I grew up in the shadow of what I see now as the historical precursor to “Trumpian Evangelicalism”.
Two important points about that: First, back then we didn’t call ourselves evangelicals. That moniker was far too liberal and freighted with “modernist” tendencies and best reserved for the more conservative parts of mainline Protestantism. We were fundamentalists and proud of it. It turns out this is all kind of important historically, as the NPR Throughline podcast “Apocalypse Now” lays out so accurately (give it a listen).
Second, when I say “in the shadow” I mean that both literally and figuratively. I attended youth conferences in the literal shadow of Thomas Road Baptist Church, where Jerry Falwell (the elder) held forth each Sunday and on random days when he was beamed into our home.
Those youth conferences were a mix of (I realized later) aggressively promoted civil religion with gala concerts featuring songs like “I’m Just a Flag Waving American”; lots of conversation about how sex (outside marriage) was kind of an ultimate evil; and lots of preaching on how the “end times” were upon us and being saved—something that was constantly being called into question—was the only way out of horrific suffering and ultimate damnation.
In the shadow figuratively, we listened to and watched Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” on a weekly basis; developed a “bus ministry” following his model about how to bus lost kids to church; and swallowed wholesale the increasingly political positions as outlined by his burgeoning “Moral Majority.”
Maybe the Moral Majority (and home schooling) are the threads that link that era’s fundamentalism with our Trumpian-Evangelical own. Arguably that is true, but that is not what I want to talk about. I am just laying out my evangelical creds here (even though I am not one today).
The point is, in all those years we heard a lot of teaching about all manner of issues related to sin and salvation. In some ways Jesus had to be at the center of it all.
In most ways though, he was just a bit player.
In that teaching Jesus’ raison d’être was basically to die. While he had to be flesh and blood to have his body pierced and his blood flow, he was really not of this world. And while most evangelicals then and now would squirm at the notion that God killed Jesus, that is pretty much my takeaway from all that teaching: People were sinners. God was angry and needed someone to pay. God sent the perfect man Jesus to pay the price. Ergo, God killed him to satisfy God’s anger. (I was about 12 when I basically put THAT proposition to my dad—who demurred)
The fact that Jesus was never fully human fit (and fits), by the way, in the broader gnostic tendencies of that kind of religion, which denies the value of the physical and counts only the spiritual as real and of consequence to the ultimate questions of reality.
That teaching about Jesus meant, in concrete terms, that we never saw Jesus in a sociological way—we had a very undersocialized kind of Jesus who taught in strange parables, had few human emotions (he wept once), and basically accepted his fate that he was here for one gory purpose. At the limit, thinking about it now, Jesus was clearly “on the spectrum”—he just did not really connect to the world around him and he really did not need to.
In the same way, we never saw Jesus as having a political agenda, and we certainly never thought about how enmeshed his whole story ended up with the politics of that day.
Jesus was a-social, a-political, a-human.
This all matters to the topic at hand because, in reality, Jesus’ death was due to a kind of tacit conspiracy, and one of which Pilate symbolically washed his hands, between the religious leaders of the day and the power of Rome.
The religious leaders then had everything they wanted: they got 1) wealth (remember the temple cleansing); 2) freedom to practice their religion (within the confines of not making too much of the fact that they did not accept that the emperor was god); and 3) power to run their geographical backwater in Palestine.
Now Jesus and some other rabble rousers of his ilk were constant threats to that order. They talked revolution, of kingdoms greater than Rome, of God’s wrath upon soldiers, of a time when the empire would crumble. Most of these folks were cranks. And so would have Jesus been had he not created a wave of support across the breadth of the land and then audaciously ridden into Jerusalem jerking the chain of the religious leaders by mobilizing centuries of symbolism about a coming Messiah.
In doing those things he became a threat to the order and so he was handed over to the proper authorities. The religious leaders were forced to proclaim they had no king but Caesar (pretty blasphemously of them it turns out), and everyone got what they wanted: dead zealot, Rome in control, religious leaders keeping all the benefits of their Faustian bargain.
Oh and Jesus was killed.
This is the socio-political story of Jesus I was never taught in my youth.
And the really key part of this story is that the religious leaders denied the power of what Jesus had to say (stuff about healing, and forgiveness, and love of enemy, poor being rich, and meek inheriting kingdoms, etc.) in order to advance a self-serving political agenda.
And that is pretty much where we are today. Of course sons-of-Falwell and -Graham are going to tell you that they are Christians (they probably won’t say they follow the teaching of Jesus though). But the reality is that they have made a pact with Rome.
They deny all the essentials of the teaching of this socially-embedded and compassionate Nazarene—a man living fully within a social and cultural reality that he challenged with his message of radical forgiveness—and they are going to hand him over to Rome so they can keep their political privilege.
Let’s be clear. Trumpian Evangelicals are defending their Caesar and saying “We have no king but Trump”. They have achieved their political ends by denying the teaching of the one they say they follow. They have killed Jesus because his clearest teaching would threaten their privilege and political benefits.