The rot in the body of American Christianity

Where in America does the loving Jesus of the Gospels dwell?

Where in America does the loving Jesus of the Gospels dwell?

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

I’ve compared what I read in the 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 USofA—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 claimed 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 essay 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 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 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 its 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 screwing 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.

Michael J. McCarthy, a Chico transplant, lives in Breckenridge, Colo. Contact him at: