In the United States today there are at least two Christianities — one on the theological and political left and one of the theological and political right. This has been made starkly clear recently by the running feud between Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg and Vice President Mike Pence.
These guys have some similarities: Both were born in Indiana. Both grew up Roman Catholic. Both converted to another Christian denomination. Both draw their politics and their purpose from their theologies.
Pence is now a born-again evangelical. He converted — Pence says — because he wanted a “personal relationship with Jesus.” The Jesus that Pence has a personal relationship with appears to love a right-of-center political agenda.
Buttigieg is now Episcopalian. He converted to Anglicanism while at college in England. The Jesus that he worships appears to love a left-of-center political agenda.
Both politicians overtly reference their religious convictions as primary motivators in their lives. Both politicians reflect the very-American propensity to change religions during their lifetimes. (Please note that I am not mocking or attacking this propensity — I was born into Pence’s adopted form of Christianity, and I left it, and I’m very glad that I had the freedom to do that.)
Pete Buttigieg’s form of Christianity, mainline Protestantism, has as part of its DNA that movement I described several weeks ago: the Nice Jesus movement. That movement led to what’s known as the Social Gospel, which was a movement to the left and toward social justice issues taken by many “mainline” Protestant denominations.
Mike Pence’s form of Christianity, evangelical-fundamentalism, has as part of its DNA a strong reaction against modernist, liberalizing influences and an embrace of traditional values.
If you ask them, I suspect that both politicians would say that they are embracing their adopted theological positions because those positions more closely resemble early Christianity than does the Roman Catholic church that both of them have eschewed.
Pete B. would harken back to the loving, inclusive teachings of Jesus; Mike P. would harken back to the “God of power and might,” as the old hymn puts it. Both have scriptural ammunition.
In Matthew 18:8–9, Jesus says,
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. (NRSV)
Then there’s this other, nice Jesus, who said,
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:14–14 NRSV)
Will the real Jesus please stand up?
Good luck with that. Cherry-picking scripture is how extremists on left and right get their underwriting from “god.”
The four Gospels do not present a coherent version of the same guy. Sometimes, Jesus appears to be saying that his Father will come any moment and set the world right. At other times, Jesus appears to be saying that this world sucks but the next one, the hereafter, will be really, really just and righteous.
What Jesus does not do in the Gospels is preach that the oppressed should rise up against political circumstance and oppression. For example, why was it that Jesus was crucified but none of his followers? Answer: the followers were not perceived as a political threat.
Score one point for Mike Pence and his tradition. Add to that St. Paul’s two cents worth on government:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval . . . (Romans 13:1–3, NRSV)
and you have a recipe for passivity.
Score two for Pence.
I don’t like Pence’s politics or Pence’s Jesus. But I — as an elderly Pentecostal-turned-Unitarian — don’t see any way around the conclusion that evangelical-fundamentalist teachings are biblical. More biblical than the bomb-throwing, socialist Jesus that I wish were there in the texts.
The Christian left. It’s a thing. And it’s why I gave up trying to justify my liberal politics through scripture.
I’m a liberal; I’m a Humanist; this I know.
Because my conscience tells me so.