By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Religion is the primary source of our standards of morality and describes God as good and Satan as bad or evil--and usually ugly. But Satan knows how to look good. He has done a convincing imitation of God in the synagogue, church and mosque, as well as in politics. And his impersonations have often confused the good with the bad and ugly in our religion and politics.
Today’s economy looks good, but is it? Greed and ambition motivate the super-rich on Wall Street. They make obscene profits exploiting consumers and wield the real power in America. When the economy tanks again as it did in 2009 (and it’s only a matter of time), the masters of Wall Street will be the first in the lifeboats, thanks to their supplicants in Congress.
Religion is a big part of the problem. The masters of Wall Street are disciples of Ayn Rand’s self-centered crony capitalism, and they have the support of white Christians who have sacrificed Jesus on the altar of partisan politics with a prosperity gospel that makes a mockery of the altruistic teachings of Jesus. They have confused Satan’s evil with God’s goodness.
But there’s no confusion about the increase in hate crimes in the U.S. in recent years. Many are motivated by distorted religious beliefs, as was the attack on April 27 on a synagogue in Poway California. It seems that the gates of hell have been opened and evil has ascended to motivate dysfunctional people to commit hate crimes in the name of God.
For Jews and Muslims, religious laws define what is good and bad: Mosaic Law for Jews and the Sharia for Muslims. For Christians, the definition is more nuanced: Goodness is defined in the greatest commandment as loving God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. God is love, and loving God requires loving others.
Being good is based on altruistic love. It’s about loving or caring for others as we love ourselves. Being bad, or evil, is the opposite of altruism; it’s based on narcissism, or self-love. Jesus taught and exemplified altruism, while Donald Trump exemplifies narcissism. Altruists serve others, while narcissists exploit others to promote themselves.
Affluence in America has produced a materialistic, hedonistic and triumphalist culture. I once naively believed that America the Beautiful described our nation. Now I know better, but that doesn’t mean that we should accept America the ugly. We’re still a democracy and we can make America the kind of nation that we want it to be; but it will take a majority of us to do it.
With God’s help we can make America beautiful; but in a democracy God needs our help since God doesn’t have a vote. The future of democracy is up to us, and in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, Satan is winning the popularity contest. The worst part of it is that Satan has religion on his side. That’s an ugly reality in religion and politics.
Is religion good, or bad and ugly? Our religion, like our politics, is whatever we choose it to be. Popularity has always been a high priority of the church, and the altruistic teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love have never been popular in our self-centered culture. That has allowed evangelical charlatans to distort Christianity and promote a narcissistic demagogue like Trump.
In the past, cataclysmic events like economic crises and wars have forced Americans to become more altruistic in their politics. That happened in the Great Depression and in World War II, and it may be the only way that America can escape its ugly reality and become America the beautiful. If it takes a crisis to save us from ourselves, let’s hope it isn’t a war.
Whether America’s religion and politics are good or bad--or beautiful or ugly--is up to us. Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians. We can make America good and beautiful if we assume the stewardship of our democracy and follow the greatest commandment as a common word of faith and politics. Otherwise, America the Beautiful will remain an elusive dream.
On public confusion over whether the booming U.S. economy is good or bad, see Populist economic frustration threatens Trump’s strongest reelection issue, Post-ABC finds. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/populist-economic-frustration-threatens-trumps-strongest-reelection-issue-post-abc-poll-finds/2019/04/28/44f64cbc-6a02-11e9-9d56-1c0cf2c7ac04_story.html?utm_term=.f9a8f3512f89. On Why the U.S. economy feels like the 1990s, but with more inequality and less prepared for a downturn http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/04/musings-on-legitimacy-of-crony.html.
Kate Cohen is an atheist who wants political values to be independent of religion, but she recognizes that the values of political legitimacy in America are shaped by Christianity. She supports the values of Pete Buttigieg, who advocates that “Democrats should not be be afraid to use religious traditions as a way of calling us to higher values”and “that the same things that are being preached on Sunday apply to the policies that we’re making on Monday morning.” Cohen also notes that Jeff Sessions as Attorney General cited Romans 13:1: “Everyone is subject to the governing authorities since there is no authority except which God has established;” and that Stephen Colbert responded with Romans 13:10 in which Paul described loving our neighbors as we love ourselves as “the fulfilment of the law.” The Bible provides conflicting standards of morality and concepts of good and bad; and Christian morality is ambiguous. That was evident when a majority of white Christians voted for Trump, who exemplifies the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus. Cohen asserts that Buttigieg’s values “exist not because of religion but are independent of it.” But that’s not entirely true. She failed to note that Buttigieg’s values are based on the teachings of Jesus, and his teachings on altruistic love are not ambiguous. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/pete-buttigieg-please-dont-equate-religion-with-morality/2019/05/01/19bad08a-6c38-11e9-8f44-e8d8bb1df986_story.html?utm_term=.6b47e289992a&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
John Earnest is the alleged gunman in the shooting on April 27 at a Poway, California synagogue. He is religious and a churchgoer in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and he wrote a manifesto citing scripture that has upset some evangelical leaders. Chad Woolf, an evangelical pastor in Fort Myers, Fla., said, “We should recognize that somebody could grow up in an evangelical church , whose father was a leader, and could somehow conflate the teachings of Christianity and white nationalism. We should be very concerned about that.” Several pastors found parts of the manifesto troubling, because they agreed with them. Earnest espoused a Reformed, or Calvinist, theology, with salvation based not on his actions or lack of sin but on God’s will. “‘You actually hear a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology in certain sentences and paragraphs. He has, in some ways, been well taught in the church,’ said the Rev. Duke Kwon, a Washington pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America which shares many of its beliefs with the OPC. Kwon pointed to the evidence that the writer shares the Reformed theology of evangelical Presbyterians that only God can offer salvation to those he preselects. Kwon said, ‘Obviously something went wrong. I think it’s important for Christians, both those in the pews as well as those in the pulpit, to take a moment for some self-reflection and to ask hard questions.’” See
Shortly after posting this commentary, I was sent a 2014 article by Professor Gary Laderman of Emory University entitled, Religion: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Laderman was spot-on when he said: Religion is complex and confusing. The real danger with religion is absolutist thinking, whether it's believing all religion is false and harmful, or believing that only one religion contains the truth. The messy middle ground is where the truth resides, a place that requires an open mind, a desire to learn more about religion's complexity and history, and an ability to accept the shifting sands of multiple truths that display the good, bad and ugly in religion. Had the article been written after white evangelicals began publicly supporting Trump, Laderman would likely have noted the absurd ambiguity of Christian morality. See https://www.huffpost.com/entry/religion-the-good-the-bad_b_4489454.
This is the elusive ideal of America the Beautiful by Katharine Lee Bates (1904):
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine!O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
The United Methodist Hymnal, p 696
For more on America the Beautiful, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_the_Beautiful.