did so by overwhelmingly falling back on their political identities, a tribal response that tracks other evidence of increasing polarization. An August Pew poll found 78 percent of Americans say Democrats and Republicans disagree not only on “plans and policies” but on “basic facts.”

Tom Toles has described Trump’s objective to divide and conquer us in our tribal culture.  “We are not, in fact, lacking in unity in this country. We have more unity than ever. It’s just that it’s within two increasingly irreconcilable factions. This is the product of President Trump’s imperishable ‘Us vs. Them’ worldview. ...He has seen and felt the lift he gets from stigmatizing and demonizing, and it doesn’t matter to him whether the enemies he tars are foreigners or fellow citizens.  Adam Serwer, writing recently in the Atlantic, described Trump’s hold on his followers in a fully distilled formulation: ‘The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.’  This is little different in its properties from our opioid epidemic. And it’s similarly toxic and dangerous. Addiction epidemics do not last forever, and we may outlast this one. But the longer the treatment is delayed, the greater the damage. And, yes, that which doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. That is, of course, if it doesn’t kill you.” See

Richard Cohen has described America’s economic inequities as a sinkhole of its own making. “If you grew up with all sorts of chest-thumping statistics on what a wonderful place the United States was, you now must learn that our vaunted middle class is cratering, that the lower classes have sunk even lower, that income disparity is increasing and that rich American men live 15 years longer than poor American men, ‘who endure only as long as men in Sudan or Pakistan.’ Ah, America — not so exceptional anymore.
The rich now are very rich. The ultrarich are even more ultra. Yet, all this wealth has had “zero impact on the average pay of 117 million Americans,’ writes Anand Giridharadas in The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Since 1980, the income of the top 1 percent of Americans has more than tripled. In that same period, the income of the bottom 50 percent had remained nearly exactly the same. As for the top 0.001 percent, their income has increased sevenfold. It turns out that a rising tide may not lift all boats, but it does turn some into superyachts. For some on the left, the remedy is now socialism. Yet, outside of the lecture hall, it has worked nowhere. The real remedy would be a political uprising in which the trends and the current situation are denounced as, truly, un-American.” See

Michael Gerson has described the lengths to which Trump’s evangelical supporters go in distorting the teachings of Jesus with a recent tweet by Jerry Falwell, Jr.: “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys’. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”  It is paradoxical that some conservative Christians should reject the concept of a “living Constitution” while embracing the “living Beatitudes.” Blessed are the street fighters. Blessed are those who compare their enemies to Nazis. Blessed are the bullies. On second thought, this is less paradoxical than heretical. It is also common in Christian history. In a variety of political and cultural contexts — under the rule of Constantine, and Charlemagne, and the Romanovs, and Mike Pence — Christian believers have turned to government to protect and further their institutional interests. Henry VIII — who practiced his own vigorous form of misogyny — was given the title: “Defender of the Faith.” I suppose some at the time might have reasoned: At least he isn’t a wimp.  See

The undying bond between the Bible Belt and Trump is as pervasive as it is paradoxical.  See  And in other parts of the country there’s less interest in religion and politics, and It’s getting harder to talk about God.  See

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