Saturday, November 26, 2022

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Vox Populi, Vox Dei in Religion and Politics

         By Rudy Barnes, Jr., November 26, 2022


Last week Elon Musk reinstated Donald Trump’s account on Twitter and then posted: “The  people have spoken,” Vox Populi, Vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God).  Since most Americans equate democracy with majority rule and popular sovereignty, Musk conducted a poll of dubious credibility that indicated that 51.8% approved of the reinstatement.


Sovereignty is about the ultimate source of power in religion and politics.  In the 18th century Enlightenment the sovereignty of God was superseded by the sovereignty of man based on reason and advances in knowledge.  Democracy became a sacred political deity in the Western world, but it has since lost its infallibility when not imbued with human rights.


Demagogues like Hitler, Putin and Trump have used popularity to gain political power, and the church has aided and abetted them by sacrificing the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to promote exclusivist beliefs that enabled Christianity to become the world’s most popular religion.  The powers of popularity and democracy now reflect a corrupt human nature.


That should not be a surprise for Christians.  The gospel accounts of Jesus describe a man whose teachings were never popular.  The Jews of his day were looking for a messiah to liberate them from Roman oppression, not for a spiritual peacemaker.  The crowds supported the decision of the Romans to condemn Jesus when they shouted “Crucify him, crucify him!


It was the institutional church that fabricated the exclusivist doctrines of Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God and enabled Christianity to become a popular religion by subordinating the moral teachings of Jesus to assertions of his divinity.  Jesus was a maverick Jew who never asserted his divinity. He was a Jewish prophet whose teachings were God’s Truth.


Jesus taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him.  Today political demagogues like Trump and Ron DeSantis use assertions of divinity to gain political power, and the white church ignores their blasphemy.  It’s no wonder that Christianity is losing its credibility and legitimacy, and it has infected American politics with distorted Christian doctrines.         


The voice of the people is not the voice of God.  God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer.  Unfortunately Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church and in politics and is winning the popularity contest in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil--and that’s corrupting democracies around the world.


The world should not reject democracy because human nature is corrupt.  Instead, it should emphasize the virtues of humility, selfless service and providing for the common good.  Rejecting the toxic mix of Christianity and politics may not win elections, but it could prevent the further corruption of Christianity and democracy, and save them from the dustbin of history. 



Notes:


On Twitter lifting the ban on Trump after an online poll that included automated “bots”, see https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/nov/20/twitter-lifts-donald-trump-ban-after-elon-musks-poll.      


On Vox Populi, Vox Dei in Wikipedia, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vox_Populi,_Vox_Dei.

‘Opening the gates of hell’: Musk says he will revive banned accounts. The Twitter chief says he will reinstate accounts suspended for threats, harassment and misinformation beginning next week.  “Elon Musk plans to reinstate nearly all previously banned Twitter accounts — to the alarm of activists and online trust and safety experts.  After posting a Twitter poll asking, “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?” in which 72.4 percent of the respondents voted yes, Musk declared, “Amnesty begins next week.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/11/24/twitter-musk-reverses-suspensions/?utm.

On Sovereignty and Conflicting Loyalties to God and Country (July 13, 2019), see 

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/07/musings-on-sovereignty-and-conflicting.html.

On the role of religion in politics, a new political ad for Gov. DeSantis' reelection campaign says that on the "eighth day" of creation, "God made a fighter" — referring to the Florida governor.  See https://people.com/politics/ron-desantis-god-made-fighter-ad/.



Saturday, November 19, 2022

Musings on Accepting Things That We Cannot Change

      By Rudy Barnes, Jr.


The Serenity Prayer tells us to “accept the things we cannot change, but to have the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Jesus told his disciples that what is impossible for man is possible for God (Mark 10:27).  The takeaway is that we shouldn’t give up trying to do the right thing, even if it seems difficult or even impossible.


Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer, and his original version emphasized the courage to change things that must be altered rather than accepting things that seem impossible to change.  If promoting partisan reconciliation seems impossible, don’t give up.  Stay the course.  With God’s help we can reshape the majority in our democracy. 


Midterm elections confirmed that partisan politics remain perilously polarized; but Donald Trump’s announcement that he will run again in 2024 creates new partisan possibilities.  Just as the Republican Party was born with the implosion of the Whig Party in 1853, an implosion of the GOP in 2024 could provide the possibility for an alternative to America’s polarized parties. 


Political tribalism has corrupted America’s democracy, but it’s not beyond redemption.  Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a majority of black and white Christians to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a politics of white supremacy, it’s possible that a new majority of Americans can emerge to reconcile our racially polarized politics.


Partisan polarization is based on negative racial attitudes that persist in segregated churches; and most churches are racially segregated and aren’t making any effort to reconcile racial issues in their communities.  In politics, most white Christians vote Republican while most black Christians vote Democratic--and it appears that never the twain shall meet.


We don’t need to integrate worship services that are unique to black and white cultures, but all churches need to promote standards of political legitimacy summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves.  That requires promoting racial reconciliation that provides for the common good.


God’s will is to reconcile and redeem, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer; but Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church and politics and is winning the popularity contest.  While popularity is the measure of success in a democracy, following the teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love has never been popular (See Matthew 7:13-14).


Jesus called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him; but to gain popularity most churches have reversed those priorities.  Discipleship is based on deeds of love and mercy. While crossing racial and partisan lines can be difficult, it’s not impossible, and James tells us that any faith without deeds is dead (James 2:14-26).  Churches should take that to heart. 

  


Notes

The Serenity Prayer was written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr[1][2] (1892–1971).  Niebuhr did not make a distinction between what he could and could not change.  His original prayer was: Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.[3 ]

Niebuhr composed the prayer in 1932–33,[1] and first published it in 1951 in a magazine column.    By 1955, it was being called the Serenity Prayer in publications of Alcoholics Anonymous.[5]

Today it’s commonly quoted as:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.[1]

See Wikipedia, at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer.


In exploring the role of religion in addressing the hatred in tribal partisan politics in America, Mary Worthen has asked, Is There a Way to Dial Down the Political Hatred?   Worthen cites researchers who have concluded “that ‘out-party hate’ now seems to shape American voting decisions more than race or religion do. ‘The foundational metaphor for political sectarianism is religion,’ based on ‘the moral correctness and superiority of one’s sect.’ Political hatred has become Americans’ animating faith, a chief source of existential meaning.  I’m convinced (well, I’m trying to convince myself) that most Americans are tired of the culture wars; they want to understand and get along with people different from themselves. It’s true that a zealous few turn political ideas into inerrant dogmas because they seek the sense of community once offered by traditional religion and because they crave ideological surrogates for the doctrines of original sin, predestination and divine justice — that perverse blend of control and victimhood that tempts humans when the prospect of taking real responsibility becomes too frightening.  But a much larger proportion of Americans want their sense of free will back. They belong to ‘the exhausted majority.’ Their refusal to be bound by the habits and fears of their parents’ generation echoes the special role that young Americans played in the d├ętente between Catholics and Protestants two generations ago — and maybe the history of interfaith conflict has something to teach us about rebuilding working relationships between Republicans and Democrats.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/11/opinion/god-religion-politics-partisanship.html.



Saturday, November 12, 2022

Musings on the Need for a Civil Religion in America's Dysfunctional Democracy

           Rudy Barnes, Jr., November 12, 2022


Contrary to President Biden’s predictions, democracy wasn’t on the ballot last week; but a record turnout of voters affirmed America’s dysfunctional democracy.  Americans don’t lack a democracy; what we need is a moral reawakening and a civil religion that can overcome partisan polarization with standards of political legitimacy that provide for the common good.


Civil religion is not a church religion.  It’s where morality and politics merge to shape the values of political legitimacy.  Most churches subordinate moral standards to mystical beliefs and avoid mixing religion and politics.  Robert Bellah coined the term in a 1969 essay, and he elaborated on it in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.


American moral standards have traditionally been the domain of the church, but in 2016 the church lost its moral compass when most white Christians elected Donald Trump.  He is a nativist narcissist whose egregious immorality is the antithesis of that taught by Jesus; and Trump has corrupted the Republican Party and polarized American politics.


The Democratic Party elected Biden over Trump in 2020, but it has failed to attract the independent moderates needed to break up the polarized partisan gridlock.  There was no red wave in the election, only a pink ripple; and both Trump and Biden are considering a rematch in 2024 that would only worsen the partisan polarization in America’s 2-party duopoly.     


There is a need for a moral reawakening to clean up the moral morass in America, and churches have proven inadequate for that task.  A second Enlightenment is needed.  It will require inspired secular leadership like that of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, who gave birth to American democracy and transformed civil religion in the 18th century.


Civil religion is based on altruistic morality rather than theology.  Libertarian democracy cannot survive without the moral imperative to provide for the common good.  It was taught by Jesus in the  greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves, but it has dissipated in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture.


It  will take a moral reawakening with a new enlightenment to save American democracy from self destruction.  In American democracy voters are the masters of their political destiny, for good or bad.  A new enlightenment may just be wishful thinking, but it’s an existential issue needed to save American libertarian democracy from its self-destructive tribal partisan politics.         


The  existential problem is not that Americans favor one party over the other.  It’s that partisan loyalty has metastasized American politics into a dysfunctional democracy that requires a moral awakening to avoid civil conflict.  Our churches have failed as moral stewards of our democracy.  America must find another way to restore the common good as a political priority.


    

Notes:

Wikipedia describes the American civil religion as “a sociological theory that a nonsectarian quasi-religious faith exists within the United States with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. The ritualistic elements of ceremonial deism found in American ceremonies and presidential invocations of God can be seen as expressions of the American civil religion. The very heavy emphasis on pan-Christian religious themes is quite distinctively American and the theory is designed to explain this. The concept goes back to the 19th century but its current form was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in his 1967 article, Civil Religion in America.  According to Bellah, Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion.”  See Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_civil_religion.  

On The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.


On American Civil Religion is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion, see ProgressiveChristianity.org : AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION IS DEAD, LONG LIVE AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION.


Thomas Jefferson was a deist who held the teachings of Jesus in high regard while he detested church doctrines.  In 1804 he wrote: “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 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.” Many biblical scholars consider Jefferson prescient in separating the actual teachings of Jesus from what the gospel writers had likely put on his lips; and Robin Meyers has echoed Jefferson’s criticism of the church in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.  See Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html.

 

On how Trump’s Republicans have corrupted and polarized America’s dysfunctional democracy, see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/05/opinion/election-republican-greene-vance.html.


Along with dysfunctional democracy “the specter of competitive authoritarianism looms wrapped in myths of exceptionalism and preeminence. For years, analysts who examine the health of democracies in a global context have been sounding the warning.  Kleinfeld has noted that the “rapid decline is asymmetric” and “is primarily being driven by a very different Republican Party” than the one that existed under former president Ronald Reagan, and Democrats have played their own part in this polarization. Levitsky and Way have speculated in Foreign Affairs that “rather than autocracy, the U.S. appears headed toward endemic regime instability marked by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections, and severe conflict between presidents and Congress.  It would likely shift back and forth between periods of dysfunctional democracy and periods of competitive authoritarian rule during which incumbents abuse state power, tolerate or encourage violent extremism, and tilt the electoral playing field against their rivals.”  See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/08/american-democracy-backsliding-competitive-authoritarianism/.

        

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Jesus, the Church, and Christian Nationalism

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.,


Jesus was a universalist Jew who taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. Jesus never promoted a new religion, and his teachings on sacrificial love were never popular.  It was the Apostle Paul who popularized the Christian religion.  His atonement doctrine made worshiping Christ more essential to salvation than following the teachings of Jesus.


In the 4th century Emperor Constantine ordained a toxic mix of Christianity and politics when he made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire.  History has confirmed that when Christianity favors a nation, it abandons Jesus.  Christian nationalism led to the American Civil War and to Nazism, and it continues to give divine sanction to unprincipled Christian politicians.


Thomas Jefferson rejected nationalist church doctrines and considered the teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”  The universal teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.


Christian nationalism has no place in America’s polarized partisan politics.  As the steward of America’s democracy, the church should be promoting partisan reconciliation based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus; but to avoid controversy and to maintain its popularity, the church does not challenge the partisan divisions promoted by unprincipled Christian charlatans.


Christian nationalism supports the belief that God favors rich and powerful nations over others--America First in the U.S. and Russian World in Russia.  The prosperity gospel sanctifies wealth and power as God’s reward to the faithful, and it’s the ideal of Ayn Rand’s self-centered materialism.  It’s popular among Christians, yet it's the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus.


Christian nationalism has racial roots.  Most Christian nationalists are white and Republicans, while most Blacks are Democrats; and most churches remain racially segregated.  To counter demagogues who exploit racial and cultural differences to gain power, the church must promote reconciliation by giving primacy to the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus.


In America voters are the masters of their political destiny, and many Christians choose nationalism and self-interest over universalism and altruism.  Jesus taught that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem while Satan's will is to divide and conquer; but Satan is winning popularity contests in democracies by doing a convincing imitation of God in the church and in politics.     


The church and democracy are at a moral crossroads.  The church has forfeited the altruistic moral compass of Jesus to Godless nationalism promoted by demagogues like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  To preserve the freedoms of libertarian democracy, the church must challenge Christian nationalism with the reconciling love taught and  exemplified by Jesus.


 

Notes:


What is Christian nationalism?  “Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University, defines white Christian nationalism as the belief that the country's white founders formed a Christian nation with Christian laws and that the United States is divinely favored and has a divine mission that has been undermined by non-whites, non-Christians and foreigners who live here. White Christian nationalists [now] seek to "retake" the country and return it to its origins, he added.”  See https://firebrandmag.com/articles/methodism-amp-christian-nationalism.


In describing the driving force behind white Christian nationalism, Rick Herrick says “A religion focused primarily on personal salvation doesn’t help because it’s all about me. Life in a society organized around economic consumption is also all about me.  The time has come to recognize an inconvenient truth. Christianity for many has become a political ideology with no connection to the love and goodness that comes from God. The best way to fix this problem is to change the focus of our religion away from personal salvation to living the teachings of Jesus. It would also help if church services were centered around coming to know God rather than on affirming religious belief. Reciting creeds, singing about a God in heaven, praying for the President, hearing about a Jesus who died for my sins doesn’t do much for me. It’s no wonder that church attendance where the focus is on such beliefs is on the decline. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/the-driving-force-behind-white-christian-nationalism/.


On How much power do Christians really have? The invisible divide that’s shaping how Republicans and Democrats think about religion--and politics.  “Anxiety about what it means to be Christian may be shaped as much by people’s political allegiances as their religious ties. This moment is about four decades in the making. In the 1980s and 1990s, as white Christian conservatives forged an alliance with the Republican Party, Christianity itself started to become a partisan symbol. Identifying as a Christian was no longer just about theology, community or family history — to many Americans, the label became uncomfortably tangled with the Christian Right’s political agenda, which was itself becoming increasingly hard to separate from the GOP’s political agenda.  Social scientists have argued compellingly that left-leaning Americans started to reject religious labels altogether around this time because of the perception that Christianity was becoming tainted by politics. The rise in the share of Americans who have no religion wasn’t just about loss of belief — it was about the rejection of a political identity, too. 

Carolyn Novak, 54, didn’t stop calling herself a Christian because she no longer followed Jesus. Instead, she stopped going to the Southern Baptist church she’d attended for years because she felt like it made people assume things about her that weren’t true. She found herself increasingly at odds with her fellow churchgoers. “Being labeled a Christian, [people think] you’re some kind of right-wing nut.”

A minority of Americans support views that could be described as Christian nationalist, an ideology defined by social scientists as the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation, and should be returned to its Christian foundations — by force, if necessary. According to our survey, only 27 percent of respondents agreed that the “government should favor Christianity over other religions,” and even fewer (22 percent) said that “God has called on conservative Christians to take control of our politics and culture.” Only 13 percent said that “the federal government should advocate for Christian religious values,”

There’s a cyclical feeling to these conversations — a sense of one view reinforcing another, which reinforces another, which reinforces another — that has created an almost impenetrable barrier between the two sides. There are people, like Carrizales, who are managing to balance religious and political identities that feel increasingly at odds. But competing perceptions of Christianity’s power seem unlikely to change — if anything, they may deepen further.”

See  https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-power-do-christians-really-have/.


On being apolitical won’t heal polarized churches, “in 2017, a Lifeway poll found that more than half of Protestant churchgoers under 50 say they prefer to go to church with people who share their political views. And few adult Protestant churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion. Instead of being a space where people of very different perspectives can build on a shared unity in Christ, many churches are becoming citadels in which Christians’ pre-existing politics and worldviews are simply reinforced.

Given all our nation has experienced in the five years since the poll was conducted, I can only imagine that the polarization in our pews is even more stark today and — like polarization elsewhere — increasingly rooted in contempt. According to a recent NBC poll “some 80% of Democrats and Republicans believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it.” If we’re honest, we’ll admit that many churches are exacerbating this polarization rather than trying to treat it.

Being a balm [in a polarized church] also requires a deep commitment to reconciliation: telling the truth and repairing relationships broken by injustice. Within our congregations, this means being honest about the ways our houses of worship have so often fallen short of the message of inclusive love that Jesus preached and modeled and acknowledging the ways in which Christians have misused our faith to baptize injustice throughout our nation’s history. The paradox is that while truth-telling is a pre-requisite forovercoming polarization, telling the truth can also exacerbate it, especially in an environment where social media spreads disinformation and some news sources distort our perceptions of each other. As a result, many churches sacrifice truth-telling to maintain unity.

For pastors and church leaders who fear dividing their congregation or facing a backlash if they engage in more truth-telling, it is essential to ground your congregation in a shared sense of …loving our neighbors (Mark 12:31). Pastors can also model and teach how to center every contentious conversation in steadfast love, which helps to generate empathy and leads us to affirm the humanity in those we disagree with. If the church is to be the conscience of the state, we need to counteract a resurgent white nationalism and deep-rooted white supremacy with what I call in my book A More Perfect Union “redemptive patriotism.” “Patriotism comes in many forms. Its most destructive, often nationalistic forms erode the very foundation upon which the Beloved Community is built. Redeeming patriotism requires reframing our love for the best of America’s ideals and aspirations. It requires understanding that the right to critique America is part of the brilliance of America. … Redeeming patriotism requires greater willingness to have courageous and civil conversations about the very ideals that make us love America. It refuses pointless arguments over who loves America more.”

The church also needs guardrails if it is to serve effectively as the conscience of the state.

“Be engaged but not used” which emphasizes civic engagement as part and parcel to discipleship but cautions against allowing politicians to misuse faith to bless their narrow self-interest and pursuit of power.

“Be political but not partisan.”

Christians need to be both pastoral and prophetic: Pastoral in the sense that we must refuse to demonize those who disagree with us and seek to minister to elected officials; prophetic in the sense that we must continue to speak the truth to those in positions of power and hold them accountable to our values and priorities.” See  https://sojo.net/articles/being-apolitical-wont-heal-polarized-churches.  

In summary, Christians should be moral stewards of their democracy.


On Faith and politics, see https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/faith-and-politics/


On Do we dare to disciple people out of Christian Nationalism?, see https://sojo.net/articles/do-we-dare-disciple-people-out-christian-nationalism.


On “ReAwaken America” as proof that Christian nationalism isn’t Christian, see

https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/reawaken-america-christian-nationalism-pennsylvania-20221019.html.

On Christian nationalism as a racist, ahistorical ideology of violence, see https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/these-midterms-republicans-run-against-first-amendment-n1299932.

‘Russian World’ Is the Civil Religion Behind Putin’s War: The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church see Ukraine as part of a cultural dominion to be protected from the values of an encroaching West. See  https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-world-is-the-civil-religion-behind-putins-war-11647539958.