By Rudy Barnes, Jr., October 1, 2022
Schisms have polarized people in the church and politics based on deeply conflicting views. That’s because democracy has made Americans masters of their destiny, and popularity is the measure of success in democracy; and popularity is at odds with the altruistic morality needed to shape America’s moral standards of political legitimacy.
That’s a problem for Christianity, since the sacrificial love taught by Jesus was never popular. The early church recognized that anomaly; and to attract the converts it needed for popularity and power it subordinated the universal teachings of Jesus to exclusivist doctrinal beliefs in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God, and the only means of salvation.
Jesus was a Jew who never suggested that he was divine; and he offended his religious leaders by asserting the primacy of love over law as God’s standard of righteousness over Mosaic Law. Jesus made reconciliation a moral priority of faith, even over worship (Matthew 5:23-26); but the church continues to ignore the priority of reconciliation over exclusivist beliefs.
The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors--including those of other races and religions--as we love ourselves. It’s taken from the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus, and has been accepted by Muslims as a common word of faith. It’s a moral imperative to reconcile with those neighbors we would rather ignore.
Subordinating the moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist beliefs in Jesus as a Trinitarian form of God made Christianity the world’s most popular religion; but as a form of cheap grace it now fosters the decline of Christianity. Many Christians reject exclusivist church doctrines and have left the church; but most continue to believe that the teachings of Jesus are God’s Truth.
Thomas Jefferson considered “the teachings of Jesus the most sublime moral code ever designed by man;” but Jefferson had contempt for exclusivist church doctrines. Today most white Christians support Donald Trump. His narcissistic values are the antithesis of those taught by Jesus, but few white churches challenge the corrupt morality of Trump’s Republicans.
In America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture, most Christians worship Jesus Christ but don’t follow his teachings. God’s will is that we reconcile our schisms, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. Demagogues like Trump promote religious and political schisms that divide and conquer to gain worldly power. Thankfully, God’s spiritual realm is not a democracy.
Church schisms have been the norm since the Reformation; and a new schism divided the church in 2016 when most white Christians voted for Trump. Reconciliation requires that the church give primacy to the altruistic teachings of Jesus over exclusivist doctrinal beliefs. That would likely cost the church its popularity, but it would make the reconciliation of political and religious schisms a universal priority of faith.
Thomas Jefferson assembled 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 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 Christian 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 (3/17/18) at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html.
In American Schism (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2021) Seth David Radwell has traced the birth of America’s polarized partisan politics to a moderate Enlightenment led by Alexander Hamilton and a radical Enlightenment led by Thomas Jefferson (see pp.101-110). Radwell’s focus is on historical political developments rather than the evolution of the moral standards of political legitimacy. He emphasizes “the separation between church and state” even though the First Amendment only prohibits “Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Radwell cites the Second Great Awakening as a populist instrument devoid of the altruistic teachings of Jesus used by both Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans to promote their conflicting partisan ideals. It was the precursor of the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell and the white Christian nationalism that elected Donald Trump. As for moral standards in a democracy, the epistle of James asserts that a faith without deeds (or works) is as “dead as a body without the spirit” (James 2:18-26).
Trump’s “morality” is based on self-centered moral standards similar to those of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. It’s reminiscent of Old Testament justice based on God rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient in this world based on Mosaic Law. “Life is a battleground between good and evil. This extreme dualism [can] lead to the adoption of apocalyptic religious beliefs. As the books of Daniel and Revelation reveal, the evil world will soon come to a violent end with the righteous few saved by Jesus who will take them to safety in heaven. God is portrayed as a global terrorist who brutally annihilates all the evil people who oppose him.” And Trump’s supporters see him as their god. https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/on-defeating-trumpism-the-answer-lies-in-the-new-testament/
Michael Gerson has explained that while Trump should fill Christians with rage, he doesn’t. “Christian America has assumed the symbols and identity of white authoritarian populism that’s a serious, unfolding threat to liberal democracy. Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. The discordant prejudices and delusions of religious conservatives helped swell the populist wave that lapped on the steps of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. During that assault, Christian banners mixed with the iconography of white supremacy in a manner that should have choked Christian participants with rage. But it didn’t. Gerson asks, “Have pastors domesticated the Christian message into something familiar, unchallenging and easily ignored? Christians should not join interest groups that fight for their narrow rights. Rather, they should seek to be ambassadors of a kingdom of hope, mercy, justice and grace. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/09/01/michael-gerson-evangelical-christian-maga-democracy/?utm.
The United Methodist Church, like other Protestant denominations, has been caught up in a schism over the politics of sexual preference. Bishop William Willimon has described it as “a divorce that’s a mistake.” He said that “Caucusing is easy; church is hard. We thereby say to the world that Jesus Christ can’t make and sustain community out of people whom I don’t like and are not my type. Rather than ask, “What’s Christ up to in our neighborhood?” we say, “I refuse to be part of a church that doesn’t reflect my values before I came to church.” In May the conservative (they prefer “orthodox”) breakaway Global Methodist Church had an inauspicious birth. It’s a church created by a couple of right wing (oops, “traditional”) caucus groups. They don’t accept the label schismatic (what schismatic ever has?) and prefer instead to say that they have been pushed out of the church they once loved. In his stemwinder sermon “On Schism,” John Wesley begged those thinking about church divorce to stay and fight. Schism is always counter to the togetherness produced by Christ: “Separation is evil in itself, being a breach of brotherly love, so it brings forth evil fruit . . . the most mischievous consequences. It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. Old Daddy Wesley, we’ve messed up again.” See https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/united-methodist-divorce-mistake?utm.
Earlier commentary related to the church and schisms over morality in religion and politics:
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
(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
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(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
(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.
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/23/18) Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(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
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(12/15/18): Musings on the Great Commission and Religious and Political Tribalism
(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
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
(9/7/19): Musings on the Self-Destruction of Christianity and American Democracy
(10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy
(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
(6/13/20): Was Jesus the Prophet of the Gospels or the Christ of the Church?
(11/21/20): Democracy Has Survived Donald Trump, but Can the Church Survive Democracy?
(4/24/21): How a Fading Church Could Help Reconcile America’s Polarized Politics
(5/15/21): Musings on the Moral Failure of American Christianity and Democracy
(5/22/21): Musings on Morality and Politics and the Need for a Civil Religion in America
(7/17/21): Christianity and Politics: Separated by Irreconcilable Differences
(8/14/21): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of God’s Truth in Christianity
(1/15/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Morally Muddled Mainstream
(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
(6/25/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Church and the Greatest Commandment
(7/23/22): Musings on Moderating Extremism in American Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(8/6/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moderating Hatred in Partisan Politics
(8/13/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion and the Wisdom of God