By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Christianity and democracy have a common flaw. In both, popularity is the measure of success. That’s obvious in a democracy where popular support is essential for political power; but the church was never a democracy, and the teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love were never popular. With its popularity declining, why does the church continue to seek it?
The early church recognized that its power as a religious institution depended on it attracting converts. That required subordinating the rigorous teachings of Jesus on discipleship to less onerous--but exclusivist--Christian beliefs. Paul’s atonement doctrine achieved that objective; but it was never taught by Jesus, whose altruistic moral teachings were universal.
The doctrine of atonement asserted that the crucifixion of Jesus was God’s blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers (see Romans 5:6-21). When combined with the condemnation of non-believers to eternal hellfire and damnation, that proved to be enough to make Christianity the most popular and powerful religion in the world--at least until recently.
With today’s increasing diversity of religions, there’s no place for such exclusivist beliefs. They conflict with the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. It’s a common word of faith that confirms that God is bigger than any one religion, and that God’s love can reconcile Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The 18th century Enlightenment brought democracy to the Western world and shaped America’s Constitution. The Civil War was a temporary disruption of American democracy that left a residue of racism that continues to plague American politics; and the civil strife of racial and partisan polarization that preceded America’s civil war has once again reared its ugly head.
Christian morality has long been the primary source of America’s political legitimacy, but It has been transformed into a volatile mix of religion and politics by the radical right politics of most white Christians. The altruistic values taught by Jesus have been lost in the partisan fight for popularity along partisan and racial lines, corrupting both Christianity and democracy.
If Americans become so divided and polarized that there is no consensus to provide for the common good, American democracy will once again be vulnerable to political extremism and the tyranny of racist demagoguery. The insurrection of January 6, 2021 was clear and convincing evidence of that existential danger to libertarian democracy.
The moderate religious moral mainstream that once preserved American democracy from extremism has dissipated, and the church has failed to provide the moral compass needed to restore a modicum of political legitimacy. America is about to learn that even the Constitution cannot protect its democracy from the devious power of popularity when it’s corrupted.
Michelle Boorstein sees an evolution from religion to secularism. She notes that “Americans are getting less religious. They do fewer traditionally religious things, such as belonging to a denomination, attending worship services, or feeling certain that God exists.” As religion declines, Boorstein says that American secularism is growing--and growing more complicated. Boorstein cites Secular Surge, a 2021 book by a trio of prominent political scientists that says that “secular core values include freethinking, logic and reason …human experience and the laws of nature. Secularism, notably is not defined by opposition to religious identity or practices. By this definition, a quarter of Americans now have a secular worldview, and events like the pandemic could speed along the birth of a secular political left, not unlike the early days of the religious right. The authors of Secular Surge say the existence of a now-huge group of Americans who share secular values is potentially one of the biggest political forces of the near-future.” Boorstein quotes Jacques Berlinerblau (Secularism: The Basics) in an interview: “The U.S. is way behind in developing a secularism for the current era. There has been no innovation in secular thought in 50 years, few new policy ideas. There’s no coherence, no leadership, no central movement [like the institutional church]. They can’t articulate what they want to do.” Boorstein notes that Ryan P. Burge, author of The Nones: Where they Came from, Who They Are, and Where They’re Going, thinks that Berlinerblau overstates the possibility of secularism being a backstop to religious fundamentalism. Burge “focuses on the significant differences in belief and attitudes between Nones who are anti-religious and those who are ambivalent. The majority of Nones are in the latter camp, and the same dynamic applies to secular Americans. The majority are in the middle. “Now we’re seeing religious polarization and political polarization lay on top of one another. Religious polarization is just as real, but we don’t talk about it as much because no one has articulated it in a way that makes sense.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/01/14/secularism-atheism-religion-nones/.
Related commentary on the relevance of Christian and Secular moral standards to politics:
(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.
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(7/18/20): Musings on Atheism and Religion and Living Life to the Full
(3/27/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Civil Religion in a Divided America
(4/24/21): How a Fading Church Could Help Reconcile America’s Polarized Politics
(5/22/21): Musings on Morality and Politics and the Need for a Civil Religion in America
(7/17/21): Christianity and Politics: Separated by Irreconcilable Differences
(8/14/21): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of God’s Truth in Christianity