Was Jesus a big winner in the last election?
You'd sure think so. If the pundits and Religious Right zealots are correct,
the Son of God scored a knockout victory on Nov. 2. We've had it drilled
into our heads that something known as "moral values" was decisive in the
election. Some worked-up commentators have even said we're on the brink of a
second Great Awakening.
All this hype about the God talk swirling around in our culture prompted me
to do a little research (a big departure from how I usually prepare for
writing a column). I cracked open my Bible and started rereading the
And you know what? I can't see what all this sanctimonious values rhetoric
has to do with Jesus. I've compared what I read in Gospels with what I've
been hearing from the Religious Right, and I've concluded that the
holier-than-thous must have traded in their red-letter editions of the Good
Book for red-state versions that omit most of Jesus' teachings.
The truth is, if you depend on the Christian right for your theological
sustenance, you probably won't recognize the Jesus of the Gospels.
Jesus was quite a troublemaker. In fact, I'm thinking the Bush
administration would have a special place for Jesus were the swarthy
Nazarene to take up his ministry today in the U.S. of A.--in a cell with
other Middle Eastern men awaiting deportation.
Let's recall what the Jesus of the Gospels espoused. "When you give a
banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you
will be blessed, because they cannot repay you," the sandal-wearing
rabble-rouser was known to say.
That sounds pretty good, but it makes you realize that JC would never have
reached "Ranger" or "Pioneer" status in the Bush fund-raising machine.
Then, of course, there's Jesus' encounter with the rich ruler who said he
was a righteous man because he'd followed the Ten Commandments since his
youth (though he gave no indication that he'd ever erected a monument
dedicated to them in a public place).
Jesus told the ruler: "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you
own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in
heaven; then come, follow me."
When the ruler started looking glum, Jesus responded with his famous kicker:
"How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for
someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Holy class warfare! No wonder Republicans have switched out the Jesus of the
Gospels for a low-rent moralizer preoccupied with what other people are
doing with their bodies.
I've no intention of turning this column into a Sunday school lesson, so
I'll ease up on the Bible quotes. But go ahead and read the Gospels for
yourself, and see if you can reconcile the Jesus you encounter in those
texts with the Jesus the Religious Right wields as a battle-ax.
If you're a thoughtful, independent-minded person, I'll bet you read the
Gospels and wonder: Where in America does this Jesus dwell?
Where in America is the Jesus who sides with the poor and the outcasts?
Where in America is the Jesus who disdains those who wear their piousness on
their sleeves? Where in America is the the Jesus with the prophetic voice,
the radical who dares to tell the powerful what they don't want to hear?
Is he in the pews that fill every Sunday morning with the smug and
complacent? Is he in a political party that fights for tax cuts for the rich
while neglecting the needs of decent, hard-working Americans? Is he among
the "God-and-country" demagogues who push an idolatrous nationalism and who
see military service as the supreme form of sacrifice?
Your questions might not end there. You may observe that other things are
missing from our fashionable "moral values" rhetoric.
You may, for example, notice the absence of any critique of an economic
system that turns Jesus' birthday into an opportunity to jump-start consumer
spending. Or any critique of corporate control of the public's airwaves,
which helps ensure the culture is saturated with sexuality and violence that
appeal to the lowest common denominator but generate huge profits.
Where is the righteous conservative Christian politician who makes these
things campaign issues, who talks about them as moral issues?
I have no doubt that the Christian right and their leader, George W. Bush,
are sincere about their faith. But I also have no doubt--to paraphrase one
of America's pre-eminent theologians, Stanley Hauerwas--that sincerity has
precious little to do with Christianity.
This "moral values" talk doesn't do much to sustain Christianity, either.
The phrase is as banal as the hacks (of both the political and journalistic
variety) who are busy fetishizing it.
For political operatives, the phrase's beauty lies in its meaningless. It
can be made to mean anything, and, in a culture with no meaningful moral
narratives, it can be turned into a cudgel that's useful for political ends
but has nothing to do with any coherent religious tradition.
In the spiritual vacuum that exists in this country, the Christian right is
well-positioned to argue that its menagerie of fears and chauvinisms--piled
into a box labeled "moral values"--constitutes a serious moral narrative. It
doesn't, but the Religious Right's contribution to the denigration of
Christianity will continue unabated until other Christian communities come
up with a compelling alternative.
The trouble is, our society seems to lack the kind of exemplars who could
build that alternative. What we need are the spiritual descendants of Martin
Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, people who are willing to endure the enmity
and scorn of the political establishment and mainstream culture.
Maybe those people are out there, but I don't see them. That's why I'm not
optimistic about the survival of the Christian tradition in our culture.
What many view as a great spiritual revival looks a lot to me like another
stage of rot in American Christianity's corpse.
Can the cadaver rise up? It doesn't seem hopeful. In contemporary America,
the Jewish Palestinian whom many call their messiah has become just another
Middle Easterner to be ignored or reviled.
Rick Merceir is a writer and editor for The Free Lance-Star. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.