Saturday, December 2, 2017

How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            There has been little effective opposition in Congress to a tax bill that favors the rich and burdens future generations with a trillion dollar national debt.  That’s hard to understand in a democracy where 95% of the people aren’t rich and conventional wisdom tells us that economic issues dominate in politics.  Fareed Zakaria has asked: “What if people are motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics?”

            Zakaria’s “what if” seems to be true.  Those cultural and social standards of legitimacy that are largely shaped by religion can outweigh economic interests.  What’s peculiar is that most Americans consider themselves Christians, and the GOP tax bills conflict with altruistic Christian moral standards.  In their politics most Christians have either ignored or rejected the standards of legitimacy taught by Jesus, and that has corrupted the American civil religion.

            Donald Trump and his Republican minions have made a mockery of politics and the Christian religion.  They were elected by white Christian voters, but have passed tax bills that favor the rich at the expense of the middle class voters who elected them.  It reflects a polarized two-party duopoly that no longer has a place for political moderates or common sense.

            The tax bills are bad, but it gets worse.  President Trump “retweeted” videos of dubious authenticity from a radical right group in Britain that purportedly show Muslims attacking Christians and desecrating Christian holy symbols.  It’s not the first time that Trump has sought to incite racial and religious hatred among his followers; and it’s reminiscent of how another populist demagogue in Germany primed Christian hatred to support genocide in the 1930s.     

            The American civil religion has been corrupted by distorted doctrines of Christianity promoted by evangelical Christians and by the unwillingness of mainline denominations to relate their faith to politics.  A similar paradox exists in Islamic nations like Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where fundamentalist Muslims (Islamists) have corrupted their politics by using Islamic law (Shari’a) to deny fundamental human rights and libertarian democracy.

            Ancient scriptures are the original sources of religious standards of legitimacy.  For Jews it is the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, for Christians the New Testament, and for Muslims the Qur’an.  All these scriptures emphasize promoting the common good, but all three religions have subordinated the common good to exclusivist religious doctrines, with fundamentalists in those religions of the book promoting bigotry, hatred and violence in the name of God.

            Mainline Christian denominations have avoided politics and are in decline, while evangelical churches have grown by promoting a prosperity gospel that is consistent with the objectivist politics they support, but inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus.  Islam is growing, but fundamentalist Islamism has prevented religious reconciliation and in its most radical form has promoted violence.  Both Christianity and Islam need a moral revival to restore their legitimacy. 

            For Christianity and Islam to reclaim their legitimacy, they need to promote the greatest commandment to love God and to love their neighbors as they love themselves, including their neighbors of other races and religions.  It summarizes the standards of legitimacy taught by Jesus and is also a common word of faith for Jews and Muslims.  It should be the moral foundation for a religious and political revival of all three religions.  

            Loving our neighbors in politics requires balancing individual rights and wants with providing for the common good.  That requires providing equal justice under law and protecting people from those who would do them harm.  Those security functions require law enforcement and military personnel to use lethal force, while restraining its use to avoid unnecessary harm.

            Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims have denigrated their religion and politics by failing to apply their religious standards of legitimacy in their politics.  They have lost their moral compass.  To restore their legitimacy they need to promote a politics of reconciliation based on the greatest commandment to love others as they love themselves.  The fabric of libertarian democracy is unraveling around the world.  There is no time to waste.



Daniel Altman has drawn a parallel between Donald Trump and Adolph Hitler in using hateful propaganda to demonize a religious group and prime a Christian population for genocide. See

Robert Bellah described the interrelationship between religion, legitimacy and politics as civil religion that “…exists alongside of and (is) rather clearly differentiated from the churches.”  See

Jim Wallis has addressed the decrepit morality of Donald Trump and Roy Moore on issues of money, sex and power, with Christians who put them into power facing a spiritual reckoning at

Religious academics who once remained aloof from politics are becoming more involved in civil religion as a result of Trump’s anti-intellectual “white American Christian tribalism.” See

Michael Gerson has attributed the support of Roy Moore by white Alabamans who claim to be Christians as a distorted form of utilitarianism that is opposed to Christian morality.  See

Richard Cohen has described those who supported Trump and now say nothing as replacing their moral principle with political cowardice, and ushering in America’s darkest hour.  See

Ross Douthat has described a schizophrenic Christian evangelicalism in which a legitimate form of Christian evangelicalism is competing with a “God-and-country-pray-and-grow-rich” form of “white tribalism and a very American sort of heresy;” but Douthat is uncertain which side will prevail.  See

Mustafa Akyol asked, Does religion make people moral?  He noted that religious conservatives in Turkey “have become corrupted by power.”  He attributed their sanctimony to “abiding in a legal code [that] makes them feel upright in the eyes of God, even if she or he is immoral when dealing with fellow human beings,”  Akyol noted that Jesus condemned such sanctimony, which can cause a “us versus them” mentality that can corrupt and radicalize any religious community.  See         
This is the 158th weekly commentary on the relationship between religion, legitimacy and politics.  All have been posted at over the past three years.  I would appreciate any comments you may have on this commentary or any others.

Commentary on related topics:

#2 (12/8/14): Religion and Reason
#5 (12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
#7 (1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
#8 (1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
#9 (1/25/15): Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?
#11 (2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
#13 (2/22/15): Religion and Human Rights
#15 (3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
#16 (3/15/15): The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church
#18 (3/29/15): God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty
#20 (4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
#21 (4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos?
#23 (5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
#24 (5/10/15): Religion, Human Rights and National Security
#26 (5/24/15): De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect
#27 (5/31/15): Liberation from Economic Oppression: A Human Right or Obligation of Faith?
#28 (6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
#30 (6/21/15): Christians Meet Muslims Today
#32 (7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
#33 (7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity
#35 (7/26/15): Fear and Fundamentalism
#36 (8/2/15): Freedom and Fundamentalism
#37 (8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
#38 (8/16/15): How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights
#39 (8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
#40 (8/30/15): What Is Truth?
#43 (9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
#48 (10/25/15): The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?
#50 (11/8/15): Tough Love and the Duty to Protect Life and Liberty
#54 (12/5/15): Faith, Hope and Love in a World of Fear, Suspicion and Hate
#55 (12/12/15): The Power of Freedom over Fear
#56 (12/19/15): Taking Lives and Liberty in the Name of God
#57 (12/26/15): Resettling Refugees: Multiculturalism versus Assimilation
#58 (1/2/16): God in Three Concepts
#60 (1/16/16): Religion, Politics and Public Expectations
#61 (1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
#62 (1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
#63 (2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
#66 (2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
#67 (3/5/16): The American Religion and Politics in 2016
#68 (3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
#70 (3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
#71 (4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
#73 (4/16/16): Religious Violence and the Dilemma of Freedom and Democracy
#75 (4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
#76 (5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
#78 (5/21/16): Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation
#79 (5/28/16): Nihilism as a Threat to Politics, Religion and Morality
#80 (6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
#81 (6/11/16): Health Care: A Right or a Privilege?
#82 (6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
#84 (7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
#85 (7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
#87 (7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
#89 (8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
#90 (8/13/16): The Need to Balance Competition with Cooperation in Politics and Religion
#91 (8/20/16): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty and Law
#92 (8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy (see also #49)
#94 (9/10/16): Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law, not God’s Law
#95 (9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
#96 (9/24/16): The Evolution of Religion and Politics from Oppression to Freedom
#98 (10/8/16): Revolutionaries, Moderates and Reactionaries in a Polarized Democracy
#100 (10/22/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in a Polarized Democracy
#101 (10/29/16): A Revelation in American Politics and Religion
#102 (11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
#104 (11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
#105: (11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
#106 (12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
#107 (12/10/16): Partisan Alternatives for a Politics of Reconciliation
#108 (12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
#110 (12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
#111 (1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
#113 (1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
#114 (1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
#115 (2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
#116 (2/11/17): The Mega-Merger of Wall Street, Politics and Religion
#117 (2/18/17): Gerrymandering, Race and Polarized Partisan Politics
#118 (2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
#119 (3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
#120 (3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
#121 (3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
#122 (3/25/17): National Security and Military Legitimacy: When Might must Be Right
#123 (4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
#124 (4/8/17): Politics as a Religion and Religion in Politics
#126 (4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
#128 (5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
#129 (5/13/17): Voices of Reason and Hope in the Cacophony over Religion, Human Rights and Politics
#130 (5/20/17): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Where Human Rights Begin
#131 (5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
#133 (6/10/17): Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics
#135 (6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
#136 (7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
#137 (7/8/17) A Sad Day in the U.S.A.
#138 (7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
#140 (7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
#141 (8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
#142 (8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism 
#143 (8/19/17): Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
#144 (8/26/17): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War
#146 (9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart
#147 (9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
#148 (9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion 
#149 (9/30/17): The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: What Does It Mean Today?
#150 (10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
#152 (10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
#153 (10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus
#154 (11/4/17): What to Believe? Truth or Consequences in Religion and Politics
#155 (11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
#156 (11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy


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