Letter From America- Christianity without ‘Jesus’: American Religion in the Age of Trump

Redneck Jesus

‘Redneck Jesus’, source: http://matthewpaulturner.com/2010/03/12/redneck-jesus-and-more-jesus-pictures/

Since the inception of a distinctly right-wing Evangelical Christian spirituality and politics in the 70s and 80s- and particularly now in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to power, with unwavering support from so many on the Christian Right- many have pointed out how little of that movement’s beliefs and practices have to do with the actual words and actions of the person of Jesus;

Jesus, they point out, was a Middle Eastern man, when Evangelicals look with distain and suspicion on immigrants and foreigners;

Jesus, they point out, was a refugee fleeing political violence with his family in Egypt, when Evangelicals demand refugees be kept out of the country;

Jesus, they point out, never condemned- or even mentioned- homosexuality, when Evangelicals seem to mention nothing else;

Jesus, they point out, fed the hungry and healed the sick, when Evangelicals loudly demand that school meals programmes for low-income children and health care benefits be slashed.

Needless to say, many- Christians and non-Christians alike- find this a huge irony and a massive hypocrisy. Christians are followers of Jesus, right? How can you claim to follow Jesus and ignore just about everything the Gospels maintain he did and said?

Actually, it’s easier than you might imagine.

I’m going to float a theological idea here- that’s what theologians do, after all- that I think might explain this conundrum:

Conservative Evangelical Christians don’t follow ‘Jesus’; they follow ‘Christ’.

‘Hang on’, you say. ‘Aren’t they the same person?’ Bear with me.

I think conservative Evangelical Christians draw a clear distinction between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’, to the point where they cease to be a single person and need to be understood  as two.

Of these two persons, Conservative Evangelical Christians aren’t particularly interested in the person of Jesus, the actual flesh-and-blood Palestinian Jewish man described in the Gospels who lived, worked, ate, drank, and taught. I’m not saying that they deny this man’s existence, nor do I mean that they care nothing for him and certainly not that they oppose him. He just doesn’t factor into their religious existence to any great degree.

The person that they truly care about is ‘Christ’, a totally mystical, supernatural figure that- through his death and resurrection- provided salvation and triumph for those who believe. ‘Jesus’ was a means to an end; there needed to be a human Jesus to die and then rise triumphantly. Once salvation is assured, ‘Jesus’ disappears from the narrative.

And that’s not that surprising. The Gospels present ‘Jesus’ as confusing and messy. He associated with the wrong people; he said strange things that threw traditional understandings of society, religion, and culture into question; he broke rules and railed against the established regulators; he condemned the wrong people and refused to condemn those that were usually condemned; He insisted that the way to be truly great was to stop dreaming of ruling and commanding and think about how best to serve others…

Worst of all, ‘Jesus’ seems to upend all accepted notions of God and divine love, casting the Kingdom of God not as a quid pro quo of rules kept and salvation achieved, but as a wedding banquet where everyone is invited, the poor and marginalized are given the best seats, and the ‘important’, ‘privileged’ guests are kept outside waiting…

For conservative Evangelical Christians, ‘Jesus’ is dead… and he most definitely didn’t rise from the grave; it was ‘Christ’ who rose from the grave.

‘Christ’ is simple and straightforward. Gone are all of ‘Jesus’s’ confusing bits about love, inclusion, taking care of people, and the first being last and the last being first. If ‘Jesus’ was a carpenter and a ‘friend of sinners’, ‘Christ’ is a triumphant king on a white horse, a conqueror, a champion, a winner. The salvation ‘Christ’ offers is black and white, yes or no, heaven or hell, no second chances.

And make no mistake: it’s not ‘Jesus’ who’s coming back at the end of the age; it will be ‘Christ’. And he will be in a decidedly vengeful mood. He won’t feed anyone, heal anyone, or welcome anyone.  To the unvarnished relief of many conservative Christians, he’ll be back to eternally destroy anyone who ever didn’t agree with them, resisted them, or mocked them.  You had your chance to meet ‘Jesus’, they reason; now, you’ll get ‘Christ’…

Conservative Evangelical Christians- certainly those who’ve thrown in with the Trump rump of the Republican Party- don’t want to be like ‘Jesus’; they want to be like ‘Christ’.

This isn’t Christianity in any recognisable form. It’s actually a rather modern American version of an ancient heresy called Monophysitism, which held that Christ’s divinity completely dominates and overwhelms his humanity; orthodox Christian doctrine maintains that Christ’s nature is fully human and fully divine.

What I’m describing is kind of like Monophysitism on steroids; it practically declares ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ two different people, with the former taking a definite back seat to the latter.

The Christianity of the Trump Christians only makes sense if ‘Jesus’ is taken out of it altogether and replaced by something more akin to a narrow-minded superhero with an anger management disorder… so that’s the ‘Christ’ they’ve constructed.

So don’t be surprised if Trump’s Evangelical supporters aren’t much like ‘Jesus’; they were never that into him anyway …

  • npbinni

    It’s been a long time since I have read such a diatribe of half truths and innuendo. This article completely misrepresents America’s evangelical Christians. A cruel libel. Disgraceful. The best thing to do is just turn the other cheek.

  • NotNowJohnny

    On the other hand you could point out the errors and clarify how it really is. Otherwise why bother responding at all? We’re all none the wiser.

  • Demo44

    Hi, American Evangelical Christian here from a metropolitan South. I did indeed vote for Trump in the general election, but only after vigorously opposing him in the Republican primary. This article is remarkable hateful towards American Christians and doesn’t even attempt to understand their perspective, instead engaging in the most simplistic of stereotypes and scaremongering. It’s remarkable a piece like this was published in a website devoted to the politics of small, misunderstood community with a long history of religious violence. Say what you will about American evangelicals, we haven’t bombed anyone recently or organized murder squads targeting anyone for being from a different religion. You have no idea the amount of evangelical donations, time, and lobbying put in place on behalf of refugees in the United States, nor do you understand that the portions of the GOP pushing for the harshest cuts to social services come from less religious libertarian quarters of the party (in an extremely rough sense, it’s like comparing George Osbourne and the DUP). And of course you have no idea whatsoever about the deep, personal relationships with Jesus Christ that I have seen and experienced among many evangelicals of every race. This piece is simply appalling prejudice against an unfashionable group of foreigners you dislike.

  • Demo44

    1. American evangelicals don’t believe anything of the sort about a separation between Jesus and Christ. The bits of half-baked theology at the end are simply attempts to justify the ridiculous bigotry that pervades the rest of the piece.

    2. The author has zero understanding of American political dynamics surrounding religion. American evangelicals used to be roughly divided between the two parties, with a slight tilt towards the Democrats until 1980. However, Democrats largely expelled pro-lifers from the party and have increasingly attacked evangelical institutions, trying to deny public funding to religious social service agencies and attacking the accreditation of religiously affiliated universities. When one party is fundamentally hostile to a group’s interests they tend not to vote for them.

    3. The author has even less understanding about the internal dynamics of the Republican Party. Evangelicals were largely hostile towards Trump during the primaries, and Trump won the nomination by appealing to irreligious and Catholic areas. Compare his performance in metropolitan Atlanta vs. New York City. Evangelical lobbying organizations in Washington are pro-refugee and are not focused on cuts to social programs, and many of them openly oppose those cuts.

  • Macca

    Hi Demo, any links to this? I’d be very interested to read up on this and get to understand where you are coming from.

  • lizmcneill

    So Trump and his alt-right followers have nothing to do with, for example, that guy who stabbed three people on a train for defending a couple of young girls from anti-Muslim abuse? You don’t feel slightly uncomfortable at backing someone who stirred that up? What indication has Trump given that he has any care for Christian values?

  • Demo44

    Actually, they don’t have anything to do with that particular attack, which was performed by a man with mental issues who strangely expressed repeated support for Bernie Sanders. One of the two men who died defending those Muslim girls was a former Republican candidate for public office in Oregon. I identify with that man and not the barbarous murderer, and have worked within my local Republican party to make sure alt-rightists don’t try to infiltrate formal party structures.

    As for Trump, he couldn’t care less about the finer points of Christianity and he has an appalling personal life. My vote for him was less about supporting him than it was about opposing the election of Hillary Clinton, who has expressed repeated animosity towards my values. Trump on the other hand clearly understands where his bread is buttered and has actually spent more time and effort listening to the concerns of evangelical Christians than deeply religious men like George W. Bush. He understands the transactional nature of politics better than most American politicians.

  • lizmcneill

    And Trump’s hate-spewing isn’t against your values? You are allowed to abstain from voting.

  • Demo44

    Like I said, I opposed Trump during the primaries, donating, volunteering, and voting for Marco Rubio, who better fits my views and values. But I faced a choice: A Hillary Clinton-selected Supreme Court, which has lifetime appointments and the power to strike down all state-level attempts to place modest restrictions on abortion. She also expressed intent to end all federal restrictions on abortion on demand. Or Trump, a loud-mouth and poor administrator who nonetheless is constrained by a broader Republican Party where my views and community are a valued part of the political coalition. Not voting is the same as endorsing the other side in my view-I had to choose. It wasn’t a tasteful choice, but I don’t regret it at all.

  • Demo44

    Anything in particular that you think needs further explanation? I hesitate to link to most of the pieces explaining evangelical support for Trump, which tend to be overly enthusiastic about Trump or condescending to Trump supporters with little in between. Also, few of them describe my situation-I’m fairly young, have a post-graduate education, live in an urban area, and voted in favor of gay civil marriage in a recent referendum in my state. I prefer moderate attempts to solve the never-ending American ‘culture war’ through respect for minority viewpoints, both LGBT and religious. But I’m strongly pro-life, fiscally right of center, and as a lawyer place high value on having a relatively restrained court system. I’ll try and stop by here and drop off a link to something that fits my views if I can find it.

  • lizmcneill

    The Republican party has shown no will or power to constrain Trump. And their own values so far have been demonstrated in attempting to remove health coverage and benefits from the poor to give a tax cut to the rich. Not sure where the support for that is in the Bible.

  • lizmcneill

    Oh, and if you want to reduce abortion, why not campaign to make reliable/long-acting contraception available for free to any woman who wants it? Instead of which Republican party politics reduce access to contraception. It’s not logical.

  • Demo44

    If it doesn’t sound logical, that’s probably because what you’re saying simply isn’t true at all. There are several Republican bills that would make contraception available at reduced cost and over-the-counter instead of requiring a prescription. Those bills are blocked by Democrats who want to keep the scare tactic of contraception access on the table. Similarly, there are zero attempts to reduce access to contraception. That’s an absurd accusation. Evangelical Christians do not oppose 99% of contraception methods, after all.

  • Demo44

    Are you serious? The major political story in the last 5 months here has been that Trump hasn’t been able to get things through Congress or the courts because Republicans won’t unite around his ideas. Congressional Republicans strongly disagree with him on trade, on defense, and are largely ignoring him as they develop ideas on healthcare and taxes. Republican judges block some of his executive orders. Internally, Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson push back on his ideas and limit the likes of Bannon.

    And finally, unless you are an evangelical Christian I frankly refuse to be lectured about what my religion does or does not say. I wouldn’t dream of telling an Catholic Irishman what ‘real’ Irish Republicanism should entail, so I have no idea why people who don’t believe in my religion feel they can lecture me about what my faith or politics should say.

  • lizmcneill

    Would the reduced cost be covered by insurance? Also, methods such as IUDs and implants can’t be available on prescription because they need a medical professional to put them in place.

  • Demo44

    Out of pocket costs for over the counter medication are not covered by insurance generally in the United States but usually run below $20. Of course invasive surgeries would still require doctor sign-off. Under the AHCA contraception would remain an essential health benefit which would apply to all insurance policies except for religious organizations, like groups of nuns. States could waive that requirement but it is highly unlikely that any would do so. Anyway it’s kind of strange to be debating the details of access to contraception in America with someone from an entirely different country. I can’t imagine arguing with a British person about the proper method to fund social care for example or if and why Ireland should move to a free at the point of service system. I guess that’s the price of being the country where media attention is focused though.

  • Old Mortality

    There was a very interesting piece in the FT a couple of months ago on this very subject. https://www.ft.com/content/b41d0ee6-1e96-11e7-b7d3-163f5a7f229c?mhq5j=e2

  • radical_jonny

    Though I no longer identify as an Evangelical, this piece came out of my experiences, observations, and personal thoughts growing up in an Evangelical environment and working for an Evangelical organization for 15 years. That said, I never intended it to be a blanket condemnation of *all* Evangelicals or of the entire, diverse Evangelical movement… though reading back over it, I can certainly see how it could appear to be, and for that, I do apologize.

    If I’d gotten my thoughts out a bit more carefully, I’d have emphasized that this piece came out of a deep concern for *some* powerful Evangelical voices- some of them extremely influential people like Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Ralph Reed- who have invested a great deal of power, influence, and money vociferously supporting public policies that I and others find antithetical to the message and person of Jesus of Nazareth, and trying to square that circle for myself, if for no other reason than my sincere belief that it needs to be squared if Christian theology is to be done with integrity in our current context.

    Jon

  • lizmcneill

    I’e seen up to $50 a month quoted. Even $20 might be hard to find if you’re very poor.
    Who knows what the latest version of the ACHA has for health benefits as apparently it’s not going to be made public (not sure how that works), and if you don’t have health coverage you can’t see any doctor.

    People from countries outside the USA generally find it hard to get their heads around the concept that the richest country in the world doesn’t have universal health care.

  • lizmcneill

    If the ACHA, tax cuts, deportations of non-criminal undocumented immigrants and so on are the Republican party’s priorities, then they’re as bad as he is.

    I’m not an American evangelical, but I have the same Bible you do. And in NI we know a few things about old men screaming hatred to rallies. It has effects and they aren’t counteracted by wishy washy PR from other people in their party.

  • Kevin Stewart

    Looks like the author doesn’t get around much. The article assumes so many facts not in evidence that a thorough refutation is too laborious for me this morning. Nothing but holier than thou start to finish.

  • Smithborough

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Demo44

    I favor a somewhat more re-distributive state than most Republicans, but I’m perfectly fine with the deportation of some illegal immigrants. America accepts more legal immigrants than any other country on earth and we have a right to control our borders. Besides, British rhetoric on immigration is significantly to the right of American Republicans-even Corbyn takes a harsher line on freedom of movement than most of the GOP!

    On a broader note, if you think standard Republican policy points about a smaller government are ‘just as bad as Trump’ than you reveal that you would have found any other Republican president as distasteful as him, making your earlier exhortations that I should I have left my ballot blank over Trump’s obvious flaws look disingenuous.

  • Brian O’Neill

    That was a good read. Thanks for the link.

  • Macca

    Much obliged for the reply.