Jesus is a political prisoner: An American history of Christianity's corruption

Nowadays, the Christian right is a fixture of the political world. But it hasn't always been that way

Published May 24, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Danny Johnston/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Wikimedia/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Danny Johnston/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Wikimedia/Photo montage by Salon)

According to the Pew Research Center, the Christian share of the population has declined in recent years from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. At the same time, the number of Americans identifying as religiously unaffiliated – including atheists and agnostics – has increased from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. The study attributes the changing religious landscape largely to millennials, who attend church far less than previous generations. But the trend is noticeable among older demographics as well. So what are to we make of these findings?

They should be seen, in part, as an inevitable result of the politicization of Christianity. Politics and religion have always made uneasy bedfellows, but there was a definitive shift in America’s political and religious culture in the 1940s that set Christianity on its current course. As historian Kevin Kruse notes in a recent essay, it was during this period that Christian America was co-opted by corporate America. Following the Great Depression, Big Business had something of an image problem, and needed rebranding. Also problematic was FDR’s New Deal, which was indispensable to the middle class but anathema to corporate interests.

Industrialists realized, Kruse writes, that, “As men of God, ministers could voice the same conservative complaints as business leaders, but without any suspicion that they were motivated by self-interest.” Kruse goes on to explain how religious authorities were recruited by business leaders: “It was a watershed moment – the beginning of a movement that would advance over the 1940s and early 1950s a new blend of conservative religion, economics, and politics that one observer aptly anointed Christian libertarianism.” Under the guise of this ideology, American clergy began to demonize the state: individualism was exalted; secularism was synonymous with socialism; and collectivism became the preferred boogeyman of businessmen and Christians. In short, capitalists purchased the pulpits of preachers, who equated economic freedom with spiritual salvation, God with limited government.

This alliance paved the way for the prosperity gospel, a preposterous doctrine according to which godliness and wealth are one and the same. Although the prosperity gospel emerged in the late 1940s as an independent Pentecostal movement, it aligned perfectly with the free market theology of Christian libertarianism.

Much like Christian libertarianism, the prosperity gospel is a swindle, a half-baked justification for hucksterism and greed. It’s also an affront to Christ, who told his followers “to sell what you have and give to the poor,” to deny one’s self and “take nothing for the journey.” I’m not a Christian, but these are clearly not the words of a libertarian or a capitalist. That anyone could wrest a doctrine of self-interest out of Christ’s teaching is a miracle of misinterpretation. Christ was a prophet, not a profiteer. Prosperity theology is the gospel of those who want to feel good about serving themselves, who want to make a virtue of vice. And it’s alive and well in America today, thanks, in part, to the corruption of Christianity by entrenched economic interests.

The politicization of Christianity was hastened in the 1970s and '80s, as conservative Protestants became politically active. The culture wars were reignited, and conservatives rallied to defend what they believed were traditional family values. The movement was explicitly religious, and fueled by fundamentalism. As evangelical scholar Lynn Buzzard observed, conservative Christians were told to “reject the division of human affairs into the secular and sacred and insist, instead, that there is no arena of human activity, including law and politics, which is outside of God’s lordship.”

This unholy union of religion and politics has proven disastrous, particularly in the era of PACs, which allow economic libertarians to manipulate conservative Christians for political purposes. It has also created a demand-side problem in the Republican Party. Candidates are forced, increasingly, to pander to religious lunatics who openly pine for theocracy, and who insist on imposing a religious test on political candidates. The results of this have been evident in recent presidential primaries, with Republican candidates seeking to out-Christian each other for votes. This has real consequences. It’s the principal source of anti-intellectualism in the GOP. And it’s the reason the Republican Party doesn’t pay a political price for denying science as a basis for public policy. There isn’t another serious country in the world in which presidential candidates are rewarded for their abject stupidity as they are in today’s GOP.

The GOP’s religious problem has only intensified in recent years. The worst, most reactionary elements of the right wing have united under the banner of Christianity. The party has since become a theo-political movement, unable to govern and unwilling to compromise. The Republican ranks are brimming with bigots and unthinking purists with no real interest in governance. Much of the base consists of old, disconnected white people who are fearful of modernity and nostalgic for an America that exists only in their minds. We’re faced with enormous problems like climate change and rising inequality, and political discourse is dominated by religious demagoguery. This has been equally destructive to Christianity and the country’s political process.

Is it any wonder people are turning away from this politicized brand of Christianity? Young Americans don’t give a damn about the culture war. We accept that we live in a secular and pluralistic society. The GOP’s opposition to LGBT rights is a trite anachronism to most people, not a moral crusade. When Republicans are indignant about poor people abusing food stamps, but uninterested in bankers looting middle class pensions, something is amiss. When “value voters” prioritize tax breaks for the wealthy over expanded health care for the poor, most Americans – including earnest Christians – are justifiably turned off.

That so many for so long have cared so little about actual justice is a disgrace. That they’ve done so under the cover of Christianity only makes it worse. The founding fathers placed a wall between church and state for a reason: They knew the alternative would be ruinous to both. They were right. Christianity has been unmoored from its roots, poisoned by the pursuit of worldly power; the faith ought to pay a price for that. And if that price also means less religion in politics, that’s a good thing – for everyone.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Christianity History Religion The Christian Right