By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Christian moral standards have long been the glue that has held American democracy together. Those standards of legitimacy are at the core of the American civil religion, and over the years they have eroded. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 it seems that America has lost its moral compass. And it’s not the first time.
Over 160 years ago the American civil religion split over the morality of slavery, and a bloody civil war ensued. After the War, racist demagogues like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman in South Carolina and Huey P. “The Kingfish” Long in Louisiana prevailed in the South, and their all-white Democratic Party controlled southern politics until the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
In the 1930s Italy and Germany were among the most Christian democracies in Europe, yet they empowered two radical right demagogues, Hitler and Mussolini , whose aggressive policies initiated World War II. And today, radical right populist demagogues are once again on the rise, degrading libertarian democracy around the world.
Americans are as divided and politically polarized today as they have ever been, but there is no defining issue like slavery or state’s rights likely to metastasize into another civil war. Even so, white evangelical Christians elected Donald Trump and his radical right Republicans who have degraded American democracy by failing to provide for the common good.
Christianity in America is fragmented and can no longer prevent the unraveling of the fabric of democracy. The degradation of Christianity is reminiscent of the period before the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Christianity has always been America’s most popular religion, but it has never imbued American politics with the altruistic morality taught by Jesus.
Today the evangelical movement has split the church into competing factions, and there are no Christian moral standards to resolve the volatile issues degrading American democracy. While there is not yet a political issue likely to precipitate another civil war, the lack of Christian morality and partisan polarization have created a vulnerability to political chaos.
Our polarized partisan politics cannot resolve our most divisive domestic or foreign policy issues. American democracy is vulnerable to fascism or even civil war unless and until there is a politics of reconciliation based on altruistic moral standards such as those taught by Jesus. That is a daunting challenge in a politically polarized post-Christian America.
We can take a lesson from John Wesley. His 18th century Anglican Church had failed to address issues of endemic poverty and the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. England was ripe for revolution, and Wesley’s Methodist movement may have prevented a bloody civil war. A similar moral reformation in America could save our democracy from further degradation.
It’s ironic that the global United Methodist Church (30% of which is in Africa) just voted to continue a doctrine that prohibits the ordination of homosexuals and same-sex marriage. John Wesley would have opposed such discrimination by church doctrine. He knew that democracy may be suitable for a nation’s politics but is not the way to define Christian standards of morality.
It may be time for a new Methodist church to spin off from the UMC with a commitment to the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors--even those of other races, religions and sexual preferences--as we love ourselves. That’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and it could prevent the further degradation of democracy.
Then again, maybe it’s time to save Jesus from a church that has subordinated his moral teachings to exclusivist and discriminatory church doctrines. That can be done in small house churches that focus on following the universal teachings of Jesus. That’s what discipleship is all about; and that’s how we can be stewards of democracy and promote a politics of reconciliation.
Greg Jaffe has noted that In America, talk turns to something unspoken for 150 years: Civil war. He goes on to say, “The rampant talk of civil war may be hyperbolic, but it does have origins in a real crumbling confidence in the country’s democratic institutions and its paralyzed federal government.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-america-talk-turns-to-something-unspoken-for-150-years-civil-war/2019/02/28/b3733af8-3ae4-11e9-a2cd-307b06d0257b_story.html?utm_term=.c46a27fbfc70&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1.
David Von Drehle has asked Where does America find such sad excuses for elected leaders? He answers. “The answer is that we find these people in congressional districts with boundaries drawn to guarantee one-party rule. According to the Cook Political Report, 165 of the 197 seats currently held by Republicans are already safely locked up for the GOP in 2020; by contrast, only four of those seats are considered toss-ups. In safe districts, politics doesn’t work the way you were taught in grade school. Reasonable people don’t meet in the middle. Instead, the purists and activists in the dominant party choose a nominee, and that person steam-rolls to victory. Once an incumbent occupies a safe seat, the future narrows to a single imperative: no primaries. As long as the activists are happy, and as long as they snuff out any insurrection that might be stirring back home, the job is secure. Seniority accumulates. Power grows. Life is good. When congressional Republicans grovel their way through a day of televised hearings, they aren’t groveling to Trump. They’re groveling to the party activists in their districts who see the world entirely in terms of Us against Them. This core vote, The Base, will forgive nearly any excess in the partisan cause, but regards moderation as a mortal sin.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/where-does-america-find-such-sad-excuses-for-elected-leaders/2019/03/01/9a221ade-3c5a-11e9-a06c-3ec8ed509d15_story.html?utm_term=.8fb6865f9423&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
The contradictory message of American voters to 2020 presidential candidates is Keep your socialist hands off our government programs. A current poll shows that voters don’t know what they want. See https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/03/americans-mixed-message-for-2020-presidential-candidates-keep-your-socialist-hands-off-our-government-programs.html.
Jim Wallis has acknowledged that for Christianity, it’s going to get worse in America before it gets better. But 2019 is an opportunity. Wallis warns that “We now face grave dangers to democracy itself, and to societal moral decency. But that danger also provides us an opportunity: to go deeper into our faith and into our relationships to each other, especially across racial lines, and into relationship with the most vulnerable people in our society — a practice our faith says will change us. If we do go deeper, this moment could become a movement for all the things that many of us have consistently lived and fought for all our lives. If we don’t go deeper, but just continue to react or ultimately retreat into frustration and cynicism, we will indeed be in great danger. If we start to see that executive overreach as distraction, there must be a moral response. And the response of faith communities could be a game changer. I believe it is time to prepare for that response from the followers of Jesus.” See
Wallis later interviewed a frustrated UMC bishop, Will Willimon, following a general conference vote to “strengthen the church’s traditonal ban agaoinst LGBTQ clergy and marriages. Willimon was disappointed that ‘once again the Methodist church is a mirror of the culture.’ The vote showed again how divided the the church is, as the vote was nearly split down the middle. That split shows, painfully, that the church is no better place to heal division than anywhere else in our culture.” See https://sojo.net/articles/are-methodists-mirroring-culture-division-and-can-we-do-better.
David Brooks has cited the greatest commandment in his agenda for moderates: The policy implications of love your neighbor. Brooks explains, “The Trumpian right offers Tribe. “Our” kind of people are under threat from “their” kind of people. We need to erect walls, build barriers and fight. The earlier American nationalism was about frontier; this is about the fortress. Tribalism is a magnetic idea that has mobilized people from time immemorial. The left offers the idea of Social Justice. The left tells stories of oppression. The story of America is the story of class, racial and gender oppression. The mission now is to rise up and destroy the systems of oppression. This, too, is an electric idea.
The problem with today’s left-wing and right-wing ideas is that they are both based on us/them, friend/enemy, politics is war, life is conflict. They are both based on the fantasy that the other half of America can be conquered, and when it disappears we can get everything we want.
What is the core problem facing America today? It is division: The growing gaps between rich and poor, rural and urban, educated and less educated, black and white, left and right.
What big idea counteracts division, fragmentation, alienation? It is found in Leviticus and Matthew: Love your neighbor. Today’s left and right are fueled by anger and seek conflict. The big idea for moderates should be solidarity, fraternity, conversation across difference. A moderate agenda should magnify our affections for one another.
Let the left and right stand for endless political war. The moderate seeks the beloved community.
Robin R. Myers has noted the degradation of the Christian religion, with its emphasis on exclusivist beliefs in a divine Christ but that ignored the teachings of Jesus. The title of his book says it all: Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.
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