Jesus: The Conservative Icon

“The Jesus You Know” series (post #6)

Ed Dobson was about as conservative as conservative gets. In 1979, when Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority (a Religious Right conservative movement that helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency in a landslide), Dobson was one of Falwell’s top lieutenants. In the years prior to and after 1979, Dobson served in a wide variety of roles for Falwell. He was a teacher and administrator at Falwell’s Liberty University, an associate pastor at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, a founding member of the board of Moral Majority, the editor of Falwell’s Fundamentalist Journal, and one of the ghost-writers of Falwell’s book, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon. 

By the mid 1980s, however, Dobson had begun to grow disillusioned with the Religious Right’s brand of Christian conservatism, particularly the basic assumption that cultural problems could be fixed by means of politics. In 1987, he left politics altogether and became the senior pastor of the non-denominational Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There he led the church to reach out in Christian love to the area’s homosexual community and provide care for Aids patients. He still believed the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality was a sin, but he was burdened to offer homosexuals an experience with Christians that was based upon love and dialogue rather than hate and name-calling. Ironically, years later in 2013, his own son Daniel would come out as gay.

In 1999, Dobson co-authored a book, Blinded By Might, with Cal Thomas, another prominent former member of the Moral Majority. Even though the book was quite critical of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, Dobson eased up a bit after Falwell’s death in 2007, saying in an interview for Christianity Today magazine, “I was an outspoken critic of Jerry Falwell and others. Recently, I’ve changed my mind. I think he was doing what he felt God was leading him to do, and I was doing what I felt God was leading me to do. The ultimate judgment is up to God, not me or Jerry.”

In 2000, at age of 50, Dobson was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and told he had 2-5 years to live. Following the diagnosis, he sat down and made a list of everyone he had ever offended. Then he began working through the list and asking forgiveness from each person. He resigned as the pastor of Calvary Church in 2005, but continued to defy expectations for how long he had to live. In 2008, he accepted the unpaid, voluntary role of the vice-president for spiritual formation at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It was along about that same time that he devoted himself to a full year of trying to eat what Jesus ate, pray as Jesus prayed, observe the Jewish Sabbath and other Jewish holy days, and basically just live as Jesus had lived. From that experience came a book, The Year of Living Like Jesus. But Dobson’s time at Cornerstone wasn’t without controversy. In late December of 2008 and early January of 2009, he came under fire for admitting in multiple media outlets, including a television interview on Good Morning America, that he had voted for Barack Obama in the recent presidential election and had drunk alcohol during his year of living like Jesus. Those two admissions were downright shocking to conservative Christians.

In a written response to his critics, Dobson explained that his vote for Barack Obama was based upon his pro-life belief, not in spite of it. He wrote: “I am pro-life before birth and pro-life after birth…For me, being pro-life includes not only the protection of the unborn but also how we treat people who are already born.” He also noted, though: “…I have little faith in politicians of either party. The real work of reducing abortions and extending love and compassion to the poor and oppressed should be done by those who are devoted followers of Jesus.”

As for Dobson’s defense of his consumption of alcohol, he said, “Jesus himself was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Obviously, he was neither! But he did eat food, and he did drink wine. He did frequent parties with tax collectors and sinners. So part of my journey was to try and emulate Jesus in this way.”

Ed Dobson died on December 26, 2015, just a few days shy of his 66th birthday. But the right-wing brand of Christian conservatism that he led and left in the 1980s is still very much alive and well. The problem is that now it’s so in bed with American nationalism, capitalism, consumerism, and the Republican political party that it’s oftentimes hard to draw lines of distinction at all.

Lest you think that I am a liberal infidel for making such a statement, you might want to read my blog posts on the social issues of our day. By doing this you’ll find that I’m pro-life, anti-abortion, and anti-homosexuality. I’m a registered Republican who usually votes Republican, if you want to know the truth.

At my core, though, I’m a devout, discerning Christian, and that fact compels me to say that the Jesus that many conservatives are now presenting is a distorted savior. He’s disturbingly American, disturbingly white, disturbingly enamored with wealth, disturbingly unconcerned with the plight of the poor and the sick, disturbingly at ease with win-at-all-costs politics, disturbingly hypocritical when it comes to sexual sin, disturbingly paranoid about losing His place at the head of the table, disturbingly obsessed with guns and military might, and disturbingly unconcerned with the evangelization of the entire world.

Some recent news stories caught my eye as being perfect examples of today’s brand of Christian conservatism. Each of these involved Russell Moore. Moore is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is the denominational policy-arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. During America’s recent presidential election, Moore publicly criticized not only Donald Trump as a candidate but Christian leaders who were lining up to support Trump. Some of those leaders were nationally known pastors of Southern Baptist Convention churches.

In May of 2015, Moore, who was definitely not a Hillary Clinton supporter either, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he asked the question “Have evangelicals who support Trump lost their values?” In the piece, Moore provided his answer by pointing out Trump’s two divorces and “Bronze Age warlord” attitude toward women. Recalling the Christian outrage over Bill Clinton’s sexual sins, Moore rebuked the hypocrisy of Christians for giving Trump a free pass in the same general area. He also commented on Trump’s racial prejudices, his past support of abortion, his casinos, and the damage his declared bankruptcies had done to the local workers and the local economies.

Later on, in May of 2016, Moore weighed in on a meeting that a group of notable evangelicals (including some Southern Baptists) had held with Trump at Trump Tower. Moore tweeted: “dietary restriction: I’m allergic to Kool Aid.” The obvious implication was that the evangelical leaders were lining up to drink Trump’s poisonous Kool Aid, the way Jim Jones’ followers had once lined up to drink his. As you might guess, that incendiary tweet got Moore into even more hot water with his denomination. Of course, Trump himself had tweeted earlier that same month: “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!” But I never heard about anyone rebuking Trump for that little blast.

Really, though, those who had been following Moore’s ministerial career could have seen his take on Trump coming. Previously, Moore had vigorously opposed public displays of the Confederate flag, worked toward racial reconciliation between blacks and whites, criticized evangelicals for getting so heavily involved in political affairs, called into question the past actions of the Religious Right, and praised the idea of a “prophetic minority” as opposed to a “moral majority.” In other words, he had been running counter to the Religious Right establishment for a while. Interestingly, that had made him very popular with the black pastors and the younger pastors of the S.B.C.

Unfortunately for him, though, he would find out what it means to cross a certain breed of Christian conservatives, especially during an election cycle in which 80% of white evangelicals would vote for Donald Trump. Following Trump’s election, over 100 S.B.C. churches threatened to cut off their donations to the Cooperative Program, the S.B.C.’s primary funding organ. The reason wasn’t hard to figure out: They had major problems with Moore’s views, views they believed stood in direct opposition to their’s.

Most prominent among those churches was Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Texas megachurch pastored by Jack Graham. Graham is a well respected former president of the S.B.C. who sat on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council during the campaign. In February of 2017, following Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, Graham met with Moore, after which Graham announced that his church would temporarily escrow over one million dollars in Cooperative Program funding as the church took some time to internally evaluate how to best delegate its money. The church made no mention of Moore in its announcement, but it wasn’t hard for cynics to interpret the monetary withholding as nothing short of a strong-arm tactic to either get Moore fired or at least censured.

Dwight McKissic — the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, and the S.B.C.’s most outspoken black pastor — certainly saw it as such. On his blog, McKissic wrote: “If Russell Moore cannot give a candid evaluation of Donald Trump without being publicly humiliated and without white churches withholding and threatening to withhold funds…I pity the SBC officeholder who would dare whisper a word of disagreement on a Trump statement or action.”

And so how did all of this end? Well, Russell Moore and Jack Graham agreed to what amounted to a peace treaty. In March of 2017, Moore, along with the E.R.C.L. Executive Committee, released an extended statement that focused upon “seeking unity in the Southern Baptist Convention.” Shortly afterward, Graham tweeted: “This is a gracious and unifying statement from Dr. Moore.” Then, in April, 2017, after two months of withholding their Cooperative Program funding, Prestonwood Baptist Church resumed the funding.

Now, as I head toward the finish line of this post, let me say that I don’t know either Russell Moore or Jack Graham personally. I have read some of Moore’s writings, and I’ve listened to Graham’s television sermons on several occasions, but that’s the extent of my relationship to the men. I certainly don’t know enough about either one to defend him or lambaste him. I will say that I have no doubts that each man is a genuine Christian and that each has legitimately been called into the ministry. Even more than that, I’m sure that God has used both of them greatly.

With that said, though, I take the recent dust-up between the two as an example of how closely aligned Christian conservatives and the Religious Right have become to the Republican party. It seems to me that we’ve now reached a point where to offer an honest criticism of a Republican candidate is to draw the ire and wrath of many a “good Christian,” especially many a “good Baptist.” And since I’m currently serving as the pastor of Oak Grove Baptist, which is an S.B.C. church, well, you can understand my interest in such matters.

For the record, I voted for Donald Trump. I did so simply because in the end it had to be either him or Hillary Clinton, and I considered him to be the lesser of two evils. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t able to hear and appreciate the truth in Russell Moore’s criticisms of him. Like Moore, I was shocked when I kept reading the reports of how so many big-name evangelicals were meeting with Trump, praying with him, advising him, etc. I remember watching a particular You Tube video that showed Trump being prayed over by some major players in the world of ministry. As I watched that video, I kept thinking, “Are you kidding me?” You see, all Russell Moore did was go public with thoughts similar to the ones that I was having myself.

And that brings me back to Ed Dobson. He’s in heaven now, but I’d love to pick his brain on Trump’s election, Moore getting his hand slapped by certain S.B.C. leaders, and America’s religious landscape in general. I don’t think Dobson would be surprised by any of it because he saw the handwriting on the wall over 30 years ago as to where the Moral Majority, the Religious Right, and conservative Christianity were headed. Unlike Jerry Falwell and others, he just couldn’t make that direction mesh with the Jesus he read about in the Bible. So he broke rank and charted a new course for himself, one that he felt would allow him to not only draw closer to his Savior but better serve Him.

Falwell is heaven too these days, and I smile at the thought of him and Dobson enjoying eternity together. Moore and Graham will be there too one day, as will every other Christian. I guess that’s when we will all at last have this “Jesus thing” down pat. Until then, though, I hope you will join me, Christian, in admitting that trying to live for Jesus in this fallen world can get tricky sometimes. And if you can at least admit that, there’s hope for you when it comes to walking the fine line between serving Jesus and settling for the Americanized, politicized, whitened, Republicanized, conservative, iconic version of Him.

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