Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Specter of Jesus | Righting America

by William Trollinger

The fact that white evangelicals have given us President Donald Trump has forced a significant minority of American evangelicals into profound self-examination. Some are simply abandoning the label. One of the most prominent is David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University:

Some of us have begun to face the fact that white evangelicalism is no longer our religious community. We must grieve, deeply. Perhaps we are now to be called post-evangelicals, or ex-evangelicals. Whatever we call ourselves, it is time to move on . . . We leave our morally bankrupt religious tribe. Find new community. State our clear dissent and give good reasons for it. Practice resistance where we can. Stand in solidarity with the oppressed. This is what we do now. At least, it is a start.

Others have responded by attempting to rescue evangelicalism from the Christian Right. As we noted in the last post, one group is the Red Letter Christians (RLC), an organization that seeks to take evangelicalism away from culture war politics and back to the teachings of Jesus.

Christian Right leaders are concerned. When the RLC held a “Red Letter Revival” in Lynchburg, VA,  Jerry Falwell, Jr. threatened RLC leaders that if they stepped onto the Liberty University campus, they would be arrested. More than this, he commanded Liberty’s student newspaper not to report on the revival. “Ignore them.”

Falwell is not the only Christian Right leader spooked by these Jesus-following evangelicals. See, for example, Answer in Genesis (AiG) CEO Ken Ham.

In a recent blog post, entitled “Should We Sacrifice the Gospel on the Altar of Social Justice?,” Ham takes aim at the RLC:

Missing entirely from their ‘about us’ page is something rather important – the gospel! . . . The gospel is utterly absent and replaced, instead, with the social gospel. The social gospel is all about solving temporary problems such as poverty or racial division. Christians should be (and usually are) on the forefront of fighting these things, but they aren’t the most important issues. They are temporary consequences of the Curse and will pass with this world. Our primary focus, as we care for the poor and needy, is to preach the gospel so people will have their biggest problem – sin – solved! [Emphases in original.]

As Ham sees it, the RLC has “many things wrong, and I would caution people to stay away from this group.” And everything “this group” has wrong can be summarized in their rejection of biblical authority:

It’s no surprise that on their website they have a blog post criticizing biblical creationists . . . They’ve abandoned God’s Word as the ultimate authority beginning in Genesis, so why not pick and choose which parts of the Bible you like and which parts you want to ignore?” [Emphases ours.]

It is interesting that Ken Ham would level this charge, given that the whole point of the RLC is that Christian Right evangelicalism has chosen to ignore the teachings of Jesus.

Ham’s Creation Museum is the perfect example. After a decade of virtually nothing on Jesus, last May the museum added three rooms entitled “Christ,” “Cross,” and “Consummation.” In these rooms there is much on biblical prophecy, much on Jesus the blood sacrifice, much on Jesus’ power to perform miracles, much on the eternal judgment in hell that awaits all those who do not accept Jesus as Savior.

But when it comes to the “red letter” teachings of Jesus, when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, there is virtually nothing here.

The Creation Museum is much less interested in teaching us how to live as Jesus taught us to live, and much more interested in threatening us with eternal damnation. Toward that end, the museum provides a placard with a quote from Matthew 25:41: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Interestingly, on their website the Red Letter Christians include Matthew 25 as a particularly significant “red letter passage.” But while the RLC quotes the entire passage, the Creation Museum – which claims to stand for “biblical authority” — mentions just verse 41.

Why? What is the Creation Museum ignoring?

The highlighted section below is what is quoted at the Creation Museum; the following verses (42-46) are what the museum has chosen to omit:

Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and gave me no food, I was thirsty and gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Then they will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

As we point out in Righting America,

A “plain sense” reading of Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 25 would suggest that, at the very least, how one treats the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned will be an essential component of how one’s life will be judged. (Righting 226)

It would seem that social justice is not extraneous to the Gospel. It is the Gospel.

Of course Jerry Falwell, Jr., Ken Ham, and other leaders of the Christian Right steer evangelicals away from the RLC. Of course they want to keep evangelicals from reading the Bible on their own. Because if evangelicals start reading the Gospels, well, they might encounter Jesus. And that prospect is frightening.

The specter haunting the Christian Right is Jesus.