By Rudy Barnes, Jr,
When I began my weekly commentary on Religion, Legitimacy and Politics in December 2014, I saw a positive correlation between religion, morality and politics. Now I have my doubts. The church will likely remain a viable community social institution for the foreseeable future, but it will not have the moral relevance to political legitimacy that it has had in the past.
I grew up in the Methodist Church, and for most of my life I believed the church was the primary source of the moral standards of political legitimacy. The rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s should have been a warning, but I was shocked when most White Christians elected Donald Trump in 2016. His egregious immorality is the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus.
Since 1976 most pastors of the mainstream church have ignored the deteriorating moral climate in American politics and allowed vociferous evangelical charlatans to promote radical right Republican politics in the name of Christianity. The result was a lack of moral stewardship in American democracy that culminated in the election of Trump, and a decline in the church.
The church wasn’t always like that. During the late 1950s and 1960s a courageous minority of Methodist pastors took part in the civil rights movement, and I was inspired by them to become a United Methodist pastor later in life. It was a good experience, but after 2016 I became a maverick Methodist who was critical of the church for failing to promote the moral stewardship of democracy.
The church and politics have much in common, but they are separated by irreconcilable differences. Both consider popularity the measure of their success, but Jesus taught that the road to God’s kingdom was a narrow way, not a broad way, and that few would follow the altruistic and universal word of God. (see Matthew 7:13-14)
To gain popularity and power, church leaders subordinated the universal teachings of Jesus to exclusivist church doctrines that limited salvation to those who believed in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God, and condemned all others to hell. It was a successful marketing strategy based on cheap grace that enabled Christianity to become the most popular religion in the world.
Ironically, the irreconcilable differences between Christianity and politics are not real differences at all, but a shared commitment to popularity as a flawed measure of success. Human depravity makes popularity a plague on both the church and democracy. it encourages unprincipled religious and political leaders to distort altruistic Christian doctrines in their quest for popularity and power.
Most Christians are good people, but they have been led astray by exclusivist church doctrines that limit salvation to Christians. They ignore the universal and reconciling teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as they love themselves. That may not be popular, but it’s God’s truth; and it’s needed to restore legitimacy to the church and American democracy.
A recent survey by the Public Religious Research Institute (PRRI) indicates that “the shifting landscape of religion in America--a shrinking white Christian majority alongside the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans--has stabilized. What was once a supermajority of white Christians--more than 80% of Americans identified as such in 1976, and two-thirds in 1996--has now plateaued at about 44%.” Robert P. Jones, CEO and Founder of PRRI, has said,”If you look at [the white evangelical] presence in the national religious landscape, it’s actually quite diminished from what it was even 10 years ago. It’s still surprising to many Americans because of how visible this population has been, particularly during the Trump administration.” See https://www.npr.org/2021/07/08/1014047885/americas-white-christian-plurality-has-stopped-shrinking-a-new-study-finds.
Michelle Boorstein has noted that the PRRI study “shows some regions of the country remain religiously homogeneous--especially the Southeast--and charts the growing political influence of the religiously unaffiliated, whose presence has more than doubled in both major parties in recent years.” PRRI maps show increased overall diversity in the West, Midwest, Northeast and in various spots across the country, especially in and around cities. The Southeast quadrant is especially light on diversity. “What’s remarkable is you can see the cultural history of the country in these maps,” said Robert Jones, “noting religious settlement patterns that endure. You can still see the history of the Civil War, with White evangelicals still concentrated in the Southeast, White non-evangelicals in the Upper Midwest and Northeast. You can still see that North-South divide.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/07/08/new-prri-poll-religious-diversity-unaffiliated-white-christians/?utm_. See also, The Christian Right is in decline, and it’s taking America with it, at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/opinion/religious-right-america.html?referringSource=article.
According to Stephanie McCrummen evangelicals should not be counted out of politics quite yet; at least not in Fort Worth, Texas, where Mercy Culture is a rapidly growing and culturally mixed congregation “that’s openly political and wants a nation under God’s authority.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/07/11/mercy-culture-church/?utm_campaign=wp_todays_headlines&utm_medium=email&utm_.