May 11th, 2011
04:11 PM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
A few years ago, I was walking through the streets of Indianapolis with a friend. Whenever anyone asked us for money, she would offer a dollar or two. I asked her why she did this. She replied, “Because Jesus said so.”
I didn’t believe her. “Where in the Bible does it say that?” I asked, and she responded with chapter and verse, Matthew 5:42: "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." (Luke 6:30, I should add, says basically the same thing.)
This passage is one of the so-called “hard sayings” of Jesus. It comes in a barrage of equally hard sayings toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to turn the other cheek, give away your coat if someone sues you for your shirt, and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45).
The chatter around a poll released Wednesday by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service will likely focus on the findings highlighted in their news release: 82% of Americans surveyed believe that bin Laden distorted the teachings of Islam to suit his own purposes; 65% believe the al Qaeda leader is rotting in hell; and 62% think it is wrong to celebrate the death of another human being.
What amazes me, however, is how disposable Christianity and the Bible are in this conversation. America, it seems, has become a nation of Christians of convenience, who trot Jesus out when he suits their politics and prejudices only to hide him away when he does not.
Americans are apparently split down the middle on whether the golden rule is an eternal moral law or a disposable human guideline. While we may pay lip service to the rule (which can be found in most of the world's religions), roughly half of us apparently think it doesn’t apply when it comes to torture.
Only 53% of those surveyed say the United States should follow the golden rule and not use any methods on our enemies that we would not want used on our soldiers. Oddly, support for the golden rule in this case was actually lower (47%) among white evangelicals.
In other words, when Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12), he didn’t really mean "everything." He thought there should be an exception in the case of waterboarding your enemies.
One thing that struck me hard while researching my 2003 "American Jesus" book was how malleable Jesus is in the American imagination. Instead of lording over American life, telling us what to do, he seems to be taking orders from us, carrying our water.
Or, as I put it back then, "The American Jesus is more a pawn than a king, pushed around in a complex game of cultural (and countercultural) chess, sacrificed here for this cause and there for another.”
The latest altar on which we are sacrificing Jesus is the so-called war on terror.
So here is my question for American Christians who claim the United States is a Christian nation. How Christian can a country be if even Bible believers cannot get behind something as basic to the Bible as the golden rule? Is Jesus really the lord of your life if his “hard teachings” can be so blithely ignored?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.