By Rudy Barnes, Jr., April 1, 2023
April Fool. After thinking I was going to take a break from commentary, here I am again. Public unrest over Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine democracy in Israel and the disaffiliation of “United” Methodist churches in the U.S. reflect an erosion in the moral standards of legitimacy that are the province of religion, and that are “a two-edged sword” in a democracy.
The purposes of religion are twofold: both mystical and moral. The mystical is spiritual and based on our relationship with God. The moral governs our relationships with other people, and it includes values and the legal and moral standards of legitimacy. Religious differences are interwoven with politics, and can be divisive enough to cause a civil war, as they did in 1860.
Judaism is over 4,000 years old and gave birth to Christianity and Islam. The standards of legitimacy in Judaism are Mosaic Law, and in Islam it’s Shari’a. For Christians there is no holy law, but salvation is limited to those who believe in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God. That’s blasphemy for Jews and Muslims, even though they consider Jesus a great prophet.
Jesus was a maverick Jew who advocated love over law, and his teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors 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 Islamic scholars as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
For those whose journey of faith has taken them beyond traditional religious boundaries, the greatest commandment should remain a common word of faith. Thomas Jefferson was a deist who considered the teachings of Jesus “The most sublime moral code ever designed by man;” and modern theologians have affirmed that moral primacy in the Gospel accounts.
Our challenge today is to love those we don’t like just as we love ourselves. Altruism is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus and requires that we seek to be reconciled with our religious and political adversaries, or accept the demise of our democracy. That’s the challenge in America’s pluralistic democracy that’s polarized by religious and political differences.
Political reconciliation in a nation polarized by race and partisan politics may seem an impossible dream; but even in an increasingly secular democracy, religious and political reconciliation is possible among those who continue to share the greatest commandment as a common word of their faith and politics, even if they are no longer part of a traditional religion.
The altruism at the heart of the greatest commandment transcends all religions, and is a universal standard of legitimacy that’s critical to maintain the fabric of any pluralistic democracy. With the decline of traditional religions, it’s increasingly obvious that the moral teachings of Jesus should be acknowledged as universal standards of legitimacy.
The public uprisings opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist leadership in Israel that has pandered to his ultraconservative constituents is reminiscent of ancient Jewish leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah who restricted intermarriage with non-Jews and diluting Jewish control of politics in Israel after returning to Jerusalem from their exile in Persia. See Israel's former leader says Netanyahu should either reform his coalition or resign at https://www.npr.org/2023/03/28/1166422751/ehud-olmert-israel-judicial-overhaul-delay-benjamin-netanyahu.
Two large Methodist churches in central S.C. and others across the U.S., are disaffiliating with the United Methodist Church over church doctrine on issues of sexual preference. See https://www.thestate.com/living/religion/article273406735.html#storylink=cpy.
On The greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/jesus-meets-muhammad-is-there-common.html.
Thomas Jefferson was a deist who held the teachings of Jesus in high regard while 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.” Jefferson assembled The Jefferson Bible on the moral teachings of Jesus, and many biblical scholars consider Jefferson prescient in separating the actual teachings of Jesus from what the gospel writers had likely put on his lips. Robin Meyers echoed Jefferson’s criticism in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. See Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html. See also Musings on the Evolution of Christianity into the American Civil Religion (December 10, 2022) at
The Jesus Seminar is a distinguished group of Christian scholars who recognized Thomas Jefferson as a pioneer “who scrutinized the gospels with the intent to separate the real teachings of Jesus, the figure of history, from the crustaceans of Christian doctrine.” See The Five Gospels, In the Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, What Did Jesus Really Say? Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and The Jesus Seminar, A Polebridge Press Book, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, 1993 (at pp 2,3).
In his tour of America in 1834, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that religion is a two-edged sword in democracy: While Christians “readily espouse the cause of human liberty as the source of all moral greatness,” and “will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law, …religion is entangled in those institutions that democracy assails, and is not infrequently brought to reject the equality it loves and to curse that cause of liberty as a foe.” De Tocqueville noted that secular citizens are skeptical of religion in politics but know “that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” See De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, The Cooperative Publication Society and the Colonial Press, 1900, p 12.
On love over law, see Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Love Over Law and Social Justice