Michael Coren is the author of 17 books, including his newly published The Rebel Christ.
Earlier this month, the Sunday Gospel reading in Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches the world over was one that’s known even to atheists: “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.”
There’s context to this, of course – as there always is, with any ancient writing – but at its core is the essence of Jesus. Here was the son of a 1st-century Jewish carpenter, living in an occupied land as the friend of the marginalized, rejected and poor, criticizing as he so often did the powerful, legalistic and materialistic. It’s a line that is part of his broader preaching on communality and human equality, with demands that were entirely revolutionary.
In short, he was the rebel Christ.
This might surprise those who understandably regard the coalition of conservatism and Christianity as a self-evident truth, especially in North America. Whether it’s the evangelical influence over the Republican Party in the U.S., the enduring power of the anti-abortion lobby, or the recent surge of the People’s Party here in Canada, conservative Christians have taken up an organized place in the body politic. And politicians have certainly understood that; Donald Trump, for instance, transformed into a strident social conservative to run for office. This craven conversion on the road to Washington, D.C., didn’t convince all of the Christian right, but there were enough who were more than willing to ignore Mr. Trump’s cynicism if he backed policies they favoured.
But this phenomenon is relatively recent. It wasn’t until the 1960s, and the emergence of a more open and liberated society, that many evangelicals coalesced politically. This was in reaction and resistance to what they perceived as moral decay, but was counted, by most others, as reasonable progress. Even the more moderate members of various Baptist, Pentecostal, and numerous independent churches are still deeply suspicious of anything regarded as secular or liberal.
The right-wing fringe of Roman Catholicism, meanwhile, was stirred into action in the 1970s, by the Roe v. Wade decision in the U.S. or by similar provisions of reproductive rights in Canada. Opposing abortion is still central to mainstream Catholicism, so it wasn’t difficult to mobilize a traditionalist wave of Catholic media, activists, and politicians and to form alliances with separated Protestant brethren.
Along with abortion came the fight against LGBTQ equality, and an obsession with the canard of increasing state control over religious liberty. We saw this recently, in the opposition to the Canadian government’s Bill C-6 to ban so-called “conversion therapy,” which is regarded by the International Forensic Expert Group as torture; most Conservative MPs voted against the bill, claiming that it would infringe on religious freedom and prevent pastors from counselling people. I’m an Anglican priest and I can assure you: This is total nonsense.
But cogent argument doesn’t help in our current dictatorship of the irrational. The classic definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding” is crucial to any mature belief in God, but there has not been enough of this on the Christian right. The anti-vaccination, anti-mask and pandemic-denial movement, for example, is soaked in conservative Christianity. Look at the demonstrations, read their media platforms, and see how fundamentalist churches, especially in the U.S., have operated through all this. Vaccinations are, many claim, developed from fetal stem cells or are the Biblical mark of the beast; COVID-19, others say, is a state-invented hoax designed to reduce and control the population. These ludicrous allegations have no foundation in the tenets of Christian orthodoxy, and have influenced public policy, leading to further infection and death. Politicians may not always be convinced by the logic, but they can certainly be convinced by the number of votes in the offing.
At heart, the contemporary Christian right sees much of what is outside of its world as being untrustworthy. They are the “remnant,” the “faithful church,” with a God-ordained mission – which explains their energy and commitment, as well as their tunnel vision.
That Jesus never said a word about abortion or homosexuality, and lived a somewhat socialist lifestyle, doesn’t seem to matter. This hasn’t been about the Gospels in a very long time. The Christian right has engaged in and amplified a literalist and selective reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and some of the letters of St. Paul in ways that would likely appall those who wrote them.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Western societies are becoming increasingly polarized, and absolutist answers, even when they may appear hysterical, are always alluring. And so if today’s Christian right continues to reject Jesus’s history as a rebel, history may yet show us all what kind of darkness can arise when narrow minds entrench.
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