By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Christianity, the quintessential American religion, seems destined for its demise. The church won’t disappear overnight, it will just fade away. It has been in decline for some time, but the 2016 election of Donald Trump by an overwhelming majority of white Christians was a culminating event. It was irrefutable evidence that the church has lost its moral compass.
That was affirmed this past week when the United Methodist Church (UMC), the largest mainline (non-evangelical) denomination in America, voted to adopt a Traditional Plan that continues its doctrinal discrimination against homosexuals. The plan reflects the preferences of older UMC members in America and the 30% of UMC members in Africa.
America will soon look like Europe, with the church a pale reflection of its past. It is questionable whether the unraveling fabric of American democracy can survive the demise of the church. The church has lost the credibility it once had to define America’s standards of legitimacy (what is right); and that puts the American civil religion and democracy at risk.
When standards of political legitimacy are divested of their sacred source, a moral vacuum is created that attracts immoral politicians like Trump. He exploited and exacerbated the identity politics of religion and race with the support of white evangelicals and their distorted doctrines of “family values,” and a prosperity gospel that contradicts the teachings of Jesus.
Our partisan politics are polarized by race, and most churches are racially segregated. Most blacks are loyal Democrats and most whites loyal Republicans. Politics are taboo in most white churches to accommodate the majority of white Christians who don’t want to mix their religion and politics. The church has made the teachings of Jesus irrelevant to politics.
The power of Christianity depends upon its popularity, and early church leaders realized that the teachings of Jesus would never be popular. And Jesus said as much. But St. Paul gave the church an alternative to discipleship with his atonement doctrine. It emphasized worshiping Jesus as a surrogate Christian God rather than following Jesus as the word of God.
Until the 16th century Reformation, church doctrines required following the teachings of Jesus along with exclusivist belief in the divinity of Jesus. That changed with Martin Luther’s Reformation doctrine of sola fide (faith alone). It made following the moral teachings of Jesus irrelevant to salvation if they were not motivated by belief in the divinity of Jesus.
Jesus was a maverick Jewish rabbi who never promoted any religion, not even his own. But ever since Constantine co-opted the church in the 4th century, its exclusivist doctrines have mandated belief in the divinity of Jesus as the one true faith. Since the 1980s those exclusivist church doctrines have morphed into a radical right and partisan evangelical form of Christianity.
A moral reformation is needed to restore the legitimacy of American religion and politics, and it should be based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors--including those of other races and religions--as we love ourselves. That’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
In a world of increasing religious diversity, it will take a common word of faith to hold together the unraveling fabric of American democracy. In a politically polarized post-Christian America that requires a politics of reconciliation that is based on the the greatest commandment to balance the narrow interests of identity politics with providing for the common good.
The United Methodist Church exemplifies the waning popularity of Protestant Christianity in America. Its declining and elderly membership (with an average age of 57) is typical of American mainline Protestant churches. This past week the UMC held a contentious meeting in St. Louis and voted for a “traditional plan” that emphasized its opposition to same sex-marriage and gay clergy. It was a decision cheered by conservatives in the global church, especially in Africa, but deeply disappointing to many Americans who were eager for change. Will Willimon, a retired Methodist bishop and a prominent theologian at Duke Divinity School, said that preaching to the “old” is a failure of the church. “We’re sending a signal we are here to minister to the spiritual needs of the elderly,” Willimon had advocated for the “one church plan,” which would have allowed local ministers to choose their stance. “The traditional plan is a misnomer,” he said. “We really have nothing in our tradition to justify this sort of punitive, exclusionary mentality.” See
See also, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/26/us/united-methodists-vote.html?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=e950810097-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_27_01_20&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-e950810097-399971105.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners agreed with Bishop Willimon that the UMC vote was a backward step that further undermined the influence of the church in politics. Unlike most evangelicals, Wallis aggressively advocates the moral teachings of Jesus in politics while adhering to traditional beliefs in the divinity of Jesus. See https://sojo.net/articles/are-methodists-mirroring-culture-division-and-can-we-do-better.
Robin R. Myers has noted the misplaced emphasis in the Christian religion on exclusivist beliefs that worship a divine Christ but ignore the teachings of Jesus. The title of his book says it all: Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/4/15): Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation in the Family of God http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/religion-and-new-beginnings-salvation.html
(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?
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html
(5/24/15): De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(9/20/15): Politics and Religious Polarization
(11/22/15): Dualism: Satan’s Evil Versus God’s Goodness
(12/26/15): Resettling Refugees: Multiculturalism versus Assimilation
(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
(2/20/16): The Evolution of Faith, Religion and Spirituality
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
(3/19/16): Religion, Democracy and Human Depravity
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(9/24/16): The Evolution of Religion and Politics from Oppression to Freedom
(10/22/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in a Polarized Democracy
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason 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
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(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
(8/19/17): Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(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.
(10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus
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(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? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/6/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(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
(2/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Freedom and Legitimacy
(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
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(7/7/18): Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/07/whose-america-is-this-musings-on.html.
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(7/21/18): Musings on America’s Moral and Political Mess and Who Should Clean It Up
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(8/25/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moral Priorities in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(9/22/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Losing Religion and Finding Faith
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(11/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist: Has God Blessed Us or Damned Us?
(11/17/18): Christianity and Clashing Identities in Politics and Religion
(11/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and the Legitimacy of Democracy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/11/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.
(12/1/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Mystical Logos
(12/8/18): Trump and the Apostles’ Creed: Is It a Prayer or a Profession of Faith?
(12/15/18): Musings on the Great Commission and Religious and Political Tribalism
(12/22/18): Musings on Faith and Works: The Unity of All Believers and The Last Judgment
(12/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Justice in Religion and Politics
(12/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Justice in Religion and Politics
(1/5/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Building Political Walls or Bridges
(1/12/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Authenticity and Political Legitimacy
(1/19/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Discomfort of Discipleship
(1/26/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Evolution of the Gospel(s)
(2/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(2/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Hypocrisy of American Christianity
(2/16/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America the Blessed and Beautiful--or is it?
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within