By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
America’s politics are polarized, and conflicting values are at the heart of the political divide. The only way to begin a meaningful process of reconciliation is to find shared values, and since the vast majority of Americans are religious, those values should be a matter of faith.
At the heart of the political divide is a conflict between traditionalists who revere past values and progressives who favor change. It’s the same conflict that separates religious fundamentalists from progressive believers. Fundamentalists seek to preserve past religious traditions against the threat of change, while progressives are open to change based on reason.
The conflict is about more than educational and economic differences. In South Carolina, most Trump supporters were educated white Republicans with economic security. Those with the least economic security and education were blacks who voted Democrat. The election reflected a long-standing partisan divide based on conflicting values—and race.
There is no political quick fix. Voters ignored third parties as an alternative to a polarized duopoly and gave Democrats and Republicans 95% of their vote, leaving less than 5% of the vote to be split among four third parties. America’s political polarization will require a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, not more political parties.
Values originate with religion. Most Americans consider themselves Christians, and most white Christians voted for Trump. They are part of a church that is declining in popularity. The church must be born again and put the teachings of Jesus ahead of exclusivist church doctrines that promise salvation based on worshiping Jesus as God rather than following him as the word of God.
The church can restore its credibility and legitimacy by promoting a politics of reconciliation based on the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that supports racial and religious reconciliation and that can provide a balance between individual rights and providing for the common good, a balance essential for any healthy democracy.
The election revealed an electorate polarized with a politics of “us against them,” based along partisan and racial lines, with most Republicans being white and most blacks being Democrats; but there is one thing they all have in common: They are predominately Christian. For America’s racial and religious diversity to be its strength rather than its weakness, the church must promote a politics of reconciliation based on those shared values in a common word of faith. It is simply loving our neighbors—all of them—as we love ourselves.
There is no shortcut to reconciliation. It must avoid a politics of fear, anger and hate. Reconciliation must be based on the shared values of altruism and respect for others rather than on the self-serving and exploitative values that have polarized our politics. The problem is not new. Both religion and politics have long been gravitating toward the current polarization.
Jesus was a radical change agent, but the church has promoted traditional values and resisted change to gain popularity and institutional power. Church fathers subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist doctrines of belief that were a form of cheap grace. They guaranteed salvation without the discomfort of loving the least, the last and the lost.
The Enlightenment of the 18th century transformed both politics and religion in the West with libertarian concepts of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law. Those concepts of natural law and justice transformed progressive religions in libertarian democracies, but religious fundamentalists continue to reject change as a threat to their religious traditions.
Change is inevitable with advances in knowledge and reason, and it requires balancing individual rights with providing for the common good. There are different approaches to that balancing act. A libertarian approach emphasizes individual freedom with the least amount of government, while a socialist approach subordinates individual rights to government programs providing for the common good. The contentious issues that arise from the two approaches can be resolved through compromise if both sides are motivated by the altruistic love for others.
That is why it is essential that there should be consensus on the shared value of altruistic love before addressing contentious issues. From the use of lethal force by law enforcement and the military to health care, all issues that involve human rights and justice should be considered within the parameters of loving others—all others—to avoid stifling polarization.
The term “family values” has been a rallying cry for the religious right since the 1970s. It distorted the fundamental value of loving all others into the political objective of preserving traditional family norms and a white ruling class. Such family values did more to polarize our religion and politics than to reconcile the increasingly pluralistic elements within our nation.
There is a moral malaise in American religion today. Is there a church that will sponsor a process to reconcile our polarized politics and religions based on the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves—even those neighbors of other races and religions? Hopefully so, but if not, it may well be the end of white Christian America.
Notes and related commentary:
Colbert King captured the moral malaise in the American church today when he cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail:
“King wrote…that when he was “catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Ala.,” he felt the white church would support him. Instead, he discovered some white ministers were outright opponents; others were “more cautious than courageous and . . . [they] remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
King expressed disappointment at seeing white church leaders, in the midst of blatant racial and economic injustices, “stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
He spoke of traveling on “sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings” and looking “at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward.”
“Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’ ”
“Where were their voices,” King asked, when the lips of their governors dripped with words of bigotry and hatred? “Where were their voices of support?”
They were silent. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-the-age-of-trump-what-is-a-christian/2016/11/18/11fab326-adb6-11e6-8b45-f8e493f06fcd_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On the recent election as evidence of the end of white Christian America, see
Eric C. Miller has likened Donald Trump to an avatar for a morally bankrupt American religion. See http://religiondispatches.org/rising-to-heaven-in-a-secular-rapture-trumps-golden-promises/.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/jesus-meets-muhammad-is-there-common.html.
On religious fundamentalism and a politics of reconciliation, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/05/religious-fundamentalism-and-politics.html.
On the need for a politics of reconciliation in a polarized democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/10/the-need-for-politics-of-reconciliation.html.
On religion and reconciliation after a political apocalypse, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/religion-and-reconciliation-after.html.
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