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.
ECM: The standard Republican Christian line on charity seems to be that, while they believe it’s important to help the poor, they don’t think the government should take the lead or that tax dollars should be involved. It should be left to churches and private organizations. What’s wrong with that?
TK: So many things! I’m not even sure where to begin. Historically, dating again back to the New Deal, political influencers on the right have cast charity as an alternative to government aid—something that complements government aid, perhaps, but remains separate from and in conflict with it. During the New Deal era, corporate-funded conservative preachers spoke incessantly about taxation as a form of “theft” and linked it directly to the command that “thou shalt not steal.” They spoke about the “virus of collectivism” as a threat to the individualist gospel, and reasoned cynically that FDR’s expanding social safety net was actually stripping individual citizens of the opportunity to love their neighbors.
You see this a lot in interpretations of the “Good Samaritan” parable in the gospel of Luke. There is a man dying by the roadside, a priest and Levite pass him by, and finally a Samaritan stops to help him. Though most readers see in this story a general call to love your neighbor and support those in need, conservative interpreters during and after the New Deal era were quick to point out that the Samaritan is a private citizen, not a government, and that this is instructive on how public assistance should be distributed today. But of course the parable long predates anything remotely like the New Deal, so it can’t be read as an admonition of the welfare state. And it’s important to note that, in helping this man, the Samaritan gives freely without ever asking for anything in return or trying to convert the man to his way of thought or belief.
By contrast, a lot of private, religious relief organizations, like Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, do receive money from USAID, and do make proselytization a centerpiece of their efforts. So it’s not that they are uniformly opposed to public money being used in this way, it’s that they want control over how it is used, and they often want to use it toward ends that are separate from addressing poverty or providing disaster relief.
ECM: To me the weirdest Republican belief about Jesus is that he would be adamantly pro-gun. This is the guy who said to love your enemies, to turn the other cheek, that to live by the sword is to die by the sword, etc. What do you make of it?
TK: It is trippy, isn’t it? Of all of the outlandish and ludicrous interpretations I’ve worked on, I see this one as the most disturbing and dangerous. It’s part and parcel of the larger narrative that the gospel is all about individual rights. Like with abortion, or gay rights, or environmentalism, or some of these other issues, the notion that Jesus can somehow be paired with firearm ownership arose at a particular moment in American history, and for a particular reason. It’s only in 1977, after the so-called “Revolt at Cincinnati”—the takeover of the National Rifle Association by hardnosed “gun rights” activists—that we start to hear this claim that there is a God-given right to guns, and start to see people mining the scriptures to justify it.
One passage that they often cite is the account of Jesus’s arrest. In the scene, as relayed in Luke, it appears that Jesus wants his disciples to be armed, so it’s a short interpretative leap to suggest that his modern-day disciples should be armed as well. But we have to note a couple of things. For one, Jesus’s disciples are armed with swords, which are not guns. Whatever their value as symbols in this instance, swords are not weapons of mass murder like the AR-15, and the text cannot be read as an endorsement of such weapons. But more importantly, as an interpretative matter, the text makes clear that Jesus wants his disciples to carry swords not for aggression or self-defense, but in order to fulfill a prophecy from Isaiah 53. And famously, when one of the disciples actually uses his sword to cut off a man’s ear, Jesus quickly heals the man and says, “no more of this.” By the scene’s close, there is no question that Jesus has taken a stand against violence—even, it seems, in self-defense. This is another case among so many in which reading the text within its context and broader literary tradition offers a corrective to this calculated, partisan proof-texting.
ECM: It also seems to be an item of common sense among Republican Christians that biblical prophecies have placed us in the end times, and that the chaos of our current events signals that Jesus is about to return. You have some concerns about this. Why?
TK: Any time that a biblical writer invokes the end of the world—including via visionary rhetoric about a “new world” or a “new heaven”—it always implies a political critique of the present. That is, I don’t think that we ever see people, in any period, describing a utopian or dystopian vision without also taking the opportunity to demonize people who they view as the problem. The book of Revelation, for example, makes a bold critique of the Roman Empire. The book of Daniel makes a bold critique of Seleucid, this Hellenistic kingdom from the second century BCE. Similarly, today, when we see apocalyptic rhetoric in use, it’s almost always to demonize a particular group.
Most recently, with Covid-19, both evangelist Pat Robertson and White House Bible Study leader Ralph Drollinger have suggested that the pandemic represents God’s wrath against specific sins and sinners—Drollinger has specified those who have “a proclivity to lesbianism and homosexuality,” environmentalists, atheists, etc. Because we live in a moment when the rightwing has cornered and claimed ownership over Christianity, we increasingly see different categories of liberals cast as the villains in the narrative.
Now, there is a wide range of views on how the end times will unfold, and what role human beings will play as agents in bringing them on, so it’s difficult to discuss the matter with specificity. But if there’s a common thread, it’s that those who foresee the end generally identify their own enemies in their own place and time as either causing the apocalypse or being punished most harshly during it. And that’s what makes this rhetoric particularly dangerous.
ECM: Over the last four years I’ve had a lot of really frustrating conversations with friends and family who insist that—based on many of the assumptions you’ve documented—a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Jesus. I’m kind of at a loss, because if they’re capable of drawing that conclusion, then I’m not sure there is any argument that I can make or evidence that I can share to sway them. I don’t think I’m alone in this. What advice do you have for people like me?
TK: I think that is such an important question to ask, especially in these critical last days before the election. I’ve had some conversations with colleagues who work with fundamentalist, evangelical Trump voters, and have mostly given up. But my personal experience, with my family and friends, suggests that it is useful to provide them access to information that Fox News doesn’t give them, such as the important work being done by progressive Christian movements. William Barber with Repairs of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign, Shane Claiborne with The Simple Way and the Red Letter Christians, and many others are interpreting the Bible in pursuit of social justice.
That’s not to say that you should go to your friends and say, “No, here’s the right way to be a Christian,” but instead to make it clear that the right doesn’t own Christianity. Despite Franklin Graham’s insistence that Christ backs Republican views, despite Trump’s claim that Biden will “hurt God” or that Democrats “want to shut down your churches.” There is a lot of very dangerous, polarizing rhetoric coming out of the political right today, and the media has too often played into it. The Christian Right is sensationalist, so they can easily monopolize sensationalist media. In the meanwhile, a lot vital—but comparatively quiet—community work being done by Christians on the left goes unremarked. It’s always good to amplify voices on the left, especially progressive Christians and inter-faith alliances. And it’s important to show that the right wing does not practice “Christianity” so much as a Christianity, in fact a version with some very recent alterations.