taking the words of Jesus seriously

As icon of our age we might consider Albrecht Durer’s famous woodcut of the “four horsemen
of the apocalypse,” with secularism, materialism, libertarian individualism, and pillaging
capitalism riding hard over the earth. Once it was assumed that religion, perhaps especially
American civil religion, was the answer to refreshing the commonwealth. How’s that going

John Winthrop, who became the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a
sermon on board the ship Arbella before disembarking, that looked back to the exodus story in
the Old Testament and extolled a Puritan vision of a new community in a new land, responsible
to God for constructing a “city on a hill” that would be God’s beacon for all who hoped for a
new world.

So the answer to looming American greed and materialism and self- dealing and contempt for
the downtrodden must surely be religious revival, a return to founding Puritanism, the resurgence of the American civil religion that once projected the American experiment as a light to the nations, a vision uniting us in a national narrative knit together with religious symbols. Right?

Surely the religious answer to our malaise would be an American evangelicalism, heir to the vigorous founding Puritans, continuous with earlier religious awakenings? The hope at hand
would lie within the resurgence of the religion already deeply engaged and well-practiced in the
culture wars against secularism.

But in the late twentieth century, beginning with the Moral Majority and nationalist sentiment
and captive to the “original sin” of racism, then built up or coopted by corporate capitalism, the
New Christian Right has emerged to define the shape and piety of the American evangelical
tradition. Some argue that it was not political operatives who turned the South into conservative godly Republicans, but Southern Baptist pastors who skewed the Republican Party.

READ: The Spiritual Dangers of Donald Trump

Who bought whom is an ongoing discussion. This movement has reached its apotheosis in the political-religious cult surrounding Donald Trump as God’s anointed. In spring 2019, a group of
evangelical Christians sponsored a large billboard along a Texas freeway. It featured a looming
picture of Trump, the slogan “Make America Great Again,” and a quotation from John 1:14:
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Is this fearless leader to be the American
contribution to a postmodern, post-Christendom grand narrative that will shape the dawn of the third millennium and return religion as a public good in a secular age? What is the carrying
capacity of this vision? In whose interest?

But when the God who will save the nation no longer sounds like the one we can recall through
the prophets and Jesus Christ, and when God’s up-to-date voice sounds suspiciously channeled
through anti-government, anti-commons, Wall Street self-regarding corporate interests, we suspect that a popular religion of self-congratulation, or resentment, or social Darwinist delusion has distanced itself from a biblical theology of the cross.

Robert Bellah observed that America once kept in tension civic virtue and utilitarian individualism, but that for some time the latter has far outdistanced the former and the “habits of the heart” that make for a good society are unpracticed. Leaders arisen to save the day seem to be virtue-free.

It turns out that the loudest form of religion proposing to re-occupy the public square and save
our country is the New Christian Right (with assistance from Catholic billionaire-supplied
economic conservatives through the Knights of Columbus), a uniquely American evangelicalism
that proposes to make America great again by advancing a Southern Orthodoxy of American
exceptionalism, white nationalism, anti-immigration, anti-feminism, anti-LGBTism, anti-
environmentalism, the hard ethic of free markets, and a peculiar revulsion to kneeling Black
football players.

In this prosperity-promising theology of glory, as Luther would have derided it,
God’s foolish wisdom of grace on the way to the cross and ultimate redemption tarries, and the
arrival of the reign of God and the new creation the New Testament proclaimed is usefully
postponed for an end-time dispensation that does not trouble contemporary pursuits. The Jesus who delivered the Sermon on the Mount is not only not on offer, but would be a moral hazard to the American way of life if he were to come riding into the capital city on a Messianic donkey.

New Testament Christianity produces an excess of grace and gratitude and empathy, but
religious nationalists do not demand radical change of the American way—except for cleansing
society of gays and dangerous women and reducing and confining pro-life ethics to fetuses
stored out of sight in female bodies. The sign outside the church door would have to say to any
who show up by mistake or with false hopes: Nothing to see here for the poor, the
downtrodden, immigrants looking for a place, peace-making, transforming life in a covenanted
community, earth’s bounties for all.

This book calls for redeeming American Christianity after Trump.


This is an excerpt taken from After Trump: Achieving a New Social Gospel.

About The Author

Donald Heinz is Professor of Religious Studies emeritus at California State University, Chico, where he also was dean of Humanities and Fine Arts. He is a Lutheran minister in the ELCA. His books are The Last Passage: Recovering a Death of Our Own and Christmas: Festival of Incarnation. He is interested in ethics as social gospel and in the sociology of religion as contested public space.

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