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

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