What Happens if Conservative White Christians Think that Jesus Was a Liberal?

"The former head of the Southern Baptist Convention said that evangelical churchgoers had been describing Jesus’ teaching to 'turn the other cheek' as a 'liberal talking point,' and a Texas school official said that a first grader had been traumatized by a poster depicting children of different races holding hands.21 22"  That compound sentence was included in the indispensable Harper's Weekly Review on August 15, 2023.  Readers who have never experienced the peculiar joys of that recurring column's odd collection of factoids should click away (but please remember to click back) to see what they have been missing.

In any event, I concede that I included the second half of that sentence gratuitously here because, even though it is irrelevant to the rest of this column, it supports the suspicion that I articulated in one of my Dorf on Law columns last week, where I discussed the law in Florida (which I think has been adopted in other states as well) that deems it "racial discrimination" to say things in a classroom that will upset White kids' purported racial sensitivities.  I wrote:

How can a teacher ever know whether simply describing the facts -- and the racial facts are not only important for us to understand what happened in Jacksonville but were the most salient facts in the view of the murderer himself -- will not be deemed to have been an endorsement of some vaguely prohibited view that some White parents will insist has traumatized their kid?

The footnoted article describing that Texas school official's comment reports that she also "said 'a number of parents' had contacted her about 'supposed displays of personal ideologies in classrooms.'"  This does not definitively prove that the parents are making it up (after all, it could be that the kids truly are coming home traumatized, and the parents are responding by complaining to the schools), but if I am going to be accused of confirmation bias, I am more than willing to defend this example.  Moreover, if a five-year-old is traumatized by the very idea of interracial friendship, that is on the parents, not the child.

As the title of this column indicates, however, my main interest today is in the current mindset of White conservative US Christians, especially (but certainly not exclusively) of the evangelical variety.  The footnoted article supporting the first half of the quoted Harper's sentence indicates that the source is one Russell Moore, a "former top official for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) who is now the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, [who] has found himself at odds with other evangelical leaders due to his frequent criticism of former President Donald Trump [, and who] resigned his position with the SBC in 2021 following friction over his views on Trump and a sex abuse crisis among Southern Baptist clergy."

Interestingly, the full quote from Moore is more damning (pun intended) than the snippet in Harper's:

"Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching—'turn the other cheek'—[and] to have someone come up after to say, 'Where did you get those liberal talking points?'  When the pastor would say, 'I'm literally quoting Jesus Christ' ... The response would be, 'Yes, but that doesn't work anymore. That's weak.['] When we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we're in a crisis."

On more than one occasion on this blog, I have noted my own complicated relationship with religion.  Admittedly, most Americans have complicated feelings about their religions -- and (with apologies to Tolstoy) perhaps uncomplicated religious feelings are all alike, while every complicated religious feeling is complicated in its own way -- but I do feel some extra sense of consternation because I am a minister's son.  I have always been drawn to what I view as "the good stuff" in religion -- and Christianity in particular -- even as I have been utterly revolted by everything else.

To be clear, being raised in a Presbyterian minister's family did not make me (or any of my siblings) religious.  By the time I was 15 or 16, I identified as an atheist, and I have never wavered from that position in the years since.  As far as I know, all of my sisters and brothers reached the same conclusion before I did.  And to contradict a countervailing assumption, our rejection of religion was not a reaction to having been force-fed religion before finally reaching a breaking point.

Indeed, other than being expected to go to church on Sunday (a rule that was no longer enforced by the time I was about ten years old), we were not in any way indoctrinated with scripture or any of the things that people associate with religious upbringings.  Reading the Harper's quote, for example, I knew that "turn the other cheek" was a biblical phrase, but I had no idea that it was from the Sermon on the Mount (with which I am familiar mostly through Monty Python's "The Life of Brian").  I also honestly have no clue what the differences are among the mainline Protestant denominations, nor did that subject ever come up in church -- even though it was considered a very big deal to be erroneously called a Lutheran, Methodist, or Episcopalian.  One of my (non-religious) Jewish friends has taught me in casual conversations more about Christianity and in particular Protestantism than I learned in church.  At home, none of us ever asked about any of that, and Dad never pushed it on us.

In fact, my reason for affirmatively rejecting religion, as opposed to falling away from the church quietly over time, is almost entirely a matter of being disgusted by the hypocrisy and irreligiosity of the loudly religious types that I saw in my church and elsewhere.  An underappreciated movie from 1984, "Mass Appeal" (get it?), included a scene in which a rich congregant (and parish trustee) angrily responds to a young Catholic seminarian's fiery "Jesus is not impressed by your wealth" sermon by telling the senior priest, "I don't come to church to be preached to!"  And it has been abundantly clear for decades that the most insistently public super-Christians are as un-Christian as one could imagine, especially after the TV evangelicals took over the Republican Party.

Again, I have no regrets and do not defend organized religion in any way.  I do, however, constantly find it amazing that more and more avowed Christians have come to openly flout what I always thought of as that "good stuff."  By coincidence, a liberal Jesuit priest (Father James Martin, who has appeared with some regularity on lapsed Catholic Stephen Colbert's show over the years) was interviewed today on "Morning Joe."  Joe Scarborough, who is a former Gingrich-era Republican congressman who has lately turned against his former party on many grounds (in part because he insists that they are no longer conservative in the sense that he understands that term), began by sharing his own evangelical Southern Baptist background, wondering what had happened to the "guitar-strumming Kumbaya" lefty Roman Catholics that he and friends used to joke about in his youth.

Martin and Scarborough then talked about Matthew 25, in the same way that I might talk about the 16th Amendment or that classical music lovers might talk about Mahler's 8th.  Because my knowledge of religious doctrine is onionskin-paper-thin, I had no idea what is in Matthew 25, but it turns out that it is where a lot of "the good stuff" that I mentioned above can be found.  See, for example, verses 34-40:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Wow.  That makes even that whole Sermon on the Mount "turn the other cheek" thing sound like Tucker Carlson by comparison.  But whereas it used to be standard operating procedure for right-wing White evangelicals not even to allow themselves to acknowledge the tension between "the word of God" and their political beliefs, it is apparently now becoming too much for some of them.  When it comes to choosing between Jesus and hate, they choose hate.  Perhaps one should not be surprised, but the increasing openness of all of this is notable.

And to Scarborough's point about the Roman Catholic Church, there was a fascinating article in The Washington Post last week about Pope Francis's response to the hard-right US faction that is threatening to create a schism in the church (which they will then, no doubt, blame on Francis).  The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, after all, adopted his official "name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi ... because he was especially concerned for the well-being of the poor."

Francis has mocked the American Catholic right's obsession with culture war issues, recently "criticiz[ing] the fixation on 'sins below the waist' while 'if you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter.'"  He once also famously (and with hilarious, obviously deliberate irony) asked, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"  You're literally the freakin' Pope, dude!  Isn't being judge-y your whole job?  Seriously, though, it was a relief to see him refuse to condemn people for "sins" that are now animating the extreme right in the US and elsewhere.

Of course, even this Pope is hardly a progressive, not trying to change (at least thus far) the doctrines declaring that homosexuality and abortion are sins.  And whatever his efforts to change his church's approach toward women might be, they are hardly going to get him invited to the annual meetings of the National Organization for Women.  More broadly, I recently mentioned to some colleagues that I still am inspired by that good stuff in the New Testament, only to be told in exasperated tones that the Bible (both testaments) openly endorses the enslavement of human beings.  I happen to believe that one can embrace good arguments and reject the terrible ones, but the reminder is at least useful that the not-good stuff is both shockingly bad and plentiful throughout Christianity (and other religions).

Getting back to the American self-styled Christians who are increasingly willing to admit that they are kind of over the whole Jesus thing, what are we to make of that?  I continue to believe that embarrassed hypocrisy is better than the brazen broadcasting of bigotry, so I do not view it as a good thing for society that more White people are talking like hardcore Christian nationalists, just as I view it as a bad thing that Donald Trump's most important impact on the Republican Party has been to make it acceptable to be loudly hateful.  Once that taboo fell away, the national descent into madness could not help but accelerate.

Speaking of Trump, he is of course angry with people like Rev. Moore (the former Southern Baptist official mentioned above), who refuse to support him, saying: "That's a sign of disloyalty.  There's nobody that did more for the movement than I have.  And that includes the movement of evangelicals and Christians and the movement very much of 'right to life.'"  What a petty loser.  What a petty, incoherent loser.

Not that I would ever expect Trump to admit it, but he did nothing for the White Christian evangelical movement that any other Republican president would not have done.  Weirdly, even many Democrats think it is a good idea to pin the Supreme Court nominees from his term on Trump, presumably because Democrats understand that association with Trump is toxic outside of his base.  And among his base, Trump is given all of the credit for overturning Roe.  But as anyone paying even a bit of attention should understand, those are not Trump Justices but McConnell Justices.  Mitch McConnell engineered the blockade again Democratic appointees and kept his caucus together even when stopping Merrick Garland's nomination to the Court looked like a political loser.

If Trump had failed in the 2016 primaries and, say, Bobby Jindal had become President, Jindal would have done what McConnell and Leonard Leo told him to do, just as Trump did.  Indeed, though born into the Hindu religion, Jindal converted and is now more of a Christian than Trump ever was.  Trump, meanwhile, was singularly responsible for losing the White House, the House, and the Senate (twice), ushering Democrats into power to do things that White evangelicals abhor.

Why, then, do the White evangelicals embrace Trump so rapturously (pun again intended)?  He is not in fact responsible for making any of the things happen that they say they care most about, and they could have supported his removal from office at any time, which would have allowed their like-minded paleo-Puritan Mike Pence to do some real damage.  What could the reason be?  My next two columns, to be published on Verdict and here on Dorf on Law (both on Thursday of this week) will pick up on that question.  But the answer is hardly a mystery.