So what did Jesus REALLY say and how are today’s followers doing in following that philosophy.
The comparisons here are drawn from a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Pubic life.
You can pick and choose from Bible quotes, but most all Bible scholars agree on the following fundamental points. So let’s start first with hopefully the facts that we can all agree on.
Jesus preached mercy and forgiveness. He encouraged us to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. He said that the rich would have to work hardest to get into heaven. In fact he advised the wealthy to give freely to the poor first before coming to follow him.
So how do the Evangelicals and Fundamentalist Christians fare on this survey. They are the ones who claim to go to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly, listen to Christian music, and put Jesus at the center of their daily lives.
On mercy and forgiveness, they are the most supportive of the death penalty, harsh prison sentences rather than rehabilitation, and torture of our enemies.
How about peaceful lives? They are the most supportive of gun ownership and aggressive use of military force to advance our international interests.
What about the distribution of wealth? They are the most supportive of an unregulated business environment and least supportive of institutional help for the poor. They are most opposed to anything that smacks of “socialism”, even though Jesus preached a gospel of the rich being responsible for the welfare of the poor.
So how do these most devout Christians resolve this seeming dichotomy between their political views and the teachings of the person that they claim to worship?
I can provide some historical background.
At the end of WWI, the Fundamentalist Evangelical movement sprang up in populist response to the intellectual influence of the Social Gospel. These conservative Christians claimed that liberal churches had lost their way under the influence of foreign ideas from German Rationalism, to Soviet Communism, and of course Darwinism. In the 1950’s the movement gained some steam as it piggybacked on anti-communist paranoia. The civil rights movement of the 60’a created a perfect storm for liberal white southern churches. Whether it is was the knee jerk backlash to liberalism or the social turmoil caused by federally imposed desegregation, soon there wasn’t a liberal white church left south of the Mason Dixon line. The remaining conservative southern white churches felt their whole way of life was under attack. It’s not surprising that their Christianity morphed into a patriotic southern nationalist movement that stood firm against the integrated 50’s, the free love 60’s, and anti-war 70’s.
In the process, charity became confused with subversive collectivism. The moral justification of Johnson’s Great Society was rejected by these churches. They saw it as an unjust imposition of federal power, immoral social engineering, and a stalking horse for integration. The Viet Nam debacle and Watergate only re-enforced the view that liberals viewed patriotism as unfashionable. Even though Carter was a southern evangelical, his inability to free the Iran hostages confirmed the view that liberalism was a much bigger sin than being “unchurched”. Reagan was the best example of that. He embodied all that was good and true for fundamentalist Christians because he confronted liberalism, unionism, and communism. They projected their religious beliefs onto him, even though he had little in common with them as a twice married Hollywood movie star with little interest in religion. Under Reagan, the gospel of prosperity subtly replaced the gospel of self-denial. The peaceful and meek Jesus was replaced by an angry Jesus who rewarded the righteous and punished the socially liberal. This proved a particularly winning formula for a new breed of mega-church pastors. When the Terminator gained “most favored Jesus” status, all pastors had to do was pick out a different target for righteous wrath each week. The pulpit messages became simpler. The congregations grew more politically polarized. Church coffers filled and Republican candidates starting talking about social values and their personal relationship with God.
Religion in this country became a Rorschach Test. People were able to pick and chose what they liked from their religious traditions and ignore the rest. Rather than change their lives to follow Jesus, they were able to change their view of what Jesus would do to suit the sort of lives that they wanted to live. They felt no cognitive dissonance with the kind, peace-loving, socialist Jesus of the Bible because that’s not the Jesus they worshiped. They simply rejected those descriptions of Jesus as part of a pervasive liberal conspiracy to undermine the conservative political movement. Instead their view of Jesus came from the vast echo chamber that grew up around fundamentalism and conservatism.
There are some mega church pastors who have been taking a stand in an effort to re-introduce the Biblical Jesus to their congregations. These New Evangelicals feel that fundamentalism has lost track of the heart of Christianity. Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Life is a great example. He said, “”I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God’s love for the world,”. Rob Bell is another who has written “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” where he suggests that the Biblical Jesus didn’t consign non-Christians to hell.
The backlash from Christian Conservatives has been harsh. These new prophets of the Biblical Jesus have been called everything from false teachers to servants of the devil, but that’s not surprising. Jesus teaching was difficult for the religious establishment to accept during his time too because it required his followers to change their lives. Some were willing to do that, and others, particularly those who had great wealth or great political power were not.
Christian Conservatives have every right to live their lives in whatever way they choose. They can support corporate greed, militarism, the death penalty, and gun violence while opposing food stamps, welfare, early childhood education, and healthcare for the poor. They can also justify those political positions as fiscally prudent or socially responsible. They can talk about the value or personal responsibility, the wisdom of the marketplace, and the folly of big government. In this country they can embrace all of the aspects of political conservatism without fear of reprisal.
Where they mislead themselves and the rest of the country, however, is when they call themselves Christian.