Saturday, March 2, 2019

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America

  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

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           

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.

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(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
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(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
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(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
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(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
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(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
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(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within

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