How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels
- ISBN: 9780520356238
- Published By: University of California Press
- Published: October 2020
The cover for Tony Keddie’s Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels features a “descent of man”–like sequence, four figures in silhouette against a bold red background, the first three recognizable to any reader of the gospels: the baby Jesus under the star of Bethlehem, Jesus walking on water, and Jesus bearing the cross on his way to Golgotha. The final image is of Christ in glory, but armed, shockingly, with twin assault rifles. This is the Jesus propounded by a cast of characters whom Keddie calls “Republican influencers.” Grounded in economic Arminianism, a concept borrowed from Sean McCloud, these “court evangelicals” (here citing John Fea) read Jesus into their “class theology” (174). In the process they end up duping (2) ordinary conservatives in what amounts to “biblical gaslighting” (267) on key, hot-button political issues, winning their souls for capital, the NRA, big oil, and Trumpism.
The book is organized into three parts, the first of which consists of a single chapter that presents a portrait of the Republican Jesus. Here Keddie relies upon Killing Jesus (Henry Holt, 2013), both the book by Bill O’Reilly and Ridley Scott’s filmic adaptation (with a nod to Ernest Renan along the way). This framing intentionally emphasizes the racism inherent in right-wing theology and politics. The Republican Jesus is racist (anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, sexist, and homophobic as well), as Keddie asserts, and enacts his racism via the small-government, anti-tax, anti-regulatory policies and positions that, from their beginnings in Cold War–era libertarianism, have come to dominate US political culture.
The three chapters of part 2 explain how the Republican Jesus came to be, from Luther and his priesthood of all believers to Ralph Dollinger, founder of Capitol Ministries and leader of a Bible study group (which the president did not attend) in Donald Trump’s White House. In his discussion of the modern period, with which the book is most concerned, Keddie focuses especially on the yoking of Bible and religion to Cold War American fears about centralized state power. These fears may have been overblown rhetorically by corporate-backed Republican influencers into an apocalyptic struggle between freedom (i.e., God-given, unfettered capitalism) and despotism (i.e., the New Deal, Keynesianism), but thanks to figures like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and many others, they utterly transformed the ways we now think about political economy. Keddie necessarily elides a great deal in his compressed history (Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening go entirely unmentioned, for instance) and makes various claims that require considerably more contextualization than his scope allows (was Eisenhower really a “fundamentalist”  when in office?). Despite such issues, these chapters engagingly tell the story of the New Right, its rise and contemporary manifestations.
The heart of the book is part 3, which reads the New Testament against the grain of the right’s ideological playbook. Chapter titles reference obvious GOP clichés, like “family values,” or allude to biblically based watchwords and the constellation of policy positions they imply. Keddie’s strength lies in presenting the biblical evidence for or, more typically, against these GOP and conservative evangelical ideas. He’s especially effective when it comes to rebutting the exegetical support for right-wing economics. An accomplished scholar of the socioeconomic contexts of the New Testament, Keddie writes with great cogency on the differences between contemporary and ancient notions of social welfare, poverty, taxation, and property.
But he is just as interesting on other matters, too, such as what the gospels may have to say about gun rights. Republican influencers reference “an eye for an eye” and the swords borne by Jesus’ disciples in Gethsemane in an effort to insist that God loves guns. Keddie describes the ancient risk of banditry as a reason for bearing arms; the actual sorts of “swords” men like the disciples may have carried; the possibility (however anxiously the New Testament asserts otherwise) that Jesus was a rebel, and so on. Each right-wing biblical citation is treated to a comprehensive critical discussion. And a chief virtue of these chapters is their “the-most-we-can-say” tentativeness. When it comes to bearing arms, for instance, the most we can say is that Jesus seems either uninvested in, or actually opposed to, violence. But tentativeness can be barbed, too, as when Keddie cleverly argues that Luke 1:26, part of a passage important to evangelical claims about fetal personhood, only allows that recognizable human life might begin in the 6th month of pregnancy, not at conception. If, at the end of each chapter in part 3, Keddie plainly indicates how wrong he believes GOP readings are, he nevertheless does not aver with positive certainty that more liberal readings are correct. He is at pains, in fact, to highlight the ambiguity of the sources, and the historical and cultural irrelevance of some of our 21st-century concerns to the world of the gospel writers.
An afterword laments the irresponsibility of most GOP exegesis. The problem here is that virtually all nonspecialist readers of the Bible, not just Republican influencers, “evade substantiating their arguments with evidence derived through responsible engagement with reliable sources” (267). This is precisely what makes many creative political and cultural biblical citations so intriguing. Still, the almost industrial-level ideological production of biblical prooftexts on the right requires a return to the sources, such as Keddie has provided.
Republican Jesus is a book with an attitude. Its breezy wit is reminiscent of Stephen Prothero’s in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003). And its corrective biblical politics reminds me of Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Indeed, like Berlinerblau, Keddie issues a “call to action for political moderates and progressives, whether Christian or not,” to grapple with the Republican Jesus (13) and with what Keddie calls the “GOP method” of exegesis: “garble-omit-patch” (10). Keddie’s book makes an accessible, well-written, witty, and utterly convincing case for scholarship on the (often dangerous) politics of biblical citation in the US. One hopes it will send readers to their libraries in search of much more.
Jay Twomey is professor of English at University of Cincinnati.Jay TwomeyDate Of Review:February 28, 2022