Editor’s Note: The Republican electoral resurgence – like Ronald Reagan’s original coalition – combines collaborative but often contradictory forces, from anti-government Tea Partiers and libertarians to corporatists who feast on government contracts and Christian nationalists who want government-imposed “morality.”

But the “Christian” element of this coalition is especially problematic because it also tends to favor policies – from brutal warfare abroad to harsh treatment of certain minorities at home – that ignore Jesus’s core teachings of tolerance.

The Tea Party is especially clear in rejecting the “love thy neighbor” aspects of Christianity, insisting that government should get out of the business of seeking social and economic justice, as the Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

His next stop was a synagogue gathering in his home community, Nazareth. Jesus read from an Isaiah scroll, and then laid out his four-point agenda.

First, he was going to take up the causes of the poor. Second, he was going to work for the release of the people, who were incarcerated or oppressed. Third, he was going to bring sight to the blind. Fourth, he was proclaiming The Year of the Lord. 

That was a huge agenda for a 30-year-old rabbi from a tiny village, who had no experience, no following, and no formal training.

Particularly challenging was the fourth proposal. The Year of the Lord was a reference to an Old Testament law that required a complete redistribution of wealth. Every 50 years all land holdings were to be abandoned and redistributed among the Israelites. It had never been done, but the law was still on the books.
The Jesus agenda was tough. Taking up the causes of the poor meant challenging the Roman tax system and the fee system of the Temple in Jerusalem. He decided to challenge the greedy rich who were heartless employers of the poor. From the beginning of his ministry, he became a healer to the sick and disabled.

I recognize that translating a stump speech from 2,000 years ago into a meaningful action plan in 2010 is a tough job. However, abandoning the Jesus agenda is not acceptable to anyone who calls himself/herself a follower of the rabbi from Nazareth. 

Jesus was committed to building a just kingdom of God on earth. His followers cannot deny that he gave preference to the poor and gave no respect to the rich. Imprisonment of anyone was not on his agenda. 

Sight, hearing and a working body for everyone was an important commitment. Fair wages and a fair tax system were all a part of his proposal.
How far should serious Jesus followers take his agenda into a modern world? Are his calls for social and economic justice to be taken seriously in 2010, especially in the wake of the Nov. 2 elections which pundits and analysts say were deeply influenced by the Tea Party movement?
In the November edition of Sojourners magazine, Editor Jim Wallis wrote that he does not see the Tea Party as having a religious base, and I agree. The Tea Party appears to be a rebirth of the libertarian views of Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand was an avowed atheist and saw the altruism of Jesus as an expression of weakness. In recent months Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged has again become a best seller, suggesting that something significant is happening in the soul of America.

The Tea Party’s supreme value is the rights of individuals, which sounds good when first heard. The cry “take back our freedoms” may seem inspiring, until it is set along side of the Jesus vision of the kingdom of God on earth.
Implicit in the Jesus vision of justice is accepting responsibility for one’s neighbor. While Jesus expressed a special interest in the poor, Tea Party members make no secret of their conviction that the strong have a right to dominate and control the weak and the poor.

In other words, the Tea Party is based on values that run headlong into conflict with the agenda of Jesus. So, with the emergence of the Tea Party, Christians are faced with a growing number of elected officials who believe the government ought not to be involved in retirement programs, education and health care.

Privatization is the Tea Party proposal for almost everything.

America was designed by our Founders to be a secular society, but one in which religion could be freely exercised. We are a society that has struggled with justice for all, but ultimately we have embraced the ideas of common good, equality and opportunity for all.

Though only one part of the mix of people that make up our society, Christians have a right and a responsibility to participate fully in the great debates of our nation. Is it appropriate for us to bring with us the commitments of Jesus into the public arena?

If we truly care for those who are poor, those who are sick, those who are disenfranchised, those who are in prison, those who suffer discrimination of any kind, without hesitation we will bring the Gospel of Christ with us to the public square. 

For Jesus, his religion was more than a private matter. It was a public matter that demanded expression. Our religious convictions should be no less.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.             

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