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Jesus is a liberal! Authors challenge conservative Christians who co-opt God and narrow the message of the Gospel.

THREE AUTHORS OF RECENT BOOKS argue that many Christian conservatives, displaying arrogance that flows from their feelings of certainty about what their faith stands for, view anyone outside their narrow confines as faithless, weak or evil. As a result, the authors contend, many of these conservatives garble Jesus' message.

These books challenge the conservative Christian movement's alliance with rightwing politics. God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It by Jim Wallis (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), How the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party's Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take It Back by Bill Press (Doubleday, 2005) and Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis by Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

I was raised in the church, am married to a minister and keep faith at the center of my life. But many evangelical Christians would brand me as a "liberal" and therefore someone who distorts the faith. Why such a harsh judgment?

I happen to believe that if Jesus were walking today's city streets, he would be far less concerned about issues of personal morality and far more troubled by issues of social and economic injustice, such as the conditions that have caused so many people--most of them black--to become homeless. Jesus was outraged about poverty hut never said a word against homosexuals. In fact, when the good Lord said, "Blessed are the poor," I think he was reminding us of God's priorities.

You wouldn't know that, judging from the hue and cry from the religious right. They've done such a good job of projecting their point of view that they've developed tremendous political clout in the form of the Republican Party.

The latest evidence of their success is that despite the mounting hostility among black Americans toward President Bush, which was much in evidence at the nationally televised funeral of Coretta Scott King, a small but significant number of black pastors are urging congregants to join white evangelical Christians and other Republicans at voting booths. Some black voters have complied.

Feed the Poor

Most of these black religious leaders are not hesitant to explain where they stand on the issues. For instance, they join white religious conservatives in the backing of a national ban on same-sex marriages. While I disagree with this stance, I respectfully concede their right to their religious interpretations. I do feel that it is incumbent upon black Christians to examine whether our voting choices are in keeping with the message of our Lord and Savior who reached out to the poor and outcasts of society. Is the Republican Party really the party of Christ? This is the assumption these authors challenge.

In God's Politics, Jim Wallis suggests that the religious right has hijacked the language of faith to support its political agenda. He points out that the Lord doesn't take sides in politics, and that Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. The author reminds us that Jesus' ministry was devoted to lifting up the poor, not marginalizing them. Wallis, an evangelical who is the founder of Sojourners magazine, which covers issues of faith, politics and culture, is furious with Democrats for ignoring the issue of faith. He writes, "Rather than suggesting that we not talk about 'God' Democrats should be arguing--on moral and even religious grounds--that all Americans should have economic security, health care and educational opportunities and that true faith results in a compassionate concern for those on the margins."

Although wordy and repetitive, God's Politics is filled with the passion that has made Wallis a popular public speaker. His work has fueled the fire of a Living Wage grass-roots campaign to increase worker's pay and health-care benefits.

Wallis devotes a chapter to racism. While he chastises the Republicans for exploiting resentments to solidify white support, and praises former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean for candor about racial injustice in America, he wisely avoids suggesting that Democratic leaders are exemplars of raceblind policies.

Bill Press doesn't bother to mince words in How the Republicans Stole Christmas. It's not just a catchy title. In 1957, when Dr. Seuss wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, a children's book about a malevolent force that tries to destroy the spirit of the holiday, he was responding to concerns that during the post-World War II economic boom Americans were indulging their children in material excess. Traditionalists worried that commercial and secular forces were obscuring the religious intent of Christmas. Press's title is wonderfully ironic. He's suggesting that Christmas--which reminds us to be generous to one another, an attitude symbolized by God giving the gift of his Son to the world--has been stolen by the conservative Christian movement, which he views as locked into a consumerist mentality, and as not altogether generous in outlook.

Christ As Crucified Criminal

Press is especially impatient with the ways in which race plays a major and unacceptable role in death-penalty cases. He writes, "Minorities are more often sentenced to death, and those who kill white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill blacks or Hispanics." He says evangelicals often "lay the blame for the death penalty on Jesus Himself, the most well-known victim of capital punishment in human history."

Easy to read with memorable quotes, this is far and away the best of the three books. The political commentator and former seminarian proclaims that he's "mad as hell" that conservative preachers have defined Christianity in such narrow terms that Democrats and liberals are viewed as outside the fold. According to Press, religious conservatives believe that God put President Bush in the White House to deal with guns, gays and abortion, and that anyone who doesn't agree is on the road to perdition.

Press, a lifelong Catholic with a degree in theology, says the Republicans have declared a monopoly on moral values and he's determined to take his religion back. He writes, "Conservatives have turned Jesus Christ upside down: from a loving Messiah who hung out with the poor and dispossessed, into a coldhearted monster who only cares for the rich and powerful." He calls upon liberals and Democrats to return to basic principles of social justice, charity and tolerance.

Elder statesman and Democrat, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President, Jimmy Carter approaches the subject with a particularly high level of moral authority. During his years in office, the Sunday school teacher from Plains, Georgia, was unabashedly outspoken about his faith. Since leaving office, he has continued to demonstrate his religious devotion through a number of projects, including building houses in the United States and abroad through Habitat for Humanity, a Christian ministry. Yet, Carter has been often criticized by religious conservatives as not being Christian enough. He writes, "Fundamentalists draw clear distinctions between themselves, as true believers, and others, convinced that they are right and that anyone who contradicts them is ignorant and possibly evil" The 39th president sees a widespread, carefully planned and unapologetic crusade underway to merge fundamentalist Christians with the right wing of the Republic Party.

None of the authors suggest that the Democratic Party itself has a moral vision. In fact, the authors seem saddened that American political life offers no sustained and credible religious alternatives to the Republican Party. Their hope seems to be that the Democratic Party will regain its focus and rise to the challenge, so America can live up to its highest religious ideals.

Brenda Lane Richardson, the author of seven books, is working on The Trouble I've Seen, the first in a series of black political thrillers set in the White House.
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Title Annotation:God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It; How the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party's Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take It Back; Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis
Author:Richardson, Brenda Lane
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2006
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