Cancel Culture, Wokeness, and the Ugly American

They used to call it “holier than thou.” Then they called it “political correctness.” You know, the PC culture. Then they called it “virtue signaling.” Now they call it “cancel culture” and “wokeness.”

In 1958 Burdick and Lederer wrote a book titled “The Ugly American.” The book essentially was an indictment of American diplomatic insensitivity to indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia during the Cold War period. The phrase, “ugly American,” soon took on a more popular meaning as many people outside the US quickly recognized the crudity and arrogance of American citizens traveling abroad, expecting peoples in the country they were visiting to cater to the peculiar whims of their insatiable American appetites, as American tourists projected no awareness of the local customs or sensibilities of the people they were visiting.

The ugly American is a species of the doctrine of American exceptionalism. To be critical of the greatest citizens of the greatest nation in the history of the world is an egregious sin. Never criticize a patriot. You will be accused of not loving your country. Even when patriotism is defined today as might makes right, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, and Christian particularity, don’t you dare whisper a word of criticism. Don’t you dare even ask a question. You will be met with swift correction.

They used to call it “holier than thou.” Then they called it “political correctness.” You know, the PC culture. Then they called it “virtue signaling.” Now they call it “cancel culture” and “wokeness.” This is how we have learned to self-justify when faced with the hard truth that we might, heaven forbid, be wrong about something.

We’re always looking for the next best turn of phrase to poke the finger in the eye of “liberalism” or anyone we disagree with. To “own the libs.” That’s what American conservatism has become. It isn’t about traditional values anymore. It’s about crude and greedy self-interest. If you’re not against every government proposed program, you’re not one of us.

Poke ‘em in the eye? How about, we know where you live and you’ll never be able to go out in public again without us knowing it? That was an actual threat by one of the loud-mouthed ugly Americans who disagreed with their school board member over a mask mandate to protect children and teachers in a public school. The threat of physical violence on someone’s person over a disagreement about wearing masks as a preventative against dying from a pandemic disease. A mask.

And it’s not really about disagreement anymore. Because if you hold them accountable for their crude and violent language and behavior, they accuse you of being a hypocrite toward anyone you disagree with. Another smokescreen, because it’s not about whether we can disagree. It’s about how we disagree. And the ugly American will stop at nothing to project their own failure to be decent human beings onto those who “disagree” with them.

Jesus engaged the bullies of his day. And I know it’s not historically correct to mash on the Pharisees, but the temple authorities and the scribes (among whom some Pharisees also walked), directly challenged Jesus and openly misrepresented his teachings and his actions. At least, this is what the gospels tell us and the gospels are not always reliable for giving us unbiased historical information regarding the Pharisees. What we do know, according to Paul’s own description of himself in Galatians, is that some Pharisees actively persecuted the early church. Some Pharisees joined the early church (Ac 15). Some Pharisees apparently remained neutral toward the Jesus movement. Consequently a circumspect approach must be taken when referring to “the Pharisees” in any context, in order to be intentional about avoiding even the appearance of anti-Semitism in the ways we read the NT.

There were times when Jesus’s religious opponents tested him to trap him, and he so deftly turned the test back on them. The render to Caesar saying comes to mind, in which Jesus slyly confronted his accusers of having Caesar as their god. But it wasn’t just the obvious religious bullies who were the target of Jesus’ correction. Jesus’ disciples openly bullied little children and their parents who were bringing their children to Jesus to have him touch them. The disciples scolded the parents as if Jesus were too busy or too important to bother himself with such insignificance. But Jesus became indignant with his disciples and he lashed out at them for bullying these families for doing what they knew was right. So, there can certainly be a time when challenging the bully is the right thing to do, if not to change the heart of the bully, then certainly to strengthen the hearts of those who are the objects of the bully’s crude and wrathful behavior. We. don’t. have. to. take. it.

Do we not all put our pants on one leg at a time? Or to speak the language of the everyman, do we not all piss in the same pot? (Unless of course yours is made of gold.) Those who piss in golden pots think so much more of themselves than the rest of us. And they are only a small handful. Nothing more. They abuse the rest of us with narratives of division and hatred. That stranger over there is going to take away what little you have left (without actually giving an honest account of why the narrative spinner is actually responsible for taking what you have in the first place and not the stranger they want you to despise). That stranger over there is going to hurt you. That stranger over there looks different. Be afraid. Consequently what we are conditioned to fear becomes the object of our anger and our hatred, because those who have golden pots weave narratives that tell us they are a threat to our lives, our families, our daily livelihoods.

So we fight and we curse and we destroy each other’s lives. While those who egg it on are happy to continue to do what they do. These proxy wars we fight, these dissimulations of ourselves that we don’t even know are dissimulations. The rugged individual, the ugly American, they conceal the holy image we were born with. Our racism, our violence, our misogyny, our bigotry, our pandering poverty. These are nothing but false attempts to define ourselves apart from the agency of relationship we were born to fulfill.

These crude and disgusting behaviors as acts of dissimulation of our original self, the human being as agents of love that God created us to be, they relentlessly call upon us to engage the mythic folly of Adam, to be our own gods and from the place of God to judge others with our proxy wars of hatred and division.

With my own Augustinian-Lutheran embedded theology, which I am constantly analyzing through my own idiosyncratic hermeneutical awareness, I struggle to know whether to engage the bully or keep myself aloof from the fray. I sometimes engage with the bully but not always. I pick and choose when to engage the fight. When it feels right. Maybe it depends on the kind of day I’m having. Or maybe it depends on the extent to which I’ve become fed up with the bullying and the violence. I have no delusions about changing the bully’s mind. But I am convinced that when I hold a bully accountable, I am sending a very clear signal to the rest of us that we don’t have to take it.

And then there’s the painful truth that the bully, the “ugly American,” lives in all of us, and that this confrontation is a constant inner struggle to tamp down my own inner bully and bring forth the image, what is real and beautiful and true.

Be strong. Be loved. And love.

A Statement of Solidarity with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) from the Faculty of Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit

A Statement of Solidarity with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) 

from the Faculty of Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit

For more than five hundred years Western Euro-colonial society has engaged in violent acts toward the black community, indigenous communities, and people of color (BIPOC). White Eurocentric-controlled philosophies, religiosities, language forms, and systems of governance, economic marginalization, housing and gentrification, defense, policing, education, and health care have shaped vast numbers of people to think and act in supremacist terms.

This has resulted in centuries of unimaginable pain. Pain that must be acknowledged. Pain that must be spoken of. Pain that must be acted on to stop the reign of violence. The recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the tipping point.

The Faculty of Ecumenical Theological Seminary stands with BIPOC, anti-racism protesters, and people of good will everywhere to fight a corrupt criminal injustice system, patriarchal injustice, and economic oppression until we usher in the Beloved Community.

Together, under BIPOC leadership, we listen, we stand, we speak out, we teach, we write, we march, to engage the fight for justice.

Dr. Elaine Belz

Rev. Dr. Urias Beverly

Rev. Dr. Floyd Davis

Dr. Brandon Grafius

Dr. Kenneth E. Harris

Rev. Dr. Tony Henderson

Rev. Dr. Olaf R. Lidums

Rev. Dr. Kathleen Mackie

Monique Marks, MSW

Rev. Dr. Charles Packer

Dr. James Perkinson

Rev. Dr. Constance Simon

Rev. Dr. James Waddell

Rev. Dr. Samuel White III

Redefining the Bible thumper

Let me be perfectly clear from the start of this post. I am not addressing my criticisms here to anyone from the black community. This is a critical self-reflection for the white community, of which I am a part. This is a self-criticism. Especially those of us who go by the name of Christian. To the white community that goes by the name of Christian, do you read your Bible? And if you do, how do you read it? As a biblical scholar and a pastor, my observation is that most of us do not. And for those of us who do read it, we read it without much interest in challenging ourselves to read it outside the box of what we’ve always thought it to mean. This blog post is not written for the black community. It is written with my white Christian friends and neighbors in mind, and I pose it as a challenge to read your Bibles and to think critically about those who would use the Bible as a weaponized political tool.

On Monday evening, 1 June 2020, Donald J. Trump and five of his all-white, hand-chosen cabinet members marched out of the White House, across Lafayette Square, and lined themselves up in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Brandishing a Bible like a sword (or holding it like a huckster selling steaks), Trump glared into the cameras (not an exaggeration) and announced the greatness of Trump’s America. He did not offer a prayer for the family of George Floyd. He did not offer words to inspire unity or hope. He did not speak to the American people. He spoke to his own fragile ego, which had been cowering in the White House bunker for days.

The irony of Trump accusing Joe Biden of hiding in his basement from the Corona virus outbreak should not be lost on anyone. Biden would be found in the streets of Maryland talking directly with protesters, listening to their concerns, offering words of encouragement and hope.

What can only be described as a media stunt, a photo-op, Trump and his weapon wielding entourage marched themselves back to the White House, having accomplished nothing but what we’ve all become accustomed (desensitized) to expect from Trump. More hate. More division. More posturing on the part of his partisan apologists.

The Bible is not a political prop. The Bible is not a reified thing (an object) to be weaponized for political ends. It is not a tool to be used as an ideological weapon to beat back an entire community standing against centuries of injustice, an entire community that has suffered the most heinous acts of violence in the name of law and order. Centuries. Not weeks, or months, or years. Centuries (500 years) of the most heinous acts of violence in the name of law and order. Not because of demonstrable guilt, but because of the color of their skin. Not because of violations of the law, but because the laws of our nation are crafted and enforced to systemically oppress an entire community of American citizens.

That Bible on your shelf? Take it down and open its cover. There are no excuses for not having the time to read it. Essential workers may have an excuse as far as having the time nowadays, but most of us have plenty. Instead of spending so much time on your favorite conspiracy theory sites, pull that Bible down from the shelf and start reading. As a professor of Biblical Studies, a New Testament specialist to be precise, let me suggest a passage to start with. And just so you know, I am not speaking to everyone in general. I am speaking to those who call themselves Christians, but find themselves in the precarious position of having to defend Trump’s relentless dumpster fire of a presidency, and in the process are putting yourselves in a position of a compromised faith.

Let’s start with Luke 10.25-37. The parable of the Good Samaritan. That’s how it’s traditionally known. Most people think it’s about helping your neighbor. That guy with a flat tire on the side of the road? You help him? That makes you the Good Samaritan. The older lady who lives across the street and isn’t able to go to the store to buy food because she has difficulty walking? You help her? That makes you the Good Samaritan. Or does it?

Always look at the context. Who is Jesus speaking to? What are the questions being asked. A “lawyer,” or what should better be translated a “scholar of the Torah” stood up to test Jesus. “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus pointed him to the law, of which this man was a scholar. Jesus asked him, what does the law say. How do you read it. The man answered, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Jesus praised him for this answer. Luke tells us that the Torah scholar sought to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This is the point at which Jesus tells the parable. I’m not going to go through the details of the parable here. Pull that Bible down off the shelf and read it for yourself. Don’t assume that you already know what it means. Read. It. What I will do is share with you a little of the historical context.

The origin of the Samaritans begins with the displacement of conquered peoples by the Assyrian King Shalmanezer in the eighth century BCE. When Shalmanezer conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, he displaced the Israelites into other Assyrian territories and moved people from those other territories into the region of the northern kingdom of Israel which came to be known as the region of Samaria. Hence the name Samaritans. This is according to 2 Kings 17. The foreign peoples displaced by Shalmanezer into the region of Samaria were accused by the Jewish people of not being faithful to YHWH. They were accused of mixing their worship of YHWH with the worship of other deities. And so the beginning of the prejudice against Samaritans begins in the eighth century BCE and lasts for centuries, for about seven hundred years until the time of Jesus. Seven hundred years.

Flavius Josephus describes how the racial prejudice between Jews and Samaritans manifested itself in the years before and during the time of Jesus. He describes the hatred they had for each other, and how the Jewish High Priest John Hyrcanus burned the Samaritan temple and the city of Shechem in Samaria near Mt. Gerizim in 128 BCE, and how they committed acts of violence against each other, burning each other’s synagogues and defiling each other’s sacred spaces, and literally killing each other. The hatred and the prejudice between Jews and Samaritans was so very, very real in the Second Temple period.

Back to the Good Samaritan. Notice that at the end of the parable, when Jesus asked, who proved to be a neighbor to the injured man, the Torah scholar so hated Samaritans that he couldn’t even bring himself to say the words “the Samaritan.” And the original question posed by the Torah scholar, what must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answers with this parable, putting his finger precisely on the very issue in this Torah scholar’s life that was preventing him from realizing his goal.

Knowing what you now know about the historical context of this New Testament passage and this teaching of Jesus, which has traditionally been taught as a lesson about helping one’s neighbor in need, what is it that keeps you from moving past this superficial, unhistorical interpretation? And what is it that keeps you from arriving at your ultimate goal of achieving eternal life? Could it be that racial hatred and prejudice in THIS life are holding you back? How we treat each other in THIS life is intimately connected to attaining our goal of achieving eternal life. You can’t have a gospel of the assuaged conscience (that relies on cheap forgiveness) and excuse yourself from loving your neighbor.

And who is my neighbor, the person you have the most disgust for. For the politically progressive, your neighbor is Donald J. Trump, brandishing the Bible like a weapon and using it as a political prop to stir up his base. Your neighbor is the Trump supporter who sucker punches you when you protest in their midst. Your neighbor is the white supremacist who breaks windows and sets cars on fire to create a narrative of delegitimization of your peaceful protest.

For the political conservative your neighbor is the progressive and the liberal who think you are a fool, who despise you for what they perceive to be your inability to engage in critical, independent thinking, who refer to you as deplorables.

We can be critical of each other. That’s a simple reality. But our criticisms of each other need to begin with self-reflection and self-criticism, and using the Bible for what it was actually meant to be used. To engage in critical self-reflection, to embrace a changed heart and a changed mind, to love God, AND to love our neighbor. No excuses. No rationalizations.

The narrative about the cross of Christ is the proof of the lengths God would go to love all of us, not just some of us. If that amazing display of suffering for us and the promise of continued suffering with us does not transform the way we think about and act toward our fellow human beings, with love instead of hate, then nothing will.

Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of a man does not accomplish the justice of God. James 1.19-20

The privileges of our color

Now is not the time for those of us who enjoy the privileges of our color to recede into the background. Now is the time to acknowledge the struggle of our black neighbor, and to engage in our own struggle for self-awareness regarding all the ways our privilege allows us to participate in systemic evil without even having to consider that we are participating in that evil. Now we confront our numbed consciences to learn what it means to be racist. To turn our hearts and minds to learn what it means to be anti-racist. And to learn what it means to participate in the suffering of a fellow human being.

Is it not for you to know justice?

Is it not for you to know justice?—
2 you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people,
and their flesh from off their bones;
3 who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a caldron. (Micah 3.1c-3)

The value of studying languages for historical and theological research

Permit me to share a little bit of my personal story with you. When I was an undergraduate student many years ago I studied Classics at a major public university in the Midwest—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Coptic. I loved the experience, especially reading Classical Greek poetry, in addition to history and philosophy by writers like Sappho, Homer, Plato, Xenophon, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, and so many more. I had the opportunity to learn other languages, like German, Sanskrit, and Lakota Sioux. One semester I was studying five languages at the same time and German bit the dust. I picked it up again later when I had more time. We all have our limits.

Sanskrit is an ancient language on which so many other Indo-European languages have their basis, and in which there are countless extant writings of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Lakota Sioux is a language indigenous to the Great Plains region where I grew up. I had the opportunity, but I chose not to study Sanskrit and Lakota. I have very few regrets, but this is one of them. I did, however, pick up two more languages in grad school related to my academic interests, Aramaic and Syriac. I still have the desire to study languages. I am currently developing my use of French. Arabic, Ethiopic, Modern Hebrew, and Russian are on my list.

By now I hope you get my point. Studying languages is a way of learning another culture. It is very much an education in itself. And it opens doors for expanding friendships and relationships beyond the small world I inhabit. I like it when my perception of the world grows beyond just where I live.

This is also true of being a preacher and teacher of the Bible. You can certainly be an effective preacher and an effective teacher for the church without knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. There are many excellent translations available. So why reinvent the wheel, right? But I’m not just talking about translation. I’m talking about developing your exegetical skills, deepening and broadening your ability to interpret biblical texts by engaging the linguistic culture of the Bible.

So much of the Bible, when it is translated, involves the translator making a choice that doesn’t really come through in the translation, a nuance here and a fine grammatical point there, that can send the interpretive imagination in a number of different directions and, more often than not, in directions you never expected. This is the kind of thing that can deeply enrich and give more authority to your preaching and teaching. Think about it.

As a student at Ecumenical Theological Seminary you can contact the registrar to enroll for full credit and learn Greek and Hebrew for a grade or, to lighten the pressure, take it pass/fail or as an audit. If you are not enrolled in a program at ETS, you too can learn the biblical languages. Contact the registrar for details.

James Waddell, S.T.M., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Director of the Masters Programs

Ecumenical Theological Seminary

Taking a lesson from history … the not so obvious connection between unrestrained war and wealth disparity

As I do some preliminary preparation for a proposed (possible) travel seminar to Rome/Italy for summer 2020 (the topic of which is Roman economy of dominance and exploitation of enslaved peoples and its impact on the New Testament), I found a short segment of Rostovtzeff’s The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire to have a poignant (if not downright chilling) prophetic relevance for our American context today. Describing Greek economic conditions during the Hellenistic period Rostovtzeff writes:

“The primary cause of the steady decline of economic life in Greece proper was the constant, almost uninterrupted, succession of wars in which the cities were involved in the fourth and third centuries B.C. These wars, in spite of many efforts to minimize their ruinous effects and to subject them to some inter-state regulation, became ever more bitter, more cruel, and more disastrous for all the participants, whether victors or vanquished. The practice of devastating the enemy’s land, of destroying his crops, his vineyards and olive-groves, of burning down farm-houses, of carrying off and selling men and cattle as war booty, of feeding the troops from the resources of the invaded lands, became increasingly common. Some states, for instance the Aetolian league and the Cretan cities, specialized in conducting wars of robbery on land and sea, and the other states, not excepting the great Hellenistic monarchies, followed them on this fatal path.

“Concurrently with the external wars there raged within the Greek cities, alike in Greece proper and in most of the islands, an unceasing class-warfare, which originated in the steady growth of a well-to-do bourgeois class and the corresponding impoverishment of the masses. This class-war made the growth and development of a sound capitalistic system very difficult. Indeed, it made a healthy economic life within the city-states almost impossible. The strife in the Greek cities assumed more and more the character of an almost purely social and economic struggle. The main aim of the struggle was, not the increase of production by the betterment of labour conditions and the improvement and regulation of the relations between labour and capital, but the redistribution of property, which was generally achieved by violent revolutionary means. The war cry was the immemorial one of gēs anadasmos kai chreōn apokopē, redistribution of land and abolition of debts. This cry was so freely used as early as the end of the Peloponnesian war that the Athenians introduced into the oath of the Heliasts in 401 a clause which forbade the putting of such an issue to the vote. In the fourth century the fear of a social revolution was constantly present to the minds of Aristotle and Isocrates, and in 338 the League of Corinth formed a sort of association for protection against it. It is significant of conditions in Greece during the third century and later that a clause forbidding the redistribution of land and the cancellation of debts was introduced into the oath of the citizens of Itanos in Crete.

“The revolutions which aimed and such a redistribution of property were utterly disastrous for Greece. Revolution and reaction followed each other with brief delays, and were marked by the wholesale slaughter or expulsion of the best citizens.”

Rostovtzeff’s insights were critical of state run economies within Hellenistic monarchies. In other words, what in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we would refer to as Fascist nationalist states, not social democracy or democratic socialism where the workers (rather than the state) have a much greater voice in the choices that are made regarding the distribution of wealth and the means of production (as labor is assigned a greater value in terms of means of production). Those who equate social democracy with state (Fascist) control of the means of production are lying to you. Rostovtzeff was critical of unregulated capitalism that trampled on the rights of the laboring classes. His interpretation of Hellenistic social and economic history is a poignant message for us today. Constant warfare in the Hellenistic period was transformed into a form of entrepreneurial capitalism by some Hellenistic cities. Privatization of warfare by the American politic reflects our ignorance in repeating this historic Hellenistic failure. Unfettered capitalism run amok, capitalism that doesn’t take into consideration the well-being of its working class, combined with an unrestrained engagement in self-interested and endless warfare, is a threat to a nation’s social and economic stability, and ultimately in the long run to the survival of the people themselves. May we please not be forced by the powers to have to learn this lesson again?

Wisdom Poured Out Like Water, a new publication co-edited by ETS faculty member James Waddell

Wisdom poured out like water

I have a new publication as co-editor that has just been released, Wisdom Poured Out Like Water: Studies on Jewish and Christian Antiquity in Honor of Gabriele Boccaccini, Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 38 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018). The book is co-edited by the late J. Harold Ellens (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), Isaac de Oliveira (Bradley University), Jason von Ehrenkrook (U. Mass. Boston), James Waddell (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), and Jason Zurawski (U. of Groningen), all former Ph.D. students of Professor Gabriele Boccaccini of the Department of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan. The volume is published by De Gruyter and is now available. Volumes like this are usually priced for library purchases. To soften the blow of the cost of the entire volume for individuals, specific contributions to the volume are also available for purchase on the De Gruyter web site. My article is titled, “‘I Have Been Born Among You’: Jesus, Jews, and Christians in the Second Century.” Click here to read my contribution to this volume.

The rule of the uber-rich by Chris Hedges


I mentioned last week in an article I wrote about the historic roots of the troubling marriage between conservative evangelicals and conservative politics today that some prophetic voices have sounded the alarm that our democracy is already dead, and that what we now have purely and simply is an American plutocracy. Chris Hedges writes (from his first-hand experience of living among them) an article about the predilections of the uber-rich. Hedges observes that when they govern, it is not from the perspective of public service, but an insatiable sociopathic desire to serve themselves while they destroy the norms of society. This is an important read, in order to understand better the present socio-economic context we are living in and what we need to do to address it.

Politics and Religion, The Devil and Mephistopheles


Do you ever wonder how American politics has become so polarized? Certainly, American politics has been contentious in other periods of our history when our nation faced many dangerous and complicated challenges—the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights. Political polarization today has taken a dramatic turn in the last 40 years, an entire generation of American politics with discernable outlines of a trajectory that in large part involves the relationship between politics and religion.

In the ancient world religious myth was used by rulers to coerce their subjects into complying with their wishes. Because religious myth made claims for the divine ancestry of the ruling classes, to resist the will of the ruling class was to resist the will of the gods and such resistance left one open to the terrors of divine punishment, usually and swiftly meted out by the ruling classes themselves. Consequently, the laws and commands of the ancient ruling elite were treated as divine law with citizens in subjected (forced) compliance.

This was generally true of the ancient East Asian cultures where dense populations experienced strident competition for material resources and warranted the development of religious traditions grounded in the desire to encourage ethical behavior toward one’s fellow human being. Karma came to be defined as an impersonal force driving the inescapable (and just) consequences of one’s actions toward others.

Karl Marx’s famous position on religion as the opiate of the masses was due in large part to his criticisms of the exploitative nature of Western capitalism and Christianity. Marx observed that Christianity could be engaged in such a way as to assuage one’s conscience in a world where exploiting one’s fellow human being through the colonial and capitalist practices of empire were justified in the name of a God who forgave even the most egregious of sins.

Saul of Tarsus, whom Christian scriptures describe as having been called by God to be Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, was implicated in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. And if God can forgive a murderer, well God will certainly forgive my exploitation of my workers. After all, I pay them enough to have food and shelter. What more do they need? And religious folks, through the preaching of the gospel of the assuaged conscience, allow themselves to be lulled into complacency regarding human exploitation, both in terms of the exploiter and the exploited.

But religion, specifically conservative evangelicalism, transformed itself in the mid-twentieth century. The transformation found its way from Marx’s benignly patent but maliciously latent opiate of the masses to a more weaponized form of Christianity bent on storming the halls of power.

For centuries many conservatives viewed their relationship to political involvement as one of avoiding the corruption and impurity of the world. Withdrawal and self-preservation, by and large, was one of the hallmarks of conservative Christianity going back to Ulrich Zwingli’s social pacifism and his active resistance to Christians participating in state sanctioned war. Zwingli met his end in the meat grinder of war when his political enemies captured him, and then quartered and burned his body—the takeaway being, when you speak truth to power, those in power are aggressively invested in the violent suppression of their critics. Take as a clear example the recent Saudi Arabian scandal with the torture and bodily dismemberment of one of the royal family’s most strident critics, Jamal Khashoggi, and the morally ambivalent connections to US foreign trade and politics, cited explicitly by our current president.

In today’s context the weaponization of Christianity began in the 1970s and ’80s in response to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. For twentieth-century conservative evangelicals the Roe v. Wade decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back of resistance to public engagement with political power. The world had become so corrupt that it was now time to do something. Sitting on the sidelines of the political arena was no longer a tolerable proposition.

Conservative theologians like Francis Schaeffer called for American evangelicals to take charge of their own destiny, essentially to make a complete transformation in the way they viewed their relationship to politics, to become one of engagement rather than withdrawal for the sake of preserving Christian purity.

The evangelical community embraced the call and quickly developed an appetite for consuming books like Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live (1976) and A Christian Manifesto (1981), or Rebecca Manley Pippert’s Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World (1979), or Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? (1980). Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977) offered one of the more chilling prospects for the Christian right’s designs to take over the legislative branch of American governance, in order to apply literal interpretations of biblical law to American culture, including literal observance of Levitical prescriptions for punishments of legal offense. Bahnsen’s book is touted as a virtual tour de force of logic among conservative evangelicals still today. The recent 2017 book by Michael Medved, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, suggests the strength and tenacity of this conservative alliance of politics and religion.

All of this problematically ignores the evidence that the founding leaders of our nation were not all Christians and that they intentionally sought to base our constitution and laws on European humanist philosophy, not Judaeo-Christian foundational teachings. It also ignores the intent of our nation’s founding leaders to provide a high wall of separation between the church and the state, in order to protect religious freedoms for everyone, not just conservative evangelicals.

Prominent evangelical pastors led the way. Figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson wrote their own books, legitimizing for masses of evangelicals an entirely new market of literature for the newly enlightened. Falwell and Robertson (and many more evangelicals) even ran for political office, but it was not for local offices. They went straight for the top, signaling for all that this was really an authoritarian movement directed from the top down.

Early on in the collaboration of the “religious right” with Neoconservatives the political rhetoric shifted. When Newt Gingrich ascended to the position of Speaker of the House in 1995 he no longer referred to his colleagues across the aisle as political opponents. Gingrich shifted the discourse by referring to his House colleagues as enemies. I remember it clearly. I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of the shift then, even though it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Nearly 25 years later and the results of the extreme ideological trajectory Gingrich advanced are clear, and clearly alarming.

What we saw unfolding before our eyes was an alliance of Neoconservative pols and evangelicals, both conservative yet both with slightly different ends in mind. The Neocons willingly embraced the public identification with conservative Christianity mainly because they viewed evangelicals as a powerful voting block for keeping conservative pols in power. Neocons, however, were more interested in economic and corporate deregulation, as well as advancing Ronald Reagan’s union busting agenda already firmly entrenched systemically and rhetorically in the 1980s, all of which has had a profoundly negative impact on the diminishment of the livelihoods of American workers who receive only a small fraction of the value that their labor contributes to the vast economic wealth and prosperity enjoyed by American corporations.

These are the same corporations who today horde trillions in wealth, while they vigorously and defiantly refuse to contribute to the public good by withholding their tax contributions from society (public schools, health care, infrastructure, pensions, Social Security, etc., etc.). Noblesse oblige is dead. Exclusionary definitions of “patriotism” were bandied about as part of the rhetorical scheme, having an exclusionary force that also found a home among conservative evangelicals who viewed America as an exclusively Christian nation at the heart of God’s plan for the world.

Conservative evangelicals were more interested in the culture wars as this was being framed by evangelical theologians and advanced in the caustic rhetoric of conservative pols. Family values was an open rallying cry. Abortion and homosexuality were natural social issues for conservative Christians who read their Bibles as prohibiting such evils, and the appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s was taken as confirmation of God’s judgement against the Gay community. Conservative pols had little interest in such things except to use them as rhetorical wedge issues during election years, further weaponizing the church in their schemes to achieve and maintain even more political power.

Over the years the distinction between political and religious conservatism became blurred to the point of non-distinction. Conservative evangelicals whose political interests were almost solely focused on social issues paradoxically and energetically embraced the conservative Neoliberal political agenda—corporate deregulation, worker suppression, systemic racism, environmental exploitation, gerrymandering, voter suppression, xenophobia, unrestrained support for the military industrial complex under the guise of “patriotism” driven by the premise that it’s better to destroy the lives of people of color “over there” than to have to fight them in the “homeland”—and this is essentially due to the effect of corporate Neoliberal propaganda overshadowing the biblical text evangelicals so vigorously claim defines them.

Instead of embracing and identifying with the poor (economically marginalized) as the New Testament demands, conservative Christians have rationalized the adoption of Neoliberal narratives. These narratives demand that we judge the poor; they are in a position of having to receive assistance because of their own laziness. “Those who will not work shall not eat” is the rallying cry. These narratives hold the poor in contempt for endangering our economy, rather than corporations who aggressively craft policies to be voted as legislation, in order to increase their bottom line via legalized exploitation of their workers.

Progressive political and social pressures only recently forced Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos to raise his workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour. Bezos did not willingly do this. The pressure has been there before. But what seems to have brought the pressure to the breaking point has been the growing awareness of the intolerable and obscene extreme of wealth disparity and the brutal impoverishment of America’s middle class. Have we finally reached the tipping point?

Neoliberal policies favoring corporate rather than public interests have become the norm. The expanded influx of money for political campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists since the 1980s has rendered distinctions between conservatives and liberals virtually irrelevant as liberals willingly embraced this shift in the system, with excuses like, “if we don’t do it, our political opponents surely will; we have to play on a level playing field.” And it has remained so to this day. The Clintons exemplify this shift among the Neoliberal left and establishment Democrats, rendering them virtually indistinguishable from their conservative Neoliberal counterparts on the right.

Religion has taken a back seat to politics as we have conditioned ourselves to view our religious sensibilities and convictions through the lens of our politics rather than the other way around. When faced with a moral challenge in our public discourse, it is immediately and cynically dismissed as political gamesmanship. As I write this the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice to the Supreme Court is a done deal. And yet a proper legal vetting of the moral claims against Kavanagh’s character and fitness for the highest court in the land were forestalled by a cynical political ideology of elite white male privilege that is no longer grounded in the rule of law we value as Americans.

We find ourselves today in a world of cognitive dissonance, where those who claim to follow the teachings of Christ have abandoned those teachings, if not entirely then certainly in large part, in order to fight for the agenda of the political party they embraced decades ago, and have blindly rationalized their willingness to engage in ends-justifies-the-means politics. In July 2016 Pew Research indicated that more registered voters who were white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016 than supported Romney in 2012. Political compromise, which was once the bread and butter of getting things done legislatively, has now been replaced by refusal to compromise politically, no doubt a transference of conservative evangelical theology onto conservative politics.

Could this be viewed as one of the unintended consequences of the Neoconservative and evangelical marriage that took place in the 1980s? Unintended, but not necessarily unforeseeable? This is the only explanation that makes sense to me when I see so many evangelical Christians (not all of them, but so many of them) assert their loyalty to a political party and its leaders whose actions and policies are so antithetical to the gospel message of hope and restoration in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.

The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus feeding the hungry (SNAP?), healing the sick (universal healthcare?), teaching those who were open to what he had to say (public education?). The gospels are also filled with episodes where Jesus confronted those who were in power. He did not collaborate with the powerful. Jesus confronted the religious leaders in power.

Why did Jesus confront the religious authorities in power? Because these leaders collaborated with the Romans who imposed social and economic systems that were so exploitative and so oppressive that they had most of the population living hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, scratching and clawing a living where it was already near impossible to eke out one’s daily bread. As one New Testament scholar (John Dominic Crossan) has said, “there were the haves and the have nots.” And the haves were not willingly disposed to give anything of material substance to the have nots. That sounds disturbingly more and more like a description of the America we live in today.

The gospels are replete with Jesus’ criticisms of obscene wealth and unrestrained greed. And this is to say nothing at all about the numerous criticisms of the same in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Jesus tells the man who wanted to join Jesus and his followers: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

To those who say social justice is evil, and not surprisingly there are many conservative Christians who say this, my response to them is this: social justice is an inescapable consequence of believing the gospel.

There are two ways of looking at the gospel, and they are not incompatible with each other. It is a both-and, not an either-or. We read the gospel as the early church’s message of God’s grace in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. It is certainly sine qua non for a Christian, but that’s not all there is to it.

It is when we read the New Testament as if this is the only aspect of the gospel, it is then that we fall into the trap of the gospel of the assuaged conscience. It is the kind of distortion of Christianity that drove Karl Marx’s criticisms in the nineteenth century and still drives criticisms of Christianity today.

My response to this kind of distortion of the gospel and Christianity is that there is another aspect of the gospel, and this includes the concept of social justice. The gospel opens our hearts to be transformed in the ways we act, to receive Jesus’s ethical teachings and his actions as examples for Christians to follow. This is the dual foci in the New Testament where Jesus tells us to love God AND love our neighbor.

Marx claimed that for earlier expressions of historic “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, the bourgeoisie has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” Conservative pols in America today, committed in their service to corporate economic policies, stridently engage us in a culture war by employing a now weaponized segment of conservative evangelical Christians who don’t realize they are being used. Clinging to the brutality of their naked aggression to exploit, conservative corporate pols do not yield willingly. Rather than collaborate with those who walk the halls of power, we must confront them repeatedly with the truth of the gospel in all that the gospel has to say to us.

As unrestrained greed tears at the fabric of our society and as naked aggressions to power with a militarized police force secure corporate interests, our nation moves daily closer to corporate control of every branch of our government and the alarming prospect of an inverted fascist state. Some prophetic voices have said that we are already there. As politically protected greed and aggression rear their ugly head in every generation, history repeats itself and we must never lose heart. Never lose heart. And always, always pay attention to what they say and how they say it, but especially pay attention to what they do.

We use our voice to speak the truth, even if the powers are violently inclined to suppress it. We speak of something greater than ourselves. And we are not afraid. We the people are not afraid.

James Waddell is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan