Saturday, January 28, 2017

Saving America from the Church

  Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            My apologies to Robin R. Meyers, author of Saving Jesus from the Church (HarperOne 2009).  I have adapted the title of his excellent book for this commentary.  But just what is this church that threatens both Jesus and America?  It is so diverse as to defy description, but since 81% of white Christians voted for Donald Trump last November, they represent a church that has abandoned the moral teachings of Jesus and America’s need to provide for the common good.

            Thomas Jefferson once referred to the teachings of Jesus as the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.  But today most white Christians have subordinated the teachings of Jesus to exclusivist doctrines of salvation, and many, if not most, follow evangelists like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Paula White, who preach a prosperity gospel of worldly success.  Having abandoned Jesus as the icon of their faith, they elected Donald Trump as our President.

            The moral teachings of Jesus are summed up in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, and in the story of the good Samaritan Jesus taught that our neighbors include those of other races and religions.  How could so many people who call themselves Christians reject the moral teachings of Jesus and vote for a rude, crude, nativist and narcissist who has no humility and condemns all who question his alternative facts?

            Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians.  They are the church, and unless and until they restore the primacy of the teachings of Jesus over the false doctrines of those charlatan evangelists who supported Donald Trump, the church will have no legitimacy.  Those Christians who rejected discipleship to support Donald Trump made their religion seem ridiculous.  If the church elected Donald Trump president, the question is how to save America from the church.

            The solution is simple, but difficult—just as loving our neighbors is simple but difficult.  For the church to be reconciled to God’s word, it must make the teachings of Jesus The Church’s One Foundation.  That’s a problem in a world that defines success based on wealth and power.  Following Jesus doesn’t bring worldly success or popularity, and the cost of discipleship can be great, as it was for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  And for politicians, discipleship doesn’t win elections.

            Winning elections in America involves competition at its worse, and cooperation is rare with our polarized partisan politics.  Politics is about power, and power corrupts.  There is little place for humble service among those seeking political power, and little hope for a politics of reconciliation in our polarized politics.  The best we can hope for in our flawed democracy is to elect politicians who are committed to serving the common good, not their own good.

             Only voters can save America from the church.  Unlike politicians, voters can follow the teachings of Jesus and seek a politics of reconciliation.  But most Christian voters are not good disciples and are poor stewards of their democracy.  They worship Jesus as their personal savior, but do not follow his teachings as the word of God.  Unless and until Christians become better disciples and stewards of their democracy, they cannot save either their church or America.             

Notes and earlier commentary on related topics:

Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but expressed contempt for the distortions and misuse of those teachings by Christian religious leaders of his day.  Jefferson wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "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 the 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."  Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379.  While many Christians considered Jefferson a heretic, Jefferson wrote of himself: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other.” (p 334)  For Jefferson, being a Christian meant following Jesus as God’s word rather than worshiping him as God’s son.  He emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus over the mystical, and in so doing emphasized discipleship over orthodox Christian beliefs, a distinction elaborated by Robin R. Meyers in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, HarperCollins, 2009.  Jefferson cut and pasted selected portions of the gospel accounts from four Bibles in four languages: Greek, Latin, French, and English (from the King James translation).  His Bible illustrates the moral dimension of religion and its role in shaping legitimacy in US culture.  Jon Meacham affirmed Jefferson’s prominent role in shaping American values in American Gospel, Random House, New York, 2006 (see pp 56-58, 72-77, 80-86, 104, 105, 247-250, 263, 264; reference to Jefferson’s Bible at p 389); see also Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Random House, New York, 2012, pp 471-473.  See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2 at
On how religion is ridiculous and corrupts our politics. see;

On discipleship in democracy: a test of faith, legitimacy and politics. see

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see

On exclusivist evangelical Christian doctrines, see promoting religion through evangelism: bringing light or darkness? at

On differing Christian beliefs in Jesus, see Jesus: a prophet, God’s only son, or the Logos at      

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous and Corrupts Our Politics

  Rudy Barnes, Jr.

           Until November 2016 I could not have imagined Donald Trump being elected President.  Back in December of 2014 I commented on religion and reason.  After yesterday’s inauguration of President Trump, whose election was made possible by putative Christians, I am convinced that much of what passes for Christianity in America is unreasonable and even ridiculous.

            Before his inauguration yesterday, Trump heard a sermon by Robert Jeffress, described by Sarah Pulliam Bailey as “a Southern Baptist pastor who has a history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays.”  His sermon was taken from Nehemiah, set in a dark, nativist and exclusivist period of Jewish history.  Jews returning to Judah from exile built a wall to purify Judaism from non-Jews.  Jeffress’ point was that “God is not against building walls.”  It was just what Trump wanted to hear.    

            President Trump’s inauguration address followed Jeffress’ nativist theme.  According to Jennifer Rubin, “The speech was a dark, ugly tribute to ‘America First,’ [in] the language of nationalism, nativism and protectionism.”  Decrying “American carnage,” Trump used “creepy statism” to define patriotism: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country we will discover our loyalty to each other.”  It was American exceptionalism on steroids, reminiscent of fascist totalitarianism.
In promoting Trump and his political demagoguery in the name of God, Robert Jeffries is not alone.  Other popular evangelical Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, and Paula White have made a mockery of the teachings of Jesus by promoting self-centered doctrines of the prosperity gospel coupled with an exclusivist atonement doctrine.

            And the problem is not unique to America.  In Israel, an unholy alliance of ultra-orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians seek to replace the Dome of the Rock mosque on the ancient temple mount in Jerusalem with a restored Jewish temple, and they oppose any return of occupied Palestinian territory as part of a two-state peace process.  

            Religions have polarized politics around the world, fulfilling the aphorism of Karl Marx that religion is the opiate of the masses.  There is hope, however, that while religion is a major cause of fear, hate and political division, it can also be a means of political reconciliation.

            The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves is considered a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  Unlike Nehemiah, Jesus taught in the story of the good Samaritan that our neighbors include those of other races and religions, and that it is God’s will for us to tear down walls and build bridges to reconcile us.

If Jews, Christians and Muslims could make loving their neighbors of other races and religions a common word of their faith, religion could be redeemed as reasonable.  Only then could religion help make a politics of reconciliation possible.  Otherwise, religion will continue to be ridiculous, corrupting our politics with fear, anger, hate and division.

Notes and earlier commentary on this topic:

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see

On the need for a politics of reconciliation in a polarized democracy, see

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Trump versus Lewis and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Donald Trump once questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama as President, and now Congressman John Lewis has questioned the legitimacy of Donald Trump on the eve of his inauguration as President.  Both men are wrong.  The elections of both Obama and Trump were legitimate.  Their legitimacy depends upon their character and their actions.
            Legitimacy is based on public perceptions of what is right and is measured by values and moral and legal standards.  Every four years Americans elect a President who presumably exemplifies their values and standards of legitimacy.  President Obama began his administration eight years ago proclaiming the audacity of hope, and he ended his term asserting the reality of hope.  But whether there is any hope for American democracy is yet to be seen.

            America is a religious nation, and religion is the source of its standards of legitimacy.  Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, and most of them voted for Donald Trump, who represents the antithesis of altruistic Christian standards of legitimacy.  Trump is an exemplar of Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism, with his own rude, crude, egocentric and narcissistic style.  It is supremely ironic that Trump’s election was made possible by evangelical Christians.  

            It resulted from the transformation of the American (Christian) Religion from its altruistic Judeo-Christian roots that took place in two stages.  First, when the Founding Fathers embraced the libertarian values of the 18th century Enlightenment.  They are summarized in the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence. 

            The second stage was when big business formed an alliance with evangelical Christianity to counter FDR’s socialistic New Deal policies.  That unholy alliance linked freedom with free enterprise and piety with patriotism.  It was promoted by evangelical preachers like James Fifield, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell, who, with their sons, shaped evangelical Christianity into a political force that produced Republican Presidents from Eisenhower to Trump.

            Today American politics and religion are polarized, and concepts of legitimacy are in disarray.  Politics are polarized along party lines, reflected in the encounter between Lewis and Trump, and most Christians have abandoned the altruistic values taught by Jesus to support radical right politics as God’s will.  Political and religious moderates have been marginalized, with the majority now being at the right and left extremes of the political spectrum.

The greatest challenge for American democracy (and religion) today is to balance the individual rights and freedom promoted by the right with the collective obligation to provide for the common good emphasized by the left.  It is a classic conflict between libertarian and socialist ideologies, and pits older white Americans against younger and more racially diverse Americans.
            Some kind of political and religious reconciliation must take place in America if democracy is to survive the current polarization, but any politics of reconciliation must be based on common standards of legitimacy.  The concept of altruistic love is such a standard.  It is set forth in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, and it is considered a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
The Apostle Paul put the reality of hope into proper perspective with love.  He affirmed that loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the purpose of the law (Romans 13:8-10), and after describing the nature of love as the most excellent way, Paul concluded that of faith, hope and love, the greatest of these is love (I Corinthians 13:1-13).

Religion is interwoven with politics in America, but the standards of legitimacy for patriotism and faith are different—at least for those who put love for others at the foundation of their faith.  To ignore the difference between patriotism and faith is to invite the political evil that destroyed libertarian democracy in Nazi Germany.  It happened when Christians sacrificed the moral imperatives of their faith to a distorted sense of patriotism.

Conflicting concepts of legitimacy underlie international conflicts and often promote violence.  That’s because standards of legitimacy vary dramatically among cultures and are exacerbated by religion.  In libertarian democracies fundamental freedoms that begin with those of religion and speech are given a high priority, while in Islamic cultures those fundamental freedoms are denied by the apostasy and blasphemy laws of shari’a.

            Christians in America and Muslims in Islamic cultures have jeopardized their freedom and sacrificed the altruistic standards of their faith to support radical right demagogues.  The survival of libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law depends on a politics of reconciliation based on loving our neighbors as ourselves—even those neighbors of other races, religions and political parties.  It is the only way to avoid forging our own shackles and to preserve our freedom in our great experiment with democracy. 


On how competing claims of political legitimacy made by John Lewis and Donald Trump has exacerbated a polarized partisan environment on the eve of the Trump inauguration, see

In One Nation Under God (Basic Books, 2015), Kevin Kruse has chronicled how big business (Wall Street) has coopted and shaped the American (Christian) Religion into a force of piety and patriotism that that has abandoned the altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus and empowered the rich and powerful of the radical right.

On the definition of legitimacy and how it relates to military operations, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium, Frank Cass, 1996 (see manuscript posted at
On conflicting concepts of legitimacy, see Barnes, Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy at

On balancing individual rights with the collective responsibility to provide for the common good, see

Michael Gerson has noted that “Without a passion for universal dignity and worth—the commitment to a common good in which the powerless are valued—politics is a spoils system for the winners.  It degenerates into a way of one group to gain advantage over another.  See

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see

On the need for a politics of reconciliation in a polarized democracy, see
On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The November election has prompted much commentary on how Christians could have supported Donald Trump, who represents the antithesis of Christian morality.  Perhaps it’s because Christian concepts of legitimacy—those standards of what is right—vary among the vast diversity of Christians.  Many, if not most, Christians have subordinated the teachings of Jesus to moral standards more congenial to materialism and worldly success in today’s world.

            Religion has long been a source of a culture’s standards of legitimacy.  But since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, libertarian values have challenged ancient Biblical standards of legitimacy.  Concepts of individual rights, democracy and the secular rule of law are not Biblical.  They are derived from natural law, and while they are difficult to reconcile with religion and politics, the American religion has done just that.
            The American religion is a hybrid of traditional Judaism and Christianity that has been transformed by the sanctification of individual rights and free enterprise.  The altruism of the teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves has been subsumed by a form of self-centered objectivism promoted by Ayn Rand and practiced on Wall Street.  It has become the prevalent doctrine of belief in Christian America.

            Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, and more than 80% of white Christians supported Donald Trump.  His supporters included prominent radical-right evangelists like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham, while a relatively few evangelical leaders, like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, advocated Christian morality based on the teachings of Jesus and opposed Trump.  They offered a stark contrast in Christian standards of legitimacy.  

            Conflicting standards of political legitimacy are not unique to Christianity in America.  Judaism and Islam offer similar contrasts.  Each of these Abrahamic religions has its religious fundamentalists who consider the laws of their holy books their primary standards of legitimacy, and they oppose libertarian values and concepts of justice.  While fundamentalists are a minority in the libertarian democracies of the West, they are a majority in Islamic cultures.

            Most people in the world are religious, and Islam is expected to surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion within twenty years.  The inexorable forces of globalization promise even more religious pluralism around the world in the future, and the rise of radical-right politics and the violence of Islamist terrorism will continue if conflicting standards of political legitimacy are not reconciled to tolerable levels.  It is a challenge for both religion and politics.

            Jerusalem has long been a crucible for religious conflict among Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Levant.  Relative peace has been maintained by the dominance of moderate Jewish secularists in Israeli politics, but that is changing as Jewish fundamentalists gain influence and power in Israel, and they no doubt welcome President-Elect Trump’s appointment of a fellow fundamentalist Jew as the U.S ambassador to Israel.

            Security Council Resolution 2334 condemned the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territory.  The U.S. did not veto it as it has done to similar proposals in the past, and after the Resolution passed Secretary of State Kerry explained it this way:
“Today there are a number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality: If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both.”

            In the tribal cultures of the Middle East, religion and reason support the expedient ethic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  There are few reliable alliances in that unstable region.  Trump and his Christian supporters have used that primitive tribal ethic in their unwillingness to condemn Russia’s hacking of Democrat websites during the campaign.  Such a transient political rationale threatens traditional U.S. alliances, like those of NATO.                

            We have seen Christian religious fundamentalism give political legitimacy to radical-right demagogues in the U.S. and Islamist fundamentalism give political legitimacy to terrorists in Islamic cultures.  Now we are witnessing the rise of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, aided and abetted by the U.S., which threatens to replace a fragile democracy with a Jewish theocracy that could ignite a powder-keg of religious violence in the Middle East.

            Religion and reason shape concepts of political legitimacy around the world, for good or bad.  Religious fundamentalism coupled with transitory political alliances threaten the stability of libertarian democracy, justice and world peace.  The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  It offers a way for religions to promote a politics of reconciliation that can foster political stability and world peace.        


On Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, see How Trump's Evangelical Supporters Can Atone, at; Russell Moore Responds to Southern Baptist Detractors, at; and How to Speak Christian Truth to Political Power, at
On Franklin Graham’s assertion that God, not Russia, intervened in the election of Donald Trump, see

On why it’s time we think of politics more like religion, see

On Donald Trump’s religion of success, see

On the danger of Jewish religious fundamentalism in Israel, see

On how tribal concepts of religion and reason—the enemy of my enemy is my friend—can distort concepts of political legitimacy, see

On Religion and Reason, see (Note: References in the End Notes are to Resources at 

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see

On the need for a politics of reconciliation in a polarized democracy, see
On irreconcilable differences and the demise of democracy, see

On religion and reconciliation following an apocalyptic election, see