The Hebrew Bible and New Testament both say very unequivocal things in favor of helping the poor and excluded, welcoming the stranger, and a host of other topics immediately relevant to our political environment. But unfortunately, all of the people who should be receptive to those teachings have been systematically inoculated against them. The Bible is not a challenging word for any mainstream Christian, but rather a license for conformism. The existence of a few oddball radicals who actually take the biblical demand for justice seriously only serves to highlight the inert mass of Christians counting on a fix of cheap grace.
The situation is much worse on the conservative side. I grew up in that environment and remained in it as an alienated college student, and there is one thing about conservative Christian culture that is absolutely certain: if you mention the moral teachings of Jesus, they will literally laugh at you. I have seen it a hundred times. Presenting Jesus’s teachings as an actual guideline to what you should actually do is the mark of a theologically naive rube — all the more so if you believe it’s a guide to specifically political action. On issues of social justice, the guiding concept is the “necessary evil.” Oh sure, it would be nice to be able to welcome everyone into our country, but in this fallen world, etc., etc. By contrast, on issues of sexual morality (and here I include abortion), no compromise is possible — no one talks about managing the abortion rate or trying to support the less promiscuous and risky forms of homoerotic practice as lesser evils. Anything that enables me to judge and lord over others is non-negotiable, whereas anything that might challenge my right to seek the maximum for myself and my family is hand-waved away.
On the liberal side, I think they are closer to the truth. The problem comes when the radical demand for justice in the Bible is simply collapsed into a traditional liberal-progressive laundry list. This produces a complacent conformism of a different kind — a less toxic and destructive kind, but still a problematic one. My complaint isn’t so much on the level of content, because it is clear to me that many of these biblical precepts really do sound a lot like liberal-progressive priorities, while the conservative position is obviously a convoluted perversion of the plain demand of scripture.
What the liberal Christian position is missing is precisely the sense of judgment that is so toxic in the hands of the conservative Christian. When you equate the gospel to what you hear on NPR, you’re missing the sense that this is a divine mandate that may be dangerous — indeed, that you might go to hell for failing to live up to. Saying that Jesus wants us to be nice and tolerant to each other is laughably thin — here I do maintain the instincts my conservative upbringing inculcated in me — but saying that, for example, Donald Trump is an Antichrist whose followers will be joining him in hell might be something worth taking seriously.
In typical liberal fashion, though, the liberal Christians lodge their objection to the conservative Christians on the formal level — conservative Christians are too judgmental, too hung up on sin, etc., so we should cast that stuff aside. But the real problem with conservative Christians is that they are perverting the divine demand for justice and thereby calling God’s judgment down upon themselves. They are exchanging the truth of God for a lie and holding God’s truth captive. The problem with James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and all the rest of them isn’t that they’re too intolerant or too mean, it’s that they are preaching a demonic doctrine. And from a theological perspective, maybe God really is using Donald Trump — to show all the world their absolute theological and moral bankruptcy, to show that their only real value is cruelty and spite, to make them a byword and a curse among the nations.
But in American Christianity, that is a message without a messenger and without a community ready to receive it.