By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Last week’s commentary was on the future of the church. This week it’s about how a fading White church could help reconcile America’s polarized politics. Following Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s, the White church became increasingly complicit with Republicans, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Since then it’s all been downhill.
American Christians can be considered color-coded by both partisan politics and race. Most White Christians are red (Republicans) while most Black Christians are blue (Democrats). White churches are fading while Black churches seem to be holding their own. Most churches remain segregated by race and partisan politics--all the more reason for them to be reconciled.
The increasing disillusionment of White Christians with their churches relates to the failure of the church to challenge the egregious immorality of radical right Republican politics. While there are fewer Christians loyal to Republican politics, they haven’t become loyal to leftist Democratic politics. Where are those who have left the church gravitating in their politics?
Most who have left the church have not given up their faith, but become independent voters motivated by the altruistic morality taught by Jesus. It’s summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. Those displaced Christians could help reconcile America’s polarized politics.
The church has long been divided into myriad denominations, but it has never been as polarized by partisan politics as it has since 2016. Restoring the credibility and legitimacy of the church will require giving primacy to following the teachings of Jesus over promoting exclusivist church beliefs. If that happens there will be positive political consequences.
The future of Christianity and American democracy depend on restoring altruistic moral values as standards of political legitimacy. Until 2016, the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus provided those values, but no longer. Both political parties are now exploiting a moral vacuum in political legitimacy by promoting divisive partisan values.
To overcome America’s polarized partisan politics, one or both parties must revive the tradition to cross the aisle and compromise on contentious issues. Alternatively, a third party could become a reconciling political force. If America’s two-party duopoly is left to its existing political inertia, it will remain polarized, with little chance of reconciliation.
The demise of a church that has lost its moral compass could ironically be the catalyst that saves American democracy from the tyranny of an immoral majority. As the moral vacuum in the church becomes more evident it will wither and die as a major force in politics. If so, a reborn Christianity and democracy could rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of the church.
Suggesting that fading churches could help reconcile America’s polarized politics is just another way of saying that most churches have promoted polarized politics by their failure to criticize egregious and divisive popular demagogues like Donald Trump. Since its inception, the church has measured its success by its popularity and power, and in its zeal to gain converts it has subordinated following the moral teachings of Jesus (discipleship) to worshiping Jesus as the alter ego of God--even though Jesus never suggested that he was divine. Exclusivist church doctrines that make belief in a divine Jesus Christ the only means of salvation are a means of cheap grace since they avoid the cost of discipleship. If the past is a prelude to the future, the church is not likely to change its doctrinal priorities from worshiping Christ to following Jesus. See Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.
The Phoenix is a mythological bird of ancient Greek origin associated with the sun, and said to be born again, rising from its ashes. “Over time, extending beyond its origins, the phoenix could variously ‘symbolize renewal in general as well as the sun, time, the Empire, metempsychosis, consecration, resurrection, life in the heavenly Paradise, Christ, Mary, virginity, the exceptional man, and certain aspects of Christian life’. Some scholars have claimed that the poem De ave phoenice may present the mythological phoenix motif as a symbol of Christ's resurrection.” See Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(mythology).