By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Recent polling reveals startling trends in American morality and values that are reshaping the standards of political legitimacy and the American civil religion. Conflicting values are expected in America's diverse democracy , but increasing conflicts in the values of America's polarized politics, with no indication of any reconciliation, should be a cause of concern.
Moral standards provide the norms of political legitimacy in America, and conflicting moral standards threaten the stability of our democracy. In the past, the church has been the steward of America’s moral standards; but popularity is the measure of success in the church, so most churches avoid addressing morality in politics to avoid conflict in the church.
The altruistic teachings of Jesus provide the moral standards for Christians. Thomas Jefferson once asserted, “the teachings of Jesus are the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and those altruistic teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves.
Altruism means providing for the common good; but most churches have subordinated the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist beliefs never taught by Jesus. Trump’s Republicans have corrupted the white church in America, while Putin has corrupted the Russian Orthodox Church. In both nations the church has sacrificed Jesus to political expediency.
Russia is a putative Christian democracy. The first step in restoring the moral legitimacy of the church in both America and Russia is to promote the moral relevance of the altruistic teachings of Jesus in the church. In 1831 Alexis DeTocquevile observed that those moral imperatives were essential to America’s churches and its democracy.
During America’s Civil War Abraham Lincoln cited the teachings of Jesus when he said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Slavery is not an issue today, but lingering racism continues to divide us. Unless the church assumes its responsibility as a steward of American democracy, it’s likely that the fabric of American democracy will again come apart at its seams.
Some have claimed erroneously that the First Amendment requires that religion and politics are kept separate. While the Constitution prohibits government from meddling with religion, it doesn’t prevent religions from promoting altruistic moral principles in politics; and any religion that doesn’t apply its moral principles to politics is an empty and sterile religion.
The Constitution is the bedrock of the American civil religion. Jefferson was right to assert that the moral teachings of Jesus are a sublime moral code; and Tocqueville was right that democracy cannot exist without morality, and that morality cannot exist without religion. The church has failed to be a moral steward for America's civil religion; and unless the church restores the altruistic moral values taught by Jesus as Christian standards of morality, both the church and American democracy are doomed to fail.
The Axios article referred to above is Americans are down on morality, family and country. See https://www.axios.com/2023/07/03/americans-down-on-god-family-country-patriotism-polling.
On Musings on the Evolution of Christianity into the American Civil Religion, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/12/musings-on-evolution-of-christianity.html.
Thomas Jefferson considered the teachings of Jesus the most sublime moral code ever designed by man, but he had nothing but contempt for church doctrines and dogma. Alexis DeTocqueville considered the many variations of Christianity essential to American democracy. On Thomas Jefferson and Alexis deTocqueville and their views on the moral values of religion in American politics, see Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy (July 1, 2017) at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/07/religion-moral-authority-and.html.
Seth David Radwell has addressed the role of religion in early American politics in American Schism (Greenleaf Group Press, 2021, in chapter 7), describing the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton that gave birth to America’s populism and polarized partisan politics. The juxtaposition between democratic movements and popular religious revivals that both arose bottom-up and the weaponization of these trends by political leaders seeking public support were political dynamics in the fierce battle of the two parties led by Jefferson and Hamilton. The Second Great Awakening was a broad Protestant revival beginning in Kentucky and Tennessee that spread rapidly and brought a comforting blanket of spiritual faith to huge swaths of people and counteracted a high level of socio-political uncertainty experienced in the previous decades. It attracted many converts, especially Methodists and Baptists, that grew relative to denominations that were dominant in the colonial period such as Anglicans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The Federalists sensed a large and growing part of the population were adopting more pious views and employed Noah Webster, with his grounding in Calvinism [Webster was an 18th century Billy Graham], to advocate that Chrisitianity become more central to American life, blaming the violence of the French Revolution on a move from religion. Webster helped shift public opinion from Jefferson’s “blasphemous” Republicans toward Hamilton’s Federalists. (p 137). Radwell has noted that “shrewd political actors succeeded in co-opting populist movements that reflect the yearnings, fears and sentiments of common people.” Radwell criticizes “the concept of imposing the strict dogma of one centralized religious institution.” (p 151) That would include exclusivist religious doctrines on salvation and any religious discrimination that violates the freedom of religion. Radwell cited the balance between faith and reason as essential to assess the political ramifications of the Counter-Enlightenment.” (p 152) See An 18th Century Preview of America's Political and Religious Schisms at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2023/03/an-18th-century-preview-of-americas.html.
On Sovereignty and Conflicting Loyalties to God and Country (July 13, 2019), see