A lot of people have asked me how it is that so many Republicans claim to follow Jesus in spite of apparently not following his actual teachings at all. How is it that they say they are Christians yet seem to believe the exact opposite of what he taught? How can you square the fact that -- while the Jesus of the New Testament preached kindness, generosity, mercy, not judging others, welcoming the stranger and helping the poor -- people who claim they follow him seem to disdain the poor, vigorously judge everyone who doesn't agree with them, show no mercy and seem to have a serious mean streak? Excellent questions, which you have to go back to the very beginnings of the Christian religion to answer.
To understand how this is possible, you have to understand that the religion of Christianity and the core doctrines in its theology were founded not by Jesus himself but by the apostle Paul. The movement Jesus started was firmly based in Judaism, and was led (according to Paul's own letters and backed up by other historical documents from that period) in the years after Jesus died by his brother James; who, like his brother, was killed by the Romans and/or Jewish leaders affiliated with them about 30 years after Jesus' death, in 62 A.D. Paul, who as far as we know had never known Jesus personally or heard him preach, rejected the ideas of James and created his own doctrine of faith in Jesus leading to personal salvation. But as much as Paul passionately believed in Jesus as his savior, and the savior of all those who profess faith in Jesus as the messiah, Paul didn't write about, or really seem to know much at all about, what Jesus had actually taught while he was alive. In fact, we have no reason to believe that Paul ever met Jesus or heard him preach. The gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- we rely on today to tell us what Jesus actually might have preached were written in the decades after Paul wrote his letters that became the founding theology of Christianity, and Paul's letters did not discuss what Jesus had said, only what Paul believed Jesus had meant to the world.
Paul was obsessed with the path to individual salvation after death, and for him that meant accepting Jesus, who God had sent to sacrifice himself for us, as your personal savior. Salvation didn't come by "works," meaning what good things you did in your life or the way you treated others, but by faith. The fact that Paul didn't seem to know, and certainly didn't write about, what Jesus had actually taught in terms of personal ethics or social reform, was irrelevant to Paul's view of theology.
It is this theology that allows modern day conservatives to strip the teachings of Jesus from their version of Christianity. I know it seems like an odd notion, but my theory is that they have come to believe that if they accept the idea that Jesus is their spiritual savior, they don't have to worry so much about how he said we should live our lives every day.
Of course, the conservative Christians I speak of would vehemently deny that this is how they felt. What they say about what Jesus actually taught is that a) Jesus' preaching was focused on purely spiritual things and personal salvation, not on how society was organized and b) that when Jesus talked about helping the poor, showing mercy and all those lefty sounding things, he was talking only about private charity and not government. This is where conservatives go from theology to rationalization. Let's just focus on what we know from the Bible about these two arguments.
The way the first argument goes is that when Jesus spoke of bringing good news to the poor or liberty to the oppressed, he was speaking solely of personal salvation. In other words, the good news was that those poor and oppressed folks were going to get to go to heaven if they believed the right things. This is what conservatives have argued for 2,000 years: "Hey, you slaves over there, Jesus only meant freedom in heaven, not here on earth." But this flies in the face of the entire Jewish prophetic tradition that Jesus was a part of, where the prophets were very clearly focused on speaking to the rulers of Israel and the wealthy establishment who offended God. In the words of Isaiah: "Woe to the legislators of infamous laws, to those who issue tyrannical decrees, who refuse justice to the unfortunate and cheat the poor of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan." In fact, it was that same Prophet Isaiah who Jesus quoted in his very first public sermon in Luke with which he opened his ministry, where he talked about bringing good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. In that same quote, he also said he had been sent "to proclaim the Lord's year of favor," which was a tradition in ancient Israel that forced the wealthy to forgive the debts of the poor. There was nothing spiritual about it: He was openly and unquestionably, like Isaiah before him, calling for a society-wide redistribution of wealth.
So let's just recount what the Christian New Testament says about Jesus as a social reformer. In his first sermon, he says he has come to bring good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, and calls for the rich to forgive the debts of the poor. He repeatedly spoke with disdain about the wealthy, almost as much as he talked about the importance of helping the poor. He challenged the authorities who were about to stone a woman to death. He drove the money changers from the Temple. He was crucified, a punishment Rome reserved solely for their most dangerous political opponents. His mother (according to the Gospel of Luke) and brother (according to the book of James, which was attributed to him, and which in any case historians believe represented his views accurately) spoke in passionately revolutionary political terms. He, his cousin and close ally John the Baptist, and his brother James, who was the leader of Jesus' movement after Jesus died, all were sentenced to death by the authorities. Does this description sound like someone who cared only about individual spiritual salvation and was not involved in broader societal reform? My view is that the conservatives who try to make the case that the Jesus described in the New Testament was only concerned with personal salvation and individual charity, that he was not interested in challenging the underlying structure of society on behalf of the poor and oppressed, are in the deepest denial.
Check out this Rick Santorum quote for a minute:
"But is there such thing as a sincere liberal Christian, which says that we basically take this document and re-write it ourselves? Is that really Christian? That's a bigger question for me. And the answer is, no, it's not. I don't think there is such a thing. To take what is plainly written and say that I don't agree with that, therefore, I don't have to pay attention to it, means you're not what you say you are. You're a liberal something, but you're not a Christian. That's sort of how I look at it.
"When you go so far afield of that and take what is a salvation story and turn it into a liberation theology story, which is done in the Catholic world as well as in the evangelical world, you have abandoned Christendom, in my opinion. And you don't have a right to claim it."
When you actually read about Jesus in the New Testament -- his mother Mary's declaration that his role would be to "pull the princes down from their thrones and raise high the lowly" and "fill the starving with good things and send the rich away empty"; Jesus' very first sermon where he quotes the social reformer prophet Isaiah calling for the wealthy to forgive the debts of the poor; the number of times he talked about helping the poor and dismissing the rich; the number of times he talked about mercy for the weak; the number of times he quoted the ancient Israeli prophets who had all focused their anger on the ruling class of Israel; the way his brother and heir as leader of the first Christian community had told the rich to "weep for the miseries that are coming to you" because of "the wages which you have kept back from the laborers mowing your fields" -- you really have to wonder about the bizarre back flips someone like Santorum has to make when saying something that goes that directly against what the Bible truly says.
Having read my Bible, I have to reverse Santorum's question: Is there such a thing as a sincere conservative Christian? "To take," as Santorum so wisely says, "what is plainly written and say that I don't agree with that, therefore I don't have to pay attention to it, means you're not what you say you are." Or to have Glenn Beck attack programs for the poor because, as he said with a laugh, "in nature the lions eat the weak": Could such a man be a Christian as he claims to be? What about the crowd, which one would have to assume would mostly call themselves Christian, at the conference he attended who laughed and cheered at the idea of those lions eating the weak, or the crowd at the Republican debate who cheered for the idea that someone without health insurance would die. One could certainly make the argument that Santorum made, that he and the others don't agree "with what is plainly written" in the Bible. But unlike Santorum, I don't want to question anyone's faith.
Perhaps we can say instead that they are Pauline in their Christianity, that they sincerely believe that God sent his only son down to earth to save the souls of believers in Jesus -- but that they don't feel much of a need to actually follow what Jesus taught about loving their neighbors.