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29 March 2024

The religious right doesn’t understand Jesus

So, at Easter, how should authentic followers respond?

By Michael Coren

Donald Trump told a conference of religious broadcasters in February that if re-elected as president he would not only “defend Christian values” but even Christian iconography. He informed the delegates that his opponents wanted “to tear down crosses where they can, and cover them up with social justice flags”. He continued, “every communist regime throughout history has tried to stamp out the churches, just like every fascist regime has tried to co-opt them and control them”. The hundreds of people gathered at the National Religious Broadcasters International Christian Media Convention in Nashville cheered at this.

Interestingly enough, as a devout Jewish man in the first-century, Jesus would have been vehemently opposed to religious depictions, and the cross was so feared and detested that Seneca wrote, “You must never mention crucifixion in polite company.” I’ve a feeling, however, that Donald doesn’t read that much Seneca.

What Trump said should come as no surprise of course. He knows his audience and his base. Around 80 per cent of white evangelicals supported him in 2016 and 2020, and while that support has been dented it remains high and also extremely politically active.

There have been dozens of columns and books written about the Christian right, several of them by shocked evangelicals who quite frankly should have seen all of this coming many years ago. It’s rather like those supporters of the Iraq War who are now incredulous that things didn’t go to plan, or Republicans who created the exact context and climate that enabled Trump, yet now weep at his popularity. 

The rise of the Christian right isn’t new but it’s been solidified in modern politics by seemingly exponential social change, such as the widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community and same-sex marriage, support for trans people, and women’s reproductive rights. That evolving tolerance is feared, and rejected as woke, by the very people who proclaim Jesus as their example. So, at Easter, how should authentic followers react? Followers, that is, of a man born to a family living near to poverty, to an unwed mother, and who, when he grew to adulthood, lived communally with former terrorists, collaborators, artisans and sex workers? Imagine them arriving at a conference of religious broadcasters in Nashville!

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On the so-called hot-button issues Jesus was mostly silent. There are those who argue that this is because he was self-evidently opposed to them, or that they weren’t major concerns. Neither response is logical or true. He doesn’t refer to homosexuality – a word not coined until the late 19th century but sometimes used in appallingly tendentious Bible translations – or to abortion. Yet both were certainly known and discussed during his life. It would be wrong to draw too many specific conclusions, but for an overall view consider the beginning of chapter eight of John’s Gospel. Here, Jesus is presented with a woman caught in adultery and responds with a condemnation of the accusers’ hypocrisy. Or his recurring insistence that judgementalism keeps us from God. In fact, what is so noticeable, and unusual at the time, was Jesus’s seeming indifference to what some insisted was “sexual sin”.

As for economic justice, in the season of Lent leading up to Easter, one of the Church readings, mentioned in all four gospels, is of Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple. “He found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” This was a religious as well as monetary issue but it reveals an intense opposition to the economic status quo of the time, which was not radically different from that of today.

Then there is, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24, and Luke 18:25) and “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me” (Matthew 25:35). And, again in the gospel of Matthew, when a rich young man asks what he must do to obtain eternal life, Jesus replies that he should sell everything and give the money to the poor.

When he juxtaposes war and peace his words in the original Koine Greek are far more militantly opposed to violence than they appear in English. And surely his insistence that “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” is entirely clear.

[See also: The death of a church]

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