More reflection on Amanda Lohrey’s Quarterly Essay, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia.
My special interest here is in some of the theological ideas, beginning with the idea of a popular Jesus, set free from ‘religion’.
In so many ways, this is exactly what I have longed for, not only as a young person but also as a pastor. If only the Gospel Jesus taught, lived and died for, could be our focus, rather than ‘The Church’.
But the danger here is that the ‘Jesus’ we end up with is a figment of our own wishes, who validates what we want.
Lohrey picks this up well when she writes: ‘A free-floating Jesus suits a corporatised model of religion, such as that of the current mega-churches, because it mobilises an already established and powerful god-image in a way that is not hidebound by clericalism and a history of church politics. Cut loose from traditional forms of human authority—the scriptures are not human but the word of God—Jesus can be anything you want him to be.’ (p32) There is much that is right about this!
But there is an interesting paradox here. Lohrey is saying that this way of thinking about Jesus especially suits ‘corporatised religion’. It’s not a Jesus set free from religion, just set free from the older forms of church.
Even more interesting is the fact that this new kind of religion works with a quite distinctive image of God—God the Father, and this in turn exactly suits a particular kind of politics.
The central factor here is a shift in the political rhetoric, most visible in the United States, but now evident also in Australia. Whereas in the past, notions of ‘the nation’, ‘the common good’ or even ‘the common wealth’, were central to policy values, now these have been displaced by a focus on ‘the family’. Arguably this has been a core idea in the classical ideas of the Australian Liberal Party – as Judith Brett’s study of Robert Menzies argued. But that is not the key point here. What is crucial is that this appeal to ‘the family’ particularly focusses on images of the father.
From two studies by George Lakoff, Lohrey suggests that two images of ‘the father’ and thus of a family, shape the contemporary political spectrum, with one of them holding the ascendancy and the other always placed at a disadvantage. The dominant one is the strict father, upheld by conservative politics; the other image is of the nurturing father, propounded by ‘Left’ or liberal politics.
The image of the strict father, Lohrey says, ‘links morality with prosperity’ (p56). It is not difficult to join the dots, to see how this father image permeates both politics and the kinds of church which centre upon charismatic, and sometimes larger-than-life pastors, who in turn model the presence of a father god.
Prime Minister John Howard has successfully presented himself as the frugal, occasionally disapproving but always ‘proper’ father of the nation. He has made sure he was there, to comfort victims of distress, while always preaching dedication to hard work, with the promise of prosperity for those who work hard.
By contrast, Opposition parties can never seem as dedicated, and are always presented as ‘wishy-washy’, just as in theology those who do not hold to ‘the simple truths’ of the Gospel, (who want, for example, to exegete the Bible, to understand it rather than just quote it) are presented as fudging, and not really committed.
So here is the theological nub of this discussion. Here is a religion which centres on Jesus, understood in a particular way, an experiential ‘older brother’ kind of Jesus, rather like the pastor, actually—but behind him is a ‘god’ image, the strict father. Yet somehow this God is not really the focus, not really named, not really connected with Jesus or with the church. This God is absent, except for the experience of the Spirit. There is, I want to suggest, much of value here, but the theological ‘dots’ are not joined. I wonder why not?
The contrasting approach is only briefly named by Lohrey, but it is worth mentioning. Lohrey quotes Andrew Hamilton SJ, to present this alternative, and I will too, as I think Hamilton’s paragraph is so well written. These words come from his review of Marion Maddox’s book God under Howard,
‘there are two accounts of what is central in Christian life. The first emphasizes the domestic sphere as the place of fidelity, with the result that domestic relationships and their emphasis on personal honesty, faithful and controlled sexuality, and respectful child raising, have the central place in their ethic. The family is the household of God. The second account emphasizes the following of Jesus and his mission to the excluded and the stranger. Kindness to strangers, and particularly to those whose dignity is most assailed, will be paramount. Family will be regarded with some suspicion, as it is in Mark’s Gospel, because preoccupation with family so easily distracts from the universal and radical following of Jesus.’ (p67).
So there we have it. Is a vote ‘for Jesus’ really for Jesus and the Gospel he proclaimed, or is it a vote for a domesticated family ‘god’, which uses Jesus to support its own aspirations and, without intending it, may nonetheless actually resist and actually oppose the way of Jesus? This is no idle question.