Message to Trump’s “Christian” supporters: read the New Testament. The whole thing.

It seems that Jesus is having the same problem as Bob Mueller: nobody wants to read the full report. That’s the only explanation I can find for the fact that so many people cite their Christianity as a reason for voting for Donald Trump.

Much has been written about the decline of “deep reading” in America. You don’t have to tell me about it; I saw it firsthand as a visiting professor at James Madison University. I taught a course called “Foundations of Western Culture.” It was a series of courses, actually, each semester focusing on a particular time and place — the ancient Greeks, for example, or the ancient Romans.

I thought that the best way to learn about another place and time is to read works that were written by people who lived in that place and time. That would give a sense, not only of the literary achievements of that culture, but of the way the people of that culture thought and felt, the assumptions they made, and the values they held.

We had a lot of ground to cover, and I didn’t want to overwhelm the students with the reading assignments, but I wanted them to read whole works whenever possible. This wasn’t a problem with lyric poems, plays, and speeches, but there were longer works that were essential to understanding the periods we were studying. I realized that, fortunately, some of the most influential books of Western civilization were fairly short: Descartes’ Meditations is only 59 pages long, Plato’s Symposium only 65, Machiavelli’s The Prince, 110.

Still, it was a tough sell. A lot of students would look at the syllabus on the first day, drop the course, and look for other courses that satisfied the same General Education requirement but assigned less reading. I always thought that reading lots of books was the whole point of going to college, but apparently, that’s not the case anymore.

So if students at one of our better universities are allergic to reading, what can we expect of the nation as a whole? Not much.

I suspect this is particularly true of that most-talked-about but probably least read book, the Bible. Rather than read the whole thing for themselves, Christians are only getting the little bits of scripture quoted in sermons, and relying on their pastors for context and interpretation.

But as we learned from Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report, reading excerpts and summaries often tells you more about the person doing the excerpting and summarizing than it does about the work under consideration.

I encouraged my students to read whole works because it not only gives them the thinking behind the author’s conclusions, but it also gives a sense of emphasis — what the author considered important, and what was not so important. That’s what’s missing from so much of today’s talk about the Bible.

To hear right-wing Christians talk, you’d think that Jesus was sent to this earth for no other reason than to condemn homosexuality and abortion. But if he had a single thing to say on either topic, his followers didn’t think it worth recording in the four Gospels.

What did Jesus talk about? He spent a lot of time urging his followers to relieve human suffering, and he backed up that talk with action: we see him healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, offering words of comfort to the oppressed, and forgiving those suffering from guilt.

When asked which commandment was the most important, Jesus gave two, quoting Hebrew scripture: 1. Love God, and 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew’s version of this, Jesus says that “the second is like” the first; later in the book, he argues that the two are practically synonymous. To serve your fellow man is to serve God: “as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me.”

The Gospel writers do not shy away from the fact that different commandments can be in conflict with one another. All four report an incident in which Jesus is criticized for healing on the Sabbath: healing would be considered work, and Jews weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. But when given the choice between helping a suffering human being and observing the punctilios of religious ritual, Jesus would always choose the former.

How can anyone read the Gospels and conclude that voting for Donald Trump is good for Christianity?

Trump is perhaps the most un-Christian president we’ve ever had. He doesn’t love anybody nearly as much as he loves himself, and he is indifferent to human suffering.

We don’t expect our president to perform miracles of healing, but he could at least avoid standing in the way of the healers we do have. To avoid overwhelming them with covid-19 cases, he could encourage social distancing and the wearing of masks, and set an example by following those rules himself. But he doesn’t care: the pandemic “is what it is.”

Not only is he indifferent to suffering, he has caused untold suffering with his policy of separating innocent children from their immigrant parents. Reuniting them is clearly not a priority, as hundreds of children and families are still separated.

One wishes that God would do what Robert Mueller did to Barr, and write a letter to those who are misrepresenting the Bible, telling them that they’re wrong. But that’s not God’s style. God wants us to figure it out for ourselves.



Freelance writer living in Charlottesville, VA

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