Stephen Prothero’s book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, makes an intriguing argument: Americans make Jesus into whatever they want him to be. Christians, non-Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Latter-day Saints, hippies, African Americans, men, and women ALL force Jesus into a particular mold.
Starting with Thomas Jefferson, who neatly separated Jesus the moral teacher from his divinity, Americans have long disassociated from the parts of Jesus or his gospel that they are uncomfortable with, according to Prothero. The interesting thing is that TJeff always referred to himself as a follower of Jesus and a person who loved Jesus. So that means he was a Christian, right? He loved the Sermon on the Mount and the moral teachings of Jesus. He just didn’t buy into all those miracles, examples of divinity, or the resurrection from the dead. The best part of TJeff is that he literally cut out those parts of his Bible that defied reason and logic so that he could just read the parts with which he agreed.
Go big or go home, TJeff.
Next, Prothero explains how various historical contexts shape the way Americans shape and mold Jesus. Nineteenth century women dominated American churches and thus Jesus was more feminine, caring, focused on children, nurturing, and gentle. And white, obviously. The emergence of the Muscular Christianity movement at the turn of the century attempted to assert a more manly Jesus who was a carpenter with muscles and who worked with his hands. The 1960s emphasized hippie Jesus. This Jesus had long hair and a beard and was a counterculture revolutionary, advocating social change and confronting institutional religion. African Americans emphasized the Egyptian and African origins of the Jews and therefore Jesus, seeing him as a black Moses who brought freedom from oppression. American Jews emphasized Jesus’ Jewish heritage, Buddhists and Hindus saw Jesus as a divine avatar and a state of being while Latter Day Saints embraced a Jesus as an elder brother. After all, points out Prothero, if you aren’t a Christian in the United States, Americans will be more willing to accept you if you like Jesus, regardless of the theological gymnastics required to fit Jesus into some religious traditions.
Talk about historical context shaping a religious tradition.
To be sure, Jesus has many names and has certainly played a variety of roles while living as a man on earth and with his Father in heaven. But I wonder if it bothers him, the way Americans use and select the parts of him that they are comfortable with and ignore all the parts that they don’t like?
As I watch the political circus of the presidential primary elections, I am particularly struck by the way that politicians of all stripes use Jesus or Christianity when it suits them. Does one need to be a Christian, whether genuine or in name only, to be elected President of the United States? It seems to be true, or why else would Trump awkwardly attempt to seem Christian or vaguely familiar with any of the teachings of the scriptures? He is clearly not a believer, if one can know that from observing his beliefs and practices. So why bother to connect with Jesus or Christianity?
The more disturbing question for me is, who does Trump (or any other politicians for that matter) think he is fooling? Can genuine believers tell who else is a believer? Or is it merely a matter of name dropping some key words like “Jesus,” the “Bible,” and “God Bless America” and that is enough to convince Americans that someone is a solid Christian?
The discussion over the so called ‘evangelical vote’ is a worthy one, given the stark chasm between actual beliefs and practices of believers and the way that these so-called believers vote or choose political candidates.
Or maybe we just need to be more thoughtful, critical thinkers. And believers.
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College.