Bits of Books - Books by Title
Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels
More books on Religion
It seems that when Donald Trump and his Republican enablers are able to seat a sixth right wing justice on the Supreme Court, our Lord Jesus will be doing backflips in heaven in pure ecstasy over this triumph for the Kingdom of God.
Or at least that’s how millions of hardcore conservative Christians envision things will go. They have long since come to view a “flawed” Donald Trump as God’s chosen instrument, and they’re always very clear about what control of the Court means for their agenda: an end to abortion rights, a rollback of LGBTQ+ rights, restrictive immigration, and elimination of the Affordable Care Act, among other horrors. In their view, a 6-3 court might even be able to save Trump’s chestnuts if (God forbid) we end up in a deadlock echoing the 2000 debacle, when a 5-4 Court handed the White House to George W. Bush by stopping the count in Florida.
The question, of course, is how did so many Christians—the vast majority among the 65% of Americans who still identify as Christian—come to believe that Jesus himself identifies as a Small Government conservative, i.e., a fervent fan of free market capitalism and the sworn enemy of sexual minorities, pushy immigrants, and poor people who expect the government to take care of them?
This is the question historian Tony Keddie sets out to answer in his bracing new book, Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels. [Read an excerpt from the “Family Values” chapter here on RD — eds] Scholarly but accessible and gracefully written, Keddie’s study first introduces the figure of Repubican Jesus through the lens of Killing Jesus, the bestselling 2013 book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard that was subsequently made into a National Geographic film by Ridley Scott.
Keddie then traces the formative influences behind this strange figure before concluding the book with a granular discussion of specific Republican Jesus “positions” on issues ranging from family life and sexuality, to charity, taxes, guns, immigration, climate change, and even Zionism. He illustrates how the Christian Right gaslights Americans on each and every one of these.
It’s important to note right away what this valuable book is not. It is not the too-familiar “they’ve got it wrong, but we get it right” plea made by many progressive Christians, who do their own share of selective proof-texting (I plead guilty myself). Keddie himself leans progressive, but he doesn’t want to let progressives off the hook for the many bits in Scripture that are irreducibly problematic.
To my mind the book’s most valuable material is found in Keddie’s middle section, where he expertly identifies the historical currents that feed conservative Christian ideation. Whereas many historians oversimplify by identifying Calvinism as the Ursprung of free market capitalism, Keddie more precisely singles out Arminianism, the deviation from orthodox Calvinism that reserved some room for human effort in the work of salvation. He pinpoints the crucial contribution of Hugo Grotius, whom the Dutch government locked up for his Arminian heresy, in laying the legal groundwork for unrestricted pursuit of private gain and the exploitative merchant capitalism of the Dutch East Indian Company.
Keddie offers a good answer to those who claim to be puzzled by the marriage between pro-business conservatives and religious conservatives.Keddie argues that Arminianism was foundational to the formation of the classical liberalism that was then much advanced by John Locke, by far the most influential figure in the background of early American thinking about the social contract. It goes without saying that this kind of thinking was racist to the core, as proponents “wielded these ideologies in ways that marginalized Indigenous and communities of color who were taken in slavery.”
Fast forward to the challenge of the Great Depression, when Big Business desperately needed to save its credibility and fight back against Roosevelt’s bold New Deal programs. Here Keddie highlights the little-known but hugely effective James Fifield, an L.A.-based Congregational minister who was able to marshal a wide array of corporate sponsors for a nationwide Spiritual Mobilization targeting unions and (alleged) creeping socialism.
Fifield’s contribution overlapped with the equally useful service to corporate power supplied by Abraham Vereide, union-busting founder of The Family (a.k.a. The Fellowship), the shadowy network behind the National Prayer Breakfast that Jeff Sharlet has documented so well. It hardly needs saying that the Trump family’s favorite minister—the positive thinking (and also union-hating!) Norman Vincent Peale—was also very much part of this mix.
Dwight Eisenhower became the conservative crusaders’ tool in getting “In God We Trust” on all forms of currency and getting the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. Suddenly replicas of the Ten Commandments were popping up in public spaces all over the country, thanks in part to Fifield’s wealthy Christian buddy Cecil B. DeMille, who just happened to be promoting his blockbuster 1956 film. Mounting legal challenges to these gross violations of church-state separation merely fed the flames of still more Christian nationalism. This of course was also the era marked by the rise of the people John Fea has dubbed “Court Evangelicals”: Billy Graham, of course, followed by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the rest of the too-familiar crew.
Those of us who thought, or who hoped, that rightwing Christianity had hit its high water mark during the Reagan years clearly understimated this movement’s capacity to keep bouncing back. Keddie does an admirable job of showing how Trumpism combines “an allegiance to many of the traditional ‘family values’ positions of the ‘old Religious Right’ with the Tea Party’s resentment politics and the Prosperity Gospel’s glorification of wealth.” Keddie also offers a good answer to those who claim to be puzzled by the marriage between pro-business conservatives and religious conservatives; in fact, the entire book illuminates the extent to which today’s Religious Right is itself already the product of decades of careful cultivation by corporate interests.
While the issue-by-issue discussions in Keddie’s third section lack some of the voltage of the historical analysis, he does demonstrate his considerable theological chops here. Perhaps it comes as news that many Christians believe Jesus urged his disciples to arm themselves? Well, here you will find the firm scriptural foundation for Second Amendment rights! I value this part of the book for being especially clear about the deeply anti-Semitic basis of so-called Christian Zionism. In fact, Keddie is clearsighted throughout on the anti-Semitic core of the conservative Christian project. This vileness is completely of a piece with the sickening misogyny and anti-Black racism that have long marked white Christian nationalism.
Because of the way religion works, there’s not the slightest chance that white nationalist True Believers will ever let go of their Republican Jesus, let alone their fictive idea that the country was founded by Christians who intended to create a Christian country. It does no one any good to mock them, but it will do all of us a great deal of good to use our votes and our voices to take away their outsize power.
One of the key biblical texts that Republican Christians have tethered to their “family values” agenda is Matthew 19:3–6. In this passage, Jesus quotes from Genesis in the course of his teachings on marriage and divorce: “[God] made them male and female.” For many conservative Christians, this verse shows that Jesus deemed gender biological and binary and that he sanctioned only heterosexual marriages as legitimate. Republican influencers’ interpretations of this verse undergird Christian transphobia and homophobia ranging from Jerry Falwell’s berating of the “effeminate” purple Teletubby, Tinky Winky, to extremist pastors’ public praise of the actions of the radical Islamic fundamentalist who slaughtered forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
Many conservative Christians have believed that liberals’ campaigns for sexual rights would bring about God’s wrath. AIDS “may be a judgment of God on the nation,” Billy Graham proclaimed as gay men and other marginalized persons fought for their lives during the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Jerry Falwell concurred and added that homosexuality was “Satan’s diabolical attack against the family.” For Tim LaHaye, the coauthor of the best-selling Left Behind series and author of a similarly apocalyptic book called The Unhappy Gays, homosexuality had been the cause of the Flood and the Babylonian captivity and remained “part of the buildup of the ‘perilously evil times’ that are prophesied for the last days.”
The apocalyptic urgency of conservatives’ political agenda against equal rights for LGBTQ+ people has experienced a resurgence in the benighted epoch of Trump. Vice President Pence has echoed the Evangelical influencers by prophesying that same-sex couples will be the cause of “societal collapse.” And while Trump claims to be good for the gay community, his administration has sought to diminish nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+—and especially for transgender—people in employment, health care, and military service.
Mark and Matthew present Jesus’s teaching as a narrowly defined discussion pertaining to the interpretation of a law in Deuteronomy. The texts don’t reject gay marriage; they don’t even address it.Hard-nosed conservative leaders persist in reciting verses from Leviticus and Matthew as God’s Word—and the final word—on the issue. Matthew 19:3–6, for instance, remains the biblical foundation of Franklin Graham’s strident defense of binary gender against the extension of Title IX to protect transgender people from discrimination, against the recognition of “X” as a sex classification on birth certificates, and even against Target’s gender-neutral makeover of its stores. Inciting Evangelical boycotts of the retail giant, Graham minced no words: “I have news for [Target] and for everyone else—God created two different genders. Jesus said, ‘Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female’ (Matthew 19:4).” Presenting this verse as a self-evident argument, Graham rested his case, saying, “You can’t get any clearer than that.”
Conservatives are right that the passage in Matthew depicts marriage as being between a man and a woman. This is not surprising, for the Pharisees specifically asked Jesus about a law pertaining to marriage between a man and a woman, and, besides, there were no same-sex marriages in the New Testament world. Mark and Matthew present Jesus’s teaching as a narrowly defined discussion pertaining to the interpretation of a law in Deuteronomy. The texts don’t reject gay marriage; they don’t even address it.
Matthew’s Jesus does, however, recognize nonbinary gender in the grand finale of his teaching on divorce in a verse that conservatives routinely omit. After learning of his strict position on divorce, Jesus’s disciples ask him, “Is it better not to marry?” (Matt 19:10). Jesus answers, “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who had made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (19:12).
In the course of his teaching about marriage, Matthew’s Jesus thus recognizes the existence of three types of sexual minorities—those born eunuchs, those who were castrated, and those who voluntarily became eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. The first group—eunuchs who were born that way—is particularly interesting, for Jesus uses the phrase “from their mother’s womb” to describe them. Eunuchs from the womb could refer to men born with one or two undescended testicles (cryptorchidism) or with some other genital-related physical or sexual condition that the ancients perceived as a defect. Like slaves who were castrated so that they could serve in political administration without the ability to pass their office on to their progeny, eunuchs from birth were widely derided as incomplete and unmanly men.
Apparently, there are no men’s and women’s restrooms in heaven.Eunuchs, in Pliny the Elder’s censorious words, belonged to a “third class of half-males.” The satirist Lucian from Syria concurred, classifying eunuchs as “something composite, hybrid and monstrous, outside of human nature.” Some Jewish authors like Philo and Josephus were also quick to degrade eunuchs as a detested class of gender-ambiguous people who were able neither “to disseminate seed nor to receive it.” Since eunuchs were unable to procreate (and thereby pass on their patrimony), they were not regarded as true men in the Roman world and were not always assigned all the legal rights of adult men.
Matthew’s Jesus, however, recognizes—shortly after speaking of those “made male and female”—that some people are born as neither women nor fully men. According to the Mishnah, Jewish rabbis in the first century CE also recognized the existence of natural eunuchs (“eunuchs of the sun”) as distinct from eunuchs castrated by humans (“eunuchs of man”). The rabbis specifically debated the legal capabilities of eunuchs in relation to marriage and procreation, just like Matthew’s Jesus. Rabbi Akiva, for instance, reasoned that eunuchs could not perform the rite of levirate marriage—a brother’s duty to marry the wife of a brother who dies—because they could not procreate, but Rabbi Eliezer retorted that natural eunuchs might be able to procreate and therefore fulfill this commandment. Both of these rabbis upheld the significance of marriage and did so because they viewed the purpose of marriage as procreation.
Matthew’s Jesus was not as quick to encourage marriage and thus used the example of the eunuch to stake a different position in the rabbinic debate about marriage and procreation. Unlike the rabbis, he forecast the imminent end of the world and therefore idealized eunuchs precisely because they often did not marry. As a response to his disciples’ question about whether to marry, Jesus’s proclamation about eunuchs implies that celibacy is the ideal state in which humans should await the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’s enjoinder to “let anyone accept this who can” mirrors the apostle Paul’s preference for celibacy with a special allowance for those who don’t have enough self-control to be celibate: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Jesus in Matthew calls on his followers not to self-castrate but instead to be celibate. Eunuchs here function as an example of the unmarried. Like Paul’s letters, Matthew’s gospel presents celibacy as an ideal in part because it requires renouncing conventional gender roles. For the earliest Christians, celibacy anticipated the androgynous, or at least sexually ambivalent, state that their resurrected bodies would take in the Kingdom of Heaven. Resurrected bodies will be neither male nor female: “For in the resurrection they neither marry [male] nor are given in marriage [female], but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). Apparently, there are no men’s and women’s restrooms in heaven.
The earliest Christians believed that androgyny—a mixture of male and female characteristics—was the perfect, primal form of humans to which they would return in the afterlife. Through the ritual of baptism, they symbolically assumed nonbinary gender by clothing themselves with Christ so that “there is no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28).
Ancient understandings of androgyny assumed an interdependence of the sexes but by no means an equality of the sexes. Christians sought out the unification of male and female during their earthly lives, but this unification almost always favored male characteristics because female bodies were thought to be imperfect. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, a very early gospel that many ancient Christians deemed authoritative, “Look, I shall lead her so that I will make her male in order that she also may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Celibacy, according to New Testament texts, was a way for the baptized to experience during their remaining time on earth the relinquishment of conventional gender roles that would be their reward in heaven. In this sense, celibacy was construed as androgyny with regard to gender identity and expression (being clothed with Christ means expressing as neither male nor female). But through the example of the eunuch, Matthew’s Jesus also relates celibacy to androgyny in terms of biological sex: eunuchs’ bodies are physically different from those of men, as defined in this ancient context.
Franklin Graham and other conservative leaders preach that “you can’t get any clearer” about traditional marriage and binary gender than their narrow-sighted interpretation of Matthew 19:4. It turns out that their interpretation of the verse is about as self-evident as the gender of resurrected bodies.
Books by Title
Books by Author
Books by Topic
Bits of Books To Impress