For this year’s American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature virtual meeting, scholar Tony Keddie joined us to discuss his new book, Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels. In this conversation, Tony explains why this book is important for understanding today’s Christian Right, and how modern Republican influencers misinterpret the bible to meet their own political aims.

Tony Keddie is Assistant Professor of Early Christian History and Literature at the University of British Columbia and author of Class and Power in Roman Palestine and Revelations of Ideology.

There have been a lot of new books on the Christian Right in recent years. What makes yours different?

Republican Jesus is the first book written by a scholar of the New Testament on abuses of the Bible by the Christian Right. Whereas the excellent contributions of activists, journalists, and historians of modern Christianity helpfully expose the origins, history, and motives of the Christian Right, they don’t give the Bible its due as a political tool weaponized by Republican influencers.

In Republican Jesus, I show how right-wing influencers have developed and deployed a version of Jesus that supports their own distinctly modern political positions. But I also take the additional steps of discussing how key gospel texts would have been understood by their authors and readers in the first-century Roman Empire and how taking account of this ancient context often invalidates the anachronistic readings of modern Republican influencers. 

Who is this Republican Jesus?

I use “Republican Jesus” as a metaphor for interpretations of Jesus that right-wing American Christian leaders have developed and popularized for nearly a century, since at least the time of FDR’s New Deal. Allowing for their distinctive emphases, I have found that Republican influencers tend to converge in portraying Jesus as an unflinching proponent of Small Government: he rejects government funding for public health care, welfare, and environmental protections; he opposes the government interfering with an individual’s rights to life and guns; and so on. These Small Government positions express American conservatives’ longstanding laissez-faire political philosophy, but they resonate especially with the nationalist politics that erupted after the Great Recession and fueled the Tea Party and Trump campaign.

Why is the Republican Jesus so popular? What is his appeal?

An invocation of Jesus has tremendous power among Christians, and because of this he can easily be exploited as a tool of persuasion and legitimization. I think much of his appeal comes from the way that Republican Jesus puts a religious mask on the messy business of politics—specifically, how he puts a kind face on the hateful and exclusionary politics of white Christian nationalism. Republican Jesus really seems like a nice guy! He cares for the sick and poor, for instance. He just doesn’t think the government should get involved with helping them because this robs individuals of the chance of loving their neighbors and thereby showing themselves to be true disciples. The fact that Republican Jesus overlooks the systemic disadvantages faced by People of Color, those living in poverty, and people with disabilities, among others, fades into the background because he stands for individualized forms of love and charity. Republican Jesus provides a compassionate cover for oppressive and xenophobic policies that sustain the privileges of wealthy, white Republican influencers.   

You argue that Republican Jesus originated with the right-wing response to the New Deal. How much have Republican ideas of Jesus changed from the time of the New Deal to the Trump era?

During his first inaugural speech in 1933, FDR cast big bankers and corporate leaders as the money changers Jesus drove out of the Temple. Right-wing influencers were quick to respond by recasting Jesus as an opponent of FDR’s Big Government, which they equated with communism and fascism and dubbed “pagan stateism.” From these early days, corporate-funded right-wing influencers like Rev. James Fifield and Rev. Abraham Vereide advanced the philosophy that the free market allows any man to pull himself up by his bootstraps as a remedy to Big Government. Jesus was quickly turned into the mouthpiece for free market capitalism, individualism, and “religious freedom.”

These have persisted as some of the primary positions of the Republican Jesus, but he has also acquired some other interests since that time. During the 60s and 70s, for instance, he became associated with the anti-feminist, anti-civil rights agenda of the emergent Christian Right. In the 90s and early 2000s, politicians cited him in support of religious charities over and against welfare. And most recently, he has received a libertarian makeover. Since the Recession, Republican influencers have celebrated Jesus as a gun rights advocate, as a model for legal immigration, and as an opponent of the collection of taxes for public health care.

Throughout the book, you highlight a number of ways in which Republicans impose modern ideas onto the ancient gospels. What are the most problematic of these anachronisms?

One that I find particularly perplexing is the claim that Jesus’s disciples being armed when he was arrested means that Jesus would endorse Christians owning semiautomatic rifles. The equation of a first-century dagger with a modern weapon of mass murder is indefensible.

At a broader level of historical reconstruction, however, I’d say that one of the most problematic anachronisms is the overarching paradigm that construes Jesus and his followers as Christians and his opponents as Jews. This simplistic Christian vs. Jew framework has been the cause of much anti-Semitism throughout history and it remains pervasive. Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling book Killing Jesus, for instance, pits pious and oppressed followers of Christ from the northern heartland of Galilee against avaricious Jews from the southern Jerusalem region. The problem is that Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews, and we have very little evidence of people self-identifying as Christians prior to the second century. The earliest generations of Jesus’s followers fit within the rich diversity of first-century Judaism that we know about from a wide range of ancient sources. Even much of what appears to be anti-Jewish in the New Testament is better understood as conflict among different groups of Jews. By obscuring these complex dynamics of ancient identities, far-right interpreters from O’Reilly to the Poway shooter have painted deeply problematic portraits of Big Government as a Jewish conspiracy.

Aren’t left-wing Christians guilty of some of the same anachronisms? Why don’t you focus on these in your book?

Absolutely, and I have proposed a number of interpretations in the book that will be challenging for progressives. I have also noted how left-wing interpretations tend, for instance, to impose anachronistic ideas of the separation of church and state on the gospels. I have focused on the Right, however, because right-wing interpretations are increasingly dangerous in our time. They promote hate and the systemic marginalization of disadvantaged groups. As a humanities professor, I consider it my job to resist any form of speech that classifies certain humans as inferior to others. That is exactly what the Republican Jesus’s Gospel of Small Government does.

What can be done to counter the influence of Republican Jesus in contemporary politics? 

We need more voices from the middle to protest the abuses of the Bible by the right-wing Trump alliance. Sociological research shows that there is a much greater diversity of political perspectives among centrist Christians who voted for Trump than we see represented in the headlines of mainstream media. Christian voters (on Right and Left) need to know that there are multiple ways to be a politically active Christian.

At the same time, journalists and academics on the Left need to dispense with the taboo about criticizing right-wing influencers’ biblical gaslighting. Any narrative that supports exclusion should be subjected to critical scrutiny, whether it is based on the Bible or not. I hope that Republican Jesus will serve as a helpful resource both for centrists who are skeptical about how right-wing influencers interpret the gospels and for progressives who are ready to dismantle right-wing interpretations in the run-up to this historic presidential election.