I will begin this post with a note to my religion-minded readers. I’m not opposed to religious belief. I’m not opposed to spirituality. I’m not opposed to faith in a higher power. What I am opposed to is the cult of certainty that surrounds so many religions or belief systems. I’m opposed to fundamentalism, to the kind of beliefs that lead to the beheading of infidels in Syria and to the murder of abortion providers in Kansas.
I also want to say that I’m not even opposed to belief in Jesus. Even though I am a former conservative evangelical Christian, I don’t get too worked up over anyone who still does believe, who holds on to the idea that Jesus was killed and then awakened by God as if he were merely sleeping. Such beliefs are your business, as far as I’m concerned. If they motivate you to do good, all the better. If they motivate you to put down others and condemn them, shame on you.
But because I am a former conservative evangelical Christian, because I still closely follow the Religious Right and its attempt to influence, if not control, public policy, this post is about the Jesus of the conservative evangelical movement, the Jesus who conservative Christians say we all should follow and submit to as we await his promised return. This post isn’t necessarily about your Jesus, the one you worship in your church. It is about the Jesus I grew up with, the one I worshiped as an evangelical right-winger, the one that so many prominent evangelical leaders present to us from their pulpits, or on television or through the radio or the mail or, these days, online. And that “family values” Jesus—the Jesus of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Ralph Reed, and other prominent Religious Right leaders—is at this very moment hanging on a cross, a Trump cross, being tortured to death in a way even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ understates.
The New Testament tells us that Pontius Pilate, the governor of Roman-occupied Judea from AD 26-36, observed the alleged Jewish Passover custom of allowing the public to commute the death sentence of one prisoner held in custody. According to the biblical accounts, Pilate offered to the crowd a man named Barabbas, who was an anti-establishment revolutionary, or Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be the son of God. Unfortunately for Jesus, the crowd chose Barabbas. I thought about that story when I read this morning about yet another evangelical pastor who is endorsing Donald Trump. We can add Reverend Tony Suarez to a long list of evangelical Christian leaders who have chosen their Barabbas over their Jesus.
Three months ago, a prominent and influential conservative theologian, Wayne Grudem, authored a piece for Townhall called, “Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.” Grudem’s intellectual credentials are sterling: the man graduated from Harvard (BA), Westminster Seminary-Philadelphia (MDiv. DD), and took a PhD from Cambridge (yes, that Cambridge). In his pro-Trump article, Grudem says he “has taught Christian ethics for 39 years.” In other words, he’s no Jimmy Swaggart from Ferriday, Louisiana.
Grudem told us in July that, despite Trump’s many, many flaws, voting for him “is the morally right thing to do.” Here is a stunning paragraph from a professor of conservative Christian ethics:
He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages. These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws in this election.
Please note something very important: Grudem categorized Trump’s infamous call for the murder—the murder—of the families of terrorists as just one of several “mistaken ideas.” To Grudem, Trump’s call for murdering innocents was not a morally disqualifying policy statement, not a terrifying glimpse into Trump’s terrifying mind, but merely a mistaken notion that can easily be overlooked because Trump abandoned it (well, no he hasn’t). If such reasoning represents Christian ethics, then there are no Christian ethics.
Grudem came to regret that article, after Trump’s “pussy” recording came out. Suddenly, our pedigreed professor of ethics found his moral footing. Writing again for Townhall, he said,
I previously called Donald Trump a “good candidate with flaws” and a “flawed candidate” but I now regret that I did not more strongly condemn his moral character. I cannot commend Trump’s moral character, and I strongly urge him to withdraw from the election.
The respected evangelical theologian said Trump’s “vulgar comments in 2005 about his sexual aggression and assaults against women were morally evil and revealed pride in conduct that violates God’s command, ‘You shall not commit adultery.'” Yes! Finally, Grudem was on an ethical roll:
I have now read transcripts of some of his obscene interviews with Howard Stern, and they turned my stomach. His conduct was hateful in God’s eyes and I urge him to repent and call out to God for forgiveness, and to seek forgiveness from those he harmed. God intends that men honor and respect women, not abuse them as sexual objects.
Amen! All was right with the world after all. A prominent Christian professor of ethics had found his way back to the ethical! Thank you, Dr. Grudem!
But wait. What? He changed his mind again? Again? Yes. A week ago. He wrote:
I overwhelmingly support Trump’s policies and believe that Clinton’s policies will seriously damage the nation, perhaps forever. On the Supreme Court, abortion, religious liberty, sexual orientation regulations, taxes, economic growth, the minimum wage, school choice, Obamacare, protection from terrorists, immigration, the military, energy, and safety in our cities, I think Trump is far better than Clinton (see below for details). Again and again, Trump supports the policies I advocated in my 2010 book Politics According to the Bible.
Without Trump repenting, without Trump calling out to God for forgiveness, without Trump seeking forgiveness from those he wronged—in fact he’s called them all liars and threatened to sue them after the election—Dr. Grudem nevertheless has, again, chosen Barabbas. And that deplorable turnabout represents the Jesus I have known all my life being nailed to a Trump cross. Such tortured reasoning by a renowned evangelical theologian represents the slow torture of the right-wing Jesus, the one shoved down our throats election after election, the one used to trash Democratic candidates and Democratic policies, the one offered as condemnation of liberalism’s alleged moral failings, or of the real moral failings of liberal candidates.
The conservative-created Jesus is up there hanging on a cross in front of Trump Tower, where so many right-wing evangelicals have gone over the past year to cast their lots with the Republican candidate. The Trump-branded Jesus of conservative evangelicalism is dying before our eyes. And no matter whether Trump wins or loses the election, that Jesus will soon be dead and buried. Like the crowd who supposedly stood before Pontius Pilate so long ago, evangelicals on the Religious Right could have chosen Trump or they could have chosen their family-values Jesus. But they couldn’t choose both. Overwhelmingly, judging by the polls, conservative evangelicals have made their choice. And this time there will be no resurrection from the dead. There will be no Easter Sunday for the Jesus of Wayne Grudem or Jerry Falwell, Jr., or Pat Robertson. And I, for one, will be glad to see that Jesus gone forever.