What does it mean to be a Christian? Let's review what Christ said and did

We were shocked, shocked, to run across the following clause in a recent New York Times article about new military recruiting strategies: "The Pentagon must find every imaginable way to uncork ... the desire for 'meaning' that appears in surveys of both Christian and liberal teenagers and twentysomethings."

It's happened: "Christian" and "liberal" have become mutually exclusive categories. In this case, it's probably just a symptom of sloppy writing, the shortcut of a reporter looking for a quicker way to say "many young people, from right-wing fundamentalists to non-church-going liberals," or somesuch. That he unthinkingly wrote what he did, though, testifies, first, to the seduction any binary opposition has for the human mind (light/dark, right/wrong, one/zero, in/out, etc.), and, second, to the astounding success the Bible-beating far-right wing has had in shifting American English to reflect their views.

(In academia, what the snake-handlers have done would be gracefully termed "assuming control over the parameters of the discourse" or something similar, which tells you a lot about why academic analysis of current events is of so little interest.)

But when the reporter uses "Christian" to mean "conservative fundamentalist" and "liberal" to mean everyone else, he not only implies that a whole bunch of people who consider themselves to be Christian aren't really, and assigns them, along with us card-carrying liberals of whatever religious flavor, to the same emphatically non-Christian set as Jews, Muslims, Moors, Hindus, heretics, atheists, pagans, heathens, Hell's Angels, Darwinians, the Godless unwashed and hungry Roman lions. This is not the good side to be on--in a B-movie or anywhere else.

Still, many of us liberals persist in thinking that we're Christians and are beginning to resent the implication that we aren't. (It's time for us to start deeply resenting stuff, too. The left's sensitivity to insult needs a lot of work.) We walk around with the delusion that it's possible to be both.

Seeking the reaction of a self-identified liberal Christian, I asked Rev. "Red John" Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church how he felt about this new ideological division of the world. Fife is a fourth-generation Presbyterian minister, a convicted felon (back in the Sanctuary Movement days) and an unashamed active social liberal: He's against the death penalty, objects to migrants dying in the desert, isn't creeped out by gays--you name it.

He laughed.

"The usual meaning of 'Christian,'" he said, "has been supplanted in the media by groups on the religious right who have organized to make their political voice heard. In fact, fundamentalists are only about 17 percent of the Christian church members in the United States, but they've been very effective in their strategies."

The other 83 percent has been unable to get organized to counter the fundamentalists' assumption of the mantle of righteousness, he said, largely because the rest of the American churchgoing public is as pluralistic as American society itself. No hope for an organized anti-propaganda campaign there.

We moved briskly along to the interesting topic of Christ's politics. Would Rev. Fife describe Jesus as a conservative?

Louder laughter. Fife is a cheery, easily amused individual.

"Jesus was more radical than any political party we have in the United States," he said. "He was absolutely opposed to violence and warfare in any form. He advocated the rich sharing everything they had with the poor."

That's way past Teddy Kennedy.

There's more. The gospels tell us that Christ was: A. for paying taxes ("render unto Caesar"), B. infuriated by people who made money out of religion (the moneychangers in the temple), C. unenthusiastic about the punishment of sexual sins (the woman taken in adultery), D. delighted to provide wine for a party (the wedding at Cana), E. wanted to educate xenophobes (the good Samaritan), and F. really, really disliked holier-than-thou hypocrites.

Oh, and he had absolutely nothing to say about evolution or gay rights.

He sounds so ... liberal. You know?

Of course, comparing church doctrine--especially some church doctrine--to the teachings of Christ as recorded in the New Testament is a silly, fruitless endeavor. (I've always thought that all those Bible-study groups exist to bridge the chasm between the Gospels and religious doctrine. You can see how it would take hundreds of hours of carefully directed reasoning--dare I say, Jesuitical argument?--to get from the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus as your silent partner in the oil business.) And people who've actually tried to live as Jesus instructed have gotten into deep trouble throughout history: Voltaire once remarked that the Quakers "scandalized all Europe" by behaving like Christians. They eventually decamped to the New World.

Sadly, there is no new world to escape to. Except maybe Canada.

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