Saturday, October 7, 2017

A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to the American Civil Religion

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The Protestant Reformation gave birth to civil religion 500 years ago.  That watershed event was enabled by the printing press, the first generation of social media that informed the public of religious and political issues.  Today its progeny, the internet, has had the opposite effect.  It has overwhelmed the public with too much information, blurring fact with fiction and sacrificing reason to personal preference.  Fake news has corrupted the American civil religion.

            America did not experience a Reformation and a catharsis of religious war before it became a libertarian democracy.  Perhaps that’s why the American civil religion has evolved into a parody of religion, reason and politics, with radical religion and politics now the norm rather than the exception.  America needs a reformation to restore reason to its civil religion.

            Thomas Jefferson was a founding father of the American civil religion who understood the symbiotic and often dysfunctional relationship between religion, reason and morality.  Jefferson was an enigma:  He was a slaveholder who understood the importance of liberty and reason in politics, and he was a deist who was critical of the church but considered the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” 

            Reinhold Niebhur (1891-1971) was a 20th century theologian who, like Jefferson, emphasized reason and the moral teachings of Jesus in politics.  Kurt Andersen is a religious skeptic who has described how the internet has created a media fantasyland that defies reality and reason to promote fundamentalist Christianity and its political progeny, the radical right.
            Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians.  Most are politically active evangelical neo-Christians who now follow a self-centered prosperity gospel that conflicts with the altruistic gospel of Jesus.  In 2016 they elected Donald Trump president, a narcissist who is the antithesis of Christian morality; and in September 2017 they elected Roy Moore as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate—a man who exemplifies a similar toxic mix of religion and politics.        
            To restore sanity and reason to the American civil religion, its moral foundation must be the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves.  That love command is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and it can promote a politics of reconciliation if it is made a moral imperative of both our faith and our politics in the American civil religion.

            The love command is a merger of the mystical and moral components of religion.  We love God (the mystical) by loving our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves (the moral).  There can be no politics of reconciliation with exclusivist religions that condemn unbelievers, or with fundamentalist religions that consider their scriptures and holy laws to be the inerrant and infallible (perfect and immutable) word of God.

            The moral decadence and radical politics in America are evidence that Christians have ignored the moral standards of legitimacy taught by Jesus.  The remedy is not more laws to restrict our freedom, but more moral restraints in exercising our freedom.  There is no place for religious law in a libertarian democracy.  The test of any religion is whether its followers obey its moral standards when they are free to disobey them.  Christians in America have failed that test. 

            Americans, like the Jews of Jesus day, often confuse obedience of the law with doing the right thing.  Jesus taught otherwise.  He asserted the primacy of love over law with the greatest commandment.  Loving your neighbor as you love yourself is a moral obligation of faith that cannot be enforced by law, but one that must be obeyed by the faithful. 

            In America, Christian moral standards of legitimacy shape its civil religion; but most Christians now follow a “prosperity gospel” that is closer to the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand than to the moral teachings of Jesus.  To restore sanity and reason to the American civil religion, Christians must restore the primacy of the moral teachings of Jesus to a church that has subverted those teachings to self-centered, exclusivist and divisive religious doctrines.      


Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but expressed contempt for institutional Christianity.  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 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)  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). Jon Meacham described Jefferson’s prominent role in shaping the American civil religion in American Gospel, Random House, New York, 2006 (see pp 56-58, 72-77, 80-86, 104, 105, 247-250, 263, 264, and reference to Jefferson’s Bible at p 389).  See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, posted at

Reinhold Niebuhr (1872-1971) is considered by many to be America’s foremost theologian, who “…wrote and spoke frequently about the intersection of religion, politics and public policy, with his most influential books including Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man.”  See

In Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen states that the Reformation allowed Protestants to reject the Vatican and start their own religion, then reject that religion and “start their own new religions again and again.…The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever…and in the marketplace of ideas, [it was assumed that] reason would win.”  But Andersen observes that reason has not won in America’s fantastical religious free-for-all, and he cites Emanuel Kant’s explanation that religion is burdened by questions “it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also unable to answer.”  In religion fantastical mystical doctrines have always trumped moral doctrines (pages 52, 53).  Andersen emphasizes the rise of the evangelical and fundamentalist “prosperity gospel” of Christianity and its right wing politics, but ignores the more mundane but reasonable moral imperatives taught by Jesus.                 

Christopher Douglas has taken exception to Andersen’s assertions that the origins of current Christian craziness was in the Hippie New Agers of the 1960s and in Postmodern Academics.  See

Modern Christians are split on the two major theological issues of the Protestant Reformation: sola fide, being saved by faith/grace alone, and sola scriptura, considering the Bible the sole source of religious authority for Christians.  See

Alan Wolfe has observed that following The Protestant Reformation, Every new outburst of religious passion, while producing ecstasy and revelation for some, had disrupted established loyalties, fueled intolerance, and led to violence between the chosen and the damned.  Wolfe cited a cover story in The Economist, titled “The New Wars of Religion,” that asserted that “Faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century.”  In contrast to Andersen, Wolfe predicted a coming religious peace based on two basic facts:  First, many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice. Second, where religions are flourishing, they are also generally evolving—very often in ways that allow them to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken them as politically disruptive forces.…The most important phenomenon in the United States. is…the creation and spread of a free religious marketplace which …revives religious devotion wherever it reaches, but also tends to moderate the religions offered within it.  Wolfe also asserted that American evangelicalism is becoming more tolerant and pluralistic.  But political events since 2008 have proved Wolfe’s sanguine views wrong, unless the elections of Donald Trump and Roy Moore indicate that the U.S. is moving toward peace.  See

On the cheap prosperity gospel of Trump and [Joel] Osteen, see

On Roy Moore’s radical right religion and politics according to the gospel of Bannon, see

Robin R. Meyers has urged Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (HarperCollins, 2009).  Myers emphasized restoring the moral teachings of Jesus to prominence over mystical and exclusivist beliefs in Christianity.           

For an example of how the internet has distorted reason and reality to create Islamophobia, see

Related Commentary:

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(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
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(8/2/15): Freedom and Fundamentalism (8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(4/23/16): Standards of Legitimacy in Morality, Manners and Political Correctness
 (1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/10/16): Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law, not God’s Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(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
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(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
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/19/17) Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation

(9/2/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart  

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