By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Morality and law provide symbiotic but often conflicting standards of legitimacy that define what is right and wrong. Moral standards of legitimacy are voluntary while laws are obligatory. Religion is the primary source of moral standards, while government is the source of enforceable laws. Religious moral standards apply to politics, but the First Amendment prohibits any law establishing or promoting any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Judaism and Islam are both deontological religions. Their ancient laws define standards of righteousness and are similar, reflecting their common Semitic background. Christianity is more teleological. It bases righteous conduct on the ends it serves rather than on religious rules that are the means to that end. Jesus taught love over law, and his teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Like Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King put love over law when he challenged the immoral separate but equal Jim Crow laws in the South and opened the door to civil rights. Likewise, in Islamic nations Islamic scholars like Mustafa Akyol have challenged the oppressive apostasy and blasphemy laws of Shariah that deny the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech.
Often politicians confuse morality and law, and assert that they have done nothing wrong if they comply with the law; but immoral acts are wrong even if they don’t violate the law. The law can obfuscate morality, as when Jewish religious leaders taught that Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness, and more recently when Jim Crow laws in the South legitimized racial discrimination—and today, with Islamic Law (Shariah) denying fundamental freedoms.
In morality and politics, altruism and narcissism are polar opposites. The narcissism of Donald Trump is the antithesis of the altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus, but Trump was elected and continues to be supported by a majority of white Christians. Their subordination of the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist Christian doctrines threaten the legitimacy of both Christianity and the American civil religion in America.
Trump’s evangelical supporters have exonerated him of immorality in his extramarital sexual escapades since these occurred “prior to him becoming a born-again Christian, or really coming to faith asking for grace;”* but even after Trump became president, he proclaimed that he had nothing to be forgiven for.
Trump’s sexual improprieties are noted for their unapologetic extravagance, but he’s not the first president to engage in acts of sexual immorality—think JFK and Bill Clinton. Today consensual sexual immorality has become commonplace in politics, and it’s seldom fatal. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the Me Too movement, “criminality now plays the role that morality once did in defining public debate [and the standards of political legitimacy].”*
In morality and politics, hypocrisy is the order of the day. According to Sarah Bryner, “partisanship really trumps everything else.”* Democrats who condemn Trump do not criticize JFK or Clinton for their philandering, just as Republicans excuse Trump’s immorality. Dawn Eden Goldstein has noted, “After the sexual revolution, it’s become harder to bring people down because of sexual affairs, so the element of violence had to come in to make a scandal viable.”*
In ancient times religious laws defined standards of legitimacy, much as secular law defines those standards today. In libertarian democracies, the sovereignty of God and holy law have been superseded by the sovereignty of man and secular law. While there is no room for religious law in a libertarian democracy, God’s love is at the foundation of our moral standards of legitimacy that go beyond the law to define what is right and wrong.
The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including our neighbors of other races and religions, is a commandment that cannot be enforced by law, but it provides a moral foundation for democracy that is essential to balancing individual wants and rights with providing for the common good. It illustrates the primacy of love over law and the uneasy but symbiotic relationship between morality and law--and between religion and politics.
*See Marc Fisher’s comments, and quotes from Sarah Bryner and Dawn Eden Goldstein at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-schneiderman-greitens-and-the-changing-shape-of-sex-scandals/2018/05/12/de8ba12e-52d9-11e8-9c91-7dab596e8252_story.html?utm_ter.
The interrelationship between religion, legitimacy and politics as they relate to the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad is described in the Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study guide posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/.
(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
(3/29/15): God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(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
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress