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Parini writes: "Very little in the actual teaching put forward by Jesus would support the political philosophy of the Christian right in 21st-century America."

'The narrowness and hypocrisy of the Christian right upsets me.' (photo: The Daily Beast)
'The narrowness and hypocrisy of the Christian right upsets me.' (photo: The Daily Beast)


Taking Back Christianity From the Religious Right

By Jay Parini, The Daily Beast

01 April 18


Very little in the actual teaching put forward by Jesus would support the political philosophy of the Christian right in 21st-century America.

ince the early seventies, with the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, the Christian right has been on the prowl, adding grievance to grievance, aligning themselves with the Republican Party and its Teapot wing. 

The Christian right had long, of course, been gathering steam in the South in response to the Civil Rights movement—there is a dark story there, with prejudice rooting in distorted Biblical arguments—but the mass turn of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians into the realm of politics has been at full strength only in the past four decades.  Their influence on the 2016 election of Donald Trump was noteworthy, signaling a high point of hypocrisy on their part.  It didn’t matter that Trump was an unhinged philanderer, a braggart whose own life and example was a mockery of Christian values—as long as he delivered a reliably anti-abortion and anti-gay rights judge to replace Antonin ScaliaNeil Gorsuch was their man, and Trump delivered.

The narrowness and hypocrisy of the Christian right upsets me, as I’m myself a Christian.  That my faith has been miserably sideswiped by this particular eighteen-wheeler is disconcerting; but I sense that their movement has begun to burn out.  Certainly the statistics bear this out. The religious right is waning, and fewer and fewer young people belong to any religion at all.  The vast majority of my parent’s generation, the so-called Silent Generation, identified as Christians: 85 percent.  Just over half of Millennials do.  

Unlike other well-educated northeastern progressives, I don’t dismiss evangelicals and fundamentalists (they’re not the same, although their beliefs often mesh) as an unthinking herd who cling desperately to their guns and Bibles.  I grew up among them, and I respect them one-on-one.  My father was a Baptist preacher, and I attended camps and revival meetings through my eighteenth year.  I still respond warmly to the hymns of my childhood, and I felt sad when Billy Graham died recently.  I heard him preach countless times, even met him once.  He was a sincere and thoughtful man whose views in the course of many decades broadened.  Indeed, in a television interview he once suggested that God was compassionate and would surely “save” those outside of the narrow confines of his own faith-brand.  (Billy was vastly more broad-minded than his son, Franklin, who has taken over the reins.) 

By the time I entered college in 1966, I had begun to change my ideas about the meaning of Christianity and the example of Jesus. The chaplain of the small college I attended was a passionate thinker and activist, and he led profound discussions of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, drawing a clutch of like-minded students around him. I began to see that Christianity, at its core, was about personal transformations that led one in the direction of nonviolent protest against nuclear war, against colonial actions abroad, against militarism of all kinds. Jesus became, for me, a profound spiritual master who wished us to change swords into plowshares, urging us to turn the other cheek when struck, to find and serve God in others. I began to focus on his commandments to his followers: love God, and love your neighbors as yourselves. [Mark 12:30-31] These were, indeed, his only commandments, and they pretty well summarize Christian thinking.

The example of Christ, as I saw it, was instructive. He came from the working classes, from the equivalent of peasant stock in Galilee, a remote area of Palestine. He walked and preached in the countryside, avoiding cities for the most part (with the exception of Jerusalem, the center of Temple worship, a place important for every Jew). His associates were working men and women, often peasants and farmers, not scholars or wealthy aristocrats. He drew on rural metaphors in his parables. He spoke to outcasts easily and often: lepers and whores, the poor, the lame. He celebrated the meek, the mild, the peacemakers. He had himself been a refugee—if we can believe the tale of his origins as it appears in Matthew’s gospel: his family had been forced out of the country, forced to hide out in Egypt until the wrath of the King Herod subsided.

Jesus allied himself with refugees from political and religious oppression. He was drawn to those who lived on the edges of society, and lived among them. He traveled with women as well as men; indeed, it’s easy to forget that so many of his associates were female, including Mary Magdalen, the first person to bear witness (according to the Gospel of John) to his resurrection. The early church was, remarkably, led by strong and powerful women: Phoebe, Lydia, Prisca and Junia. The key message of early Christianity, which came directly from Jesus through Paul, his apostle, was that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female.” [Galatians 3:28] This is the radical core of Christian doctrine, the idea of equality, the erasing of racial, class, and gender boundaries.

Above all else, Jesus was never punitive. In the eighth chapter of John’s gospel, we encounter the story of the woman “taken in adultery.” She is seized by the scribes and Pharisees and brought to Jesus, asking for his judgment. According to Jewish tradition, she deserved death by stoning. Capital punishment was the only punishment they could imagine for such wickedness. But Jesus replied: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” [John 8:7] This attitude is echoed in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says emphatically: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”[Matthew 7:1]

Jesus was quite clear about the accumulation of worldly goods: you should avoid this habit. Indeed, he saw wealth as a stumbling block to salvation, saying it was “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.”  [Matthew 19:23-24] Again and again, he tells those who come to him to give up their possessions and follow him.  He believed that if one cast one’s bread upon the waters (as we read in the first verse of Ecclesiastes 11), it would come back us “after many days.”  Extreme generosity was his mode of being:  if your neighbor wants your shirt, give him your coat as well.

I love the idea of Jesus as generous teacher, a man inspired by the spirit who sought to lift up those around him, and who modeled grace in suffering and death. His resurrection was not a literal resuscitation but something more astonishing, a transformation that cannot be understood by those locked in the flesh, in world-time. Notice that all of those who met Jesus after the resurrection did not recognize him. To see him, post-life, is to refigure him, and to begin to see your own life in a different way as well, open to transformation.

All Christian thinking is resurrection thinking: it’s about daily resurrection of the spirit, about moving into the eternal moment, which transcends the limits of ordinary time. It’s about practice, too: the benefits of group worship, the opening of the mind and heart in prayer and meditation.

The best summary of Christian teaching will be found in the Sermon on the Mount, as contained in the Chapters 5-7 of Matthew, where Jesus presents himself as a radical Jew who rejects violence (including capital punishment) in the most profound ways: “ You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” [Matthew 5:38-42]

Very little in the actual teaching put forward by Jesus here would support the political philosophy of the Christian right, with its worship of military might or its obsession with capital punishment. But it’s probably too much to ask them to consider what Jesus actually said or contemplate a spiritual life that treasures independence of thought, inviting the faithful to read the scriptures closely in a critical way.

Not long before his death, I debated Christopher Hitchens, one of the leading New Atheists, at a book fair in Pennsylvania, and I recall saying that what I most dislike is literal thinking, whether it takes the form of Christian fundamentalism or atheism. These are, as I argued that night, two sides of the same coin. I explained that I wanted to move from a literal to a symbolic level of thought. This is, indeed, what any Christian should try to do, and it’s what I have tried to do myself over the past decades.

I’ve written two books arguing for a mythic view of Christianity: Jesus: The Human Face of God (2013) and, recently, The Way of Jesus:  Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life. In both, I’ve made a conscious effort to imagine what a symbolic Christianity might actually look like. Rudolf Bultmann, the great German theologian, famously wished to “de-mythologize” Jesus, but I’ve been trying to re-mythologize him, returning to myth as mythos, a story that isn’t just true but which is especially true, with contours that have resonance and can help us to understand our lives.

A myth is a tear in the fabric of reality, and immense psychic energies pour through these openings. To live without this abundance is, in my view, to endure a life without depth, cut off from sources that we ignore or reject largely because the language of religion has become so offensive. I’ve made an effort to frame and explain a view of Christianity that grows out of my own evangelical upbringing—my awareness of how important a spiritual practice can be in the work of self-transformation—but which digs deeply into the Jesus of scriptures, looking without fear at the contradictions in the gospel stories, the moral complications and consequences of his teachings, seeing in the Jesus movement a way forward into a life of compassion, a life rooted in the deep soil of the wisdom tradition.

It’s high time that progressive thinkers took back Christianity from the right—from literal thinkers who misread the gospels, and who argue from their own political prejudices in ways that distort what Jesus, the Prince of Peace, actually preached.


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0 # Depressionborn 2018-04-01 21:47
Christianity is simply the Cross. Religion is man's attempt to get right with God.
 
 
+24 # Jim at Dr.Democracy on Facebook 2018-04-01 23:29
Long past time, I agree. Thank you for your efforts to restore Christianity toward the teachings of Christ as communicated in the books of the New Testament.

You are on target regarding the perverted uses made of Christ's teachings for political purposes and the personal gain of phony preachers. They mislead so many in this country.
 
 
+4 # Depressionborn 2018-04-02 09:36
Quoting Jim at Dr.Democracy on Facebook:
Long past time, I agree. Thank you for your efforts to restore Christianity toward the teachings of Christ as communicated in the books of the New Testament.

You are on target regarding the perverted uses made of Christ's teachings for political purposes and the personal gain of phony preachers. They mislead so many in this country.

For sure Jim at.
https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/2-Timothy-3-2/
For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;Having a form ...
 
 
+1 # futhark 2018-04-02 13:01
It appears that Paul the Apostle had some kind of foreknowledge of Donald Trump, as his description is just about letter perfect.
 
 
+1 # Lgfoot 2018-04-02 19:39
I guess he saw Drumpf and the GOP coming. Of course, he would, being omniscient and whatnot.
 
 
+5 # hectormaria 2018-04-02 07:23
If Man has 'free will', then God is not really in control; Man is, for he can decide his own destiny- probably why, being a good Christian has never been easy for Mankind. And, it seems it is getting to be more and more difficult because, in general, humanity is losing its sense of righteousness- it has been distorted into one of selfishness, of vindictiveness and the denigration of 'Others'. Many use their religion to exclude not to be inclusive; to hate and deprecate not love; to be aggressive and greedy not humble. Now-a-days, any sign of considering the other's point of view is considered as a sign of weakness, not of moral strength. I shutter to image what would happen to Jesus if He was living today and preaching for people to turn the other cheek. The denigration, the threats He would be showered with would be unbelievable. What humans need is for the Lord to come and give us all a good swift kick in the rear and re-direct us to do His will.
 
 
+13 # librarian1984 2018-04-02 11:01
Evangelicals claim to be reborn but it's more a matter of regressing to the Old Testament, a disingenuous way of saying 'Jesus told me to reject his teachings'.

Perhaps there is some medium path between prosperity theology and liberation theology, but I'd rather they hash it out amongst themselves and keep away from state issues.
 
 
+4 # Depressionborn 2018-04-02 21:05
Quoting librarian1984:
Evangelicals claim to be reborn but it's more a matter of regressing to the Old Testament, a disingenuous way of saying 'Jesus told me to reject his teachings'.

Perhaps there is some medium path between prosperity theology and liberation theology, but I'd rather they hash it out amongst themselves and keep away from state issues.

"reborn" seems to more properly translate as "born from above", whatever that means. Strong's concordance is helpful.
(we all have a right to speak up, atheist or Christian, however dumb we might be.) Besides, the State could use some help?
 
 
+3 # librarian1984 2018-04-04 08:31
The state sure needs morality but that doesn't necessarily correlate with religiosity.

I hitched a ride with a family years ago. They were all excited their 3-year old had just been 'reborn'. They were as creepy as anybody I ever caught a ride with, and that's saying something.
 
 
+9 # dbrize 2018-04-02 12:57
The objection to Puritans is not that they try to make us think as they do, but that they try to make us do as they think.

H.L. Mencken
 
 
0 # Depressionborn 2018-04-05 21:11
Quoting dbrize:
The objection to Puritans is not that they try to make us think as they do, but that they try to make us do as they think.

H.L. Mencken

yep, dbrize, Puritans must have been socialist
 
 
0 # Benign Observer 2018-04-06 10:37
With you, D, I often wish I had a 'groan' button in addition to 'up' and 'down' 8^D
 
 
0 # Depressionborn 2018-04-06 19:03
you are very observant, thanks. You think like Puritans.
 
 
+5 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-04-03 07:33
This author is right -- the model for christians should be Jesus, not the vengeful and warlike god of the old testament. Jesus and the religion of his apostles who followed him were not associated with the Jewish religion. They are heretics and were persecuted by Jews. They had converted to a variety of Greek mystery religions that had been sweeping the eastern Mediterranean world. It was not until the 200s that religious scholars like Clement of Alexandria and his student Origin that the link between Christianity and the Old Testament was made.

Christians who understand this, reject the Old Testament. It is a religious/histo rical text of a particular tribe of people. There are hundreds or thousands of these around the world. It has nothing in common with the religious ideas in the New Testament and Christianity.

The vengeful and warlike god of the Old Testament is politically useful to the right wing everywhere. But it is not religion. It is politics.
 
 
0 # DongiC 2018-04-03 13:49
RR, do you mean that Yahweh was a politician? I think he was a bit more and that the Evangelicos are in for quite a surprise come judgment day. The Lord is mighty hard on hypocrites and phonies and these bible thumpers are stranger than a three dollar bill.
 
 
+4 # laborequalswealth 2018-04-03 11:31
Nice try but religion is little more than a way to politically control those who have been beaten down by the rich and powerful. It may have served a spiritual purpose once, but it is now the path to utter destruction.

Religion doesn't bring people together - it tears them apart. Just take a gander at what is happening in the Middle East right now.

As for Billy Graham - the fact that he had the usual charm of a psychopath is no surprise. And most people don't look behind that to the war-mongering, poor bashing, multi-millionai re that Graham became while preaching his nasty version of Christianity. Billy actually advised TWO Presidents - Truman and Nixon - to USE ATOMIC BOMBS ON NO KOREA AND VIETNAM. Some "Christian."

The Grahams are just a pack of moral maggots in the rotting corpse of "religion."
 
 
+4 # coexist 2018-04-04 13:42
Religion doesn't bring people together - it tears them apart. Just take a gander at what is happening in the Middle East right now.

Religion is inherently divisive, compelling its adherents to say, "WE are right. THEY are wrong."
 
 
0 # DongiC 2018-04-04 04:25
Billy Graham says, "OUCH!"
 
 
+2 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-04-04 08:23
The democratic party "liberals (not real liberals, by the way) have allowed republican to take over Christians, the working class, and white middle class. That's how republicans win. Democratic partly "liberals" only have upwardly mobile whites, Hollywood liberals, Silicon valley, and African Americans.

But republicans are making inroads into the Africans American and Latino votes.

This is all just stupid on the part of democratic party "liberals." Real liberals should endorse christianity, the working class, and many others.
 
 
0 # Benign Observer 2018-04-06 10:40
Both parties have dwindling support but they're being artificially propped up by crooked rules that protect the status quo, same as corporations. There's no 'free market'. They're all coddled and subsidized and protected.
 

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