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Tuesday November 23, 2004

The new American Jesus

Before I explain the title of this post I'd like to present a little disclaimer. I do not believe that all Christians who consistenly vote Republican are greedy, violent, Walmart sycophants. The comic below is a sweeping generalization that functions as a caricature. It doesn't accurately represent social conservatives as a whole. But caricatures are really just exaggerated expressions of truth, and I think comic David Horsey is onto something here.

GOP Church

Most of us probably see the same image in our minds when we think of Jesus. The Christ we've been conditioned to recognize most likely looks a lot like Jim Cavazeil of Passion fame --a tall, white man with flowing brown locks and piercing blue eyes. Our psychological savior wears a dirty, white robe and a pair of dusty Birkenstocks. His usual companions are a loaf of bread and radical forgiveness.

If you were raised Catholic, like me, this image was most likely reinforced frequently. There were concrete Jesuses everywhere. He could be found standing in front of your school building, in the middle of your flower bed at home, and on every five feet of wall space at the local Saint (add Anglo name here) church. And that lengthy Jesus of Nazareth movie they keep playing around Easter not only keeps with the proper look, but also drives home the vision of Christ as sinner's-best-friend. Even Protestants got in on the action with those clay-mation cartoons.

The image is so pervasive, that messing with it often yields cries of heresy. And that's why I'm surprised that so many Christians, while still defensive regarding Christ's physical characteristics, are latching onto a new political image of Jesus with so little caution.

But Americans love a good makeover. And forget what the producers of The Swan tell you; this one really is the biggest, most extreme reinvention of our time. Rather than using instant Hollywood surgical tricks, the makeover developed over the course of a few decades. Of course, some people say the new American Jesus isn't really new at all, with the Puritans having used Biblical verses to steal Indian land back in the day. But personally, I think the new image started taking shape in the 1970's, when the modern mullahs of American fundamentalism first planted their roots.

When the 80's came around, guys like Jerry Falwell and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson were some of the most powerful people in the country. They were running for public office, lobbying to keep gay people from serving in the military, and getting a lot of use out of the word "degenerate." And they had lots of money pouring in from their faithful flocks, which they acquired through popular television programs like the 700 Club.

Their message was simple: Liberals are evil, and real Christians vote for Republicans. They focused on making Christians feel persecuted by left-leaning politicians, and promised the religious masses they were going to purge Democrats out of office. And with the support of their followers, they intended to replace the anti-Christian liberals with folks that adhere to fundamentalist values. All Republicans, of course.

While they failed to get elected, they succeeded in creating a public perception that the GOP is not the Grand Old Party, but God's Own Party. And Jesus Christ, previously known to Gospel readers as a merciful minister with an attitude chock full of humility, became the poster boy for American Republicanism, and everything that came with it.

The link that Falwell, Robertson, and others made between God and the GOP gave Christ some new characteristics by association. No longer a priest lacking political ambitions, Jesus found himself voting for Ronald Reagan in 1984. He also became a fervent capitalist whose love affair with trickle-down economics lead him to lobby for tax cuts for the wealthy and welfare reform. Christ maintained that homeless people lack shelter because they're lazy, not because capitalism fosters a system of perpetual inequality.

Along with his new take on economics, Jesus also became a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. His good works included fighting a ban on assault weapons, opposing background checks for gun buyers, and convincing the public that the 15,000 people a year who die from gunshot wounds are gang members from Los Angeles. All of them.

Jesus also acquired some new hobbies, like listening to conservative radio. His favorite on-air personality in the 90's was Rush Limbaugh. He enjoyed the fresh conservative commentary and quotable jems like, "Why should Blacks be heard? They're only 12% of the population. Who the hell cares?"

Certainly not Jesus.

The most important aspect of Christ's conversion was his unwavering support of armed conflict, especially the latest preemptive strikes in Iraq. He not only agreed with President Bush that the lack of weapons of mass destruction should not prompt people to reevaluate the propriety of the war, but also the Republican assertion that anyone who believed otherwise was an anti-American freedom-hater.

The day after the 2004 election, Jesus scoffed at all of the liberals that dared think true, patriotic Americans would turn against their president. He filled his blog with celebratory slams against Michael Moore, and echoed Jerry Falwell's statements that the election was a "slam dunk" that "made the difference in initiating the return of this nation to moral sanity."

Of course, this is all just part of the caricature. Christ did not really change. But his image has changed. The fundamentalist link from God to political conservatism creates an image of Christ as a gun-toting, war-waging, Limbaugh-listening, welfare-despising arch enemy of environmentalists, France, and Hilary Clinton.

In a way, the incumbent Christ has been voted out of office, and replaced by an imposter that cares more about retaining American might than loving one's enemies. The imposter does not pray, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Rather, he prays, "Father, please protect me as I open up a righteous can of whoop ass on those Arabs."

Something is definitely amiss in today's fundamentalist subculture. And the most alarming thing is that it's quickly becoming mainstream. Even American Catholics, a historically peaceful group focused on social welfare and justice, is buying into the cult of authoritarianism.

Recently I came across a website devoted to the Catholic image of Mary "Queen of Peace." Directly below a quote from an alleged Marian apparition calling for an end to war and violence were banners supportive of the war in Iraq. And despite the Pope's own contention that the war in Iraq is not morally justifiable, the webmaster of the "Queen of Peace" website asserted that Bush's Middle Eastern conquests are fully righteous acts in keeping with the mission of the "Queen of Peace." He also derided my opposition to the war and brushed off the thousands of civilian victims in Iraq as no big deal.

Now, as I said at the beginning of this post, I don't believe that all Christians who vote Republican are like Jerry Falwell. But the movement that Falwell helped conceive has convinced a lot of people that Jesus is a lot different than the way he is portrayed in the Bible. And that has given Christians (and Americans) a pretty bad reputation... One that makes it hard for anyone who doesn't support the Republican agenda of war and tax cuts for the wealthy to give Christianity a chance.

That, I believe, will be the fundamentalist's legacy: Tricking people into rejecting the real Christ through a perceptual bait-and-switch. And that's the truth that comic David Horsey has tapped into. The new American Jesus has officially arrived. And he's ready to put a boot in your ass.

Thanks to Gutless Pacifist for the heads-up.


have you ever heard the song american jesus by bad religion? i think it explains why a lot of people have turned from the ideas of christianity: the concept of evangelism has changed from showing god's love to those who don't know him, to scaring them into accepting god.

Shannon on November 23, 2004 09:08 AM

Wow! What a great post Drina. I think you got it right. The idea reminds me of "Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma. Except Buddy Christ is closer to the real image of Christ. Before I became a Christian I always imagined that the Jesus who overturned the moneychangers tables in the Temple was a weak looking, poor looking man. It seemed to me that the statement he made by overturning those tables was also impacted by the way he looked. He did not look like the kind of person who could/would overturn those tables.

Jake on November 23, 2004 01:12 PM

Excellent essay, Drina! I don't have anything to add, I just wanted to say that it's great.

Joan on November 23, 2004 02:26 PM

Did anyone actually read that whole blog? All that political whining.

Your Old Roomie on November 23, 2004 04:37 PM

Whatever your opinion of Falwell and Robertson is, at least it won't be them that comes to your city to take down the nativity scenes on public property. If we could only get as fired up over the actions taken against our Christian liberties as we get over this bickering over a politicized definition of fundamentalism...

Roger on November 24, 2004 02:29 PM

Thanks guys!

Jake, I've never seen that movie. Perhaps I should rent it?

Roger, you certainly are the master at changing subjects ;)

Nativity scenes are made of wood and plastic. If the ACLU wants them, they can have them. God never asked me to erect a monument on city hall grounds, so I really don't care to. And if it were that important, I'd put one up on my own lawn. What the ACLU can never take away what's in your heart, and that's what others really respond to, not lawn junk. They can never take away mercy, love, and forgiveness if you have it.

...which wouldn't be a problem for the Falwells and Robertsons, because they don't show much anyway. Perhaps if they were as demonstrative about these virtues as they are about fiber-optic Jesus dolls, American Christianity wouldn't have this horrible problem.

Drina on November 24, 2004 06:39 PM

Drina - You should rent Dogma. It is from Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Jay and Silent Bob, Mallrats, etc) fame. It is a very pro-faith movie, but not necessarily pro-Christian.

Jake on November 24, 2004 08:08 PM

sigh...oh well. I tried!

You're right, I tried to get you off of the focus of politics which seem to divide Christians and onto the principles that we can all agree on.

Anonymous on November 24, 2004 08:49 PM

>>I tried to get you off of the focus of politics which seem to divide Christians and onto the principles that we can all agree on.

Perhaps you should start with Mr. Falwell. And honestly, your point was not one all Christians hold in agreement. I really don't agree on the need to feircely defend nativity scenes. They're really unimportant to me.

You may not agree with me, but I believe we ought to talk about the state of American Christianity, and we shouldn't ignore the modern shift into authoritarianism. Wrongs and abuses need to be addressed if we want to stay on track with the things Christ told us to do. We shouldn't just change the subject.

Drina on November 24, 2004 09:50 PM

Jake, I've seen preview clips and such a long time ago --I love Kevin Smith movies. I just haven't seen that one in particular. My mom was one of the Catholic people that protested it!

Drina on November 24, 2004 09:56 PM

Greetings! This is my first response on your blog, but I've got a bit that I want to add...

I'm an Evangelical Friend. For those of you who listened in Social Studies class, you probably know the term "Quaker" better. I find myself in a rather interesting position. The "Christian Right" hates me because I'm not a closed minded militant red snapper, and the rest of the world hates me because they hear "Christian" and immediately categorize me.

I am a pacifist. It amazes me that so called "Christians" can support war. If you look at the message Jesus' life you find someone who is far from pro-war. These people immediately whip out their Bibles and start spitting scripture at me to back up their point, but everything they throw at me comes from the Old Testament. These people also usually have a fascination with the Jews and somehow think they are more "privileged" than we are.

Jesus said that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. He also said we're supposed to love our neighbor like we love ourselves. Isn't Iraq our neighbor? Apparently nothing says "I Love You" like a ballistic missile. If we are to be "Christ Like" then we are supposed to model our lives after him. When did Christ ever hurt anyone? When did Jesus drop bombs? On the contrary he told us to "turn the other cheek".

I love Jesus. I want the world to know the Jesus I've met. Its frustrating America's Christian subculture is killing it. Its producing people who are fake, closed minded, and holier than thou. We are a nation of Pharisees! If Jesus came to visit America today, his harshest words would not be for the unsaved, his harshest words would be towards us! The religious status quo.

Let's show the world the real Jesus. Not the fake knockoff created by the American church.

Matthew Jones on November 24, 2004 10:46 PM

"Apparently nothing says "I Love You" like a ballistic missile." LOL!

just as a note, you MUST watch Dogma. Maybe not at your house, though. I firmly believe it's a movie EVERY christian needs to watch and think critically about.

Shannon on November 24, 2004 11:48 PM

Matthew, I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said, "God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts." I certainly think that's an appropriate message for today's American Christianity.

By the way, I'm always glad to hear from the Friends community! I've always respected the Quaker commitment to refrain from violence, destruction, and nationalistic hostility. We really need people like you more than ever.

Drina on November 24, 2004 11:59 PM

Christians want to do what's right, and nobody wants war.

For an interesting paper on this, check out the following...

>The "Christian Right" hates me because I'm not a closed minded militant red snapper, and the rest of the world hates me because they hear "Christian" and immediately categorize me.

Everybody is categorized these days whether we want to be or not. It's easier to slap a label on somebody than to debate ideas and reasonably look at the issues before us. I hate to nitpick, but you even did it in your post. I'm just pointing out how easy it is to do. You were pointing out how you hated that you were labeled --as you label "the Christian Right" as "closed minded militant red snappers"...whatever those are!

Anyway, one of these days we'll have to debate pacifism and what the Bible teaches. It's an interesting topic and one that the church needs to address more apparently as there is a lot of different opinions on it.

I wasn't so much talking about nativity scenes as I was the principle involved. The gospel by its nature is offensive and when our society lets people that are offended by it silence it, then we as Christians will not be able to witness to others, pastors will not be allowed to preach, etc. That's something I hope I never see...but we see in the N.T. that persecution of the church was common. So I guess as we approach Thanksgiving, that's something we can all be thankful for. We can post on here and not have to worry about Drina's site being shut down!

Have a good Thanksgiving everyone!

Roger on November 25, 2004 12:48 AM

Roger, not all Christians want to do what's right... historically Christians have committed some of the world's worst atrocities, and that unfortunate travesty has not yet seen its end. And that's why problems need to be addressed now, before they evolve into modern inquisitions and crusades. It's a slippery slope.

As for the war in Iraq, it is no more morally justifiable than unrestricted stem-cell research and human cloning. I've read the Bible, and Christ does not condone this war. Matthew Jones made an interesting point when he said, "Nothing says 'I Love You' like a ballistic missile." That really characterizes the fallacy of the fundamentalist approach to pro-American violence.

>>The gospel by its nature is offensive

I agree, but the gospel has nothing to do with plastic nativity scenes. I don't know why so many Christians hold so fervently to things and stuff as though they matter. As I've said before, I really don't care what kind of junk is sitting on the city hall lawn, and I don't believe that leaving public space neutral is an impediment to faith. On the contrary --it's a benefit, because then people don't feel threatened by what they perceive as religion pushers.

As you pointed out so appropriately, I have freedom to speak my thoughts, and to share my beliefs. There's nothing relevent to Christian faith that I can't do. The things that are not allowed are irrelevent. So why should I feel persecuted when I'm not?

Of course, that's not to say persecution never happens. Christ said that if they persecuted him, his followers will get the same. Christ was persecuted by the religious elitists of his day, and the same thing is happening now. Look at what the fundamentalists did to Tony Campolo when he ministered to Bill Clinton --he was labelled evil and sinful, just like Christ when he ministered to sinful people.

So yes, it's happening. Just not in the way you believe it to.

Drina on November 25, 2004 10:37 AM



rick luoni on November 25, 2004 03:09 PM

Drina - you should take the time out to watch Dogma...but you may not want to watch it with the family. It is probably one of the most vulgar of Smith's movies, but also one of the funniest. Its a good movie to watch with friends on a lazy day.

Jake on November 30, 2004 10:09 AM