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 …

Jon Hatch is a theologian, educator, and post-conflict expert. He blogs at http://reflectionsforthursdays.blogspot.com/