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O My America: Bernie and the Christian Right

September 28, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

2015-09-14-bernie-sanders-liberty-universityNOW COMPLETING my semi-annual journey into the South to visit my daughter in South Carolina, I yesterday came upon this article in the Columbia Free Times, under the headline, “Should Christians Support Bernie Sanders?”

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders ventured into territory less likely to welcome his liberal message on September 14: Liberty University of Lynchburg, Virginia. Home to the late Jerry Falwell, Liberty is well known for its conservative policies and ideals. Despite some deep disagreements, Sanders was received respectfully and even used Biblical arguments to sway his listeners, prompting the question: Where should Christians stand on Bernie Sanders’ ideas?

Sanders is a self-described “democratic socialist.” I do not intend to address those who conflate socialism with communism. But for those who understand the difference between the two, I believe I have something to say. Sanders’ main biblical argument when addressing the Liberty crowd had to do with the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, “do to others as you would have them do to you”), and how this can best be applied to our society — namely, some socialistic policies like free health care. In response to this suggestion, Christian writer Chris Queen emphatically proclaims in a piece for PJ Media that “The God of the Bible Is NOT a Socialist.”

C.S. Lewis disagrees. In Mere Christianity, one of the most popular works on the Christian faith, he addresses this issue head-on.

“The New Testament,” Lewis writes, perhaps “gives us more than we can take” in describing what a fully Christian society would be like. It would be “Leftist,” and “We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic”; it would also forbid (as did the ancient Greeks and Jews) the sin of “usury” — what we now know as charging interest. Lewis’ words read like a Sanders stump speech, and the strength of Lewis’ convictions on the matter must have been particularly strong, given that he first uttered them via a World War II radio broadcast to the Allies.

It is difficult not to reach the same conclusion, as have Pope Francis and many others. Moreover, while Jesus speaks not at all to the issues of gay marriage or abortion, wealth inequality is something about which he has a great deal to say. His message is “good news for the poor” but a bitter pill for the rich: “it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:14). Jesus was in fact the most liberal figure of his time — so much so that he angered the wealthy religious leaders to the point of his own execution. Shouldn’t we likewise expect that a moral economic policy would be a challenge to the few Americans who have so much, while providing for the many who have so little?

In the words of one Liberty University alum and former Bush campaigner who identifies himself only as “Jim”: “The day we decided to follow Christ, we accidentally became liberals.” Yet this point has been missed by the majority of professing Christians. I implore those who take the spiritual life seriously to examine Jesus’ own teachings on these matters, rather than those of the Republican Party. If they do not, I fear that they may find themselves in the position of the late Thomas Linacre who, upon reading the gospels late in life for the first time, sat dumbfounded: “Either this is not the gospel or we are not Christians.”

The piece was signed by Chase W. Nelson, whom Google identifies as a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. The Thomas Linacre he identifies was a 16th-century humanist scholar, one of the first to study ancient Greek and therefore to read the Septuagint.

Nelson is no “typical” Christian Southerner, and South Carolina is not about to become a blue state any time soon. But now I understand Bernie’s purpose in venturing into Jerry Falwell country (and I have more hope that my daughter’s social life may blossom yet).

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.