By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The degradation of America’s democracy is as much a moral failure of the church as it is of our politics. The myriad variations of Christianity reflect the conflicting concepts of God’s truth in politics. Christianity has always been America’s dominant religion, but the church lost its moral compass on the issue of slavery before the Civil War and again in the election of 2016.
What is God’s truth? The early church subordinated the universal teachings of Jesus to exclusivist doctrines of belief in The Apostle’s Creed, and it has remained unchanged for almost 2,000 years. Over the years Christian morality evolved to conform to popular standards of morality that enabled Christianity to become the world’s most popular and powerful religion.
Jesus made it clear that his teachings would never be popular: “Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) Churches that give popularity precedence over discipleship miss that point.
The universal teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. It was taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and accepted as a common word of faith by Islamic scholars. It’s at the heart of God’s truth for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own. His universalist moral teachings emphasized reconciliation, which is needed in today’s world of increasing religious and cultural diversity. Reconciliation doesn’t require uniformity in religious beliefs, only a shared belief in God’s will that we love people of all races and religions as we love ourselves.
Christianity is now in decline, but most pastors continue to promote exclusivist church doctrines of belief over the universal and reconciling moral teachings of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent of Christian universalism and considered the moral teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” That’s God’s truth.
A culture of democracy has made popularity the measure of success for both Christianity and politics, and both use social media to promote their popularity. God’s will is to reconcile and redeem, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. With the help of social media, Satan is now winning the popularity contest by doing a convincing imitation of God in the church and politics.
How will Christianity resolve its conflicting concepts of God’s truth? Will it gain a new spiritual birth by promoting the reconciling teachings of Jesus, or will it continue to promote exclusivist church doctrines that divide and conquer? Jesus can’t win a popularity contest with Satan, so Christianity is unlikely to sacrifice its waning popularity to promote God’s truth.
On Thomas Jefferson’s emphasis on the moral teachings of Jesus as a sublime moral code, see
Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics (3/17/18) at
See also Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century (5/11/19) at
Martin Thielen is a retired pastor of a United Methodist megachurch in Tennessee. His universalist theology and criticism of the institutional church is similar to that of Thomas Jefferson. In his article on
The Self-Destructive American Church, “Thielen says he has talked to a lot of people who harbor doubts about traditional faith, including a personal, supernatural, providential, and interventionist God. An even larger number of them express doubts about institutional religion. For example, one reader in his mid-forties recently explained why he quit the ministry. He said, ‘A lot of people think I’ve lost my faith. But that’s not the case. I don’t have a God problem. I have a church problem.’” He’s not alone. Throughout most of the twentieth century, over 70 percent of Americans held membership in a local church or synagogue. By 2020 that number plummeted to 47 percent. Sixty-five million American adults alive in the United States today have already dropped out of active religious attendance, and that number grows by about 2.7 million every year. It’s not difficult to project where this trajectory is headed.
One of the primary reasons the church finds itself in free fall is bad behavior among Christians. People look at our arrogance, ignorance, judgmentalism, intolerance, pettiness, self-righteousness, exclusivity, and hypocrisy and think, If this is Christianity, I don’t want anything to do with it. In short, much of our decline, perhaps most of it, is self-inflicted. American church history includes support for the genocide of native Americans, unyielding defense of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, child abuse at (church-run) indigenous residential schools, resistance to the civil rights movement, the toxic rise of religious right fundamentalism, the pedophile priest scandal, and hostile fractures in the mainline church over human sexuality. This sorry behavior has caused massive numbers of people, especially young ones, to lose faith and/or leave church. Over the past several months, we’ve seen numerous examples of the church—Catholic, evangelical, and mainline—behaving badly. ...My own religious tribe, the United Methodist Church, is currently gearing up for schism over the issue of LBGTQ+ rights. This schism is and will be ugly, creating an ecclesiastical civil war in most every UMC conference and congregation in America and beyond.
Ironically, in one of his last actions before he died, jesus prayed that his followers would be united in love. It must break his heart to see the Un-United Methodist Church engage in hostile denominational conflict, prepare for schism, and demonize one another in the process. The sad reality is that every major segment of the American church—Catholic, evangelical, and mainline—by its toxicity has earned its bad reputation and current demise.”
...Given the overwhelming failures of the American church, Christianity in its present form will likely need to die before resurrection can occur. The death of organized religion as we’ve known it is quietly inspiring the birth of alternative, authentic, and fresh expressions of the church. Although these nontraditional churches represent only a tiny fraction of American Christianity at this time, they hold hope for the future. May their tribe increase; and quickly. Before it’s too late.” See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/the-self-destructive-american-church/.
As a counterpoint to Thiesen’s criticism of traditional Christianity, Rachel Bratton has cited the Western Journal report that Fake Chrisrtiianity Has Supplanted the Biblical Worldview. Bratton says, “American Christianity has fallen thanks to cultural corrosion and a lack of Biblical literacy. A new counterfeit religion that George Barna has described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has given Americans a theology that’s a watered down, feel good, fake Christianity that looks nothing like historical Christianity.” The exclusivist beliefs and ambiguous morality of most White Christians today may well conform to the Apostles’ Creed, but they ignore the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus. All Christians should conform their beliefs with the teachings of Jesus in the gospel accounts. The rest of the Bible is dictum. See https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/jul/25/americas-new-religion-fake-christianity/.
For related commentary on God’s truth in religion, morality and politics, see:
#40 (8/30/15) What Is Truth?
#76 (5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
#87 (7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
#104 (11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
#105: (11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
#134 (6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
#136 (7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
#140 (7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
#141 (8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
#142 (8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
#155 (11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
#161 (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.
#166 (1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
#167 (2/3/18): Musings on the Search for Truth through Interfaith Dialogue
#175 (3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
#179 (4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
#181 (5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
#183 (5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
#190 (7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
#192 (7/28/18): Musings on the Polarization of Christian Morality and Politics
#194 (8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
#196 (8/25/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moral Priorities in Religion and Politics
#201 (9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
#202 (10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/10/musings-on-moral-universalism-in.html.
#206 (11/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist: Has God Blessed Us or Damned Us?
#208 (11/17/18): Christianity and Clashing Identities in Politics and Religion
#211 (12/8/18): Trump and the Apostles’ Creed: Is It a Prayer or a Profession of Faith?
#212 (12/15/18): Musings on the Great Commission and Religious and Political Tribalism
#218 (1/26/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Evolution of the Gospel(s)
#220 (2/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Hypocrisy of American Christianity
#221 (2/16/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America the Blessed and Beautiful--or is it?
#223 (3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
#224 (3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America
#225 (3/16/19): Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism
#230 (4/20/19): Musings on the Resurrection of Altruistic Morality in Dying Democracies
#235 (5/25/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus
#237 (6/8/19): The Moral Failure of the Church to Promote Altruism in Politics
#239 (6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
#240 (6/29/19): Musings on a Politics of Reconciliation: An Impossible Dream?
#243 (7/20/19): Musings on Diversity in Democracy: Who Are Our Neighbors?
#245 (8/3/19): Musings on the Dismal Future of the Church and Democracy in America
#250 (9/7/19): Musings on the Self-Destruction of Christianity and American Democracy
#254 (10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy
#261 (11/23/19): Musings on Jesus and Christ as Conflicting Concepts in Christianity
#280 (4/4/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of America’s Values
#290 (6/13/20): Was Jesus the Prophet of the Gospels or the Christ of the Church?
#309 (10/24/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
#313 (11/21/20): Democracy Has Survived Donald Trump, but Can the Church Survive Democracy?
#323 (1/30/21): Musings on Unity or Reconciliation in Politics and Religion--There’s a Difference
#330 (3/20/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Radical Moral Teachings of Jesus
#334 (4/17/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Future of the Church
#335 (4/24/21): How a Fading Church Could Help Reconcile America’s Polarized Politics
#338 (5/15/21): Musings on the Moral Failure of American Christianity and Democracy
#347 (7/17/21): Christianity and Politics: Separated by Irreconcilable Differences
#348 (7/24/21): Musings on the Mixed Messages of God in Religion and Politics