Some of our current political tension is best understood within the context of Jesus versus Thomas Jefferson.
Once the Jesus-Jefferson dynamic is considered, we see that much of the vitriol – surrounding the recent health care debate, for example – is more about worldview than political preference. The debate is more about one’s philosophical convictions than one’s conservative or liberal biases.
To the chagrin of many Christians, broader social policies are more consistent with the ministry of Jesus than unbridled democracy. While Jesus did not endorse a political party, his ministry was very political in that he attempted to reform the polis by re-forming people through his teaching and ministry.
In the Gospels, Jesus promoted a social way of life that depended on community. He would have opposed a capitalistic “survival of the fittest” mentality. Jesus did not preach an American form of liberty to his disciples. He taught a freedom from death, from calloused religion, from bondage to any authority other than God and God’s mission to save the world.
This stance was ideologically pronounced as early as the Book of Acts wherein disciples were instructed to provide for one another’s needs. A “socialist” Christianity is not inconsistent with Jesus’ ministry and is the reason for the rise of Catholic orders, such as the Jesuits, and the Protestant preaching of the social gospel.
A counter perspective is the authentic Jeffersonian insistence on limited federal powers, individual freedoms and revolutionary liberty. Jefferson chafed at the idea of paying taxes to a federal government for services to which one was opposed.
This is clear when he stated, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Early examples include British efforts to force colonists to pay for clergy, court officials and British national debt through taxation.
In addition, Jefferson, James Madison and Baptist activists were chiefly responsible for the freedom of religion instituted in the Bill of Rights. Jefferson and Madison never made an argument for a tax or program based on moral imperatives, as such depends on religious valuation. Most of the arguments for various “rights,” including religion, were centered on natural rights, British citizenry and colonial charters, not from any specific creed wherein a moral value could be ascertained.
Hence, Jefferson’s legacy is consistent with preserving individual and states’ rights through the vigorous defense of liberty. When Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and made Republican policy from 1801-09, he did so under the conviction that the whole is best preserved by the individual rather than the individual being best preserved by the whole.
In today’s debates about the role of government, one finds people conflicted by Jefferson’s vision of freedom and the saving sacrifice of Jesus. Some Christians choose the liberal socialist Jesus (and American counterparts in strong federal policy). Other Christians choose the Jesus that saves and sends people on their way, charging them to “go and sin no more” (and the removing of entitlements and freedom from taxes that might fund programs that could create dependency).
The real impossible possibility, then, is: How can one be Christian and also American? How can one embrace American capitalism and its value system and also Christianity and its values?
Jefferson’s America was not an experiment in religion. It was an experiment in reason and democracy. Jesus’ ministry was not an experiment in individuality. It was an experiment in spiritual, national and universal restoration. Maybe the ultimate realization is not that there is a middle way between these two paths on big issues, but that America and its ideals are not inherently Christian. As long as Jesus and Jefferson are merged, there will be tension in public policy.
The solution does not rest in creating a weird American-Christian hybrid, but in being honest with ourselves about which vision one prefers. If Christians value community and humanity more than libertine individuality, then the vision of Jesus is the political-eschatological goal, regardless of government form. If individuality, autonomy and freedom from one another are most prized, then Jefferson’s vision is the one that guides us.
So before we can tackle the day’s most pressing debates, we must first decide who we really follow: Jesus or Jefferson?
Nathan Napier is a former licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene and a recent graduate of the McAfee School of Theology.
A bi-vocational minister for over 20 years, Napier currently serves as a lay minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, and his current research focuses on faith, culture and ethnography as pastoral practice.