By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
America and other Western democracies are in chaos. That’s evident in the widespread angst and fear caused by the failure of religion to provide the moral standards of legitimacy needed for political stability in tumultuous times. That moral failure is reflected in dysfunctional religion and politics, and a loss of public confidence in religious and political institutions.
But fear not. Chaos can be a prelude to a new creation in both faith and politics. In John’s Gospel, Jesus as the Logos tells us that we must be “born again of the Spirit to see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-8) It is a new spiritual creation that follows the personal chaos of dying to the world and following the altruistic moral imperative to love one another. (John 13:34)
The new command is John’s version of the greatest commandment. In matters of faith, loving others is how we love God. In politics, it’s about altruism and providing for the common good. When altruism is at the heart of a democracy, it can prevent fear, hate and political chaos from unravelling the fabric of democracy, despite differences in race and religion.
Donald Trump is not the cause of America’s political chaos; he’s only evidence of it. It’s Trump’s supporters who have corrupted the Republican Party with their radical right politics. As half of America’s two-party duopoly, the GOP must either fade away or be reborn as a centrist party before a politics of reconciliation can restore America’s political legitimacy.
New creations in religion and politics have always been preceded by chaos. Whether in the Protestant Reformation, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, or in the current moral dysfunction of religion and politics, chaos has been a prerequisite for major change. “Muddling through” is no longer an adequate strategy to preserve libertarian democracy from chaos.
Democracy makes voters the masters of their political destiny, and most American voters claim to be Christians. Is Trump America’s destiny? Jim Wallis has described Trump as the anti-Christ; but he’s our creation, not that of God. And so is Wall Street, with its unrestrained greed exploiting consumers and creating dangerous disparities in wealth. White Christians became complicit when they sacrificed Jesus on the altar of partisan politics and elected Trump.
A great hymn of the church proclaims: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. She is his new creation by water and the word.” (The Church’s One Foundation, #545, UMH) The church has ignored the altruistic teachings of Jesus to promote its popularity and power, even though Jesus taught that the narrow way of sacrificial love would never be popular.
For libertarian democracy to be saved, it must rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of our chaotic and decrepit democracy. For that to happen, it must be morally nurtured by a church that is born again of the Spirit, with pastors who promote the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus rather than the exclusivist doctrines of a popular and powerful church. They can’t do both.
The political chaos in American politics has religious roots. The church has lost its moral compass and left politics in disarray. But a new creation can be born out of the current chaos if a moral reformation of the church promotes the primacy of the altruistic teachings of Jesus over exclusivist church doctrines, and if Christians become moral stewards of democracy.
Rick Shenkman reported on a paper presented by Professor Shawn Rosenberg on the end of democracy at a recent meeting of the International Society of Political Psychologists. The topic wasn’t new, but the prediction that “democracy is devouring itself and it won’t last” by an eminent scholar unsettled the audience of political scientists. “Taking democracy’s place, Rosenberg says, will be right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple answers to complicated questions. And therein lies the core of his argument: Democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs and people who don’t look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.
...Rosenberg argues that the elites [people holding power at the top of the economic, political and intellectual pyramid who have “the motivation to support democratic culture and institutions and the power to do so effectively”] have traditionally prevented society from becoming a totally unfettered democracy; their “oligarchic ‘democratic’ authority” or “democratic control” has until now kept the authoritarian impulses of the populace in check.
Compared with the harsh demands made by democracy, which requires a tolerance for compromise and diversity, right-wing populism is like cotton candy. Whereas democracy requires us to accept the fact that we have to share our country with people who think and look differently than we do, right-wing populism offers a quick sugar high. Forget political correctness. You can feel exactly the way you really want about people who belong to other tribes.
All the populist followers care is that they now have an enemy to blame for their feelings of ennui.
And unlike democracy, which makes many demands, the populists make just one. They insist that people be loyal. Loyalty entails surrendering to the populist nationalist vision. But this is less a burden than an advantage. It’s easier to pledge allegiance to an authoritarian leader than to do the hard work of thinking for yourself demanded by democracy.
“In sum, the majority of Americans are generally unable to understand or value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner required,” Rosenberg has concluded. “As a result they will interact and communicate in ways that undermine the functioning of democratic institutions and the meaning of democratic practices and values.”
But Rosenberg made no mention of the role of religion as a source of the moral standards of political legitimacy in democracy, perhaps because psychologists prefer to think in secular terms. See
Derek Thompson challenged Rodenberg’s claim that elites have been saviors of democracy by asserting that elite failure has brought Americans to the edge of an existential crisis. And he cited two surveys that indicate traditional values of family, God and country are in precipitous decline, not only among young well-educated Millenials, but also among older, low-income men without a college education. Thompson says, “What Americans young and old are abandoning is not so much the promise of family, faith and national pride as the trust that existing institutions can be relied on to provide for them.” See https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/america-without-family-god-or-patriotism/597382/
Larry Diamond’s new book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, looks at the demise of democracy from a foreign policy perspective. See https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/10/democracy-is-fighting-for-its-life/?utm_source=PostUp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=14845&utm_term=Flashpoints%20OC.
Jim Wallis has asserted religion as the source of moral standards of legitimacy in democracy and that in 2020 “the real choice is between the politics of Jesus and anti-Christ politics. Almost everything we see and hear every day from our political leadership seems to be absolutely antithetical to what Jesus said and called us to do. There seems to be a clear choice, a real and stark choice, going on in this country and even in the churches, between the politics of Jesus and anti-Christ politics. I believe that the fear of the other, the hatred of the other, and violence against the other are the core of anti-Christ politics. And the love of the other, calling the other your neighbor, is at the heart of the politics of Jesus. Jesus says that leadership is about service. Anti-Christ politics says it’s about wealth and power — it's about winning and losing. In Jesus politics, how we treat the “least of these” is the test of our politics. In anti-Christ politics, the “least of these” are the least important. ...To love our neighbor, the one who is different than us, is the most key question or choice for America's future; that will most determine the soul of this nation going forward. We must face the reality that anti-Christ politics...are becoming more and more normalized with each passing week — part of a spirit of the age in the world today that sees autocrats and aspiring autocrats using fear and hate of “the other” for political gain everywhere they are ascendant — including the United States. Let’s be absolutely clear: All of these “others” who are being demonized by anti-Christ politics are children of God, and they are all our neighbors. Jesus teaches us that we are to love them as we love ourselves and treat them as we treat Jesus Christ himself.
The growing white nationalism in America is not just racism; it is anti-Christ. The dehumanization and targeting of immigrants is not just a lack of compassion, it is anti-Christ. The mistreatment of women with sexual harassment, assault, and even trafficking isn’t just sexist, it is anti-Christ. And for churches not to name and say that clearly and boldly is evidence of their losing connection with Jesus Christ and his teachings. Worse yet, the churches’ silence and collaboration with these evils is nothing less than religious complicity with the anti-Christ spirit of the age — which is growing in America. See
Thomas Edsall sees “Need for Chaos” among Trump voters obliterating everything else, making political nihilism one of the president’s strongest weapons. See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/04/opinion/trump-voters-chaos.html?fbclid=IwAR0rZxU-JmiWZ4aBg4PwBk5_dAp-HKMWt7ZrSiC6qkmGsId1ffwRF0Gh_6Y.
David French has diagnosed how the church lost its moral compass by putting the popularity and power of Christendom (the church) over following the altruistic and universal moral teachings of Jesus. French cited a recent article in Politico in which more than two dozen current and former Liberty University officials describe a culture of fear and self-dealing at the largest Christian college in the world (see https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/09/09/jerry-falwell-liberty-university-loans-227914). French asserted that “time and again, powerful Christian men create or nurture powerful Christian institutions, only to fall prey to the temptation to equate the advance of those institutions and their own power with the advance of the Gospel and the kingdom of God.” So it is for Jerry Falwell, Jr., the corrupt president of Liberty University, and the morally corrupt white evangelical movement that provides the base of support for Donald Trump. Jesus taught that worldly popularity and power are not the measure of success in God’s kingdom; and French concludes:”The practice of Christianity requires faith and courage. It often requires believers to do what’s counterintuitive and utterly contrary to worldly logic. We gain our lives by losing our lives? The last shall be first? There are times when every single earthly impulse will be screaming at you to compromise, to forsake the hard path, to ‘trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong.’ Christianity thrives when you resist that impulse, when you trust in the seemingly upside-down truths of scripture. Our wealth can be great. Our influence can be vast. But it is for naught if our commitment to Christendom supersedes our commitment to Christ.” See
On religion, morality and politics:
(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/07/reconciliation-in-race-and-religion.html
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(8/30/15): What Is Truth? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/what-is-truth.html
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(1/16/16): Religion, Politics and Public Expectations
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(5/28/16): Nihilism as a Threat to Politics, Religion and Morality
(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 http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(9/24/16): The Evolution of Religion and Politics from Oppression to Freedom
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(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
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(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
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17): Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(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
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(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? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(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
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Freedom and Legitimacy
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(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
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(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
(8/25/18): 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
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/10/musings-on-moral-universalism-in.html.
(10/27/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Migrant Tidal Wave
(11/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and the Legitimacy of Democracy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/11/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.
(1/5/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Building Political Walls or Bridges
(2/16/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America the Blessed and Beautiful--or is it?
(3/30/19): Musings on What the Mueller Report Doesn’t Say About Trump’s Wrongdoing
(4/12/19): Musings on Religion, Nationalism and Libertarian Democracy
(4/20/19): Musings on the Resurrection of Altruistic Morality in Dying Democracies
(4/27/19): Musings on the Legitimacy of Crony Capitalism and Progressive Capitalism
(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(5/18/19): Outsiders Versus Insiders in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(5/25/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus
(6/8/19): The Moral Failure of the Church to Promote Altruism in Politics
(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
(6/29/19): Musings on a Politics of Reconciliation: An Impossible Dream?
(7/6/19): Musings on Democrats, Busing and Racism: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again
(7/13/19): Musings on Sovereignty and Conflicting Loyalties to God and Country
(7/20/19): Musings on Diversity in Democracy: Who Are Our Neighbors?
(7/27/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Love Over Law and Social Justice
(8/3/19): Musings on the Dismal Future of the Church and Democracy in America
(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
(8/17/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Shame in Religion and Politics
(9/7/19): Musings on the Self-Destruction of Christianity and American Democracy