Saturday, April 7, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

American politics are mired in moral depravity, with a narcissistic president setting new standards of moral corruption; yet his Christian evangelical followers continue to support him.  This degradation of morality among Christians requires a moral reformation to restore the primacy of the altruistic teachings of Jesus to Christianity. Only then can providing for the common good be restored as a political priority of the American civil religion.

A 21st century Reformation would require religious revolutionaries to challenge religious and political institutions that have contributed to the current moral malaise.  Jesus set the example when he challenged the religious leaders of his day who were teaching that obedience to Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness. Jesus refuted those teachings with an emphasis on love over law, and that radical word of love cost Jesus his life.

Jesus announced a coming kingdom of God based on altruistic and unconditional love.  He called his disciples to follow him as God’s word, not to worship him as God. It was Paul who asserted the divinity of Jesus with an exclusivist atonement doctrine that considered Jesus God’s blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers.  The Apostles’ Creed confirms that the letters of Paul had a greater influence on shaping Christian beliefs than did the teachings of Jesus.   

Jesus and Paul were both Jewish religious revolutionaries, but with different missions.  Jesus sought to reform Judaism while Paul promoted a new religion based on the divinity of Jesus.  It’s understandable that as a 1st century Jew Paul considered Jesus a sacrificial lamb who died to save believers from sin; but today the resurrection is better understood as God’s validation of the teachings and example of Jesus as God’s living Word that will never die.

More than 2,000 years after the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus should have the last word on God’s will.  It’s summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to believe that God sent Jesus to save us from sin; it just means that following Jesus as God’s word should take precedence over worshiping Jesus as God.  That’s the meaning of discipleship.
Since Jesus and Paul there have been many religious revolutionaries within Christianity, among them Martin Luther, John Wesley, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  In the 16th century Reformation Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide denigrated the moral imperatives taught by Jesus with an emphasis on faith alone, but in the 18th century John Wesley countered Luther’s sola fide with James’ moral imperative that a faith without deeds of love is dead. (James 2:26)  

In the rising tide of evangelical Christianity in 20th century America, Billy Graham tried to balance evangelical beliefs with the moral imperatives taught by Jesus, but the ease of an exclusivist belief in a divine Jesus unencumbered by altruistic morality was a form of cheap grace exploited by evangelical leaders.  By the 1980s, Jerry Falwells’s Moral Majority was supporting GOP candidates with a religious fervor, and that led to the election of Donald Trump.

History illustrates that Christianity has often emphasized exclusivist doctrines and ignored the altruistic teachings of Jesus in its zeal to gain worldly power.  That was evident in the Crusades and medieval Inquisitions, and even with the Puritans in colonial America. That didn’t change until Thomas Jefferson, a deist inspired by the moral teachings of Jesus and a child of the Enlightenment, transformed religions in America with the freedoms of religion and speech.

The American civil religion is a mix of religious and political values shaped by Christian morality, since over 70% of Americans are Christian.  A Christian reformation is needed to restore altruistic morality to the American civil religion. Christian revolutionaries are needed to save Jesus from the church, or better yet, to save the church with the teachings of Jesus.  But no moral reformation can succeed without public support, and sadly, that support seems lacking.    


The moral corruption of Donald Trump and his Republican Party is most evident in putting their own selfish and partisan interests in wealth and power ahead of providing for the common good.  See

Jim Wallis and a distinguished group of Christian clergy have advocated  Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis to counter the moral corruption of Trump and his evangelical supporters. See

John Bennison has cited Robin Meyers from Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, (Harper One, 2009) and Bishop John Shelby Spong in describing how the emphasis of the church on belief in exclusivist church doctrines and creeds has denigrated the teachings of Jesus and undermined the moral relevance and legitimacy of Christianity.  See

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