Two articles about Christianity and American politics caught my eye this week.
The first was a New York Magazine interview with someone named Jim, an alumnus of Liberty University, who now works as a pastor and therapist. Liberty University is the Southern Baptist school in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell, the well-known televangelist and right-wing troublemaker. Jim posted some anonymous remarks on Reddit in response to Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s recent speech at Liberty. Here’s the part New York Magazine quoted:
As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair — this Jew — and he proclaimed justice over us, he called us to account, for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful, and for abandoning the poor, the least of these, who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to.
Jim grew up supporting right-wing politicians, as so many evangelical Christians are taught to do. But he eventually realized that his politics conflicted with the Bible. He says that Bible study convinced him:
that the gospel of Christ is what he says it is in the Book of Luke. He says the messenger comes to bring good news to the poor, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. If our gospel is not good news to the poor, to the captives, to the indebted and the broken, then it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ…
The Bible talks about God destroying those who destroy the Earth and standing for the weak and the penniless. That same God was being displayed on our flags and in our songs as this warrior king who doesn’t like the Muslims and who doesn’t like the poor and who wants us to have free-market capitalism and no regulations. I thought that was inconsistent. This is the same God who designed … his theocratic government in Israel so that the poor were cared for. This is the same God that designs into the concept of ministry a tithe of 10 percent to care for others…
Jim is remaining semi-anonymous for the time being. He says he doesn’t want his patients or congregants caught up in controversy. Nevertheless, he’s going to continue explaining why it makes sense for an evangelical Christian to support Senator Sanders:
I’m calling my fellow Evangelicals to raise their eyes and to pay attention, to read their Bibles carefully, as I was taught to do in an Evangelical school. So many get their faith points from [right-wing TV personalities] Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, but if they would get their faith from Jesus, they would be surprised at how he does not fit into any box and flips the tables of the money-changers and stands with the adulterers and prevents the death penalty…
Bernie at Liberty, for me, struck such a nerve because he treated us like grown-ups. He presented the message thoughtfully, politely. He was warmhearted, he was jovial, he didn’t play any political games. He didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear. He was just plain, and it reminded me of John the Baptist.
But why does someone like Jim seem like such an outlier? Aren’t evangelical Christians the natural ally of right-wing politicians and Big Business?
No, not according to One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, a book by Kevin Kruse, Professor of History at Princeton. As explained in a review at the website of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Kruse argues that there was an organized effort in the 1950s to link religion and corporate capitalism. For example, a group called:
Spiritual Mobilization sought to rally clergymen to fight liberalism, arguing that the only political position compatible with Christianity was laissez-faire. They aimed to counter the ideas—summed up as the Social Gospel—that good Christians might have obligations to help the poor, that there was something spiritually problematic about the love of money, and that working to create a better and more egalitarian social order might be necessary to live a righteous life. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt had celebrated the expulsion of the money changers from the “temple of our civilization,” and called for replacing the “mad chase of evanescent profits” with a return to more noble social values. Spiritual Mobilization begged to differ, insisting instead that profit could be the cornerstone of a moral vision.
Spiritual Mobilization was funded by conservative businessmen and a number of corporations, including General Motors and Gulf Oil. Its leader “embraced his identity as a man who preached to the rich: “I have smiled when critics of mine have called me the Thirteenth Apostle of Big Business or the St. Paul of the Prosperous.”
Kruse says that:
… long before the 1970s, religious leaders … and the businessmen who backed them sought to politicize the country’s churches, seeing them as a natural and sympathetic base. Their concern was not social or sexual politics, but rather economics—they wanted to advance a libertarian agenda to undermine the economic program that became ascendant during the New Deal. This top-down Christianity in turn provided an image of the United States as an explicitly religious nation, creating a rhetoric that inspired the populist Christian conservatives of a later generation. When the men who built the religious right in the 1970s—such as Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority—issued their jeremiads about the United States as a fallen nation, they made the implicit case that the country had hewed more closely to faith before the 1960s. But in fact, Kruse suggests, the pumped-up image of America as a Christian nation had gained popularity only a decade before.
Before Jerry Falwell, there was the evangelist Billy Graham:
… one of his major concerns [was] the encroachment of the liberal state… Graham opposed the Marshall Plan and the welfare state, and attacked the Truman Administration for spending too much on each… [In 1951] Graham warned the audience at a North Carolina crusade that the country was no longer “devoted to the individualism that made America great,” and that it needed to return to the “rugged individualism that Christ brought” to humankind.
America has been a Christian nation for a long time in the sense that most Americans have thought of themselves as Christians and still do. The question is: what role should Christianity play in a our democracy? The Constitution requires separation of church and state, but people have the right to support politicians who share their religious ideals. This makes me wonder what America would be like if there were more Christians like Jim.