Saturday, December 18, 2021

Musings on "Unreason" in American Politics and Religion

         By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The evangelical charlatans who support Trump and his radical right minions remind us that religion can be unreasonable--even ridiculous.  The 18th century Enlightenment was thought to have transformed both politics and religion with advances in knowledge and reason; but since then politics and religion seem to have regressed from reason to unreason.

Thomas Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment and a deist who considered the universal teachings of Jesus as “the sublimest moral code ever designed by man”, but he detested the institutional church.  The church rejected Jefferson’s heterodox beliefs, but many theologians today consider Jefferson a pioneer in discovering the real teachings of Jesus.

Bill Schneider has cited a 50 year old classic by Seymour Martin Liset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremsm in America, 1790-1970 to illustrate that there’s nothing new about the “unreason” of politics and religion.  Then it was the “know-nothings” who challenged reason and common sense; today it’s right-wing conservatives and left-wing liberals.

Today’s right-wing extremists are made up of the politically dysfunctional and disaffected (those who harbor “status frustrations”), and include the unlikely support of the rich.  Their left-wing opponents are socialists whose free-spending agenda ignores America’s massive national debt--one that’s predicted to rise to dangerous levels by 2031.

Schneider makes a distinction between political values derived from religion that defy compromise, and secular interests that lend themselves to compromise.  The values of right-wing extremists are shaped by distorted and self-centered Christian doctrines such as the prosperity gospel, while left-wing extremists are motivated by self-centered secular interests.

Race is a major factor in America’s polarized partisan politics.  Most white Christians support Republicans and most Blacks support Democrats; and both races attend segregated churches.  While they share belief in the same Christian doctrine, their political preferences conflict.  Race trumps reason in America’s polarized politics, but not in exclusivist Christian beliefs.

Christianity limits salvation to those who believe in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God, while Jews and Muslims consider such exclusivist beliefs blasphemous.  Jesus was a Jew who never promoted his divinity or any religion.  He emphasized reconciliation based on the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other religions, as we love ourselves.

Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers were heterodox deists who emphasized reason in politics and religion.  Most American Christians today have exclusivist religious beliefs, and support partisan politics that ignore the altruistic teachings of Jesus and fail to provide for the common good.  To avoid being “know nothings” and to save democracy from themselves, Americans must restore reason and promote the common good in both their politics and religion.    


Bill Schneider has described today’s right wing extremism as a politics of unreason and the GOP as a cult of know nothings.  His observations are based on a 50-year old book by Seymour Martin Lipsit and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason , Right Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970.  “Right-wing extremism, now embodied in Trump’s MAGA movement, dates back to the earliest days of the country. It’s not about the rational calculation of interests, but about irrational impulses, which the authors identify as ‘status frustrations.’ You see ‘the politics of unreason’ in today’s right-wing extremism. Oddly, religion has become a major force driving the current wave of right-wing extremism. That’s not because of Trump’s religious appeal (he has none) but because of the Democratic Party’s embrace of secularism and the resulting estrangement of fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics and even orthodox Jews. Scneider cites Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the New America think tank, who recently told The New York Times, ‘I have a hard time seeing how we have a peaceful 2024 election after everything that’s happened now. I don’t see the rhetoric turning down. I don’t see the conflicts going away. ... It’s hard to see how it gets better before it gets worse.’” See

Thomas Jefferson was a deist who embraced the moral teachings of Jesus, but opposed the church as an obstacle to freedom.  He wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man."  Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379.  See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2, posted at, See

Many modern scholars like those of the Jesus Seminar consider Thomas Jefferson a pioneer in “separating the real teachings of Jesus, the figure of history, from the encrustations of Christian doctrine.” See The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, The Jesus Seminar, MacMillian Publishing Company, 1993, at page 2.

Previous commentary on related topics:

Religion and Reason (12/8/14)

Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous and Corrupts Our Politics (1/21/17)

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