"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There has never been a more loudly Christian group of presidential candidates than this primary season’s GOP contenders. From the start, the campaign has been an exercise in Christian one-upmanship. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann set the standard for religious fervor, boasting of setting her alarm clock at 5 a.m. so she could read the Bible and issuing born-again testimonials like “I radically abandoned myself to Jesus Christ.” Herman Cain said that he was inspired to run for president by the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Rick Perry released a video in which he intoned, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian … As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.”
Bachmann, Cain and Perry are no longer sharing their spiritual rectitude with a national audience, but the remaining candidates continue to flaunt their Christianity. Newt Gingrich, who has noisily proclaimed that his conversion to Catholicism saved his soul, repeated Perry’s charge, accusing President Obama of launching a “war on religion” by requiring that church-owned hospitals and universities provide insurance that covers birth control. “It’s a fundamental assault on the right of freedom of religion,” Gingrich said. “On the very first day I’m inaugurated I will sign an executive order repealing every Obama attack on religion.”
Gingrich has framed the election as a battle for America’s soul, warning that if Obama is not defeated, the United States is in danger of becoming a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists.” Such apocalyptic warnings, combined with statements like “I can’t imagine being comfortable with an atheist in the presidency,” insinuate that Obama is a fake Christian – a widespread belief among the religious right. (That’s actually a comparatively moderate view: The hardcore see him as the Antichrist.)
Rick Santorum went even further, essentially calling for America to become a theocracy. At the Thanksgiving Family Forum last year, Santorum said, “Our civil wars have to comport with the higher law … That’s why as long as abortion is ‘legal,’ according to the Supreme Court, we will never have rest, because that does not comport with God’s law … As long as there is discordance between the two there will be agitation.”
The Republican strategy — loudly proclaiming one’s Christian faith, while attacking Obama as an agent of secular evil, if not actually Satan himself – is right out of the Fox News playbook. As the voice of the American far right, the ultimate undeclared super-duper-GOP-PAC, Fox News has embraced the cracked “birther” movement and generally done everything within its latitudinous definition of “fair and balanced” to portray Obama as a fake-Christian, foreign-born, America-hating Muslim. (Fox’s “War on Christmas” rants appear with such clockwork regularity at Christmastime that I use them as reminders to open my Advent Calendar.)
The only GOP candidate who has not openly pursued this strategy is the front-runner, Mitt Romney. Romney has avoided the subject because as a Mormon, his own Christian credentials are suspect. But as the ultimate political panderer and opportunist, he would play the Christian card if he could. Like all the GOP candidates, Romney has tried to paint Obama as an alien Other, elite, mysterious, malevolent – in a word, slightly satanic. And also like them, Romney presents his free-market, anti-government ideology as more “American,” and by implication more “Christian,” than Obama’s.
As someone who has spent many happy hours studying Christian theology, from Origen to Hans Kung, as well as modern scholarship about Jesus, I supposed I should be pleased by this eruption of holy fervor among the Republican candidates for the highest office in the land. But there’s just one little problem.
Jesus would have been appalled by the whole pack of them.
We do not know very much about the historical Jesus. But everything we know indicates that the carpenter from Galilee would not have been pleased to learn that this pack of coldhearted, sanctimonious, wealth-exalting politicians were claiming to be his followers.
I’m not saying that Jesus would have been a Democrat. Anyone who pretends to find support for specific political policies or ideologies in the Bible is delusional. Scholars cannot agree if Jesus was a social revolutionary, a tortured mystic, or something altogether different. Even what Jesus himself believed about the most essential aspects of what was to become “Christianity’ – a religion founded not by him, but by his disciple Paul of Tarsus — is unclear. As leading biblical scholar Bart Ehrman noted in “Jesus, Interrupted,” some of the most important Christian doctrines, including the divinity of Christ, the Trinity and the concept of heaven and hell, were not held by Jesus himself: They were added later, when the church transformed itself into a new religion rather than a Jewish sect.
Ehrman told me that the authors of the four Gospels portray Jesus in such contradictory ways that there is no intellectually honest way to reconcile them. Mark, for example, depicts Jesus as doubting and despairing on the way to the cross, while Luke portrays him as calm. Ehrman argues that such contradictory accounts can only be reconciled by creating, in effect, a bogus “fifth Gospel” that does not exist.
But having said all that, we still have the evidence of the Bible itself. And one does not need to believe in the infallibility of that document to see that the Jesus who is depicted in it was implacably opposed to authoritarianism, warmongering, contempt for the poor, exaltation of wealth, conformity, and sanctimoniousness – in short, everything the contemporary Republican Party stands for.
In an ugly culmination of the successful, race-baiting “Southern strategy” that has essentially driven the GOP for decades, the Republican candidates have vied with each other to demonize poor people, especially if they’re black. That’s why Gingrich has repeatedly attacked Obama as the “food stamp president,” and why Mitt Romney went out of his way to say “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” contrasting his stance with that of the Democrats, of whom he disparagingly said, “We will hear from the Democrat Party (about) the plight of the poor.” (As Gail Collins wrote in a hilarious column, “It is interesting to hear a candidate directly attacking the opposition for being concerned about the destitute.”)
We have no idea what position Jesus would have taken on progressive taxation or whether he would have supported the Dodd-Frank Act. But we do know that Jesus, unlike Gingrich and Romney, was concerned about the poor. In fact, he made it clear that concern for the poor was an absolutely essential principle of his faith.
This is not surprising. For Jesus himself was completely destitute, and he insisted that his companions be as well. As they traveled around Palestine, they ate whatever they were given and slept in whatever house would take them. If no shelter was offered them they slept outdoors. As he told his 12 disciples in Luke 9:3, “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, neither money, neither have two coats apiece. And whatever house ye enter into, there abide, and from there depart. And whoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them.”
Romney’s statement that he was “not concerned about the very poor” is telling. For Jesus explicitly stated that he was concerned not just about the poor, but about the poorest, the lowest and most despised members of society. Jesus’ famous saying in the Beatitudes in Luke 6:20 is usually translated as “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan noted in “The Essential Jesus,” “Greek has two different words for ‘poor’ (penes) and ‘destitute’ (ptochos), so it should be ‘blessed are the destitute.’” Crossan argues that Jesus’ mission was revolutionary precisely because he proclaimed, against all tradition, that the Kingdom to come was not just for the respectable poor – the “deserving poor,” in Republican parlance – but for the destitute.
Jesus again makes this explicit in Luke 9:48: “And said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.”
Jesus demanded that his followers help the neediest. In Matthew 19:21 he says:, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” But Jesus went further, warning that the mere possession of wealth, and the overvaluation of worldly possessions, stands in the path of salvation. From Matthew 19:24: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
But Jesus’ most explicit repudiation of the GOP’s ethos is found in Luke 16:19, in his famous story of Lazarus and the rich man.
There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar, named Lazarus, who was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table; moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; the rich man also died and was buried. And in hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that they who would pass from here to you cannot, neither can they pass to us, that would come from there.
The Republican candidates all claim to be devout Christians. But between the compassionate teachings of Jesus and their coldhearted, mean-spirited ideology, there is a great gulf.
Whether Gingrich and Romney’s callous attitude toward the least among us will hurt them with the 78 percent of Americans who claim to be Christians is uncertain. From the 1925 publication of “The Man Nobody Knows,” a bestseller that depicted Jesus as a successful businessman, there is a long tradition of smug, self-serving Christianity in this country, a Christianity easily compatible with the harshest and most uncharitable values and beliefs. But in their zeal to win over the most resentful, hate-filled members of their party, the Republican candidates run a greater risk. They are turning before our eyes into archetypal villains, bad guys out of our collective cultural memory bank.
And fittingly, the villain they are becoming is associated with Fox News’ favorite holiday, Christmas.
For some devout Americans, Christmas is a primarily religious occasion. But for most, it is a secular holiday, a time to make children happy, see friends, and eat and drink too much. However, it also carries, in its own modest way, a deeper meaning, even for those who are not religious at all. That meaning is imparted by our culture, but it taps into our desire to rise above ourselves. The bell-ringing Santas collecting for charity on street corners, the heartwarming movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” create a small but real sense that Christmas is, or should be, about regeneration, kindness, a new start — what St. Augustine called “The enchiridion of faith, love and hope.”
The most powerful expression of this humanistic and moral approach to Christmas is Charles Dickens’
“A Christmas Carol.” In the beginning of Dickens’ tale, the wealthy businessman Ebenezer Scrooge is approached by some fellow businessmen, collecting for charity.
Scrooge’s reply tolls like a great, black bell.
‘Are there no prisons?’
‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.’And the Union workhouses,’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’
‘Both very busy, sir.’
‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.”
… “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’
‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’
‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
It is one of the great indirect cries from the heart in all of literature.
“Are there no prisons?” may play well with the resentful Republican base. But Romney, or whoever runs against Obama, may discover that the American people are not going to vote for Scrooge.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)