Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Political Salesmanship and Christian Morality

 

The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ (Matthew 13:13)

 
Has overt Christian involvement in politics made public morality better or worse? As politicized Christian groups emerged in the 1980s, opposition to public loss of “moral compass” was used as justification. These groups celebrated the presidency of George W. Bush and now are “doubling down” on the presidency of Donald Trump. But are American leaders following Christian morals? Have the president, congressional leaders, and cabinet members demonstrated Christian principles as public officials? Is our time unique, or are there biblical precedents for the kind of religious endorsement being given to President Trump?

There are three approaches to public morality found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. One of those approaches is being used to justify public behaviors of this presidential administration that are clearly immoral to anyone capable of perceiving, listening, and understanding. Current political and religious leaders need to be shocked, just as Jesus’s parables jolted his audience, to bring them out of extreme cases of denying reality.

The truth is that Donald Trump sees himself as a salesman rather than constitutional public official. He handles every problem with increasingly spontaneous and irrational sales messages that bombard Americans through numerous daily media outlets. The paramount goal of a salesman is closing deals, getting people to buy whatever is being sold no matter what it takes. The best closers (which means the most prosperous) follow the ABCs – Always Be Closing. If lies are discovered in the sales pitch, you “double-down” and close harder. Selling requires winning – and real closers always win.

In politics today, winners are determined by polls, ratings, and elections. Political campaigns became advertising as discussion of issues was replaced by emotional appeals. Now governmental communications are sales pitches, not reliable information. The truth of what is promoted matters little. Success is achieved by repeating the message until enough people react as desired – then truth is proved by poll numbers in your base. If people say they trust an official who is known to be lying, they are rewarded by a steady diet of bold slander and conspiracy theories.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to consciously use media to shape public opinion. He saw the presidency as a “bully pulpit” – which means a platform for selling political views. But TR knew that power had to be used judiciously or the dignity of the presidency would decline to hucksterism, thereby damaging the office and the country. Being grounded in political and moral principles was essential when steering American public attention.

Donald Trump’s public and private behaviors demonstrate a lack of moral compass, yet his staunchest allies have been evangelical leaders. They have accepted immorality, refused to criticize extreme disregard for legal and ethical limitations on power, and have even compared public outrage against him to the persecution Jesus experienced before crucifixion. Why are they part of the base of supporters who refuse to perceive, listen, or understand reality?

Of the three ethical approaches in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they have chosen one that made them vulnerable to an overt salesman – a conman, in the words of Michael Bloomberg – who exploits the vulnerability in their intolerant approach to ethics. They praise the leadership of the most openly immoral and corrupt president in American history – a man who parades his disregard for morality in daily media barrages.

Salvation Ethics. This approach insists on repentance and conversion as the first step toward morality. Acts of kindness are “good works,” and thus not really satisfying to God unless they follow salvation through faith in Christ. Personal conversion is so important that true morality is impossible without it. Afterward, Christians enjoy new life guided by the Holy Spirit. Direction by the Holy Spirit becomes the benchmark for morality.

The Spirit may lead in many directions, such as commitment to become a missionary or start religious organizations. One of the proofs of guidance by the Spirit is honoring the Bible as God’s Holy Word to be obeyed and defended from attacks. That is why traditional gender relationships found in the Bible have become prominent for evangelicals. Spreading the gospel, based on literal interpretation of the Word of God, becomes a central moral task. Saving souls and pressuring the unsaved to follow God’s rules are important moral values.

Two side-effects of this moral approach are self-righteousness and aggressive social coercion to achieve public righteousness. Self-righteousness flourishes in groups more than through individual stands. It is aggressive because tolerance of alternative views is not permissible. Opponents are demonized and must repent of their ways and join the cause of those who are just.

A recent new twist has been the assertion of religious liberty. Since 1965, businesses can’t discriminate based on religion, race, gender, or national origin. But evangelical groups believe they would be violating God’s will by approving, tolerating, or in any way permitting unrestricted health choices by women for specifically female issues. The same reasoning is applied to routine actions by LGBT persons, such as buying wedding cakes for a gay wedding. Opponents of those personal rights declare their religious liberty is violated if they must tolerate actions they find repugnant even though they are legal. Religious liberty, therefore, means they must be allowed to stay righteous, untouched by the sinfulness of disapproved groups.

Why do so many evangelicals support a president who lies multiple times a day, has never honored a marriage oath, attacks and slanders numerous groups without justification, and does not respect courts or ethical and legal restrictions on presidential actions? Because they expect to be rewarded by forcing their intolerant views on a reluctant nation and by appointing politically motivated judges to perpetuate that agenda. Salvation ethics has led to the most cynical form of “political realism” – the end justifies the means.

Golden Rule Ethics. The Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes a more practical and even secular approach, described by Hillel and Jesus in the decades after Herod the Great. It can be stated positively or negatively – do to others as you want them to do to you, or don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to you.

Tolerance, practicality, consideration, and kindness are at the heart of these ethics. The books of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) provide fatherly advice for happiness and success that assume the secular wisdom of the Golden Rule. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is also filled with this form of ethical guidance, with special emphasis on the need for action to carry out Jesus’s commands.

Karen Armstrong relies on the Golden Rule in her Charter for Compassion movement. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she builds on the Golden Rule as a common element uniting the religions of the Axial Age in efforts to overcome conflict. Her campaign is an interesting hybrid of religious and secular effort to unite humanity through multiple spiritual traditions.

The weakness of this form of ethics is found in the question: Why is this the best way? Answers will say essentially: Because it works. This ethic doesn’t point beyond itself to something higher. My view is that this approach to morality is good and has biblical support – but there is something even better.

Torah Ethics. Two gospels record Jesus summarizing the Torah with two ethical imperatives. In Luke 10:25-28, someone asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asked what guidance for that question was in Torah, the man replied with a two-part summary: love God and love your neighbor. “’You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’”

In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus states the principle himself.

He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The distinction between the Golden Rule and Torah ethics is that God provides the reason for compassionate treatment of others. Salvation ethics often appeal to love of God as the reason for enforcing righteousness on the neighbor. However, the account in Luke shows the error of that position, for the story of the Good Samaritan was used to demonstrate that love of God is not a good excuse for mistreating others. Love of God is best seen in treating others as family members.

Bishop Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon, “The Power of Love,” asserted a vision (reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous dream) of what the world would be like if love were realized.

Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.

When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.

When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.

When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children.

Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.

Consequences? Bishop Curry’s sermon anticipates a world unlike our current political situation. What if public morality continues ignoring the Golden Rule and Torah ethics in an increasingly Trumpian world?

Many Christians would be shocked to find the answer to that question in 2 Kings 18-25 as the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah are described. The information in those chapters has been supported by archaeology. The interpretation, however, reflects the Salvation ethics of the group of priests and scribes responsible for the book of Deuteronomy – an interpretation that is no longer supported when practical consequences are perceived, listened to, and understood.

After the Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria, Hezekiah ignored the awful consequences of resistance to the strongest power in his region and instituted reforms he knew would be rebellion. Supported by Isaiah and Jerusalem’s priests, he removed images from the temple and centralized religious worship in the temple. The result was an Assyrian invasion, destroying major settlements in Judah and laying siege to Jerusalem. A negotiated settlement was reached as Jerusalem withstood the siege, but the country was devastated. Under the fifty-year rule of Hezekiah’s successor Manasseh, political recovery achieved prosperity and stability, to the great displeasure of those who had encouraged Hezekiah.

Salvation ethics returned under Josiah, who instituted reforms called for in an early version of Deuteronomy the high priest claimed to have just discovered in the temple. The reforms went even further than Hezekiah and involved the nation in wars that took Josiah’s life. Misguided military alliances encouraged Judah’s enemies to assist Babylon in its conquest of Jerusalem. At first, the temple and monarchy survived because the king surrendered without a siege. A group of political and social leaders was deported to Babylon and allowed to establish communities that continued Jewish ethnic identity. But righteousness led to a new revolt in Jerusalem. The new leadership forced a siege that brought about complete destruction and larger deportations.

The writers of 2 Kings made Hezekiah and Josiah heroes as Manasseh was villainized. The destruction of Jerusalem, they said, was punishment for Manasseh’s betrayal of the cause of righteousness. Commonsense appraisal of politics of the day doesn’t support that traditional interpretation.

Those biblical circumstances are an odd parallel to recent American history. George W. Bush was an American Hezekiah as he adopted many policies favored by evangelicals. His foreign policies launched two expensive wars that became the longest in American history and his financial policies brought about a near economic collapse at the end of his second term. Barak Obama overcame the economic crisis and laid the foundation of future prosperity and moral leadership as he was slandered by many evangelicals. Obama is now demonized by a Donald Trump who is the Josiah evangelicals hail while he dismantles our constitutional system. Like the writers of 2 Kings, evangelicals insist on interpretations based on righteousness that is out of step with the facts.

Conclusion. Public morality suffers when coercion in the name of righteousness is in the driver’s seat. The Judeo-Christian tradition offers two other ethical choices reflecting compassion. Both of them support Bishop Curry’s bold vision of the transforming power of love. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream and Bishop Curry’s vision represent religious leadership built on the love of God and neighbor.

 

About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. Stationed in California, South Dakota, and then Georgia, he served in the Air Force. Dr. Simmons then became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study

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