WDJD (What Did Jesus Do)?: Do Evangelicals Care?

tags: conservatism, Christianity, evangelicals, Theology, Gospels

Adam Jortner is the Goodwin-Philpott Professor of Religion in the History Department at Auburn University. He is the author of the Audible series Faith of the Founding Fathers and was part of the creative team behind Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of a man living in a graveyard. Jesus finds the man “among the tombs; and no one could restrain him.” They had tried. “He had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke.” Mark describes the man howling, bruising and cutting himself with stones, afflicted with “an unclean spirit.” On seeing Christ, the man falls upon his knees, and Jesus sends the spirits out of him and into a waiting herd of pigs, who drown in the sea. 

It is the famous story of the Gadarene swine—complete with the spirit’s confession that “My name is Legion; for we are many.” The line inspired more than a few witch hunts in Europe, dozens of bad Hollywood films, and an untold number of unproduced Netflix originals. 

But the name of the demon and the death of the pigs are not nearly as interesting as what comes next. The people from the neighborhood arrive and see Jesus, as well as “the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind”—and they beg Jesus to leavefor “they were afraid.” 

I never understood this verse until Rev. Otis Moss III explained it to me: Only when the madman is clothed and in his right mind do the people fear what Jesus can do. The chains, the madness, the poverty, the self-harm: This is a story about marginalization, mental health, mass incarceration, and more. These are, Moss says, “existential questions, and theological questions, and biblical questions.” The people seem perfectly content with a chained man screaming in a graveyard—but when clothed and in his right mind, they are terrified. In other words: They fear a restoration of justice to the oppressed, the homeless, and the marginalized, and they understand that Jesus as God has the power to bring about restoration.

Mark 5 is one of my favorite “lefty” parts of the bible, of which there are many (Luke 14:13Matthew 6:1, Ephesians 4:31-32). Indeed, despite the association of the American left with secularism, there is a lot leftists admire about the life of Christ. And admiration is just a step from love. So there may have never been a better time for churches to send apostles to the liberals. 

It will be a hard sell. 

White evangelicalism, the most visible branch of American Christianity, is overwhelmingly right-wing and predominantly pro-Trump. Despite Trump’s ignorance of Christian prayer and his appalling inability to live up to any biblical moral standard, evangelicals have touted him as a Christian defender, a “baby Christian,” and even as the Second Coming. Recent polls reveal that over half of Republicans subscribe to the belief that the United States ought to be a Christian nation, where Christians receive preferential treatment and control of all institutions, and the government pursues biblical objectives (however defined). 

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