By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Jesus was a Jew who never suggested that he was divine or advocated a new religion. He called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. Early church leaders knew that his teachings were not popular, and to make Christianity popular they reversed the priorities of discipleship over worship with doctrines that limited salvation to belief in a divine Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer considered exclusivist Christian beliefs without discipleship a form of cheap grace. For Bonhoeffer the cost of discipleship was to return to his native Germany and oppose Hitler during World War II, and that cost him his life. Today most Christians ignore the cost of discipleship and consider their exclusivist beliefs as the only means of salvation.
Discipleship includes all works or deeds of faith. James described a faith without deeds as dead as a body without the spirit. (see James 2:14-26). That would make any profession of Christian faith without deeds of discipleship a form of cheap grace. Even so, Christianity became the world’s most popular religion based on beliefs that ignore deeds of discipleship.
Discipleship and democracy have had an unholy relationship. That was evident in 2016 when most white American Christians voted to make Donald Trump their President, despite his egregious immorality that was the antithesis of the altruistic morality taught by Jesus. Winston Churchill once described democracy as the worst form of government--except for all the others.
Despite the ancient saying, Vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is not the voice of God. Trump’s election proved that point, in spite of Elon Musk’s opinion to the contrary. Whether we attribute the corruption of democracy and Christianity to human depravity, we know that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer.
The concept of civil religion reflects the moral standards of political legitimacy that define a nation’s democracy. Democracy makes Americans the masters of their political destiny and determines the moral standards of political legitimacy that define their politics, for good or for bad. Unfortunately, white Christians corrupted their church and American democracy in 2016.
Christian morality and political legitimacy are interwoven in a democracy. Since most Americans consider themselves Christians, the church should be a moral steward of democracy. If America is a Christian nation, its standards of political legitimacy should reflect the moral teachings of Jesus, or the church cannot claim that it promotes discipleship.
Popularity has become the measure of success in both American politics and its church; but the teachings of Jesus were never popular. If the church intends to make discipleship a priority of Christian faith it must forego its popularity and follow the example of Bonhoeffer on the cost of discipleship by continuing to oppose the tyranny of Putin in Ukraine. Putin is as evil as Hitler.
The corrupting influence of popularity on American religion and politics has been a continuing theme in my commentary. The following recent commentaries illustrate that theme. See:
#374 (1/22/22): Musings on Popularity as a Corrupting Influence in Democracy and Christianity
#419 (11/26/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Vox Populi, Vox Dei in Religion and Politics
#421 (12/10/22): Musings on the Evolution of Christianity into the American Civil Religion
On Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer and The Cost of Discipleship.
As a nation America can practice discipleship much as did Bonhoeffer by continuing to defend Ukraine against the tyranny of Putin. “Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians have reminded Americans of the values and causes we used to admire in ourselves — the ardent hunger for freedom, the deep-rooted respect for equality and human dignity, the willingness to fight against brutal authoritarians who would crush the human face under the heel of their muddy boots. It is as if Ukraine and Zelensky have rekindled a forgotten song, and suddenly everybody has remembered how to sing it. Zelensky was not subtle about making this point. He said that what Ukraine is fighting for today has echoes in what so many Americans fought for over centuries.His words reminded us that America supports Ukraine not only out of national interest — to preserve a stable liberal world order — but also to live out a faith that is essential to this country’s being and identity. The thing that really holds America together is this fervent idea. This liberal ideal has been tarnished over the last six decades. American policy has oscillated between a hubristic interventionism and a callous non-interventionism. Zelensky came to America as a reminder that for all the talk of American decline, the world still needs American leadership and that the liberal alliance is still strong. While liberal democracies blunder, they have the capacity to learn and adapt. Zelensky reminded us that while the authoritarians of the world have shown they can amass power, there is something vital they lack: a vision of a society that preserves human dignity, which inspires people to fight and binds people to one another.” See Biden’s America finds its voice at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/22/opinion/biden-zelensky-speech.html.
Within Christian nationalism there remain advocates for Trump’s radical right politics. See Tulsa preacher Jackson Lahmeyer is building a movement to battle "demonic" Democrats and put Donald Trump back in the White House, at https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/jackson-lahmeyer-christian-nationalist-conspiracy-theorist-pastors-for-trump-1234649049/.
Ross Douthat has opined that “Jesus himself is less culturally central, less necessary to religious entrepreneurs--as though where Americans are going now in their post-Christian explorations, they don’t want or need his blessing. See https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/21/opinion/america-religion-christianity.html.