When Mike Pence substituted the American flag for Jesus in his speech during last week’s Republican National Convention, he continued a long tradition of American fundamentalist Christianity, which seems to have a problem with Jesus.

Pence did not misspeak. His theology, which is rooted in American evangelical fundamentalism, thrives on exactly the kind of Christian nationalism he espoused. Once you buy the line that America is a “Christian” nation, it’s not a big leap to substitute the American flag as a symbol for Christianity’s Messiah.

Here’s why that matters: The very foundation for the Christian faith was poured by Jesus of Nazareth. His life, teachings and ministry demonstrated a belief and practice for his followers to emulate. His witness was centered on love and justice for all people. Therefore, every belief and practice that Christians adhere to and advocate for should be measured against the one person to whom our faith pledges allegiance.

While the writer of Hebrews calls us to fix our eyes on Jesus, Pence and those around him want us to fix our eyes on the agenda they’ve given Jesus, which is not the agenda we see Jesus living out in the Gospels. They have remade Jesus in their own political image.

They have replaced Jesus of Nazareth with a Jesus of American nationalism, substituting the very cross of Calvary with the American flag. Instead of Jesus being the criterion for their belief and practice, many Christian fundamentalists consider a certain form of American patriotism and party loyalty as their litmus test for Christian fidelity.

The Apostle Paul picks up this Jesus theme throughout his writings to the early churches. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul joins the writer of Hebrews in saying we must keep our eyes on Jesus – to make Jesus the center of the picture. The life and ministry of Jesus must always be the center of our attention, and everything else draws order from that witness, Paul says.

If anything, or anyone, replaces Jesus as the criteria by whom we measure our faith, then the very essence and soul of Christianity falters. If Jesus is not the Word made flesh to dwell among us (John 1), then another person or idea must replace him. Too often, Christian fundamentalists circumvent Jesus in order to promote their ideals of unrestricted capitalism, racial injustices, religious bigotry and justification for violence.

The subjugation of Jesus to some other higher demand is exactly what motivates other fundamentalist and Calvinist Christians to insist their churches must meet for in-person worship despite public health warnings on coronavirus because to them the in-person worship of God is more important than Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self.

One of these leaders recently made this view abundantly clear, by saying that loving your neighbor is not the major thrust of the gospel at all. In other words, following Jesus takes a back seat to worshipping God.

How can this be? How can we worship God by ignoring Jesus?

If this problem with Jesus sounds familiar to anyone who lived through the breakup of the Southern Baptist Convention, it should. Remember what the tipping point was that finally forced so many of us to break away? It was when Al Mohler and his select committee rewrote the Baptist Faith and Message to remove Jesus as the criterion by which Scripture should be interpreted.

By dropping key words in the preamble to the Baptist Faith and Message that included Jesus as the criterion for interpreting Scripture, Southern Baptists opened the door to impose their fundamentalist views upon Scripture. By eliminating Jesus as the authority over Scripture, they controlled how Southern Baptists would read, interpret and apply Scripture.

With that kind of carte blanche, fundamentalist leaders can control how their members reflect and advocate for certain theological and political issues. In addition, they are able to call on followers to rebel against anything or anyone they label as unbiblical, unrighteous or unlawful – regardless of what Jesus said or did.

The root problem with fundamentalist theology is a disdain for the red letters of the Bible. You know, the stuff Jesus said. We’ve got to wonder: What’s so scary about Jesus that fundamentalist Christians need to keep writing him out of the script? Is it his call for love? Could it be his sense of inclusion? Could it be his deep desire for justice?

Even when reading and preaching from the Gospels, fundamentalists love to talk about the crucified and resurrected Jesus, but not so much about the miracle-working, prisoner-freeing, table-turning, hangout-with-sinners Jesus. They seem to forget conveniently that if Jesus had “obeyed the law” or “followed commands” or “been respectful,” then the state wouldn’t have murdered him.

When we refuse to see the wisdom of the person and work and model of Jesus, we join the crucifixion crowd, wanting to arrest Jesus for not obeying the law, for not being quiet, for not getting along, for not doing what he was told, for not submitting to the rulers of this age.

How often does the witness of the church sound much more like Jesus’ accusers than like Jesus himself?

When we take our eyes off Jesus – when Jesus is supplanted in the gospel or in a nationalistic story by anything else – we lose the plot. And we substitute our own prejudices and egos for the humility of Christ.

Once you ignore the life and witness of Jesus – the red letters of the Gospels –the Bible can be used as an instrument of evil by people more concerned about their love of power than the power of God’s love.

Editor’s note: Baptist News Global and Good Faith Media are simultaneously publishing this opinion piece as a collaborative effort.

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