It’s one of George Bernard Shaw’s better-known quotations: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”
Given the divisions that have been festering in our own country for quite a while, though, Shaw’s sentiments could arguably be updated. These days, we Americans are often the ones who are separated by a common language.
Such tensions become apparent when different groups use the same word in strikingly different ways—or when they view people in history in remarkably dissimilar ways.
Like the figure of Christ.
Given the statements of many prominent leaders in the GOP—sentiments that reflect intolerance and a dearth of compassion in many areas—one wonders how they can claim to espouse Christian views at all.
One central tenet of Jesus’s teaching is the Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” That precept is hardly reflected in right-wing attitudes toward the poor, disadvantaged minorities and refugees seeking to enter the United States.
So how can this circle be squared?
Three years ago, Professor Tony Keddie helped to shed light on this puzzle in his book Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels.
A professor of early Christian history, Keddie makes a persuasive case that Republican influencers have fashioned a portrait of Jesus in their own image over the past several decades—one that runs counter to what a close reading of the New Testament in its historical context actually reveals.
“Republican Jesus,” as he labels this construct, is a Christ who espouses limited government, lower taxes and business-friendly policies, while at the same time opposing government regulation and spending and frowning upon government support for the needy and downtrodden.
For Keddie, this portrait of a Republican Jesus originally appeared as a conservative response to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.
Church attendance, he notes, climbed in the late 1800s and into the beginning of the 20th century—but that trend went into reverse with the advent of the Great Depression.
Then came Roosevelt’s New Deal. Suddenly robust government programs arose and offered economic assistance that raised the hackles of many conservatives.
Some right-wing Christian leaders reacted by stitching together passages from the New Testament that seemed to buttress their opposition to FDR’s vision of an expanded role for government.
Central to the dissemination of Republican Jesus was James W. Fifield Jr., a minister in Los Angeles whose congregation included leaders of insurance, chemical and mining firms. It was Fifield who led the movement “to save corporations from the evils of the welfare state—collective bargaining rights, Social Security, corporate taxation and transparent business dealings.”
He helped to establish Spiritual Mobilization, an organization that aimed “to arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends towards pagan statism…which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.”
Not all Christians joined this cause, of course.
Keddie points out that progressive Protestants and Catholics supported FDR’s New Deal initiatives. Roosevelt’s programs dovetailed with some of the social ideas that they’d promulgated for many years.
Keddie goes on to document how later GOP administrations—notably those of Eisenhower and Reagan—opened the doors to conservative Christian leaders who espoused Fifield’s ideas and developed them further. Among them were Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, both of whom opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Which strategies did such ideologues use to assemble this Republican version of Jesus? Keddie identifies three key techniques:
“They garble the text by mistranslating or limiting the meaning of its words…they omit relevant parts of the text by extracting a verse from its literary context and sometimes cutting out sections of verses…and they patch this cut-up text together with other cut-up texts.”
The influence of Fifield and his cohorts remains palpable in our time.
Russell Moore, the editor of Christianity Today, recently expressed his concern about an emerging group of conservative Christians who view Christ’s teachings as being “too liberal.” When several pastors that Moore knew preached about the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s admonishment that one should “turn the other cheek,” some members of the congregation approached him and wanted to know where such “liberal talking points” were coming from. When the ministers noted that these were the words of Christ himself, they would counter: “That doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.”
During Donald Trump’s term as President, Bible study sessions took place each week in the White House, and they were often conducted by Ralph Drollinger, an evangelical minister. Drollinger’s organization, Capitol Ministries, had already been organizing such study groups for members of the House and the Senate. One such session maintained that “free market capitalism is God’s blueprint for growing a nation’s economy.”
Keddie goes to great lengths to establish, however, that nothing like modern capitalism existed in Christ’s own day. Nor does it make sense to posit that the United States is a Christian nation.
Years ago, as a guest student at the University of Tübingen in Germany, the author took part in a Bible study session in a nearby village. The attendees were farmers, shopkeepers and students. When it came to Biblical interpretation, none of them had a theological or scholarly background. What they did have, however, was a set of reference books—Greek-German dictionaries, concordances and the like—and a profound desire to uncover and grasp the sense of the verses under consideration.
It’s hard to imagine a starker contrast to the Republican Jesus movement than that circle of believers and the rigor that fueled their impressive efforts.