Saturday, July 15, 2017

Religion and Progressive Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Religion and progressive politics have long been considered incompatible.  Secular politics consider that “man has a changeable nature and is thus able to achieve perfection.”  Religion considers “man flawed and incapable of perfecting himself without the help of God.”  The two views polarize our politics. The former supports the idea that government can perfect humanity, while the latter is skeptical of big government and more congenial to religious values.  

            To further complicate matters, religions resist progressive change to preserve the sanctity of their ancient scriptures, none of which mention democracy or individual rights.  Even so, the Enlightenment of the 18th century transformed politics and religion in the Western world with advances in knowledge, reason and the libertarian values of democracy and human rights.  Since then the American civil religion has provided common political values for religions in America.

            Robert N Bellah has described the American civil religion as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals,” drawn from American history that expresses national values and standards of political legitimacy.  It is grounded in the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, and includes those values expressed in the Pledge of Allegiance and in the lyrics of America the Beautiful.  

            Thomas Jefferson is a major prophet of the American civil religion.  He had little use for the church, but considered the moral teachings of Jesus as “the sublimest morality that has ever been taught.”  Those teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves; and that love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

            The increasing diversity of religion and race in America requires the altruistic values of the American religion and the greatest commandment to sustain progressive politics.  The greatest challenge of democracy is to balance individual rights with providing for the common good, and that requires an American civil religion that is grounded in the altruistic values of the greatest commandment—and Donald Trump represents the antithesis of altruistic values.

            The election of Donald Trump was the most regressive political event in America since the Civil War.  It was made possible by white evangelical Christians who were motivated by Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign theme—one that recalled a mythical past that was perhaps a utopia for many older white Americans, but not for most black Americans.  The Trump campaign was rude and crude, and had distinctly racial overtones

            Trump’s election will likely be a historical anomaly.  White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) have long been a dominant force in American politics, but the election of Donald Trump was likely their last Hurrah.  Demographic projections show WASPS becoming a political minority within 20 years, with white births already a minority of births in America.  But even without a white majority, political polarization will continue to plague American politics.

            History has shown that humankind can be improved through enlightened democratic governance, even if it cannot produce perfection.  And there is no evidence that humankind can achieve perfection through the Christian religion.  For religion and progressive politics to be compatible and promote political reconciliation, the altruistic values of the American civil religion and the greatest commandment must prevail over narrow religious and political values.


In 1967 Robert N. Bellah defined [American] civil religion as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals,” drawn from American history and “institutionalized in a collectivity” that function “not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.”  On how Trump is reshaping American civil religion, 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

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf consider Jefferson a prophet of American civil religion:
As a young man, Jefferson embraced the tenets of “natural religion,” or deism, rejecting conventional Christianity and any use of religious dogma as a tool to control people. As he aged, however, Jefferson undertook a spiritual quest that focused his attention intensively on the New Testament.
Through Bible study this self-professed “primitive Christian” sought to hear Jesus’ original, uncorrupted voice, imagining himself in his teacher’s presence. Jesus preached to the “family of man,” anticipating the humane and cosmopolitan precepts of the enlightened age that Jefferson was convinced would inevitably arrive. He adhered to the “philosophy” of Jesus while rejecting “mystifications” that offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of religious strife.
Jefferson…insisted that his religious faith was nobody’s business but his own. But he believed that religion, stripped of the supernatural, should always be an integral part of American society. He even created a guidebook, of sorts.
In 1804, Jefferson took a razor to English, French, Latin and Greek versions of the New Testament to construct a clear account of Jesus’ original, uncorrupted teachings. Pressed by public business, he didn’t complete his painstakingly executed “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” until retirement. Even then, Jefferson did not want to publicize his project — or even share it with his family. But he was confident that enlightened republicans and conscientious Christians could, and must, agree on the fundamental ethical precepts he gleaned from the Bible.
Far from being an atheist, Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called “civil religion,” the moral foundation of a truly free and united people.

Progressive Christianity provides an example of religious belief compatible with the American civil religion and progressive politics.  See The Eight Points of Progressive Christianity at

On American Civil Religion is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion, see
On why Trump can’t reverse the decline of white Christian America, see

Related commentary posted at

(12/8/14) Religion and Reason
(12/15/14): Faith and Freedom
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
 (4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
 (9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All (8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy

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