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What if the Right was Right? A Reflection on the "Christian States of America." (Updated)

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Edited and re-posted to reflect recent events.

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. -MK Gandhi

A major theme emerging from the "tea party" protests is the indivisibility of American patriotism and Christian morality in the minds of many tea partiers. Signs making reference to the Christian messiah are strewn throughout the various tea party protests (a recent one of note said "I'm teabagging for Jesus"- I wish I were joking), and while self-proclaimed Christian patriots seem to view the relationship between their political and religious viewpoints as inviolable, many of us are requesting a bit more sophistication in the arguments. Or at the least, something logical or tangible upon which to base these wild assumptions about the notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

For years now I have been debating with friends and family on the question of whether the United States can (and should) be called a "Christian nation," and for the record, I have always argued a vehement no. But the tea partiers have got me thinking: maybe I'm missing the point. What if I conceded the question, just for the sake of argument? What if I let go of my adherence to the dogmatic belief that the United States is and should be based on secularism and enlightenment values? Just how might it change things? What would it look like if we considered the nation's most pressing policy questions through the lens of "Christian" principles? What would it mean if the right was right?


War and Guns

"If you cannot say on the basis of the New Testament that Jesus was nonviolent, you cannot say anything about Jesus." -John L. McKenzie, Jesuit scholar

Let's start with the most controversial of the themes, and since I'm not a fan of mincing words, here it is: the advocacy of war and violence as tools of expressing grievances violates the most fundamental messages of Christianity because Jesus himself was the most renowned voice of principled nonviolence that the world has known.

Historically, the most vocal support for U.S. war-making has come from those who identify themselves as devout Christians. Not only is that surreal considering the philosophy of Jesus, but the sinister irony is that the main targets of the "war on terror" are radical fundamentalist Muslims against whom a primary grievance is their propensity to (mis)use religion to justify acts of violence. So for pro-war Christians, violence is righteous if its targets are threatening to Christianity or Christendom. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives very clear instructions about how to deal with foes, and his notion of righteousness varies significantly from that of many Christian US policymakers:

I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;...For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?...And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?

In other words, loving your friend is easy. Loving your enemy is very difficult. So Christians (people who ascribe to live by the example of Jesus Christ) who advocate for war as a response to hatred and violence do insult to this key command. They are guilty of precisely the same kind of thinking for which they condemn their enemies.

Considering what Jesus' view of guns might have been is difficult given that firearms would not exist for many more centuries after his death. I have, however, heard more than one gun proponent point to the example of Jesus' "cleansing of the temple" as evidence that he would have not been as quick to condemn the individual's right to own and carry (and if necessary, use) weapons as, say, advocates of nonviolence might like.

The example does give pause. But consider this: the moment in the temple was the only act of anger ever shown by Jesus, and it was specifically directed against garish displays of greed and avarice. There is also no evidence that it was violent, and most contemporary scholars conclude it was not. The term in the original Greek (that was later liberally construed by English language translators as "whipped") literally means "to drive out." And the whip is mentioned in only one of four gospels (John), which is also the only gospel that mentions the role of sheep and cattle in the story. It's been widely understand for decades by Biblical scholars that the reference is to a cattle whip and was not used by Jesus on anyone. But even allowing for the most wide interpretation and conceding that Jesus used a whip to drive corrupt vendors out of the temple, his prayer on the cross during the crucifixion shows the truth of his heart. Instead of rage and bitterness, Jesus made a plea for forgiveness of those who condemned him to death. It is that example that we are asked to remember above all.

Taxes and Taxation

Believe it or not, there is plenty of evidence in the New Testament to suggest that Jesus was not only sympathetic to the maligned image of tax collectors, but that he advocated for more tolerance of those who had the world's most unpopular job.

He also commanded his followers to pay their taxes, and not to confuse the demands made by the state with those made by God. In an encounter between Jesus and and a suspicious mob who showed him a Roman coin, the Gospel of Matthew recounts the following exchange:

He saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marvelled and left him.

The command is notable in that Jesus neither condemned nor praised secular authority, but simply requested that it remain distinct from the realm of God.

Jesus's attitude towards taxes generally can be summed up in the following exchange, recounted from the Gospel of Luke:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?" "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

Together these excerpts suggest that Jesus viewed the payment of taxes as the responsibility of the citizen (who was not supposed to demonstrate stinginess), but also cautioned against greed or corruption on the part of those collecting the monies. Only those taxes which are necessary to the end of providing for the common good are righteous, but the question of how that figure is determined is left to the secular governmental authority and once settled, should be obeyed.

Foreign Policy and International Law

In order to fairly consider what Jesus' view on foreign policy might have been, we must return to the concept of nonviolence. I have heard it argued by Christians that it is morally indefensible for a nation-state in the age of global terrorism to take a position of nonviolence. We can't sit back and let terrorism just happen, the argument goes; a state is obliged to protect its citizens.

Notwithstanding the fact that Jesus did not concern himself with base matters like nationalism (because all of creation was his community), the assertion that nonviolence amounts to complicity is erroneous. Principled nonviolence is not just an absence of violence, it is a proactive commitment to social justice, and it is deeply rooted in the very simple idea that if you treat others fairly, you will have a lot less to worry about (this of course is also known as the Golden Rule.) However, many folks in the Christian war camp would have us believe that there is a moral obligation to meet terror with violence and war.

A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln, who himself was no stranger to war, remarked, "I am not so concerned as to whether God is on our side, as to whether we are on God's side."

With that one quote, the lens of the Christian audience shifts profoundly. Who are we, after all, to assume that because we had the luck to be born (or naturalized) into the United States that we have been specially chosen for benediction by God? Perhaps it's that our good fortune comes with a corresponding obligation: to use our gifts to help those less fortunate obtain theirs.

The United States can no longer ignore the interests of the people of the rest of the world, and a nation guided by Christ's example should know better than anyone that the most righteous approach to engaging with others is by locating our mutual interests as human beings. The reality is that states themselves are becoming increasingly irrelevant on the global stage, and the concept of citizenship itself is expanding and taking on global dimensions. If we are being honest about principles and values, there are very few issues where the roles of democratic citizen, true Christian (or Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist), and decent human being should come into conflict in the 21st century.

A genuinely Christian lens on international politics would not call for violence against one people by another in the name of God, but would ask that all people recognize that our moral and democratic obligations extend beyond our own borders, and that our political, economic, and spiritual development is deeply interwoven with the corresponding development of others. We cannot actualize as a people (Christian or democratic) if we continue to be dependent on the domination and submission of other human beings around the world.

Health Care and Socialism

For me, one of the most surreal claims being made by some on the far right about President Obama's health care reform proposal is that it is evidence of his (secret) hostility to Christianity and Christian values. Some of the most extreme opponents of the president have even suggested that his (alleged) preference for (partial) socialization of health care is enough to prove he is the anti-Christ. (Blogger's note: I would hyperlink to a blog that makes the aforementioned claim, but I can't bring myself to give these folks any more internet traffic, so if you want to read this stuff, Google it for yourself. I have to draw the line somewhere.)

The notion that universal health care is anti-Christian (not to mention undemocratic) is, well, kind of crazy. It is impossible for me to imagine that someone who has read and grasped the meaning of Jesus' teachings on compassion and kindness could argue against the idea that a society (especially one with policymakers and citizens who claim to be guided by Christian principles) is supposed to take care of its people - all of its people.

How can we interpret the commandment of "Love thy neighbor as thyself" but in the most literal possible sense: that we must respect the needs and desires of our fellow human beings and consider them as equal to our own. Is there some subtext or qualification that I (a layperson) am missing? Should the commandment really be read as "Love thy neighbor as thyself, as long as it doesn't inconvenience you too much, or if your neighbor seems kind of lazy or weird or different than you"?

I remember a few years back, a(n outspoken, unapologetic neoconservative) colleague and I were having a discussion about this very theme, when he challenged me point blank to sum up the most fundamental tenets of Christianity in one sentence. I remember blurting out, "We must take care of the least amongst us." He looked at me stoically for a few seconds and then nodded and mumbled somewhat defeatedly, "I guess I can't argue with that."

So if taking care of the least amongst is the first responsibility of Christians, how can there be any debate on whether universal health care is "moral" or "ethical" or "responsible"? Sure, there is plenty of room for discussion about the logistics of a universal policy, but I am completely flabbergasted as to why we - in the self-proclaimed "Christian states of America" (and self-proclaimed model democracy, come to that) have not yet reached a consensus on this first, most critical point. If we aren't willing to simply say that yes, everyone must be taken care of (and we must as a society find a way to do that), then what exactly are we doing?

Which brings me to my final point: Jesus was a socialist. There, I said it. To read the Gospels and come away from them with a picture of Jesus as anything but an advocate of communally-shared resources requires a level of cognitive dissonance that I simply cannot fathom. Please let me be clear (before my detractors start firing up their email clients to send off that hate mail): I am not saying that Jesus was a Stalinist or even a communist, just that it's very clear from his teachings that he believed that people were happier and healthier (literally and spiritually) when they shared with each other.

For example, the following comes from the New Testament book of Acts:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Read that again: "Possessors of lands sold them and brought the prices of the things that were sold...and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."

That passage bears an undeniable resemblance to the words of a political philosopher from eighteen centuries after the death of Christ, who wrote "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." But while Karl Marx's philosophy of contributing for the common good is viciously maligned in the United States today (thanks mostly to the gross distortion of his philosophy by the brutal ideologies of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others), there is little to no discussion amongst the Christian right about Jesus' own advocacy of the very same concept. Despite our verbal proclamations to the contrary, Americans (Christian or otherwise) have such a negative visceral association with the concept of socialism that we-thus far-have been unable to have an authentic, productive conversation about whether greed or compassion is the more moral (and productive) incentive for human beings engaged in the social experiment of the democratic nation-state. Regardless of how that discussion turns out, honest Christians are hard-pressed to deny that the example offered by Jesus' life tells us that if our own spiritual evolution (and frankly, salvation) is a consideration, we have no choice but to not only hold the needs of others in equal stead with our own, but must find ways to share what (oftentimes little) we have in order to fulfill that calling.

So if we concede that the United States is a "Christian nation," it follows that its citizens, as practitioners of the teachings of Jesus, should be: anti-war, anti-gun, anti-death penalty, pro-universal health care, pro-taxes and pro-(democratic) socialism, while also being - to the rest of the world - forgiving, meek, humble, generous and loving of everyone, even perceived enemies.

On the far right, it is often difficult to distinguish between policy and religion. Self-proclaimed Christians have gone to great lengths in recent years to tie religion to everything from health care reform to war to gun control, and the one common denominator pulling all these otherwise unrelated threads together is the notion that government presents the world's most insidious threat to the moral fabric of civilization. But these folks have it sadly backwards. It is not that Christianity is threatened by President Obama or the US (or any other) government or even by some vague notion of socialism. The regrettable truth is that Christianity has already been commandeered on the far right by the angry, the fearful, and the misguided, and if the religion (and by extension, the "Christian United States," since we're still working on the assumption that there is such a thing) is to thrive, those sentiments must be replaced with compassion, forgiveness, empathy and universal love.

Imagine.

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