Tony Keddie is Assistant Professor of Early Christian History and Literature at the University of British Columbia. In his new book, Republican Jesus: How the Right has Rewritten the Gospels, Keddie situates popular Republican perceptions of Christ within a historical context both ancient and modern. He explains in detail how right-wing actors have revised Christian values to suit purposes very different from—and often at odds with—the historical Christ.
ECM: Who is Republican Jesus, and what inspired you to write about him?
TK: The short answer is that Republican Jesus is a version of Jesus invented by the Christian Right over the past century to place conservative talking points into the mouth of Christ and to give them the authority of the divine Word. The book is devoted to fleshing out that process.
I was inspired to write it at this moment because, though there have been a lot of great books coming out about contemporary evangelicalism and contemporary religious politics in America, most are not talking about the biblical texts or the politics of biblical interpretation in any depth. As a Bible scholar, I wanted to write about these things with special attention to the Christian Right and its agenda.
My students at the University of British Columbia played a role, too. In Canada, you know, everyone is always sort of keeping an eye on America, and they tend to ask different questions than the ones you get in the US. These students have often been self-identified evangelicals or conservatives, but they didn’t understand the economic conservatism or the xenophobia of Christian Right interpretation. So their curiosity prompted me to try to explain how so many Americans have come to understand Jesus as a prophet of small government and secure borders.
ECM: Those who worship Republican Jesus today don’t think of him as Republican Jesus—he’s just Jesus. They think of themselves as supporting the Republican Party because that’s what Jesus would do, not as worshipping a Jesus that the Republican Party has created. How did this happen?
TK: Well, this understanding of Jesus has been in development now for a few generations. Much of it is traceable to the conservative reaction to the New Deal, when corporate leaders and conservative clergymen partnered to promote a fiercely individualistic Jesus who scorned government intervention in the private sector. They did this consistently, all while concealing the entire interpretative enterprise. So instead of understanding this Jesus as the product of specific interpretative choices made by human beings with certain worldly commitments, their audiences were encouraged to see him simply as the way it is. Over time, that opportunistic rendering gained traction.
It’s also the case that there have been concerted efforts by Christian Right influencers all along to hide their politics—to suggest that what they’re doing in the political realm is actually apolitical. Billy Graham, for example, was this great evangelist who was constantly and performatively spurning the Civil Rights movement because it was “political,” but then also appeared on stage or in conference with Republican presidents and supported their aggressive foreign policy decisions as part of his generic anti-communism. When religious leaders choose to act or not to act in public, the choice is always political, and their religious views must be understood alongside their politics.
We’re seeing this same thing now with Graham’s son, Franklin. About a month ago, he organized a “Prayer March” and promoted it with the persistent refrain that “this is not political.” And yet everyone knows where Graham stands politically. Mike Huckabee was one of the anchors, and the event was clearly intended to mobilize conservative evangelical Christians—an important Republican voting bloc—shortly before a national election. So here again we have a disingenuous disavowal of politics by obviously political actors. It’s a dangerous conceit because it creates a sense of unity around faith and prayer, but the entire event is dominated by perspectives that are particular to American economic conservatism. They’re pro-privatization, anti-regulation, and anti-taxes, with gestures toward authoritarianism—emphasizing prayers for the police following a summer of mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, for example. All of this allows participants to think of their faith as purely biblical, when in reality it has been carefully molded by a particular set of political influencers.
ECM: At this point, Republican “family values” advocacy is based primarily on opposition to abortion and to same-sex marriage. You suggest that Jesus probably wouldn’t actually take these positions. Why?
TK: Throughout the book, I try to answer questions like this in reference to two historical contexts: the context in which the biblical texts were written, and the context in which the interpretations were first devised. Where family values are concerned, I note that there is an entire right-wing discourse that was developed in the 1960s and 70s to sacralize the white patriarchal family in reaction to Civil Rights, second-wave feminism, gay rights, and other progressive movements. That discourse was then pushed upon the gospels by way of cherry-picking certain useful verses and ignoring others that were inconvenient.
Matthew 19, for example, includes the phrase “God made them male and female,” which has been cited frequently in defense of the simple gender binary that conservatives value. But then, just a few lines later, in an integral section of the text, Jesus goes on to talk about eunuchs—those who were born as eunuchs, those who have been made eunuchs by others, and those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. So, three different types of sexual minority. Eunuchs in the ancient world were perceived—pejoratively—as a sort of third class of half-males; as neither entirely male nor female. To make claims about “biblical manhood and womanhood” in a chapter like this involves a really sloppy use of sources while entirely missing the historical context around Jesus, who is also not very family oriented. He shuns his family in some of the gospel accounts, and otherwise thinks of his disciples as his family. So the imposition of a “nuclear family” model on Jesus and his teaching is a distinctly modern imposition.
As for abortion, the Bible doesn’t mention it anywhere, at least not explicitly. This is why conservative Christians were debating over whether they thought abortion was a blessing or a curse all the way up to the years just before Roe v. Wade. That divisive case played a major role in generating the right-wing biblical cases against abortion that are so common today, but conservatives rarely approached the biblical evidence with such certainty before this historical moment.
Jesus and his earliest followers probably understood when human life begins in one of two ways—either as beginning with the first breath, the “breath of life,” which seems to be the view of the Hebrew Bible and was taken up in this way by the ancient rabbis; or as beginning at some uncertain point during gestation, following the popular gradualist theory best known from some Greek philosophers (the fetus begins as a seed and endures a plant-like stage before gradually becoming more like an animal and then more like a human). We don’t really know what Jesus would have thought about when human life begins, but I can say with confidence that he would have been totally perplexed by the modern right-wing discourse on “fetal personhood” and “unborn citizens” that need to be saved from the government.