The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Garry Wills' America

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Christianity is undergoing something of a revival within American politics. The alleged “values voters” of the 2004 election brought the issue to the forefront and lately the Democrats have been taking a page out of the John Kerry playbook and cozying up to the red letters of the New Testament. This worries Garry Wills. In his latest New York Times editorial,[1] he blasted both Democrats and Republicans for attempting to bring Jesus into politics. “This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not…He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state.”

Wills goes on in his piece to scold anyone who would try to claim that Jesus would do this, or Jesus would want to do that. For Wills, Jesus’ teaching was so far beyond the mundane things like politics and social issues; He was a “religious” teacher. Jesus “shocked people by his repeated violation of the external holiness code of his time, emphasizing that his religion was an internal matter of the heart.” This is true, but Wills is completely missing the point that Jesus was trying to make. In Luke 6, Jesus says, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” Proverbs 4:23 calls the heart the “wellspring of life.” Wills believes that Jesus was teaching a higher order of understanding, something that politics can’t touch. “[W]hat he says goes far beyond politics and is of a different order…. No government can propose that as its program. Theocracy itself never went so far, nor could it.”

Wills' view of the “higher order” of Jesus’ religious teaching turns the “let your light so shine” command on its head. He continues, “Some people want to display and honor the Ten Commandments as a political commitment enjoined by the religion of Jesus. That very act is a violation of the First and Second Commandments. By erecting a false religion—imposing a reign of Jesus in this order—they are worshipping a false god. They commit idolatry. They also take the Lord’s name in vain.” So, the posting of God’s Word is a violation of it? Although Wills has a superior “religion of Jesus” that somehow trumps the Old Testament civil law, he is quick to hold regular Christians to the standard of the archaic Mosaic Law. How convenient. While Wills has found a way to keep his core “religious” beliefs separate from his political realm, the rest of us linear Christians will continue to vote and make decisions based on what we believe the Bible teaches, and be in violation of the First and Second Commandment.

The lunacy doesn’t stop there. Turning next to Jesus’ miracles, he makes a point that is often overlooked in evangelical circles.

The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father’s judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs—accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

Except for the part about Socrates being a great ethical teacher, this is a point worth remembering. Jesus performed miracles primarily as signs to the Jews. Remember when John the Baptist sent his question to Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:18–22). And again in Luke 5, Jesus asks, “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…. I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Verse 21 tells us that Jesus was doing this for the benefit of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The miracles validated his words. The point was that anyone could say “your sins are forgiven,” but Jesus performed a miracle to seal the deal, something that the Pharisees could never have done.

Instead of understanding this as a lesser to greater scenario, Wills understands the miracles of Christ as a greater to lesser. He continues, “[Jesus] is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates. No politician is going to tell the lustful that they must pluck out their right eye. We cannot do what Jesus would do because we are not divine.” Isn’t that just like a mystical religious teacher—impress the people a bit with some hocus-pocus just to remind them that they’re nowhere near as spiritual? Wills’ religion becomes a strictly “between the ears” phenomenon that does no earthly good. It’s privately engaging, but publicly worthless. If Wills’ comprehension of the “religion of Jesus” is a ubiquitous belief, it would make sense why Andrew Stephen,[2] writing from across the pond, is struck by the fact “that America may see itself as an overwhelmingly Christian country—but it is also remarkably unencumbered by the teachings of Christ.” Unlike Wills, Stephen cannot understand how a nation that claims Christianity in such high numbers can just as easily “eschew the ethical values that should logically result.” Perhaps Stephen should read Wills, that way he can get a real American view of what it means to be a “Christian.”


[1] Garry Wills, “Christ Among the Partisans,” New York Times, April 9, 2006.

[2] Andrew Stephen, “Worshippers of Wisteria Lane,” New Statesman, 10 April 2006.

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