By Rudy Barnes, Jr,
Christians have conflicting concepts of Jesus: Is he the maverick Jewish rabbi described in the Gospels who called his disciples to follow him, or the divine Jesus Christ that church doctrine claims is the only means of salvation. Jesus never claimed to be divine and never advocated a new religion, but more Christians believe in Jesus Christ than in following Jesus.
Christians who are not committed to follow Jesus are easily distracted by false beliefs. A majority of white Christians ignored the egregious immorality of Donald Trump and elected him President in 2016. Since then partisan political preferences haven’t changed, yet the white church has failed to hold Trump’s supporters accountable for rejecting the teachings of Jesus.
Until recently I naively believed that the church could be a moral steward of American democracy, and I promoted the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus as America’s standards of political legitimacy. Partisan politics proved me wrong. Among Christians partisan politicians have created a more popular Jesus than the morally demanding Jewish rabbi of the Gospels.
There have been exceptions. John Wesley was a maverick 18th century Anglican priest who promoted discipleship by emphasizing the altruistic teachings of Jesus through service in English hospitals and orphanages. It’s too bad that Wesley’s moral priorities have been lost in the disaffiliation meltdown of America’s United Methodist Church.
The universal and altruistic teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, even those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. Its universality has been acknowledged by its acceptance as a common word of faith by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
There are good people in the church, but the church has failed to be a moral steward of American democracy. If the church can’t promote the teachings of Jesus as moral imperatives of Christianity, there is little hope for the moral legitimacy of the church or of our democracy. It seems that America’s standards of political legitimacy are now provided by partisan politics.
As long as politics continue to shape America’s standards of political legitimacy, the church will have little relevance, other than as a large social institution like a country club with a cross on its roof. If partisan tribalism and nationalism remain dominant, America could begin to look like Russia, which is a putative democracy that claims to be a Christian nation.
Do most Christians believe in a Jesus Christ shaped by politics or in the Jesus of the Gospels? Pope Francis has lamented that radical politicians are now corrupting the church. In America Trump’s supporters have shaped a Republican Jesus; and in Russia Putin has gained the support of the Russian Orthodox Church for his invasion of Ukraine. It seems that the church has become just another social institution manipulated by unprincipled demagogues.
On the greatest commandment as a universal common word of faith, see
The contest between the Church and politics over moral authority has come to a head. Pope Francis has warned of “a very strong, organized reactionary attitude within his Church, and letting political ideologies replace faith” as standards of morality, especially in the U.S.” See Ruth Graham on the Popes’ remarks on ‘reactionary’ U.S. Catholics that rankle and resonate at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/01/us/pope-francis-conservative.html. See also, https://apnews.com/article/pope-francis-vatican-conservatives-abortion-us-bbfc.
As I noted in my commentary last week, David French has opined that virtue (another word for morality) in political Christianity “bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus on discipleship. “When you combine theology and ideology but subtract virtue, you’ve created a formula for viciousness and strife. Raise the stakes to an existential or eternal level, remove the restraints of kindness and self-control, and watch the worst of humanity emerge. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Christian faith is the way Scripture treats both theology and virtue. Jesus said, “every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit.” The conclusion is simple — beware the hateful, the people drawn to strife; embrace those who are kind and peaceful. Those who follow Jesus should be marked by those virtues. Do those virtues mark the most prominent political Christians today? Do those virtues characterize political Christianity in the age of Trump? The answers are self-evident. At a time of extraordinary partisan polarization, a Christian message should demand that we love our enemies. As we learn in Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs.” Moments of political conflict such as this one should cause the church to blaze forth with countercultural radiance — a soothing balm in a sea of strife. But the dominant tone of contemporary American political Christianity is close to the opposite. It’s angry. It’s punitive. In many ways it positively delights in strife. The Christianity it embodies isn’t so much Christianity at all, but rather a religiously flavored authoritarianism that is proving to be red in tooth and claw, a political and cultural movement that embraces the “works of the flesh,” supposedly to accomplish the will of God. Political Christianity …sees threats to American faith primarily outside the church, creating a sense of siege. It casts kindness as weakness, creating incentives for aggression. And since it casts conflicts in the most existential of terms — its political opponents are not misguided fellow citizens, but literally demonic — it raises the temperature to the boiling point. If theology minus virtue can equal violence, then perhaps theology plus virtue can enable justice. Look again at the fruit of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are incompatible with oppression. And while exhibiting that fruit does not guarantee that others will love or respect you, it does help us obey one of our highest calls: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. See Political Christianity Has Claws at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/24/opinion/political-christianity-has-claws.html.
Also, Musings of a Maverick Methodist on The Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/04/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.