Saturday, August 25, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moral Priorities in Religion and Politics

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

America needs to get its political priorities in order, and for people of faith, that means putting God first.  But what does that really mean? White evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump believe that supporting him and his radical right Republican minions is putting God first, while many other Christians consider Trump antithetical to Christian morality.

Last week I heard a sermon on priorities.  It was about the prophet Haggai telling Jews who faced difficulties when they returned from their exile in Babylon that their top priority should be to rebuild the temple; and when they set about doing that, things got better.  The lesson was that if Christians made support of their church their top priority, everything else would work out.

Jesus was a Jew, but he never advocated that Temple activities or any other institutional religious practices should be a priority of our faith or politics.  The most notable event of Jesus in the Temple was when he overturned the tables of money changers. That was the last straw for Jewish religious leaders, who then convinced Roman officials to crucify Jesus.

Jesus was clear about God’s moral priorities.  They were summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including our neighbors of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  That’s an altruistic common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and it’s how we put God first in our religion and politics.

The media has other priorities, top among them being to cover celebrities in positions of power.  Michael Gerson has noted that America has become a celebrity culture--one that worships its celebrities and has faith in whatever they tell them, and that the truth (i.e. factual accuracy) of what they tell them doesn’t really matter so long as it’s what they want to hear.

Eric Alexander has questioned the public obsession with political celebrities and bashing Trump, suggesting that there should be more attention given to issues like “why are we all at perpetual war,? Why are the uber rich sucking up most of the resources?  Why is healthcare and education so costly? And why are we still so focused on fossil fuels?”

The moral priorities of American voters determine whether they have more interest in the celebrities who dominate social media or in the issues that will determine America’s future.  Since over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, their moral priorities in religion and politics should be shaped by the altruistic teachings of Jesus--but, of course, they are not.

This is where the church comes in.  Donald Trump was elected by white evangelical Christians whose distorted “family values” and materialistic prosperity gospel contradict the teachings of Jesus.  The moral dysfunction of American politics can be attributed to the failure of mainline churches to promote the teachings of Jesus in the Christian stewardship of politics.

A proper understanding of discipleship can help Christians get their moral priorities in order.  Jesus called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him; and in the great commision the risen Christ called Christians to obey everything he had taught them and to go and make disciples of all nations--not to convert them to a new and exclusivist religion.

The last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) teaches that what we do for the least of those among us determines our fate.  When taken with the greatest commandment (Luke 10:25-37) and the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20), those biblical mandates define our moral priorities--what it means to put God first--in our religion and politics.


Michael Gerson cites David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends in which Runciman pictures a political system in which “the people are simply watching a performance in which their role is to give or withhold their applause at the appropriate moments.” Gerson notes that in this case, democracy becomes “an elaborate show, needing ever more characterful performers to hold the public’s attention.”  This might also describe the churches constitute America’s religious system. See

Just how far celebrity culture can distort factual reality in politics was evident in a recent interview of Rudy Giuliani with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press”: Giuliani told Todd that Trump should not sit down for a Mueller interview because the special counsel may try to trap him in a supposed lie, even though “truth isn’t truth.” “When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth,”
“Truth is truth,”  Todd responded. “No, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. “Truth isn’t truth.”  See

On Eric Alexander’s emphasis on the priority of issues over political personalities, see

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