A focus group of 16 Iowa Republicans was featured on PBS Newshour last week. When the moderator asked the group, “Is it possible to be a liberal and at the same time have a deep Christian faith,” everyone said, “No.”
When I’m with my friends, most of whom are progressives, and the conversation turns to MAGA voters and religion, what I hear repeatedly is, “I don’t understand how anyone can claim to be a Christian and vote for Trump.”
It’s one more example of how polarized we are in this nation, but it led me to ask the question, “Which Jesus are you talking about?”
Here’s the problem on which I want to shed light: if both Evangelical and Progressive Christians claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, why do they describe that following so differently?
To that end I will employ the assistance of Sigmund Freud — who was definitely not a Christian. From his Enlightenment, rational perspective, he claimed that believers in God are merely projecting on a heavenly screen their own wishes.
Freud was right in the sense that we Christians are tempted to create Jesus in our own image rather than the other way around. We tend to frame our picture of Jesus with our own ideologies. We cherry-pick from the Jesus narrative words and actions that support our world views
In this column, I’ll start with white evangelicals. Since they comprise Donald Trump’s base, the two categories are almost interchangeable.
To begin, white evangelicals declare that, to be saved, people have to be born again. The Billy Graham Association explains that the term means “that one turns from sin and, with his or her whole heart, trusts in Christ as personal Savior and Lord. God makes that one a new person.”
So far, so good. Folks can quibble about the details, but that is more or less what Jesus did say.
But because the devil is in the details, let’s look at how evangelicals, as Trump voters, act out that original spiritual rebirth. Let’s see if what Jesus actually said and did squares with MAGA doctrine and action.
Guns: Can you imagine in your wildest fantasies picturing Jesus carrying an assault rifle?
Rights: Jesus never used the word or the concept. The concept of rights came into the Western vocabulary as a result of the Enlightenment about 300 years ago. Jesus showed concern for the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable big time, but he did not talk about them as having “rights.” Instead he gave the commandment to love. In the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, voluntary servitude is a virtue.
Instead of declaring that we have the right to bear arms, the Jesus question would be: Is that what love dictates?
Freedom: An important concept for Trump voters. What I hear them saying when they use the word is, “Don’t you Eastern, liberal elites tell me how to live. Don’t impose your world view on me.”
The problem with using Jesus in defense of that view of freedom is that he declared that if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. In other words, obedient following, paradoxically, makes you free. The challenge is in choosing the right leader to follow.
LGBTQ: Jesus never used the term. There is no “proof text” in the gospels on what he thought about the issue that is so fraught these days. On the one hand, he seemed to assume the traditional, binary gender identity model. On the other hand, his compassion for folks living on the margins of society seemed to trump his judgment of their behavior. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Big Government: Jesus seemed to assume the legitimacy of the Roman Empire! He apparently thought that rulers were there to keep order in society. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In fact, he did not resist the unjust execution of an innocent man, namely himself, by a governor who lacked character. Trump and his followers, meanwhile, seem to think of big government per se as evil.
Big government might be evil, but don’t call on Jesus as your star witness in the court of public opinion.
MAGA: I can’t see Jesus carrying an AK 47. Neither can I see him wearing a Make Israel Great Again T-shirt. I can see him wearing a T-shirt with the words, “Thy Kingdom Come.”
Patriotism: Somehow, evangelicals make “Love America” a corollary of “Love God.” The problem with that theological logic is you can’t use Jesus’ words or actions to support it. He said of a Roman Centurion that he had greater faith than anyone in Israel, and a Samaritan is held up as an example of altruism.
Jesus seems to be saying that loving one’s country is fine, but thinking that America is God’s chosen nation cannot be traced back to having originated with Jesus.
In a future column, I will attempt to describe how progressive Christians view Jesus through their own ideological lenses.