Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The Enlightenment of the 17th century was a major turning point in the evolution of religion, politics and law in the Western world.  It was initiated by advances in knowledge and reason, and it transformed a politics based on the sovereignty of God and the divine right to rule into a politics based on the sovereignty of man and governed by the libertarian concepts of democracy and human rights.     

            The Roman Catholic Church was the source of political legitimacy in the Western world until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century opened the door to change.  The seemingly endless medieval religious wars were testimony to the dominance of religion in politics until the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 superseded the sovereignty of God with Hugo Grotius’ concept of national sovereignty that paved the way for international law, democracy and human rights.

            Martin Luther was the most influential theologian of the Reformation.  He was a “Renaissance-era disruptor” whose subversive ideas were given wide-spread coverage through a new means of social media (the printing press).  Alec Ryrie has compared Luther with Donald Trump.  It is a useful, if far-fetched, comparison of two men of power who shared egocentric and authoritarian personality traits, and who were hostile to those who criticized them. 

            Like Trump, Luther was audacious enough to challenge the dominant power structure of his day, the Roman Catholic Church, and he did so using vulgar language and crude tactics.  And like Trump, Luther demanded unquestioned loyalty.  He used political alliances with secular rulers to deny any Protestants who questioned his rigid Lutheran doctrines the same freedom to dissent that he had demanded for himself when he challenged rigid Catholic doctrines.

            Ryrie noted that Luther would not likely have identified himself with Trump, but instead identified Trump with Henry VIII, a contemporary secular despot who, like Trump, used religion to promote his personal ambitions:

Henry VIII was a man who combined narcissistic self-importance, bearish charisma, intellectual laziness, a throwaway attitude toward women, a degree of real shrewdness that he himself persistently overestimated, and a lack of any sustained interest in the nitty-gritty of government. A man who first struck a very public pose against the Lutheran cause when it suited him politically and who performed a 180-degree turn a few years later. His new Protestant allies never quite trusted him, but they couldn’t resist the opportunities he offered them. Only a handful of lonely figures in England, bolstered from afar by Luther himself, stayed true to their Never Henry principles.

            Luther, Henry VIII and Trump mixed religion and politics to promote their power and then used their power to oppress dissidents.  In Luther’s day, religious and political power were virtually indistinguishable.  In our day, Trump and his Christian evangelical supporters have sought to replicate that volatile mix of religious and political power.  In so doing they may have unintentionally initiated a new Reformation—or revolution—in both religion and politics.

            Could Trump—or any populist despot for that matter—take America back to the future?  Ryrie suggests that’s possible if the populist despot can find a person “…like a Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas Cromwell…who can be left alone to manage the business of government capably while his boss looks after the show business and takes the credit.  That has happened in U.S. politics at the state and local level, so it’s not hard to imagine at the national level.

            The Enlightenment changed the trajectory of history in the Western world with the libertarian concepts of democracy and human rights.  But democracy is not enough.  Liberty and justice for all depends on human rights to protect minorities from a tyranny of the majority.  Our Founding Fathers knew that, but recent presidents have been ambiguous in promoting human rights, and President Trump has been even more inconsistent than his predecessors.

            Fared Zakaria has characterized Trump’s refusal to promote human rights as “a step back to a not-so-liberal world order.”  It is little consolation that Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, has railed against nations on the UN Human Rights Council for ignoring human rights when the U.S. no longer promotes them.  Until the priority of human rights is restored in U.S. foreign policy, the evolution of religion, politics and law could well move back to the future.

Notes and related commentary:

The seminal work of Hugo Grotius On the Law of War and Peace (1625) set the stage for the sovereignty of man to replace the sovereignty of God following the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).  Grotius introduced the concept of national sovereignty governed by international law.

On Lawrence Summers’ view that the U.S. has experienced “a hinge in history,” moving from 75 years of progress in human betterment to a period of regression based on the inept and counterproductive actions of a post-rational, unpredictable and unreliable president.  See

On freedom and human rights as an integral component of U.S. foreign policy, and comparing the record of President Reagan on freedom in foreign policy with that of President Trump, see

On the inconsistency of Trump’s selective focus on human rights, see

On God and country: resolving conflicting concepts of sovereignty, see

On religion, human rights and national security, see

On liberty in law: a matter of man’s law not God’s law, see

On the evolution of religion and politics from oppression to freedom, see

On irreconcilable differences and the demise of democracy, see

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter?

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Since last week’s commentary on religious exclusivity, that topic has reverberated through the media.  It demands a second look at the question: Does religious exclusivity—the belief that God condemns unbelievers to eternal damnation—matter in politics?

            The greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—including neighbors of other races and religions—is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  A belief that God limits his love and salvation to those of one religion and condemns all others to eternal damnation is in conflict with that love command.

            Proselytizing is a mission priority of exclusivist believers, but it demeans other religions.  Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion and taught that all who did God’s will were part of the family of God.  Exclusivist church doctrines that established Christianity as the one true faith and defined hell came later; they were created and promoted by the church.   
            Fareed Zakaria has reminded us that our nation is polarized on “core issues about identity, culture and religion” that make compromise seem immoral.  Religious and political reconciliation is a priority, but religious exclusivity is an obstacle to that reconciliation.  If God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity and Satan’s will is to divide and conquer, then Satan has done a convincing imitation of God in the church, mosque and in politics.

            Michael Gerson has pointed out that 80% of evangelical Christians, 63% of Catholics and 76% of Muslims believe that God condemns all unbelievers to hell.  Those statistics indicate that religious exclusivity will be an obstacle to political reconciliation.  That certainly matters in politics, but Gerson does not reject exclusivist religious beliefs in arguing for religious pluralism.

            Jacob Lupfer criticized Bernie Sanders as the unwitting star of cluelessness on religion at the confirmation hearing for Russel Vought.  He praised Vought, who “without explaining or defending his belief that Muslims stand condemned stated I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”  

            It defies reason to think that a person can believe Muslims “stand condemned” by God and still consider them “…made in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect.…”  But Lupfer avoided that contradiction by arguing that religious beliefs should be ignored in confirmation hearings, where only political issues like health care policy should be considered. 
            The theological arguments underlying religious exclusivism will not be easily resolved.  Religions will continue to defend their exclusivist doctrines, and tradition is a powerful force in opposing progressive change.  Since exclusivist believers promote religious division, how can progressive believers promote religious and political reconciliation?
            Reconciliation requires countering the divisiveness of religious exclusivity with love for our neighbors of other races and religions.  To that end a group of prominent religious leaders, including Pope Francis, Ayotollah Sayyid Fadhel Al-Milani, Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein and the Dalai Lama, has issued an appeal for believers to make friends with those of other religions.  Friendship is a mutual act of love that truly matters in religion and politics.

Notes and related commentary:

On last week’s commentary on religious exclusivity and discrimination in politics see

On Michael Gerson’s commentary on Bernie Sanders’ crusade against…believing in hell see

On Jacob Lupfor’s commentary on Bernie Sanders as the unwitting star of liberal cluelessness in religion, see
On the world’s top religious leaders issuing a rare joint appeal to make friends of those in other religions, see

On all who do God’s will as brothers and sisters of Jesus in the family of God, see

On apostasy and blasphemy laws undermining a common word of faith, see

On promoting religion through evangelism and proselytizing, see

On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see

On the need for a revolution in religion and politics, see

On the relevance of Jesus and the irrelevance of the church in today’s world, see

On intrafaith reconciliation as a prerequisite for interfaith reconciliation, see

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  At a recent confirmation hearing Senator Bernie Sanders questioned a statement by Russell Voight, nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.  Voight said that “Muslims…do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

            Senator Sanders condemned Voight’s statement as Islamophobic.  Ironically, such religious exclusivity is typical of fundamentalist Muslims as well as Christians.  Fundamentalists of both religions believe that theirs alone is the one true faith and that God condemns all others to eternal damnation.  In a religiously pluralistic culture like the U.S., religious fundamentalists holding such exclusivist beliefs are unsuited for public office.

            In a politics polarized by competing religious and political beliefs, providing equal justice under law is impossible if public officials of one religion believe that God has condemned all others to eternal damnation.  Most Americans claim to be Christians, but it is unknown how many are fundamentalists.  Perhaps there should be a political test for public officials to ensure that they do not believe that anyone is condemned because of their religious beliefs—or unbelief.

            It is axiomatic that public officials must avoid unlawful discrimination to provide equal justice under law, and that religious exclusivity is likely to produce such discrimination.  While a person’s religious belief should not be a test to qualify for political office, any belief likely to cause unlawful discrimination should be a relevant political consideration in considering whether a person should hold public office.

           Religion has moral and mystical components.  Thomas Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus “the sublimest morality ever taught” and relevant to our politics.  But Jefferson considered the mystical and exclusivist doctrines promoted by the church as irrelevant and inappropriate to our politics.  Religious exclusivity crosses the line.  It is a mystical matter of faith that has moral implications that are relevant to our politics.
            The greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—including those of other races and religions—combines the mystical and moral.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike; and if those believers were to give that common word of faith precedence over exclusivist religious beliefs, there could be a universal politics of reconciliation that could lead to lasting peace with justice—but not until then.

Notes and Related Commentary:

On Bernie Sanders’ religious test for Christians in public office, see

Thomas 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.  See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2, posted at

On the Greatest Commandment as a common word of faith, see 

On whether there is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims today, see

On religious fundamentalism and a politics of reconciliation, see

Saturday, June 3, 2017

When Winning Trumps Mercy and Losing is Evil

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            After the Manchester suicide bombing in May, President Trump condemned the terrorist bomber as an evil loser.  That reflected Trump’s oft stated belief that winning is the ultimate good and losing is bad—even evil.  Such objectivist normative standards may be expected on Wall Street, but not from the White House.  All winners are not good and all losers are not evil.

            Unfortunately it’s not only Trump’s norm, but one shared by Christian evangelicals who elected him president.  The irony is that Jesus taught just the opposite.  He condemned pride and greed and reversed the world’s order of merit when he blessed losers and condemned winners and taught that the last will be first and the first will be last. (see Luke 6:20-26 and Matthew 20:16)  It is a Christian conundrum that puts mercy over winning, even if it requires losing. 
            The truth is that Jesus was a loser by the world’s standards—that is, until God made him a winner with the resurrection.  But it was a short-lived victory.  In the 4th century the church yielded to temptation and became complicit with Constantine in seeking worldly power.  To that end the church, like Trump, subordinated showing mercy for losers to winning worldly power.

            The Christian religion has evolved through a Reformation and the fragmentation of the Protestant church into countless denominations, and the prosperity gospel has emerged as the distorted progeny of Christian evangelicalism.  Led by fundamentalists like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Paula White, Christian evangelicals embraced Donald Trump as their political savior and demonstrated their power at the polls by electing him President.

            By making Trump their political icon, Christian evangelicals have subverted the altruistic teachings of Jesus to nativist America First standards of legitimacy that ignore the moral imperative of the greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbors—including those of other races and religions—as we love ourselves.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and one sorely needed in a world of increased religious diversity.

But just as Trump has subordinated U.S. support for NATO and the Paris Accords for America First, Christians have subordinated the teachings of Jesus to a distorted vision of American exceptionalism.  It is rank hypocrisy for Christians to ignore the mandates of mercy and put their faith in competition and winning all the conflicts in life when Jesus taught that loving others—including the losers in life’s lottery—is a moral imperative of discipleship.

            Christianity and Islam are both at a crossroads.  Their future will be decided by whether progressives or fundamentalists win the battle for God within their religion.  Fundamentalists in both religions believe that their holy books are the inerrant, infallible and immutable word of God, and reject any advances in knowledge or reason that challenge that sacred truth; and they consider their religion the one true faith, with unbelievers condemned to eternal damnation.

            In contrast to fundamentalists, progressive believers accept advances in knowledge and reason in interpreting the truth of their Scripture and respect those of other religions as children of God.  While there will always be differences in both faith and politics among progressive believers, they can disagree agreeably without condemning others for their beliefs.

            There is one important difference between Christian and Islamist fundamentalists.  All Christians in libertarian democracies—fundamentalists and progressives alike—revere the freedoms of religion and speech; but in Islamic cultures, fundamentalists use Islamic law, or Shari’a, to deny those freedoms with apostasy and blasphemy laws. 
            The primary purpose of politics is to provide equal justice under law, and that requires balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.  Religions are obstacles to justice when they condemn those of other races and religions, but they can promote justice and mercy when they advocate a common word of faith to love God and all their neighbors.

            Few can be expected to follow all of the teachings of Jesus in our materialistic world, but if progressives and fundamentalists love their neighbors of other races and religions as they love themselves they can all be winners in the battle for God.  Loving both losers and winners in an often unfair world promotes justice with mercy, and the world would be a better place for that.            

Notes and commentary on related topics:

A group of Christian fundamentalist pastors in North Carolina (for their mission, values, cornerstones and vision, see have sponsored a billboard supporting Trump’s immigration that proclaims that 19 Muslim immigrants killed 2,977 Americans on September 11, 2001.  See  Apparently those pastors overlooked the fact that the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia and that Trump’s travel ban does not apply to Saudis.

One explanation for why (Christian) religion breeds both compassion and hatred is that the social bonding of fundamentalist Christians trumps those principles in the teachings of Jesus.  See

On the eight points of progressive Christianity, see

President Trump began his recent inter-religious diplomatic tour with King Saul in Saudi Arabia, then met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and then Pope Francis in Rome.  It was evident that “What divides Pope Francis from Trump politically does not divide Trump from King Saul or Prime Minister Netanyahu,” and that “The religion of Trumpism is the presidential bending to the politics of white evangelicalism, whose theological substance in America today is in danger of being reduced to the prosperity gospel.”  It was obvious that “Trump’s own political interests and moral legitimacy are very different from the pope’s….”  See

Matthew Sitman of Bloomberg has noted that “Pope Francis’ has made ‘mercy’ the theme of his papacy—he has called it the very foundation of the church’s life.”  And, “If there is one element that holds together the dominant Republican worldview, perhaps it is a rejection of mercy.”  See

After Greg Gianforte, the GOP congressional candidate from Montana, body-slammed a reporter from The Guardian who had the audacity to ask Gianforte a question about health care, Kathleen Parker said, Don’t be surprised about the body slam.  Trump planted those seeds long ago.  See

Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God (Random House, 2000) is a history of fundamentalism.

On interpreting scripture based on tradition, experience and reason, see Our Theological Task in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church , pages 78-91, at

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see

On different perspectives of Jesus, see Jesus: A prophet, God’s only Son or the Logos? at


On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see

On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, see

On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see

On how Easter and the Christian paradox have distorted the role of Jesus and the church in politics, see

On the relevance of Jesus and the irrelevance of the church in today’s world, see 

On the freedoms of religion and speech: where human rights begin, see