Grand Theft Jesus
The Hijacking of Religion in America
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About the author
ROBERT S. McELVAINE is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters and chair of the Department of History at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of nine previous books and dozens of articles in such publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Newsweek. Visit his website at www.GrandTheftJesus.com.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Jesus never wrote a book, but I recognize his handwriting in Grand Theft Jesus. Like Jesus, McElvaine uses lively illustrations and a serious sense of humor to cleanse the temple of exclusive and exploitative religion.”
–The Reverend Alan Storey,Calvary Methodist Church, South Africa
“We’re mad as Heaven, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” declares historian Robert McElvaine in this passionate and often hilarious rallying cry for sincere Jesus Followers. He lets the rest of society know that the extreme right wing won’t be allowed to speak for all Christians any longer. His whip-smart, take-no-prisoners polemic lays bare the Christian Right’s “Easy Jesus” creed, in which people who claim to accept Jesus get a free pass to lie in his name. Grand Theft Jesus exposes the televangelists and the leaders of megachurches as the people Jesus warned us about–the wolves in sheep’s clothing of our day.
The religion that McElvaine calls ChristianityLite resembles schemes that promise “Lose weight without diet or exercise!” Its leaders say, “Be saved without sacrifice or good works!” Run by a crew of politicians, megachurch preachers, televangelists, hypocrites, and snake-oil salesmen, it has hijacked true Christianity and distorted it into something Jesus wouldn’t recognize. Its leaders have taken the generous and loving ideals of Christ and twisted them into a religion that advocates war and intolerance, values money above charity, preaches hatred instead of brotherhood, and promises “true” believers the keys to the gates of the kingdom of God–and to the bank vault.
Jesus’ radical message of love and peace has been drowned out by the bluster, the hate, and the selfishness that often passes for Christianity in America. McElvaine names names in his list of “Leading Lites” who have earned spots on Jesus’ Ten Most Unwanted List and exposes the hypocritical (Ted Haggard), the disgraceful (Pat Robertson), and the shocking (Ann Coulter). Grand Theft Jesus blends outrage and humor in a compelling argument that will help to resurrect the real Jesus, who has been crucified and interred by the “Right Reverends” who recite the Apostles’ Greed, are pro-choice on wars of choice, and preach the Greater Gory of Christ.
From the Hardcover edition.
; March 2008
336 pages; ISBN 9780307409706
Download in secure PDF format
Title: Grand Theft Jesus
Author: Robert S. McElvaine
Be a "Christian" Without Sacrifice
or Good Works!
I abuse the priests, indeed, who have so much abused the pure and holy doctrines of their Master.
--Thomas Jefferson, 1815
As I noted in passing in the introduction, the reason that ChristianityLite is the most appropriate name for the "religion" of the Jesus Thieves is its similarity to miracle, no-commitment, no-hardship weight-loss plans. ChristianityLite offers a miracle, no-commitment, no-hardship salvation plan. "Be a Christian Without Sacrifice or Good Works" is as enticing as "Lose 50 Pounds Without Diet or Exercise!" And it runs equally counter to common sense.
ChristianityLite uses, at least by implication, all the same misleading slogans that advertisers of weight-loss products employ:
Eat all you want and still lose weight!
Sin all you want and still be saved!
Melt fat away while you sleep!
Instant, effortless salvation!
Amazing weight loss!
Same great taste; fewer calories; higher intoxication!
No pain; eternal gain!
All the hard parts of the Bible don't apply!
Create the image of a slim and successful person! reads the subject line of an e-mail I received while my spam filter was off. The spam that emanates from the pulpits of Lite megachurches and televangelists' studios dangles a similar enticement: create the image of a saved and sincere christian! The image of a Christian is precisely what ChristianityLite is all about--and that's all it's about.
As a free-market (at least when it's convenient, about which more later) religion, ChristianityLite employs the techniques of the consumption ethic that has displaced the work ethic in our modern world. Its purveyors sell their brand by making it sound attractive and promising the consumer all sorts of benefits if he or she will buy it.
These "Christian conservatives" are neither Christian nor conservative. What they are are people who serve up a con job and call it Christian. They are not conservatives, but con artists. They can con so many people so easily because they are selling what people want to believe. "We associate truth with convenience," John Kenneth Galbraith once noted, "with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life."
And, in addition to telling people what they want to hear, like a car salesman on TV, the Right Reverends shout loudly:
"JESUS! Fully loaded with all the options you most desire! SALVATION AT UNHEARD-OF ROCK-BOTTOM PRICES! Our greatest sale ever! Nothing down! Rebates! Dealer Incentives! Easy weekly payments!
"Friends, this new model 21st-century Easy Jesus is a must-have Savior. Come see us and we'll put you behind the wheel for a test drive! And this is our promise to you: If you can find a better deal on a new Easy Jesus anywhere, we'll match the competitor's price and pay you $100!"
"And We Got Nothing to Be Guilty Of":
In case any readers might think the preceding characterization of the XL message is inaccurate, unfair, or exaggerated, let me quote from the past pastor, Ted Haggard:
"Well, we do talk about sin; but, you see, the issue is: Jesus took care of sin, and Jesus removes guilt from our life. So the emphasis in our church isn't how to get your sins removed, because that's pretty easy to do. Jesus did that on the cross. . . ."
Tom Brokaw interrupted him to say, "You're making it easier for them."
Pastor Ted nodded and grinned. "Making it easier for them, just like Jesus did, just like Moses did."
While adherents of the fake Christianity that is ChristianityLite pretend that "accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior" is a difficult thing to do, as Haggard's statement indicates, it ought to be one of the easiest decisions a person could ever make: getting your sins removed is "pretty easy to do." It requires the person to do nothing else--aside from trying to convert others, looking down on those who have not converted and telling them that they are going to hell, condemning abortion, bashing homosexuals, and perhaps abstaining from alcohol (these literalists tell us that the wine Jesus created in his first miracle was really grape juice)--and, of course, the only good work usually called for in ChristianityLite: to donate generously to the church so that the preacher can maintain his distinctly un-Jesus-like lifestyle. And what is the convert promised in exchange for these easy words and deeds? Not only eternal salvation, but riches in the here and now, good fortune, and a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card that basically says that no matter what you do or how bad it is, you are still a Christian and will be forgiven (unless, of course, your name is Bill Clinton).
Hey, get your cost-free Christ! Cost-free Christ here!
Hell of a deal. Maybe literally.
It is hardly surprising that in a nation where polls show that winning a lottery is the favored way to get rich, a get-saved-quick form of Christianity that promises salvation in return for nothing but saying that you accept Jesus would become so popular. It's all of a piece: Take Fen-phen; buy lottery tickets; accept Jesus.
ChristianityLite is a perfectly packaged consumer item, but it's a sham.
And it's about 179 degrees from what Jesus taught.
Ask not what I can do for Jesus and the principles he taught us; ask, rather, what Jesus can do for ME!
Those who pose as biblical literalists but reject most of the things Jesus taught because they're too difficult to live up to are in fact biblical Lite-eralists.
"Works Are Not Very Important in Christianity": Justification by Fancy Alone
Then there is this interesting and revealing quotation from the Reverend Pat Robertson: "The Lord has just blessed him [George W. Bush]. It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad."
It doesn't make any difference what he does. It doesn't make any difference what any of us does. You can be good or bad in your actions and still be a "good Christian." That, in a nutshell, is the message, the theology--if that word is applicable to such nonsense--of the phony religion that has swept across America and many other parts of the world. I've often heard the same mind-boggling argument. I have slowly come to comprehend the beliefs upon which such attitudes are based. "It was one of the great spiritual marker moments of my life," a man said of his attendance at his first Promise Keepers rally in 1996. "I realized, and the Holy Spirit drove home to me, it wasn't what I did or whether I went to church. It was only through a relationship with Jesus Christ that we're saved."
Recently, two of my students wrote independently in their class journals that Christianity differs from Hinduism in that, in the words of one of the students, "Hindus have the concept of karma accumulated during one's life determining his or her fate in the next life. In Christianity, however, people are not sent to Heaven or Hell based on their actions in life but rather [on] their belief in Jesus as the son of the one living God." The other student declared that Hindus "believe in good works, whereas works are not very important in Christianity."
It is certainly not my intention to pick on these particular students. Their comments are not at all unusual. They reflect a brand of faith--or, rather, fancy--that anyone living in the South (and, increasingly, elsewhere in the United States and around the world) encounters on a daily basis. It might be called the Doctrine of Justification by Fancy Alone.
Xian television programs should be identified in TV listings as "Program type: Fantasy."
The "it doesn't make any difference what we do because God is on our side" attitude has broad implications, both personally and politically. When it became obvious that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush and other members of his administration "repeatedly said the fact that the principal argument for going to war with Iraq has turned out to be false doesn't matter." It doesn't matter, because, as Falwell said, it doesn't matter what he does, good or bad; God has blessed him.
This kind of twaddle is certainly not the religion taught by Jesus. Jesus made crystal clear in numerous comments that what one does, good or bad, does make a difference.
Under what passes for Christianity in America today, all you need to do is accept Jesus. As the 2000 Southern Baptist Faith and Message statement puts it: "Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. . . . There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord."
Here is the fundamental message of the fun-damentalists: Say "Jesus" and then you don't have to do Jesus.
In effect, this pseudo-Christianity argues, inverting Attorney General John Mitchell's infamous advice on how to understand the Nixon administration, that God watches what we say, not what we do. But it is Mitchell's actual comment about the Nixon administration that applies to true Christianity: "Watch what we do, not what we say."
The difference between Jesus Followers, who understand that actions matter, and Lite Christians, who think behavior doesn't matter if you say you accept Jesus, can be captured in a twist on a popular derogatory saying about teachers:
Those who will, do; those who won't, preach.
The D in WWJD stands for do: "What Would Jesus Do?" The acronym is not WWWSAJ, "What Will We Say About Jesus?" Yet the people who most loudly insist that they are Christians and wear the WWJD bracelets usually say that "doing"--their acts and works--has little or nothing to do with being a "good Christian."
The Passion of the Anti-Christs
On the surface, it would seem that Mel Gibson's much-hyped 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, could not be part of the Easy Jesus creed of ChristianityLite. It seems to portray a very heavy Christianity--painful to watch. Yet Gibson's focus on the Crucifixion gives no hint whatsoever of the real passion of the Christ for social justice, helping the poor, opposing war, and so on. Like ChristianityLite, Gibson's message is all about how Jesus suffered for us--"us" being those who will believe in him--so we do not have to suffer ourselves. Accept him, let him suffer for us, and all good things will be ours. WE don't need to DO anything; WE don't need to sacrifice. Jesus does it all for us--IF ONLY we accept him.
Rather than "Jesus Is My Copilot," as bumper stickers say, it's "Jesus Is My Designated Driver." I can imbibe all the sin I want to and turn the keys over to Jesus to drive me home. (It appears that Gibson forgot to give Jesus the keys before driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and launching into an anti-Semitic tirade when the cops pulled him over in the summer of 2006.)
All the pain and suffering on the screen notwithstanding, Gibson's message is exactly the same "Easy Jesus" message that Pastor Ted Haggard marketed. In fact, Haggard had been putting on a similar passion play extravaganza at his New Life megachurch for several years before Gibson brought his to a mega-multiplex theater near you. Gibson echoes Haggard: Jesus had it hard; he did all the suffering. "Jesus removes guilt from our life."
Being in Lite means never having to say you're sorry.
Playing the "Christian Card"
In two major corporate corruption trials in 2005, it worked for former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy in Birmingham, Alabama, but it didn't work for former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers in New York.
Much was made of the way the late Johnnie Cochran played "the race card" in the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. There was a time when the other side of the race card could be played in the American South. Southern whites were once routinely acquitted of murder when the victim was black. As the 2005 conviction by a Mississippi jury of Edgar Ray Killen for the deaths of three civil rights workers in 1964 again showed, those days are over.
But as the race card has lost its power in the South, it has been replaced by another trump card, the one that Ebbers and Scrushy used: "the Christian card." (In fact, "religionism" has in many respects become the new racism, as I'll discuss later in the book.)
"I want to give all the glory to God," Scrushy proclaimed after the verdict in his trial was announced. Since his indictment, he had been giving visiting sermons at various churches and hosting a "Christian" program on cable television. One must suppose that Scrushy believed God endorsed and was glorified by the schemes and cons that had made him (Scrushy, not God) millions of dollars.
"Witnessing" Against Jesus
As a resident of Clinton, Mississippi, where Ebbers established his WorldCom headquarters, I have long been exposed to the power of professed Christianity unaccompanied by Jesus-like behavior. After Ebbers's conviction in the largest corporate fraud case in American history, the comment most often heard in our town was: "But Bernie's a good Christian man."
"I just want you to know you aren't going to church with a crook," Ebbers declared in front of his Southern Baptist congregation in Brookhaven, Mississippi, after the WorldCom fraud was exposed in June 2002. "More than anything else," he said, tears flowing down his cheeks Jimmy Swaggart-style, "I hope that my witness for Jesus Christ will not be jeopardized." The congregation gave him a standing ovation.
But just what sort of "witness" for Jesus Christ had Ebbers been? Is accumulating as much money as you can lay your hands on witnessing for what Jesus advocated? Does defrauding stockholders, cooking corporate books to inflate enormously the apparent value of your company, and in a variety of other ways producing the largest case of corporate fraud in history constitute being a witness for a religious figure who warned that it is "hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven"?
It is unsurprising that people who believed that Ebbers and Scrushy could bring them huge wealth without effort also are adherents to a religion that promises eternal salvation in return for nothing more than professing acceptance of Jesus as one's Lord and Savior: ChristianityLite. Believe in Jesus and he will instantly save you so that you can spend your afterlife in heaven. Believe in Bernie and he will instantly make you rich so that you can spend your life in a heavenly mansion here on earth:
Amazing Grace; Amazing Living Space.
The unwillingness of so many self-professed Christians to say that any sort of sinful behavior is incompatible with being "a good Christian" is very revealing about the brand of "Christianity" that has become so popular and so politically potent in the United States in recent decades.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“If Robert McElvaine had been Jesus’s lawyer, Pontius Pilate would have released him on his own recognizance.”
“Grand Theft Jesus will annoy a lot of the sanctimonious neo-Puritans of the Religious Right–and that’s good! For everyone else, especially those seeking a full-throttled Christianity that actually reflects what Jesus taught, Robert McElvaine offers one heck of a ride.”
—The Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and author of Piety and Politics
“Robert McElvaine reveals with startling clarity that much of the religious establishment in America has become like the religious establishment that betrayed Jesus: lusting for dollars and fame, obsessed with dubious doctrines and emotional slogans, all the while showing little of the concern for the poor or the oppressed that Jesus commanded. He powerfully argues that Christians must reverse the decline of their faith by re-embracing the biblical witness of Jesus in the gospels and actively rejecting the cheap grace being peddled in his name. Grand Theft Jesus is at times funny, at times infuriating, but always on target. It should be read by everyone who proclaims the name of Jesus.”
—Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., author of The Politics of Jesus
“Jesus never wrote a book, but I recognize his hand writing in Grand Theft Jesus. Like Jesus, McElvaine uses lively illustrations and a serious sense of humor to cleanse the temple of exclusive and exploitative religion.”
—The Reverend Alan Storey, Calvary Methodist Church, South Africa
“Where there is hypocrisy, McElvaine calls it hypocrisy, and where the self-advertised speakers for God are ‘ungodly,’ they get unmasked. And he does this with memorable turns of phrase, no little wit, and seriousness of purpose.”
—Martin E. Marty, author of Pilgrims in their Own Land
“Grand Theft Jesus vigorously and passionately attacks the pseudo-Christianity so prevalent today, but does so from a Christian perspective. It makes its powerful case with humor as well as serious argument.”
—Harvey Cox, author of The Secular City and When Jesus Came to Harvard
“Grand Theft Jesus is one of those rare books that might just make a huge difference in the world! It manages to combine a hilarious satiric voice with passionate, no-nonsense clarity about the lost gospels–of the actual Christian bible! There are few people on the planet who can mobilize such a voice of Christian conviction against right wing Christianity.”
—Catherine Keller, Professor of Theology, Drew University
From the Hardcover edition.