Dec  2017 12
Cheap Grace and Dubious Public Theology Award

Last year, I gave a first annual award for Dubious Public Theology, an award that recognizes the misuse of a Christian claims while interpreting public life in the U.S.

This year and every year, there are lots of examples of misusing Christianity in public life, but two stand out for me, and I’m to give the Dubious Public Theology Award to both of them:

  • Some evangelicals made their peace with a president who promised to take actions to further their agenda, while that president has skewered and scorned anything that resembles Christian discipleship (can you imagine him in a Twitter battle with Jesus?);
  • Comparing a U.S. senate candidate who dated and allegedly assaulted girls to Joseph, husband of Mary and father of Jesus.

In both cases, what we see is the Gospel for sale on the cheap.

A group of Christian leaders—just a group, not the whole of evangelicalism, and some evangelicals are so disgusted with what this group has done that they debate whether the word they love, “evangelical,” is redeemable or should be abandoned—has, on the one hand, positioned themselves as the nation’s moral compass.

On the other hand, they have championed a thrice-married man, who fueled a campaign to discredit the nation’s first African-American president, who has been accused multiple times of mistreating women, who demonstrates almost daily a retributive ethic of take-two-eyes-for-the-pinch-you-inflicted-on-me, who practices questionable business ethics, and who is one of the most religiously tone-deaf presidents in recent decades. How is that possible?

He promised to appoint judges who would opposed same sex rights, stop the so-called war on Christians, and make abortion illegal.

He promised freedom to discriminate based on “sincerely held (conservative) religious beliefs.”

He promised to build a wall.

He promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, without which religious communities and 501(c)3 organizations will be able to endorse candidates and be weaponized by money (in fairness, a more narrow element of his backers wants the power to endorse than who desire the other outcomes named).

He promised to make Jerusalem the home of the U.S. embassy, which some dispensationalists take as a sign of His approaching return.

And anything he can do to diminish public schools, otherwise known as “government schools,” and use tax dollars to support religious day schools, the better—such as appoint a head of the national education agency who does not value public education.

For the sake of this agenda, this group of mega-ministry Christian leaders name him Cyrus the Persian, the pagan who freed Israel from their captivity in Babylon and permitted them to return home to rebuild the temple and the wall around Jerusalem.

These leaders overlook everything else, and defend him against his critics, because he enables them to wield more public power and act more in public as they please. (See articles from the HufffPost and The Jerusalem Post.)

These leaders get one award for Dubious Public Theology.

The second award goes to Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler. Zeigler defended U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore’s behavior when it was reported that, as an adult Moore “dated” girls as young as 14 The Washington Post reported Zeigler said:

“Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus,”…“There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

Consistently, when Moore’s defenders have been asked how they could back him, the answer is some version of “we don’t believe the allegations, but a child molester is preferable to a Democrat.” But it takes a special mindset to make Zeigler’s statement.

He is not a theologian but is a public official who took what he understands from the Bible and uses that understanding to interpret a contemporary event. That is what public theologians do.

In this case, the interpreter is adding an extra-biblical tradition that Joseph was much older than Mary, which explains why Joseph disappears from the adult Jesus narratives (Joseph is assumed to be dead).

Invoking that tradition, Auditor Zeigler blesses Moore’s behavior as Joseph-like and brackets the revulsion that nearly any parent would otherwise feel if a man in his thirties sought to “date” their 14-year-old daughter.

Using the Joseph-Mary reference to defuse disgust with the candidate’s behavior deserves the second Dubious Public Theology Award. And, one of my favorite cartoons drawn by the late Doug Marlette expresses how I feel about this misuse of the Bible.

In both award cases this year, theological claims—God claims—are so clearly made subservient to another agenda that the claims are a form of bearing false witness.

The claims illustrate what theological Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 47)

In both cases, Christian defenders have offered cheap grace. Those offerings cheapen Christianity and thus deserve recognition as dubious attempts at public theology.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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