With "The Hijacking of Jesus," Wakefield's spiritual writing and socially conscious journalism come together. Like other recent offerings by left-leaning Christians, such as Randall Balmer's "Thy Kingdom Come" and Robin Meyer's "Why the Christian Right is Wrong," Wakefield's book sees evangelical Christianity as overly connected to one party (Republican) and one agenda (Christian America). Wakefield spoke with Beliefnet about how the hijacking of Jesus happened, and how he’d like to see Jesus taken back.
You've done a lot of writing on personal spirituality. How is "The Hijacking of Jesus" of a piece with the rest of your life's work?
I think that all the work I’ve done previously that has to do with religion and spirituality, and also the work I’ve done all my life that has to do with politics, have really pointed toward this book. I think it’s the result of a long exploration of these issues, and a long exploration of Christianity in particular. I’ve always written about social concerns. My first book was about Spanish Harlem. And so, finally with this book, the social concerns and the religious-spiritual concerns have come together into the same subject.
Did the results of the 2004 election inspire you to get to work on this project now?
Well, even before the 2004 election, right before it, it just so happened that The Nation magazine asked me to review a biography of William Sloane Coffin. That gave me the initial idea because reading it took me back to that era. I wrote a great deal about the civil rights movement when I was writing for "The Nation" in the ‘60s, and also for Esquire magazine. Reading the biography of Coffin, it just reminded me that in those days, when you saw the term “Christian,” it usually meant people for civil rights and for justice. It meant people like William Sloane Coffin or the Catholic priest Dan Berrigan. There was a whole politically progressive, spiritual, religious group very effectively going throughout the whole country.
Now, I see the word “Christian” and it means people like [the Rev. Pat] Robertson and [the Rev. Jerry] Falwell. So, that was really the origin of the book. And then the 2004 election made me think, well, I’d better not wait. I’d better do this right away.
I don’t think it’s a unique audience in the sense of being a small audience. I think it’s the majority of mainline Protestantism. Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopals, Unitarians, and [the] United Church of Christ—most of those people feel betrayed by this new identification of Christians with right-wing causes. It goes back to the question Jim Wallis asked: “How did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American?”
How do you answer that question?
I think it really began in the Goldwater defeat in 1964. And at that time, a number of Republicans, particularly the right-wing conservative Republicans, or the main ones backing Goldwater, felt that if they were ever going to win national elections, they had to have a broader base. So, it wasn’t just out of the blue that these televangelists got involved in political questions. They were approached and used by Republican political workers.
Your book says that these groups have hijacked the message of Jesus. What do you believe to be the message of Jesus?
The message of Jesus is summed up partly in the Sermon on the Mount, and partly when he begins his ministry and quotes the passage from Isaiah: “I have come to set free the prisoners and restore sight to the blind.” And certainly, his mission is also to bring hope. It was to heal people, to befriend the outcast. To leave behind those teachings is to leave behind Jesus.
At the very end of the book, I talk about the group that Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo were hoping to form of evangelicals who did not want to follow the Robertson-Falwell model anymore. And that group has now been officially announced, and they even have a name. They call themselves “Red-Letter Christians.”
I’m not sure it was a great idea for a name, since I think it’ll be used against them—meaning politically red or politically very left wing. And that’s not what they mean. The reason they said “Red-Letter Christians” is that they’re referencing the passages in which Jesus speaks in the New Testament, which in many New Testaments are printed in red. So, what they’re advocating is, "Let’s go back to what Jesus actually said."
You end The Hijacking Of Jesus with a discussion about doing something—getting involved in order to work on the problems. You talk about Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner as models of proper action. What do you see happening? And what needs to happen, in your view?
A lot of mainline Christians are speaking out. I was struck by one woman who I spoke to at the Michael Lerner group’s first meeting of the Network of Spiritual Progressives in Berkeley. I said, “Are you from a church? Is that how you knew about this and how you got here?” And she said, “No. I don’t even know how I got something in the mail. I just remember it had the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘progressive’ and so I wanted to find out about it.”
What I see is a lot of spontaneous groups. I mention one in Jacksonville, Florida, where a healthcare worker just started his own group of politically liberal Christians, talking about the issues they think are important. And there are a lot of websites, not only the [Rabbi Michael] Lerner and Wallis, but the National Council of Churches, who started the website called Faithful America.
There are a lot of people feeling the need for this kind of thing. Not only the people who were active in the civil rights movement, which puts everybody into an older category, but the young people like those interested in the environment—they have natural responses that really call for a reaction to the religious right.
It doesn’t even have to be a reaction to religious right. It just has to be back to the basics. Go back to the words of Jesus.