Saturday, November 24, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and the Legitimacy of Democracy

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Following the recent elections, several losing candidates complained that the results were not democratic.  They challenged the legitimacy of democracy in elections that reflected the values and moral standards of the American civil religion.  Apparently they forgot that those election results were shaped by the faith of the majority of voters.

Democracy in America has always been divisive and often ugly, but with the exception of the Civil War years it has held together.  Today conflicting concepts of legitimacy promoted by a polarized partisan duopoly threaten to unravel the fabric of American democracy; and at the heart of those conflicting concepts of legitimacy are conflicting moral beliefs within Christianity.

The viability of any democracy depends upon balancing individual wants and rights with providing for the common good.  That balance can be promoted by the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves--and it’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Over 70% of Americans consider themselves Christians, but they have fundamental differences on concepts of political legitimacy.  Most emphasize the special interests of partisan identity groups over providing for the common good. Unless they reverse those priorities and put common interests over partisan interests, the fabric of democracy will unravel.

Most Christian evangelicals actively support radical right Republican politics with distorted doctrines of family values and a materialistic prosperity gospel.  Most white Christians avoid discussing faith and politics in church and support Republicans.  Conversely, most black Christians support leftist Democrats. The result is partisan politics polarized along racial lines.

American democracy needs a moral reformation of its politics and religion, and so long as Christians represent a majority of Americans that reformation must begin within the church.  It will require pastors to promote the stewardship of democracy based on the altruistic moral imperative of the greatest commandment to love all of our neighbors--even those we don’t like.

We have a long way to go.  The success of a church is measured by its popularity, and loving the unlovable is not popular in any democracy.  Career-minded pastors are reluctant to preach an unpopular gospel. While scriptures mandate helping the poor and weak as the common good, they don’t mention democracy since it was irrelevant in those ancient times.

There is a world-wide demise of democracy.  Unprincipled populist politicians like Donald Trump are exploiting public fears to promote their popularity and power.  Most people in the world are religious, and increasing religious diversity will require making the altruistic moral imperative of the greatest commandment a universal priority of political legitimacy in democracy.

Christianity and politics come together in the American civil religion.  It has been described “as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration.”  It reflects the standards of political legitimacy in America, and its tenets are a non-sectarian composite of Christian doctrinal beliefs that were challenged by evangelicals in the 2016 election.

The legitimacy of democracy in America is threatened by radical right politics that exploit racial and partisan polarization.  To preserve democracy Christians must assume the moral stewardship of democracy and promote the relevance of the altruistic and universalist teachings of Jesus to politics, and they should abandon exclusivist beliefs to improve interfaith relations.


Legitimacy is a norm of values, morality and law derived from religion and shaped by changing cultural standards.  Standards of legitimacy are not absolute and vary based on time and place. This is evident in the requirements of military legitimacy, a component of political legitimacy, that are defined and discussed in Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996), pages 48-53, posted in Resources at

On how the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad relate to legitimacy, see The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study guide posted in Resources at   

Anthony Squiers has identified fourteen principal tenets of the American civil religion (ACR) that reflect the kinship of American values and moral standards to Christian beliefs:
1. Filial Piety
2. Reference to certain sacred texts and symbols of the ACR (The Constitution, The Declaration of independence, the flag, etc.)
3. The sanctity of American institutions
4. The belief in God or a deity
5. The idea that rights are divinely given
6. The notion that freedom comes from God through government
7. Governmental authority comes from God or a higher transcendent authority
8. The conviction that God can be known through the American experience
9. God is the supreme judge
10. God is sovereign
11. America’s prosperity results from God’s providence
12. America is a ‘city on a hill’ or a beacon of hope and righteousness
13. The principle of sacrificial death and rebirth
14. America serves a higher purpose than self interests
See the American civil religion in Wikipedia at

Max Boot has attributed the world-wide demise of democracy to increased economic disparities, an information revolution that has destabilized economies and politics, and xenophobia caused by “the largest refugee crisis in history.”  See

Michael Gerson has noted that universal human rights that are essential to political legitimacy in a libertarian democracy have become the cost of historical amnesia.  He cites “...the election of an American president who is both ignorant of and indifferent toward the lessons of the last century, or any century. A president who always turns, by feral instinct, to an organizing message of bigotry and exclusion. A president who is throwing away an inheritance he does not value and unleashing forces that can easily move beyond control. with the rise of radical right political movements.”  See

Related Commentary:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(6/21/15): Christians Meet Muslims Today
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(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
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(10/22/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in a Polarized Democracy
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(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
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism  
(8/19/17): Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/26/17): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy?
(1/6/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(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
(2/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Freedom and Legitimacy
(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
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(7/7/18): Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(7/21/18): Musings on America’s Moral and Political Mess and Who Should Clean It Up
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(8/18/18): Musings on Religion and the Morality of Socialist and Libertarian Politics
(8/25/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moral Priorities in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(10/20/18): Lamentations of an Old White Male Maverick Methodist in a Tribal Culture
(10/27/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Migrant Tidal Wave
(11/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist: Has God Blessed Us or Damned Us?
(11/17/18): Christianity and Clashing Identities in Politics and Religion


  1. Who decides what are the most divisive values? Is the culling of polarizing rhetoric done on an individual level or collectively through social media, associations with churches, membership in civic or trade organizations, or through the government? If government steps in to determine what is and what is not acceptable, then we may find the process overburdened by partisan bickering and challenged by civil liberties advocates. You are inclined to put the onus of responsibility on our religious institutions to mold a more united society through the adoption of a civil religion. If the love and altruism embodied in this so-called civil religion is to gain more widespread support, then why not consider promoting a faith-based response group to provide support for all people who have been physically and/or mentally harmed by the recent and not-so recent hate crimes as well as mass shootings and even natural disasters, when people are in greatest need of love and altruism?

  2. In a democracy, the voters are the source of divisive values. Polarizing rhetoric comes from numerous sources, from traditional media to social media--too many sources to list--and many of them produce misleading or "fake" information. In a democracy, government is us. I emphasize the responsibility of churches since religion is the primary source of our values and in America over 70% of voters consider themselves Christians. Religious institutions and government share the responsibility for the welfare of those in need, and too often they are woefully inadequate; but if churches motivate Christians to act out of love for those in need, then they will get the help they need. I should point out that the values of the American civil religion don't match up with the teachings of Jesus (see the note on the 14 tenets). If they did, and our politics reflected them, the world would be a much better place.