Rescuing Jesus from Jesusland
Issue #72, February 2005
On the morning after the 2004 Presidential election, I sat down with the writings of Thomas Jefferson. I had the depressing thought that, in an election in which Christian fundamentalists set the moral agenda, George W. Bush would have defeated the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Even in his own time, Jefferson was suspected of not being a true Christian. He was certainly not a fundamentalist Christian, but he was anxious to correct the impression that he entirely rejected the teachings of Christianity. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1803, President Jefferson wrote that his views of Christianity "are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself."
Jefferson went on to compare the moral doctrines of Jesus with those of the ancient pagan philosophers.
For Jefferson, the Greeks and Romans emphasized the virtues and obligations of citizenship. Their values were exclusive. In contrast, the values of Christianity were inclusive, extending to "the whole family of mankind" rather than drawing the line at the membership of a privileged class. Jesus, according to Jefferson, promoted "universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids." In the 2004 Presidential election, in which "moral values" emerged as a defining issue, patriotism outpolled benevolence, and the politics of exclusion carried more weight than the theology of inclusion.
Two days before the election, the Christian Coalition distributed millions of voter guides in churches around the country, promoting candidates, like President Bush, who support the Coalition's fundamentalist agenda. After the election, the president of the Christian Coalition, Roberta Combs, claimed the election as a major victory for American evangelicals, specifically citing the success of ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriages.
"We are pleased," Combs announced in a press release, "that both the executive branch and the legislative branch will be controlled by pro-family conservatives and that every one of the eleven state constitutional amendments to ban homosexual 'marriages' passed overwhelmingly."
It's interesting to search the Christian Coalition website and find that "Jesus" is mentioned only three times (as opposed to 48 results for "homosexual"). There are only five results for "love": two in items that attack the blessing of "committed relationships" between "homosexual lovers," one in a quotation from Lee Greenwood's song "God Bless the U.S.A.," one in a quotation from Mel Gibson about his movie The Passion of the Christ, and one in an item promoting abstinence education. In this latter, we learn that "abstinence programs teach that sexual happiness is inherently linked to intimacy, love and commitment-qualities found primarily within marriage."
Apart from all of the ironies here, it becomes clear that love - the radical love of Jesus Christ - is not high on the political agenda of the Christian Right. While the Christian Right self-righteously proclaims itself "pro-family," it seems tone deaf to Christ's own radical teaching about family. When his mother and brothers were pointed out to him in a crowd, he said, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." Christ was not interested in conservative definitions of family; he was interested in radical expressions of God's love.
Although the territory mapped out in red after the election has been called Jesusland, Jesus himself seems to dwell elsewhere. Liberals have already allowed Christian fundamentalists to define the issues in the 2004 Presidential election. It's a mistake for liberals to concede Christ to this evangelical right-wing when Christ's own message is off-the-map liberal in its inclusiveness and in its challenge to existing power structures and conservative pieties.
As Jefferson understood, it's also a mistake to pit Christianity against the Enlightenment. Jefferson himself, who included "the pursuit of happiness" among the unalienable human rights, saw that "the doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man." Jefferson wrote that "to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself is the sum of religion." Furthermore, he expressed his faith that this simple doctrine would thrive "in this blessed country of free inquiry and reason."
But in an editorial that appeared after the election, historian Garry Wills argued that the 2004 election was a defeat for the principles of the Enlightenment on which the United States was founded. Wills correctly sees Christian fundamentalism as the antithesis of Enlightenment principles in its intolerance and disregard for secular sciences. He asks: "Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?"
There are a number of prominent atheists who like to portray religion, and Christianity in particular, as a refuge for the weak-minded and superstitious. They point to doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection as proof that Christianity is for credulous fools who will likewise have no trouble believing that a substantive link exists between Iraq and al Qaeda. Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier, for example, holds up for ridicule "the 80 percent [of Americans] who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned."
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The intolerance of religious fundamentalism is met by the intolerance of scientific fundamentalism. One brand of fundamentalism denies that human beings evolved, while the other denies that human beings have any connection to the divine - or that the divine even exists.
Given a choice between Darwin and Christ, religious fundamentalists will always choose Christ. But this is a false choice. An acceptance of the truth of evolution, or of any other truth presented by the scientific method, does not conflict with the real fundamental teaching of Christianity, which is the power of Christ's reconciling love. The life of Christ teaches his followers to seek justice and peace in this world, not to expect (quoting Angier) "helium balloons and Breck hair for all" in the next.
Contrary to what Angier believes, the Resurrection is not about damning the laws of thermodynamics. It's about the victory of love over hatred and fear and the other powers of darkness. True Christian faith does not demand that Christians accept a Christ whose birth and death broke the laws of biology and physics. It does demand that Christians accept a Christ whose life broke the laws of intolerance and hatred, and who called on us to love.
There are still liberal Christians, although our numbers are dwindling, who refuse to concede Jesus to the fundamentalist inhabitants of Jesusland. We believe that the Jesus who spoke in parables of fig trees and mustard seeds taught us to read the Bible as an inspired metaphor for God's presence in Creation, not as a literal accounting of God's day-to-day operations. We believe that the sanctity of human life demands that we respect God's gift of choice, which enables us to be free moral agents. We believe that God leads us by love, not by coercion. We believe that our sexuality is also a gift from God, and that we dishonor that gift when we act against our God-given nature, whether that be gay or straight. We believe that a "culture of life" should not be narrowly defined as a culture which outlaws abortion, but broadly defined as a culture which cares for the natural environment that supports all life. We believe in the Prince of Peace, not the God of Vengeance.
Perhaps the hardest Christian truth is that, in the person of Christ, God humbled himself, and allowed himself to suffer and die. God did this because he loved the world. Bruce Bawer, author of Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, notes that fundamentalist Christians have trouble with humility and love. Love looks like weakness, and fundamentalists, he says, want a strong God who can smite their enemies. But Jesus told us to love our enemies. Without love, we become our enemies, matching them hatred for hatred.
As Garry Wills pointed out: "It is often observed that enemies come to resemble each other. We torture the torturers, we call our God better than theirs-as one American general put it, in words that the President has not repudiated." The retired Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong would say that Christ is simply one door through which human beings can enter into the presence of God. Spong writes: "If God is not a being but the Ground of All Being, the source of life and the source of love, then God surely cannot be contained in any religious system, nor can any people continue to live as if God were the tribal deity of their particular nation or group. Being, life, and love transcend all boundaries."
Christ is my door, as Mohammed and Buddha are doors for those who come from other faith traditions. When we pass through that door, we stand together in love.
How do we get to that place where such love is possible? In the wake of the 2004 Presidential election, liberal Christians need to work harder than ever to reclaim evangelism from the self-proclaimed evangelicals. We need to love fearlessly. We need get over the intellectual embarrassment we feel when we pronounce the name of Jesus Christ. I sometimes feel that my education, which allows me to read the New Testament in the original Greek, distances me from the message I read there. I've been trained in critical thinking, in skepticism, in the scientific method, and I have difficulty making that leap into my own faith. Intellectual arrogance often keeps me from hearing the voice of God, just as a different kind of arrogance allows fundamentalists to claim that they speak on God's behalf.
A month after the election, the most liberal of the mainline Protestant churches, the United Church of Christ (UCC), took a step toward reclaiming evangelism by launching a national advertising campaign that emphasizes the love and extravagant welcome of Jesus Christ. The first of two thirty-second television spots shows a pair of muscular bouncers turning people away from the doors of a church. A reassuring voice-over announces: "Jesus didn't turn people away; neither do we." The ad cuts to images of people of all ages and races, men and women, gay and straight, standing together as members of a United Church of Christ congregation.
Both CBS and NBC refused to air this advertisement because, according to the networks, it advocated same-sex relationships and was thus "too controversial." The ad was characterized in a news story circulated by the Associated Press as "seeking gays," as if its primary purpose were to recruit gays to the UCC. This is the kind of distortion through simplification typical of current cultural and political discourse in the United States. Choice becomes advocacy of baby-killing; an invitation to church becomes gay and lesbian propaganda. We have closed our minds and our hearts - and it's considered "too controversial" when a church points out that Jesus wants us to be open.
In America, the secular blues and the religious reds have separated out geographically, and have often migrated to ideological extremes. But Jesus never asked for a Jesusland. He asked that we open our hearts and minds and reach out to one another in love. He did not ask us to reach out only to those who are most like ourselves. He presents us with a challenge: to reach out and affirm our differences, that we all may be one.
This is not just the challenge of Jesus. It's also the challenge of Thomas Jefferson. It's the challenge of a democracy founded on the Enlightenment principles of equality, reason and human rights. It's a challenge for both red states and blue.
Rob Hardy has been a classics professor, a homemaker, and a freelance writer for Minnesota Public Radio. Currently, he tutors private Latin students and teach writing for a secular homeschool cooperative. His essays have appeared in journals ranging from the New England Review to Utopian Studies to Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. He's also an active member of his local United Church of Christ congregation, where he plays in the handbell choir and occasionally serves as a lay preacher.