By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The church in its myriad forms is the institutional face of Christianity, and the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves summarizes the teachings of Jesus. It was taken from the Hebrew Bible and taught by Jesus, and is accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith. But what does it mean, and who are our neighbors?
Our neighbors include those of other races and religions, and those we would rather ignore; and in politics loving them means providing for the common good and protecting all of them from those who would do them harm. God is love, and God’s reconciling love can make all of us spiritual brothers and sisters in the universal family of God. (I John 4:16-21)
Religion complicates this moral imperative of faith with conflicting standards of belief and morality. Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own. He spoke of a coming kingdom of God that was not of this world and was bigger than any religion; and he once described the faith of a pagan Roman centurion as “greater than any in Israel.” (Mt 8:5-12)
The teachings of Jesus are timeless and universal truths that conflict with exclusivist Christian beliefs in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Those creeds are speculations of mystical beliefs by early church fathers that ignore the moral teachings of Jesus and assert that belief in Jesus Christ as a Trinitarian form of God is the only means of salvation.
The altruistic moral teachings of Jesus are relevant to our politics, even though Jesus never mentioned democracy or individual rights, since they were irrelevant to his time and place. Christian nationalism is a toxic form of Christianity that equates love of God with love of country. It’s prevalent in both America and Russia, and should be condemned by the church.
Christianity remains the world’s largest religion; but in America it’s in decline, and the election of 2016 confirmed that the church has lost its moral compass. Most churches have become irrelevant in politics. To avoid controversy they fail to relate the moral teachings of Jesus to politics, and have become little more than sacred social clubs.
The declining popularity of the church indicates it will not likely be a meaningful agent of political change in the future. Even so, the church will continue to be a place where Christians meet and eat and are affirmed by their pastors to be God’s people based on their exclusivist beliefs, even if they ignore the moral imperative to love God and their neighbors in their politics.
History has proven the teachings of Jesus to be a timeless and universal statement of God’s truth, It affirms God’s will to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. But Satan does a convincing imitation of God in politics and the church, and the rise of Christian nationalism is evidence that Satan is winning the popularity contest in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.
On the greatest commandment, see The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith (1/11/15) http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/the-greatest-commandment-common-word-of.html.
On Christian nationalism The Guardian has reported, “A growing number of prominent Christian leaders are sounding alarms about threats to democracy posed by ReAwaken America rallies where Donald Trump loyalists Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and rightwing pastors have spread misinformation about the 2020 elections and Covid-19 vaccines, and distorted Christian teachings. The falsehoods pushed at ReAwaken gatherings have prompted some Christian leaders to warn that America’s political and spiritual health is threatened by a toxic mix of Christian nationalism, lies about Trump’s loss to Joe Biden, and ahistorical views of the nation’s founding principle of the separation of church and state. Several well-known Christian leaders, including the president of the Christian social justice group Sojourners and the executive director of a major Baptist group, have called on American churches to speak out against the messages promoted at ReAwaken America rallies that have been held in Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, California, South Carolina and other states.
Other tour rallies, some of which have been held in religious spaces, are slated for New York and Virginia this summer and some local Christian leaders are being encouraged to publicly voice concerns about the dangerous rhetoric and messages they convey. ‘This ReAwaken tour is peddling dangerous lies about both the election and the pandemic,’ Adam Russell Taylor, the president of Sojourners, told the Guardian. ‘Jesus taught us that the truth will set us free, and these lies hold people captive to these dangerous falsehoods. They also exacerbate the toxic polarization we’re seeing in both the church and the wider society.’ Taylor added he was deeply concerned about “a conflation between Christianity and a nationalistic form of patriotism” at the “tour rallies which are promoting a more overt form of Christian nationalism”. See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/14/roger-stone-michael-flynn-distorting-christianity-reawaken-america.
Previous commentary on Christian nationalism:
(4/12/19): Musings on Religion, Nationalism and Libertarian Democracy
(7/13/19): Musings on Sovereignty and Conflicting Loyalties to God and Country
(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
(5/22/21): Musings on Morality and Politics and the Need for a Civil Religion in America
(3/26/22): Musings on Civil Religion, Christian Nationalism, and Cancel Culture in America and Russia http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/03/musings-on-civil-religion-christianhtml.
Fifty years after publishing his book, What to Believe? Carl Krieg has considered “three different moral attitudes about believing in God--that the universe is either moral, immoral or amoral. Krieg has rejected concepts of an immoral or amoral world, and still believes that despite all the moral anomalies, that somehow, some way, sometime and somewhere, God makes it right in a moral universe.” But Krieg says “the line dividing people is not whether they believe in God or not, but whether they are loving or not.” See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/fifty-years-later/.
Bishop Spong has described Christian creeds as “propositional statements” of religious belief that “are little more than idolatry, and at best only pointers to the mystery of God.” Spong has noted that “the first creed of the church was only three words: Jesus is messiah, a claim that in the life of Jesus the transcendent power of the divine has been met and engaged.” See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/bishop-spong-on-what-is-faith/.
Martin Thielen is a retired UMC pastor who has abandoned traditional Christian theology for a more progressive form of Christianity. Thielen has interviewed “a small group of people who represent a much larger and rapidly growing group of people who no longer hold traditional Christian views, and has described three trends that have emerged.
They no longer believe in traditional theology:
Most traditional Christians believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing, loving heavenly father who supernaturally intervenes in the world, who can be experienced directly through prayer, and who performs miracles. My small group of seven unorthodox persons no longer believe in that kind of personal, supernatural, and interventionist God. In a world of cancer, dementia, hurricanes, floods, hunger, pandemics, genocide, and wars, they reject the idea that God directly intervenes. This group also rejects belief in the virgin birth, healing miracles, a literal resurrection, and the ascension. Their Jesus is human, not divine. As you would expect, none of them believe in biblical literalism. For them, the Bible is a human document, with all the limitations of biblical times—from science to social issues to theological concepts. While they still see value in Scripture, they do not believe the Bible is “the Word of God for the people of God.” This unorthodox group also rejects a literal hell, the second coming, substitutionary atonement, exclusive salvation, the efficacy of petitionary prayer, and the Trinity. They didn’t consciously choose to reject orthodox theology. Rather than one major break with orthodoxy, all of them told stories about losing traditional faith over many years, the death of a thousand cuts. Several expressed significant feelings of grief over their loss of traditional faith. But integrity demanded that they honestly acknowledge (to themselves and others) that they no longer believe. In short, they all came to a point where they “could not pretend” to affirm orthodox religion. On the other hand, each member of the group affirmed several nontraditional beliefs.
They No Longer Believe in Institutional Religion:
The seven people I interviewed were at one point active members in a local church, and several served as pastors. Two of them still attend church but for relational--not religious--reasons. The other five have left church. None of them harbor overtly hostile feelings toward the church. Most articulated some kind of love-hate relationship with institutional religion. Most believe that in spite of making some positive contributions, the church has mostly failed to follow the life, teachings, and example of Jesus, and as a result, they finally gave up on it. Two of them still attend a traditional congregation because of personal history, family, and congregational friendships, not because they believe the church’s theology or its institutional integrity.
What, if Anything, Do They Believe?
They are not unbelievers and have much in common theologically. All of them affirm belief in some kind of mysterious life-force Spirit in the universe. They also believe in traditional Christian values like love, integrity, compassion, character, humility, and justice, and affirm Christian practices like forgiveness, generosity, service, and gratitude. Mostly they still believe in Jesus. Not the divine Christ who was born of a virgin, walked on water, healed the blind, rose from the dead, and ascended to the sky. Instead, they believe in the human Jesus who loved sinners, extended grace, welcomed outsiders, blessed children, exhibited compassion, engaged in acts of kindness, and demanded justice. All of them still consider themselves to be followers of Jesus and seek to emulate his teachings, example, and spirit. In short, while this group of nontraditional believers are post-orthodox and (mostly) post-church, they are definitely not post-Jesus. Regardless of their theology or church affiliation, each one of them expressed an abiding love for Jesus. See https://doubtersparish.com/2022/06/01/orthodox-no-longer/.
On the future of a church that has lost its moral compass:
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(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
(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
(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
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(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
(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
(3/16/19): Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism
(5/25/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus
(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
(11/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Virtual Alternative to a Failing Church
(11/23/19): Musings on Jesus and Christ as Conflicting Concepts in Christianity
(2/1/20): Musings on the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Altar of Partisan Politics
(6/13/20): Was Jesus the Prophet of the Gospels or the Christ of the Church?
(7/18/20): Musings on Atheism and Religion and Living Life to the Full
(1/9/21): A Reckoning and Repentance Following the Storming of the Nation’s Capitol
(3/27/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Civil Religion in a Divided America
(4/17/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Future of the Church
(7/17/21): Christianity and Politics: Separated by Irreconcilable Differences
(8/14/21): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of God’s Truth in Christianity
(1/22/22): Musings on Popularity as a Corrupting Influence in Democracy and Christianity
(4/23/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Why Americans Are Losing Their Religion
(4/30/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Obsolescence of Christianity in Politics