By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Religious triumphalism is “the belief that a particular religion is superior to and will triumph over all others.” It’s a form of religious exclusivism mixed with politics that’s prevalent in Christianity and Islam. Christian triumphalism motivated the Crusades, European colonialism and American exceptionalism, while Islamic triumphalism has motivated jihads and caliphates.
In a world of increasing religious diversity, religious triumphalism is a threat to world peace; but it can be countered with the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. It’s taken from the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus, and has been promoted as a common word of faith by Islamic scholars.
Over the centuries triumphalism has corrupted religion and politics. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire set a precedent; and when the Pope initiated the Crusades over 1,000 years ago to liberate the Holy Land from Muslims, its success was short lived. Triumphalism in religion and politics has invariably been followed by a decline in worldly power.
Jesus was a maverick Jewish rabbi who never promoted any religion, not even his own. Jesus sought to reform Judaism by putting the primacy of love over law, and he called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. But the church emphasized the latter over the former, since worshiping Jesus was easier than following his teachings on sacrificial love.
Christian triumphalism is based on belief in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God rather than following Jesus as the word of God. It’s a form of cheap grace that has enabled Christianity to become the world’s most popular and powerful religion. Over the past 50 years white evangelical charlatans have promoted radical right politics with false doctrines of “family values” and a prosperity gospel that conflicts with the teachings of Jesus.
White evangelical Christians sacrificed Jesus on the altar of partisan politics in 2016 when they elected Donald Trump, a narcissist avatar of political triumphalism whose morality is the antithesis of that taught by Jesus. Almost 200 years before, Thomas Jefferson observed that the teachings of Jesus were “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”
Today Christian triumphalism continues to resound in America’s white churches. Old time religion is preached with echoes of white supremacy, even as nones leave the church in record numbers. White evangelicals continue to promote the Trump regime while mainline denominations ignore its moral degradations and refuse to mix religion and politics.
Jim Wallis and Richard Rohr are among a minority of Christians who assert that Christiain morality cannot be separated from politics, and have advocated the moral imperatives taught by Jesus as standards of political legitimacy. Jesus set a standard of humble service for those seeking to be political leaders. (see Mark 9:35 and 10:41-44; also, Luke 22:25-27)
The Trump MAGA regime exemplifies political triumphalism and uses evangelical charlatans like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, Paula White, Robert Jeffress and James Dobson to sanctify its egregious immorality. Trump and his Republican Party have made a mockery of the teachings of Jesus, and white Christians are complicit in that moral travesty.
Both Christianity and Islam anticipate that Jesus will return in the end times to usher in God’s kingdom on earth. But without a universal religious moral awakening to restore the altruistic teachings of Jesus as God’s word and reconcile religious and political differences, the end times will not likely be the glorious event that Christians and Muslims anticipate.
Jim Wallis cited the teachings of Jesus on humility: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25–27) Donald Trump exemplifies political arrogance that is the antithesis of the humility taught by Jesus. His election in 2016 begs the question whether we can expect humility in our elected officials given the depravity of human nature. Wallis cited Reinhold Niebuhr: “Humankind’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” He could have added that giving a majority of voters the right to choose its leaders dooms a democracy, unless a majority share an altruistic faith that emphasizes providing for the common good. Any assumption that most Americans who claim to be Christians embrace moral standards in their politics based on the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus was dispelled in 2016.
Wallis has correctly described our Constitutional system of checks and balances as “a theological necessity, not merely a political preference. Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The point of a democratic system is to try and make sure that doesn't happen. In this moment of political crisis in the United States, our more-than-two-century-old commitment to checks on absolute power is being tested. We already have a president who has marginalized the Congress. ...So what this next election is, apart from any of the policy questions on which we can disagree, is a referendum on democracy itself. A referendum on whether checks and balances will be resilient or whether we will lose all of our checks and balances to executive power. That’s what’s at stake. How can we prevent tyranny? That has to become a theological issue for Christians in 2020.” See https://sojo.net/articles/power-question-checks-and-balances-are-theological-issue
Richard Rohr has noted that “Politics is one of the most difficult and complex issues on which to engage in polite conversation. For many people, politics and religion are so personal that neither topic is deemed appropriate to discuss publicly. While separation of church and state is an important protection for all religions, it doesn’t mean we as people of faith shouldn’t engage in our civic duties and the political process. The idea of “staying out of politics” doesn’t come from God. My sense is that it arises from our egoic, dualistic thinking that has a hard time hearing a different perspective or learning something new. In its first two thousand years, Christianity has kept its morality mostly private, personal, interior, fervent, and heaven-bound, with very few direct implications for our collective economic, social, and political life. For most Christians, politics and religion remained in two separate realms, unless religion was uniting with empires. Yes, church leaders looked to Rome and Constantinople for imperial protection, but little did they realize the price we Christians would eventually pay for such a compromise of foundational Gospel values. This convenient split took the form of either the inner or the outer world. We religious folks were supposed to be the inner people; while the outer world was left to politicians, scientists, and workers. Now this is all catching up with us. Fewer and fewer people now expect religion to have anything to say about either the inner or outer worlds! In my opinion, the reason Christianity lost its authority is because we did not talk about the inner world very well. Believing doctrines, practicing rituals, and following requirements are not, in and of themselves, inner or deep. We Christians did not connect the inner with the outer—which is a consequence of not going in deeply enough. We now have become increasingly irrelevant, often to the very people who want to go both deep and far. We so disconnected from the authentically political—God’s aggregated people, the public forum—that soon we had nothing much to say, except for one or two issues (abortion, homosexuality) where we presumed we had perfect certitude, although Jesus never talked about them. But you know what? There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. To say nothing is to say something: The status quo—even if it is massively unjust and deceitful—is apparently okay. See
Alex Morris has written on why the Christian right worships Donald Trump, and he should know. He grew up in a Christian right Alabama family that seems quite normal and caring about others, but they’re not ready to reconsider their support for Trump. See https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/christian-right-worships-donald-trump-915381/
On triumphalism generally, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumphalism.
Related commentary on the future of a church that has lost its moral compass and the end times:
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(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
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(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
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/15/17): Easter and the Christian Paradox
(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
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17): Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/22/17): Hell No!
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(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.
(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.
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(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
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(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
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/10/musings-on-moral-universalism-in.html.
(11/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist: Has God Blessed Us or Damned Us?
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(12/22/18): Musings on Faith and Works: The Unity of All Believers and The Last Judgment
(2/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Hypocrisy of American Christianity
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America
(3/16/19): Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism
(3/23/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Thinking Outside the Box
(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(5/18/19): Outsiders Versus Insiders in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(5/25/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus
(6/8/19): The Moral Failure of the Church to Promote Altruism in Politics
(6/15/19): Back to the Future: A 21st Century Pentecost for the Church
(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
(7/6/19): Musings on Democrats, Busing and Racism: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again
(7/13/19): Musings on Sovereignty and Conflicting Loyalties to God and Country
(8/3/19): Musings on the Dismal Future of the Church and Democracy in America
(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
(8/31/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Politics of Christian Zionism
(9/7/19): Musings on the Self-Destruction of Christianity and American Democracy
(9/14/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Chaos as a Prelude to a New Creation
(9/21/19): An Afterword on Religion, Legitimacy and Politics from 2014-2019
(10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy
(11/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Virtual Alternative to a Failing Church
(11/16/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Irrelevance of Morality in Politics
(11/23/19): Musings on Jesus and Christ as Conflicting Concepts in Christianity