Conservatives Don’t Own Jesus

By teaming up with Christians, progressives can reclaim the political agenda

Photography by David Shankbone
Photography by David Shankbone

Donald Trump is an adulterer, a liar, and a bully. He is divisive and dangerous and an appalling role model for those around him. No matter: 81 percent of white born-again or evangelical Christians and 60 percent of white Roman Catholics voted for him, and a majority of white evangelical Protestants still back him. He is held up by numerous Christian leaders as a protector of the faith. Among his supporters is Franklin Graham, multi-millionaire son of the recently deceased Reverend Billy Graham, who wants Muslims banned from the United States because Islam is “very evil and wicked” and who has demanded that LGBTQ people be barred from churches because Satan “wants to devour our homes.”

It’s no surprise that many progressives believe that organized Christianity stands in direct opposition to the aspirations of social democracy. It would be bad enough if the problem were just Trump, but the malaise goes far deeper. Closer to home, Christian activist Charles McVety has endorsed Doug Ford in the Ontario election, and he’s been joined by megachurch leader Paul Melnichuk who anointed Ford as “a man surely the Lord has visited.” This is the same McVety whose show on a Christian TV network was cancelled in 2010 for suggesting that homosexuals prey on children. And it’s the same Melnichuk who was the subject of a 2007 Toronto Star investigation that alleged little of the millions his church collected from primarily working-class congregants was spent on charitable works and who, decades earlier, was denounced by the Canadian Jewish Congress over a sermon in which he labelled Jews “the most miserable people in the whole world.” (He later apologized.)

Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics are also standing for political office in ever-greater numbers. The two most influential conservatives in Canada today are both devout Roman Catholics: Andrew Scheer, leader of the federal Conservative Party, and Jason Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party in Alberta. Behind them are well-financed groups such as Campaign Life Coalition, arguably Canada’s biggest anti-abortion organization. Campaign Life not only uses messaging that is harsh and condemning (before the last federal election, it helped circulate flyers showing Justin Trudeau next to a graphic image of an aborted fetus) but runs aggressive anti-LGBTQ campaigns (in 2015, the group argued that Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum would “normalize homosexual family structures”).

These individuals and groups have been allowed to own the label of Christianity, driving a wedge between secular voters who seek a more tolerant Canada and those who follow Christ. As Jocelyn Bell, editor and publisher of The United Church Observer says, “It’s frustrating that the work of churches with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, is so often left unknown.”

Progressives may want to ignore the church, to reject it, even to despise it. But they shouldn’t. If the progressive movement seeks to shape this county, then it needs to influence the levers of power, such as culture, media, politics, and—yes—faith. Christianity matters in Canada, and it is not going away. But my thesis is not cynical. I’m not arguing that we must hold our nose and build bridges when we possibly can. Instead, I maintain that reconciling progressive ideas and Christ’s teachings isn’t just possible, it’s absolutely inevitable.

There are those on the left who see religion as a distraction from the genuine challenges of poverty, echoing the Marxian notion of faith as the “opiate of the people.” Having watched Christian groups try to restrict the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ people, they are angry at religious leaders who support and defend arch-conservative administrations. In return, I offer the vision of a joint enterprise based on the moral agenda we share: a dedication to the social values that liberate the very people to whom Jesus devoted his work and teachings. He came for everybody but certainly seemed to prefer the poor and needy. He came to provoke the complacent and empower the vulnerable. He was never a figure of the status quo.

On the issues of abortion and homosexuality, for example, Jesus hardly says a word. When he is confronted with what is regarded as sexual sin, as in the case of the woman caught in adultery, he turns the challenge into a condemnation not of sexuality but of hypocrisy. He points to the accusers, to the righteous types, and sees in them not purity but puritanism. You who are without sin, he says, cast the first stone! Then he forgives the accused woman. That’s about all he says on the matter, other than condemning divorce—and he does this partly because, in first-century Palestine, divorce led to the isolation and likely impoverishment of women. The era was deeply misogynistic. Then contemporary Jewish historian Josephus wrote that a woman “is inferior to a man in all respects. So, let her obey, not that she may be abused, but that she may be ruled; for God has given power to the man.” A reading of the Gospel that bears this gender reality in mind would recognize that Jesus is condemning divorce less to defend an institution than to protect women from inequality.

There might even be a reference to homosexuality in the Gospel. It’s when the Roman centurion approaches Christ and speaks of his love for his sick slave and begs Jesus to cure the man. Jesus does cure him and is in awe of this pagan Roman’s devotion to his slave. Some experts are convinced that this story would have been regarded by Jewish listeners at the time as a reference to a same-sex relationship. Jeffrey John, one of the finest minds in the Church of England, and dean of St. Albans Cathedral, writes in his book Permanent, Faithful, Stable, Christian Same-Sex Marriage, that “any Jew would almost certainly have assumed they were gay lovers” and that “the possibility that the relationship was homosexual would not have escaped Jesus, Matthew or Luke.” That tale, those words—“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed”—are repeated at every single mass that is heard in the Roman Catholic Church. So when that Church condemns same-sex relationships, religious leaders like Jeffrey John would have us remember that centurion and his beloved. The rebel Jesus did.

Then we have that other enduring issue of the Christian right: abortion. This is often seen as a point of division between liberals and Christians, because women’s choice is, quite rightly, a fundamental part of any progressive belief system. But an intelligent, moderate Christian approach does not have to disagree. Surely, a majority on both sides of the issue would like abortion rates to decline, and the way to achieve that is entirely liberal and, yes, entirely Christian: by making contraceptives readily available, by insisting on modern sex education, by reducing poverty, by funding public daycare, and by generally empowering women. And yet Catholics insist on opposing “artificial contraceptives” and, alongside their conservative Protestant allies, lead the campaign against modern sex education. As for abortion itself, most on the Christian right want it defunded and ultimately banned and criminalized.

The Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister has done an effective job of explaining the gap, the difference, between care for life and opposition to abortion: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” Christian conservatives appear to care for people just before they’re born and just before they die. In between, not so much. That’s not the rebel Jesus, that’s not the stinging demand for social change and justice that the Gospel insists upon.

Economics and financial power? “In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” This is not gentle compromise, this is downright revolutionary! Then there is, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Here is the rebel Jesus, who embraces the redistribution of wealth and power. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.” When a wealthy young man asks what he must do to obtain eternal life, Jesus’s reply is simple: sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. This is socialism—pristine, exquisite socialism.

When Jesus speaks of war and peace, he uses words that, in the ancient Greek version, are not passive and liberal but aggressively interventionist, strident against violence, and militant in bringing about peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”; this is, at its heart, telling listeners that if they make war, or even allow war to take place without doing all in their power to prevent it, they don’t know God. Jesus is less a pacifist—witness the attack on the money men in the temple—than a committed objector to war. No selling arms, no military-industrial complex, no profit in other people’s misery.

Much to the frustration of the political right, which embraces individualism, the secular left holds high the idea of the collective. This is where the coalition between progressives and Christians is at its most evident. At the heart of the Christian rebellion are the lyrical absolutes of community and fraternity. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” And this extends far beyond one’s own people or culture. When Jesus tells his followers, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me,” he is echoing the command initiated millennia earlier in the Old Testament: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

So Jesus didn’t mention abortion, contraceptives, or euthanasia, but he did expose and condemn hypocrisy, selfishness, and the dangers of wealth, anger, and inequality. He didn’t speak of the free market, but he did reject those who transformed a place of worship into a market of profit. He didn’t obsess about sex, but he did welcome and embrace those accused of sexual sin. He didn’t build walls and fences, but he did insist that we rip down all that might separate and divide us. He didn’t call for war and aggression but did demand we throw away weapons and all that might hurt or kill our brothers and sisters. That is the rebel Jesus: cutting through the pain and the suffering and the confusion of this broken planet and pulling back the curtain to show the splendid truth of the world’s possibilities.

He turns the world upside down, challenges the comfortable, sides with the outcast and the prisoner, has no regard for earthly power and worldly ambition. The rebellion of Christianity isn’t safe and was never supposed to be. The rebellion of Christianity is dangerous.

Yet conservatives have transformed a faith that should revel in saying yes into a religion that cries no. Its founder died so that we would change the world, but many of his followers link Jesus to military force and dismiss those who campaign for social change as radical and even godless. So many conservatives have manipulated Christianity into a cult of the bunker, seeing persecution around every corner and retreating into literalism and small-mindedness.

This is all nostalgia rather than the rebel Jesus. It’s as though the cosmetics of the Gospel, the veneer of the message, has become more important than its core and its central meaning. Jesus spoke less about the end times than the time to end injustice, less about whom we should love than about how we should love everyone. The pain of another is personal pain, we are our neighbour, we exist and live in a collective of grace, and to exclude any other person is to exclude God. It’s a message that should positively bleed from our very soul. We must extend the circle of love rather than stand at the corners of a square and repel outsiders.

It was the rebel Jesus who shaped Martin Luther King’s struggle against racism, William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery, and Lord Ashley’s work against child labour. It was the rebel Jesus who led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to give his life to resisting Nazism and sustained Tommy Douglas as he struggled to save countless lives in this country through socialized medicine.

So, what should we conclude, either as secular progressives or as committed followers of Christ? That the Gospel doesn’t simply ask for change, doesn’t just plead for reform, doesn’t sing for a better society. It roars that we make the world a better, kinder, and more socialistic place. That’s the shock and awe of real Christianity; that’s the rebel Jesus.

This article was adapted from a speech given to the Broadbent Institute in Edmonton on April 20, 2018.

Michael Coren
Michael Coren writes for the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and New Statesman. His latest book is The Rebel Christ.