By Rudy Barnes, Jr., November 6, 2021
The gubernatorial election in Virginia provides some hope that political and religious reconciliation can heal the divisions that plague American democracy. There was an absence of rabid Trump supporters and evangelical charlatans who have dominated and corrupted past elections. Maybe America can begin to reconcile its toxic political and religious divisions.
The election affirmed recent polls that over 70% of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction, and that the economy is the biggest issue. It rejected leftist Democratic spending policies that would increase America’s massive national debt, reversing Biden’s 2020 commitment to centrist independents to promote political reconciliation.
Centrist politics can defuse the polarized partisan politics that stymie compromise in Congress. Since a third party is not a feasible alternative in America’s two party duopoly, one or both parties must restore the capability to compromise on important issues. Partisan loyalty that prevents bipartisan compromise is a threat to democracy.
Religion played a more subdued role in Virginia’s election than in the past. Christianity remained a dominant political force, but it was not as partisan and divisive as in past elections. Even though the church continues to emphasize its exclusivist beliefs as the only means of salvation, it seems that Christians are becoming more open to religious diversity.
A toxic mix of religion and politics in the white church elected Donald Trump in 2016 and has since caused disillusionment and noticeable declines in church membership. There have been trends in opposite directions--some toward more progressive forms of Christianity and others toward more conservative forms. The future of the church as a political force is in doubt.
It may be back to the future for America’s religion. Thomas Jefferson was a deist who favored universalism and considered the moral teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” Christian universalism originated in the late 18th century with the Universalist Church of America. In 1961 it merged with the American Unitarian Association to create Unitarian Universalism. It could be a prototype of American religion in the future.
Robin Meyers and Martin Thielin are among an increasing number of progressive Christian pastors who share a universalist faith based on the teachings of Jesus as God’s truth. Alan Wolfe would describe their universalist forms of faith as secular religion; and there are many in other religions, as well as agnostics and atheists, who also have a secular faith.
Polarized partisan politics and claims of exclusivist religions In a culture of increasing political and religious diversity can doom democracy. Those of differing politics and religion in America’s dangerously divided culture should transcend their differences and promote political and religious reconciliation to preserve the fragile fabric of American democracy.
“A recent NBC/ABC poll shows that Biden's job rating has sunk to 42 percent. Just nine months into his presidency, 71 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction ”. See https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/meet-the-press/biden-s-job-rating-sinks-42-percent-nbc-news-poll-n1282781.
“The Democrats’ problem is not focusing on the issues most vital to independents, according to two prominent pollsters. Neal Newhouse said, ‘The conversation in Washington doesn’t match the conversation that’s happening around the country.” Joel Benenson gives Biden huge credit for winning independents by a net gain of 12 percentage points more than Hillary Clinton in 2016. Now they are turning away from Biden and his agenda: 70 percent of independent voters said the country was headed in the wrong direction, according to the seven-page memo the pollsters wrote for Center Forward. In their survey of more than 2,600 likely voters, the pollsters asked respondents to cite their three most important issues. Democratic voters chose climate change, pandemic recovery and “raising taxes on the rich” as their most important issues, closely followed by “health insurance coverage/costs.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/democrats-midterm-independents/2021/10/23/4271ad96-335f-11ec-a1e5-07223c50280a_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_todays_headlines&utm_medium=email&utm.
Chris Cilliza of CNN cited Abigail Spanberger (D Va) after the Virginia gubernatorial race saying ”Nobody elected Biden to be FDR, they elected hm to be normal and stop the chaos.” Biden said in his inaugural address, "Few periods in our nation's history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we're in now," adding: "This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward." What Spanberger is suggesting is that Biden has tried to govern like FDR -- massive government spending on huge social programs -- without FDR majorities or an FDR mandate from the public. Her belief is that Biden was NOT, in fact, elected to fundamentally reshape the country and the relationship its average citizen has (or wants) with the government. That he was actually elected to be a steady hand on the tiller -- in the wake of the Trump chaos -- and to steer the country, from a public health and economic perspective, back to some semblance of normal. See https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/04/politics/abigail-spanberger-joe-biden-2021/index.html.
The Washington Post Editorial Board chided Democrats for failing to raise taxes on the rich to pay for their social programs. “The Democrats’ bill is supposed to make the nation fairer and more competitive,” but instead ”it includes a massive new payoff to the wealthy” that’s a “cynical, wasteful policy.” See
Thomas Jefferson fabricated The Jefferson Bible as his personal collection of the moral teachings of Jesus, leaving out many of the mystical matters in the gospel accounts. Jefferson understood that political legitimacy depended upon moral standards, not mystical beliefs, and that the moral standards of political legitimacy in America were derived from the Christian religion. Jefferson held the teachings of Jesus in high regard but he detested church doctrines. In 1804 he wrote: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in utmost profound detestation and execration, the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man.” Robin Meyers has echoed Jefferson’s criticism of the church in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Even so, the church has continued to promote exclusivist church beliefs that emphasize worshiping Jesus as God rather than following him as God’s word. See Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics (March 17, 2018) at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html.
The altruistic teachings of Jesus on salvation were universal and not limited to those of any exclusivist religious beliefs. He taught that all who did God’s will were his spiritual brothers and sisters in the family of God. (see Mark 3:35)
In a world of increasingly pluralistic religions non-orthodox truth seekers will likely determine the future of religion and the moral standards of legitimacy that shape political legitimacy. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/christians-as-truth-seekers-and-agnostics/.
James Wood has reviewed Martin Hagglund’s book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon Books, New York, 2019) and summarized it as “the idea [that] eternity destroys meaning and value” by “subordinating the finite (the knowledge that life will end) to the eternal (‘the sure and certain hope that we will be released from pain and suffering and mortality into the peace of everlasting life). Wood notes that Hagglund “is quiet about Judaism, whose practices are sensibly grounded in the here and now, and which lacks the intense emphasis on the afterlife characteristics of Islam and Christianity.” Hagglund defines religious faith as “any form of belief in an eternal being or an eternity beyond being, either in a timeless repose (such as nirvana) a transcendent God, or an imminent, divine Nature.” Hagglund explains that “the problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value.” Wood notes that Hagglund doesn’t try to disprove religion, “so that [his secular faith] incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious.” Citing Hegel (as Hagglund reads him), “a religious institution is just a community that has come together to ennoble ‘a governing set of norms--a shared understanding of what counts as good and just. The object of devotion is just the community itself. ‘God’ is just the name we give the self-legislated communal norms (the principles to which the congregation holds itself), and ‘Christ’ the name we give to the beloved agent who animates these norms.” See The Time of Your Life at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/20/if-god-is-dead-your-time-is-everything.
Alan Wolfe, like Hagglund, is a self-proclaimed atheist and scholar; but unlike Hagglund Wolfe has acknowledged the relevance of religion to politics and has been optimistic that secular forces of progress and modernity were leading religions toward reconciliation. Secularism is not the opposite of belief; nonbelief is. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously showed that it would be irrational to bet against the existence of God. It would be equally foolish, in the long run, to bet against the power of the Enlightenment. The answer to the question of which religion will dominate the future, at least politically, may well be: None of the above.
...Until relatively recently, most social theorists, from Marx to Freud to Weber, believed that as societies became more modern, religion would lose its capacity to inspire. ...However one defined modernity, it always seemed likely to involve societies focused on this world rather than on some other. But intellectual fashions are fickle, and the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. ...A hundred years ago, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber quoted the great evangelical John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church: ‘I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.’
...It appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud. But one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. Recent decades have seen the rise of the Christian right in the United States, but they have also witnessed the seemingly inexorable advance of secular ideals, such as personal choice and pluralism, that blossomed in the 1960s. Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.
The key precondition for the marketplace of religion is the presence of rudimentary secular values. This may sound odd, since the secular has long been thought the opposite of the religious; but secularism is not the opposite of belief; nonbelief is. Indeed, secularism has religious, specifically Christian, roots; it renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, while leaving to God what properly belongs in his realm.
Does the pattern hold outside America? Various versions of the prosperity movement are attracting followers in developing countries, as well as in poorer areas of the United States, precisely because they value success in this world as much as holiness in another. ...Their goal is not to question the modern world’s riches but to bring them within the reach of more people. And once this dynamic is set in motion, it tends to gather momentum. As Eliza Griswold points out, the success of the Pentecostal Gospel of Prosperity in Nigeria has prompted the creation of a new Islamic organization focused on economic empowerment, which already has 1.2 million members in Nigeria alone.. ..Those who worry about religious revivals in the world today usually pose an either/or choice between religion and secularism. In reality, the two can work together.
Religious peace will be the single most important consequence of the secular underpinning of today’s religious growth. All religions tend to be protective of their traditions and rituals, but all religions also change depending upon the cultural practices of the societies in which they are based. Protestantism and secularism have always had close ties: as noted, Locke was drawing on a specifically Protestant sensibility when he wrote in defense of secular ideals.” See
On Christian universalism:
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(7/22/17): Hell No!
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(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
(3/16/19): Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
(2/22/20): Musings on Why All Politics and Religion Are Local (and not Universal)
(1/16/21): Truth and Reconciliation in Politics and Religion in a Maze of Conflicting Realities
(5/22/21): Musings on Morality and Politics and the Need for a Civil Religion in America
(10/9/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Relevance of Jesus Today