Jesus and the Tea Party: Politics and Christianity
Christianity is not the same as the political platform of any political party. God is not a Republican, and He is not a Democrat. He is not a Libertarian and He’s not part of the Green Party. He’s definitely not a member of the Tea Party.
The conflation of Christianity with partisan politics is one of the scariest things I see whenever I watch CNN, MSNBC, Fox, or any other cable news channel. Christianity transcends all political parties. Christians have an important duty to advocate for biblical principles of justice and equity within the political frameworks of their respective countries, but people fall into deep trouble whenever they conflate the Christian message with the agenda of any political party. The bottom line is that whenever this happens, someone, somewhere, becomes unnecessarily turned off to Christianity because every political party stands for some (even many) policy positions which are opposed to the teachings of Jesus.
For the veteran, or budding, social activist in the United States, one of the biggest hindrances to coming to know Jesus is the popular conflation of Christianity with the Republican Party. Let me say it loud and clear for the record: Jesus is not the same as the Republican Party.
All too many evangelical Christians make the incorrect claim—explicitly or implicitly—that in order to follow Jesus you must also be a Republican. Once again: Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
The Republican Party might stand for some principles which are consistent with the Bible, but it advocates for many that are not. Jesus is not opposed to affirmative action, bilingual education, universal healthcare, a living wage, structural changes that will improve our inner city schools, education for undocumented children and college students, or comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, based upon clear biblical support, I have good reasons to believe that Jesus would support some form of each of these policy reform measures.
Unfortunately, many Christians in America fail to do their biblically-mandated due diligence of sifting through political policies using the lens of Scripture. (I am sure that I am guilty of this myself, too; we all have our [many] blindspots) As a consequence, we try to force Jesus into our humanly-constructed political boxes and we end up misrepresenting Christianity to the world. We fail to heed the Apostle Paul’s warning in Romans 12: 2 (NIV):
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
By conforming to the “political patterns of this world”---whether Republican or Democrat, Left, or Right, or whatever—we violate this important biblical principal, and the results are tragic. We end up slapping a Christian label onto every policy position of the political party we belong to. If the Republicans don’t believe global warming is true, then we say that that must be the Christian position on the topic. If the Republicans support a particular war in the Middle East, then we rush to defend that policy decision even if it fails to meet “just war” standards that have been passed down to us by godly Christian theologians like St. Augustine for hundreds of years. If we happen to be on the other side of the political spectrum, we might be tempted to say that a Christian must support abortion as a biblical imperative. At the end of the day, we end up missing God’s will on critical social issues—“His good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
As previously stated, another consequence of conforming to the political patterns of this world is that it can lead us to misrepresent Jesus. Millions of people then end up rejecting what they think is Christianity but which in reality is just a misguided conflation of Christianity with, for example, the Republican (or more recently, Tea) Party.
One of the things that drives me crazy, for example, is when Christians invoke the memory of Ronald Reagan as if he were a canonized saint. He did some good things, but oh, he did some really bad things which stood in direct opposition to Jesus. For example, did you know that Ronald Reagan fought for racial segregation in housing in California the 1960’s? He gained early political notoriety by advocating for Proposition 14. Proposition 14 tragically amended the California state constitution to allow for racial discrimination in housing.1 It read:
Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses. [read: if I want to be racist when I rent or sell a house, then leave me alone]
Proposition 14 was endorsed by conservative groups such as the John Birch Society and the California Republican Assembly. What’s worse, this constitutional amendment explicitly overturned The Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963 which was sponsored by African-American state legislator William Byron Rumford, and which outlawed racial discrimination in housing in California. Yes, Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party in California successfully overturned civil rights legislation barring racial segregation in housing. How do you think it makes me feel when conservative Christians equate Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party with Christianity? It makes me want to scream and say, “Do you want me and my family to be segregated again?”
As governor, Ronald Reagan also opposed César Chávez and the United Farm Workers movement.2 Yes, he stood against the biblical mandate of economic justice for agricultural workers. This mandate is clearly expressed in the Book of James (5:1-6 NIV):
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire (yes, this is the brother of Jesus speaking!). You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourself in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent one, who was not opposing you.”
As a professor who teaches in the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies, how do you think it makes me feel when some Christians put Ronald Reagan on a pedestal? It makes me want to throw up.
One more Ronald Reagan example. Remember Bishop Oscar Romero from the previous chapter? The Reagan administration supported the same military leaders, with money and weapons, who probably murdered Bishop Romero.3 And when thousands of Salvadoran refugees fled to the United States because their family members and friends were being killed by this same oppressive regime, the Reagan administration denied many of their asylum claims and sent them back to Central America knowing that they might be killed.4
And so, Ronald Reagan did horrible things which stood opposed to the central Christian values of justice, compassion, and equality. Whenever Christians equate Ronald Reagan with the “golden years” of the 1980’s and say we need a leader like him again, my response is: Ronald Reagan is not the same as Christianity, and those were not golden years for everybody.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many African Americans and civil rights activists feel the same way, too. According to Professor Ronald W. Walters of the University of Maryland: "Ronald Reagan, it is fair to say, was really an anathema to the entire civil rights community and the civil rights agenda.”5 Reagan was noted for attacking social welfare programs as well as affirmative action programs designed to remedy hundreds of years of racism. He also sought to limit the civil rights protections of the Voting Rights Act and the reach of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Citizens Commission on Civil Rights was formed to counter the reversal of civil rights progress caused by his administration. In the Commission’s own words: “[Reagan caused] an across-the-board breakdown in the machinery constructed by six previous administrations to protect civil rights.”6
In a famous Supreme Court case called United States v. Paradise (1987),the Ronald Reagan administration even intervened on behalf of the Alabama Department of Public Safety which had systematically excluded African Americans from employment and promotion for more than 50 years!7 In fact, the discrimination of the Alabama Department of Public Safety was so thorough that it failed to hire even a single black trooper in the first 37 years of its existence! For this reason and many others, many Christians of color are not big fans of Ronald Reagan. And so, can you imagine how it makes us feel when Ronald Reagan is invoked by some Christians as some sort of modern-day saint?
Many evangelical Christians also do a great disservice to the reputation of Christianity in America by uncritically appropriating far-right Republican rhetoric against President Barack Obama. Many evangelical Christians oppose President Obama with as much ferocity as they approve of Ronald Reagan. Let me clarify. They are entitled to their criticisms of Obama. Obama is definitely not perfect and a number of his views do not line up with biblical Christianity. As we’ve repeated over and over again, Christianity is not the same as the Republican or Democratic Party. That being said, followers of Jesus have the ethical responsibility to not spread unfounded gossip about anyone, and especially the President, to whom, according to Romans 13 we are obligated to show a proper modicum of respect. For example, I have been so upset to read emails circulated by Christians which question the U.S.-citizenship of Barack Obama. As a matter of fact, he has produced the official documentation which establishes his birth in the state of Hawaii. That’s it. To continue to insist that he has not is simply factually incorrect and it makes Christians look incredibly ignorant—and racist. If he was blond and from Iowa, would his citizenship be questioned in the same way? I am deeply saddened that some Christians have fallen into the trap of fearing and slandering someone just because he is racially different from them and holds certain views with which they do not agree. It’s one thing to disagree with his views; it’s quite another to be racist—especially as a follower of Christ.
Sadly, many evangelical Christians have exercised similar misjudgment by insisting that President Obama is a Muslim. If he was a Muslim, fine. We live in a country that respects the religious beliefs of different people and which, by design, does not endorse a specific state religion. But, he’s not a Muslim! How many times does he have to say it! I even saw an email circulated by someone who called Obama a Muslim because he changed the White House drapes to a supposedly Middle Eastern-looking design! How ridiculous! Muslim drapes! Come on now.
After reading his memoir I don’t think that President Obama has a stellar Christian theological background, in fact, probably quite the opposite. But, at the same time he has clearly, and I believe sincerely, expressed a belief in Jesus. Do these same evangelical Christians subject white luke-warm Christians to such unfair scrutiny? Newt Gingrich has been married three times as opposed to Barack Obama’s one-time, and he’s changed his theological communion over the years from Protestant to Catholic. I don’t hear his faith slandered incessantly. In fact, I distinctly remember Gingrich appearing on a 4th of July television church service of a well-respected evangelical minister a number of years ago. I was deeply troubled because Republican icon Newt Gingrich was being equated with Christianity.
What my fellow Christians do not realize is that they come across as racist every time they publically question the faith of Barack Obama. The message they send is: “Barack Obama has a funny sounding Arabic name (even though Arabic is a cousin language to Hebrew), he’s different from us (even though Christianity originated in the Middle East, not in Europe), he has different views from us, and so he must not be a Christian. The implicit message is: we can’t trust the sincerity of Obama’s faith because he’s not white. And that goes to reinforce the stereotype that I’ve been fighting in every page of this book: that Christianity is a racist religion for white males.
Christianity and the Libertarian Movement
In addition to the conflation of Christianity with the Republican Party, it has become increasingly common to encounter Christians who closely identify with the Libertarian movement of Ron Paul. This is disturbing too, and the same principle holds true that I’ve been stating all along. God is not the same as Ron Paul or the Libertarian Party and the truths of Christianity are not the same as the Libertarian political platform. Libertarians might have some unique and legitimate insights into political issues of the day, but it is very dangerous to equate Libertarian ideology with Christianity—or Ron, or Rand, Paul with Jesus. In embracing the Libertarian Party, many Christians have also, perhaps unknowingly, become adherents of an utterly unbiblical philosophy known as Objectivism.
Objectivism was developed by an atheist Russian-American philosopher and writer named Ayn Rand.8 She is famous for writing two books—The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Objectivism’s notion of ethics stands in powerful contradiction to the biblical command to love one’s neighbor. When Christians equate Libertarian philosophy with the teachings of Jesus, the results are disastrous, and Christianity once again gets misrepresented to millions of people.
For example, what is the Bible’s response to the following questions, as opposed to Ayn Rand’s:
1. What is our proper response to God?
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. Matthew 22: 37-38 (NIV).
Ayn Rand: God does not exist.
2. What responsibility do we as human beings have
towards one another:
“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22: 39-40 (NIV)
“Anyone who wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9: 35 (NIV)
“Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life."
And so, Ayn Rand’s teaching on ethical objectivism stands in dire contradiction to the teachings of Jesus. For Jesus, we love our neighbor as an outflow of our love for God. If we love God with all of our being, then we will love our neighbor as our self. Following the example of Jesus, we love our neighbor as our self by putting our neighbor’s interests above our own—by being a servant to all. In Ayn Rand’s perspective, this is foolishness. For her, “every man—is an end in himself…he must live for his own sake….with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”
It is impossible to follow Ayn Rand’s teaching on ethics and be a follower of Jesus. When we try to follow both Ayn Rand and Jesus, we fall off a cliff.9 And we destroy our Christian witness to the world.
To close, it’s important to highlight that Christianity is not the same as the political Left either. I have found supporters of the biblical message of social justice both on the Right and the Left. I have found virulent critics on both sides, too. Some of my most vocal critics, however, have been those on the Left. In fact, I have been quite surprised by the opposition I have received even though I am passionately concerned about issues of justice, race, and gender equity. What I’ve found is that some people on the Left do not like me because I’m half Chinese. Others don’t like me because my wife is white. And, some people on the left especially do not like me because I’m a Christian. Even though one of the loudest rallying cries of the Left is “diversity,” I’ve found that I am offensive because of the diversity which I embody. Apparently I’m not the right kind. This has been a painful experience for me. Quite painful in fact. But, this experience has only served to reinforce what I knew in my head but now know in my heart. Christianity is not the same as the Right or the Left.
1 For more on Prop 14, see: David B. Oppenheimer. 2010. “California's Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Proposition 14, and the Constitutional Protection of Minority Rights: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.” Golden Gate University Law Review, Vol. 40, pp. 117-127.
2 Jason Pace. 2013. “The Legacy of Cesar Chavez and Marcos Munoz.” Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. http://icirr.org/content/legacy-cesar-chavez-and-marcos-munoz
3 Joseph A. Palermo. 2010. “Archbishop Oscar Romero: Thirty Years and Little Learned.” The Blog. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-a-palermo/archbishop-oscar-romero-t_b_511399.html
4 Susan Gzesh. 2006. “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era.” Migration Information Source: Fresh Thought, Authoritative Data, Global Reach. http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cfm?ID=384
5 Ronald Walters. University of Maryland. “UMD Experts.” http://www.newsdesk.umd.edu/experts/experts_lists/Reagan/RR.htm
6 Joe Davidson. 2004. “Reagan: A Contrary View.” Race& Ethnicity on NBCNews.com. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5158315/ns/us_news-life/t/reagan-contrary-view/#.UdQ8N4XNMb0
7 United States v. Paradise. 480 U.S. 149 (1987) http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0480_0149_ZS.html
8 Ayn Rand Institute. “Essentials of Objectivism.” http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_essentials
9 I’m not alone on this point. The late Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, also felt the same: Brian Doherty. 2011. “Chuck Colson Warns the Right: Ayn Rand Hated God.” Reason.com: Free Minds and Free Markets. http://reason.com/blog/2011/05/11/chuck-colson-warns-the-right-a