May 11th, 2011
04:11 PM ET

My Take: Poll on bin Laden's death reveals a disposable Jesus

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.

Survey: Most Americans say it's wrong to celebrate bin Laden's death

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.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Osama bin Laden • Politics • Polls • United States

soundoff (753 Responses)
  1. Nicol

    The only division in this world is not beetewn the saved and the unsaved,but beetewn the Christian and the Pharisee. The Christian worships God,while the Pharisee worships scripture.

    September 7, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  2. Elizabeth

    It is sad isn't it? I was around many people who said they were Christians who in reality were just going to church but it wasn't a reality in their lives. For a long time I hated Christians because I thought they were all hypocrites. Preachin one thing and doin another. They SAID they were Christians but really didn't know Jesus at all. If you actually want to follow the Bible, That's what I did. That's what many New Agers, Muslims, Buddhists, etc have been doing, just asking God to really show them if they were in the truth and help them find it with sincere hearts, and Jesus is appearing to them in visions and dreams andtelling them that He IS the way. It doesnt matter what your background is He will come and consume your heart with his Love and holiness (being free from the contamination of hate, twistedness, and everything that is anti-love) I HAVE met a few Christians who truely follow the commands of Jesus and They really acted like Jesus and that's what drew me to it. Of course I was skeptical because of my past and seeing all the people who were either decieved or really didn't care about really knowing God but saying they did... but seeing the genuine ones that really had had their lives turned upside down and went through all kinds of hard situations but something was different about them that made me want the peace and love they had, that's what led me to become a Christian. It's what led me to believe it actually was a reality. My mistake was though, in my quest for truth, you can't always look at people. The sad thing is that many of us Christians don't really follow the bible or the teachings of true christianity especially when we SAY we follow Jesus but in reality truely AREN't. it even says that anyone who says "I know God but hates his brother is a liar because how can you love God whom you have not seen if you don't love those you do see. For God IS LOVE" There will be those who truely give it their all and they bear the fruit of it. They live it. And there are those who are standing in the in-between. One foot in and one foot out which I would say is the most miserable existence there ever was. The thing is when people really GET IT and give it a sincere try, an honest try, God really does move and change people into the most loving powerful people there ever was. So don't let a few hypocrites keep you from seeking God. If you seek God with a true heart, you can't be let down. Whatever religion you are, it doesn't matter because those who seek (with a genuine persistent humble heart.... examples of this would be people who have laid low their motives and ambitions and asked God to reveal himself to them in truth and they have never been disapointed!)

    July 29, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  3. James Black


    June 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  4. Frank Mondana

    The only time I've ever witnessed Christians doing what they are supposed to is after that monster killed a bunch of Amish schoolgirls.
    The Amish community got together on that same day and offered help and comfort to the widow of the shooter. They brought her food and stayed at her house to help out wherever they could. When the money came in from all those offering help, they shared it with her. The Amish leaders immediately forgave the killer and even attended his funeral. To this day, the widow and the Amish work together and are very close.
    When the Amish were asked about this, they almost sounded incredulous; they didn't even hesitate when answering that they didn't have the power to judge and that Christ teaches forgiveness. They quite simply practice what they preach without any second guessing or "reinterpretation" of the Bible. Every single Christian in the world needs to study this case as it is the only time I have ever seen a religion do what they believe.
    It brought tears to my eyes and I'm an Atheist.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  5. Opus600

    Funny how the comments from the "Christians" that posted here all but prove the point the author of this article was making.

    How many "Christians" have read the whole sermon from Jesus and gotten what he was teaching? His words are very clear: do these things because they set you apart from sinners. (Don't believe me....read the entire chapter of Matthew and it says that very thing over and over.) When you have Christians proclaiming in loud voices that we should do unto sinners what they do unto us, how are we any different than the sinners? The author is making that point, and it is appalling at the number of so-called "Christians" that are raising angry voices at that statement.

    If we torture the way terrorists torture, tell me how we are any different than the terrorists?

    What should shock and shame every Christian is that only 47% of white evangelicals believe we should follow the golden rule. Remember, this rule was given to us by Christ himself. How can you profess to be a "Christ-"ian if you refuse to follow the words of Christ?

    The "Christian" right runs from the golden rule with such vigor that it has left Christ behind also.

    June 8, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  6. AM in NH

    Sometimes Christians do nice things. Sometimes not. The author refers to doctrine to challenge Christians to act in a way he thinks is more moral. It's his right to argue that. But, in my opinion, he misses the larger point. Sometimes Christians do nice things because they remember some verse or tale that causes them to act nicely, and that's great. However, religion (not just Christianity) is essentially immoral: it strips the individual of the uniquely individual duty to determine, and act upon, the most ethical, necessarily subjective, behavior possible. Sure, some Christians "think for themselves" but, at least in some small degree, they rely on poems and fairy tales and, critically, what they are told by others are the "rules", to guide their behavior. There are no objective rules. True ethical conduct means developing your own code that fits (and can be refitted) to human life on earth. In this respect, we are wholly responsible for our own conduct. ANYTHING that purports to relieve us of this responsibility is immoral, including – and especially – religion. We are all "sinners", in that we all fall short of aspirations we have for how we treat people. However, if we blame our bad conduct, or place credit for our good conduct, on the influence of religion, we are not only slightly deluded, but we are moral cowards, too.

    June 7, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  7. PC

    Of course the Christians I know use much of their spare time to work in soup kitchens, aids clinics, food pantries and in other charitable ways. Politics is for this world. Mr Prothero perverts the meaning of the scriptures to suit his own purposes. Sad. Turning the other cheek is not an invitation for abused people to stay with their tormentor. An honest person who is being attacked by let's say a Ted Bundy, is not engaged by scripture to say, "Gee Ted, thanks for raping and killing me, I'll treat you to a latte." Far from it. Scripture does not condemn self defense, including the use of force for JUST purposes.

    June 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  8. chen ni

    While your observations of the Christian religion in modern day American society is very accurate, can you really say that these same problems did not exist in the past 2000 years?(even longer if you want to consider the Old Testament.) The text of the modern day Bible has surely gone through a similar ordeal through the passage of time, as many many many men have had their hands on shaping the text that we read today. How can we trust today's version of the Word of God without calling into question every man's intentions that has ever played a role in writing, editing, selecting, etc. the verses that have survived till this day? Can we trust the men from the same organization that is responsible for the molestation of thousands of children?

    June 6, 2011 at 2:36 am |
  9. angryoldguy

    Those of you who want to condem the author of this piece have clearly forgotten the admonishment of "judge not, for as you have judged, so will you be judged"! Despite differnces in belief or non-belief, anyone can choose, if he or she desires, to treat others as they desire to be treated. Condem and you will be condemed! Approach your life through kindness, and you will find most will respond in kind. It's simple human nature! Threaten me, I will threaten you back! Treat me with courtesy & respect and you will receive the same in return. Is that so hard? YES! If human histroy shows us anything, it's that this idea is the most difficult of all for humans to follow or to apply to their individual lives. It's not an excuse, just a fact.

    June 5, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  10. Cindy

    What surprises me is that you were surprised by this poll. Virtually every hardline Christian I know is vindictive, haphazard, remorseless, selfish, mean and compassionless – not to mention generally uneducated, ignorant and living in isolation from the rest of the world. They are so quick to trot out Jesus when he's convenient to their purpose and then shove him back in his little box when he's not. It's been my experience that religious zealots of all creeds, but here in the U.S. mostly white Christians, are the first ones to throw women, children, old people and the disabled under the bus financially so they can grab bigger tax breaks for themselves. White Christian hardliners gross me out and they should gross you out, too.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Jason

      Cindy, I think I'm in love

      June 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  11. Bob

    The Bible is a collection of writings with MULTIPLE authors, who each view the things they're writing about in a slightly different light. Therefore, not every part of the Bible is going to agree with every other part. For this reason, people can use it to justify a liberal political opinion, like this lame columnist, or a conservative one. The Bible is NOT A GUIDE TO RUNNING GOVERNMENT. You can't run a successful company with the principle of giving away all of your possessions. And you can't run a successful government with a policy of "turn the other cheek." That's just the way it is.

    June 2, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • Realist

      So Bob, the Bible is not a guide to running a government (you are a minority in the conservative movement if you think that, by the way), but would you agree it is a guide for the individual to live his or her life? And if government is made of individuals, surely the Bible's teachings apply to how individuals in government should act in thier life, right? From your post, it sounds like you think that those holding power shouldn't care about the Bible's teachings while "on the job", or waterboard and torture and gut social programs all week long and sing and pray on Sundays. Either the Bible applies to ALL conduct, or it applies to none.

      June 5, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Jim

      Bob, Since we (USA) have never tried to live by the gtolden rule, I guess thats proof that it doesn't work.

      Maybe if we tried it, we wouldn't be the most waring nation on earth.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  12. Lindsaygirl

    What a ridiculous article. I daily see more good come out of anyone Christian than folks that spew a bunch of crap like this guy. People like him love to point out any bit of hypocrasy of Christians. No one has ever claimed that WE were not sinners, only that Jesus wasn't a sinner, and that we should try to be like him. It's like an excuse to let ourselves go hog wild and do whatever we want because we are already sinners. This country of Christians has done more for other peoples than ANY other country has ever done for others. So I really get heartburn when I read things like this article. I gotta stop reading CNN......

    June 1, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Cindy

      Yes, Fox "News" will welcome you with open arms.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Jim

      Lindsaygirl – I have seen more giving by non-christians in general, something the Master gave. The biggest cult is those that do not think about what the Master taught, which was not accepted then and I doubt if its accepted now.

      June 5, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  13. Karen

    I think we are 96% Christian nation. We all know the ten commandments and golden rules. Problem is that the media (CNN which some may think is government TV) and the government don't remember the ten commandments and golden rules when they walk into their govt position everyday so it all gets lost. They forgot what we all learned growing up and the public suffers as society gets out of balance.

    May 31, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Cindy

      You think wrong. Heck, us atheists make up 14% of the U.S. population so you're numbers are off right there. BTW, government is not in the business of doing the work of god. They're supposed to be working for us citizens.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  14. Ben Boothe, The Boothe Ranch

    The author raised relevant questions. It would seem that Christianity is often a "secular, social and cultural" gathering that often does not lift our society, but simply reflects our society. Therefore when we see "hard" rules, such as do not kill, many preachers easily put them aside if someone that we want to kill comes along. "Its ok to kill this one or that one because...." When it says Jesus was the "Prince of Peace" the religious right is quick to ignore that as it rallies our armies to war. I commend Steve Prothero. In my book: "Flowers Facing the Sun" I outlined a premise that we, in spite of many differences are all flowers facing the sun, every day, seeking the light, and that the educated "Globally Connected Generation" of young thinkers have learned that we have many more things in common, than we differ on. One of those things in common is that the youth reject hypocrisy of religious leaders or political leaders that use religion to achieve their ambitions or goals. Religion has been used as a control agent, as a power agent to encourage us to do some demonic things. Would Jesus have hung Sadam Hussein after a mock trial (just like happened to himself). Would Jesus have executed Osama Bin Laden. "Judgement is mine sayeth the Lord". These are questions worthy of discussion at every church and Sunday school class. Of course those two might be considered as having the image, personifying evil. But, what would a true devout Christian really do, if he practiced the Christian religion, deeply?

    May 31, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  15. PAUL

    while the writer has little knowledge of the bible , he is also greatly lacking what he should know to write such a article, the laws give to people of all walks of life is the commandments given by moses , religion does not have anything to do with goverments laws or rulings, he told us straight the one law that there is no forgiveness for is murder, rulers and goverments take it upon themselves to make the decision whether to go to war, or if a person should be put to death, as far as jesus and the apostles are concerned thier labours was a work of love and true humanitarian towards all peoples, races, religions, they never asked for anything for themselves, and they never took from one to give to another.

    May 30, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  16. LEB

    What's funny is that anyone sincerely believes that Christians made up the golden rule. It's even funnier when Christians claim that they invented marriage.

    May 27, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • buffoon

      What more funny is all Christians beat off! 🙂

      May 28, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • Cindy

      Good ones! 🙂

      June 2, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  17. Mike

    Very good question. The bible was never meant to be distributed to the masses. The original church (Catholic) was against distribution simply because it feared that the good book would be misinterpreted. During the Protestant reformation King Henry VIII ordered that it be given to all. Well today we have over 1000 christian faiths and the way it's interpreted varies from faith to faith. The world should have one religion! Think about it, if you believe in the devil isn't this what he would want – confusion, misinterpretation, faiths hating one another. The Christian world should be Catholic!! No more, no less!!

    May 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Joe

      Haha, is that really why you think they did it? The Catholics up top kept the bible from the poor uneducated masses (who they kept from being able to read and getting an education anyways) so they could distort it for their own personal gain while they live a rich and pious lifestyle. If it was up to them, the dark ages would still be going on today.

      May 24, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  18. stefan

    Religion is the biggest hoax every played on humanity. Although it seems that our human nature seems to desire it.

    May 22, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  19. charlie888888

    When I was in Sunday school the 5th commandment was thou shalt not kill.
    I was suprosed to notice recently that it has been ammeneded to "thou shalt not murder".
    As far as I can see that change of orders happend soemtime in the 1970's /80.
    Sure make it a lot easier to keep.
    I am a Christian but avoid christian religions other than as a place of meditation, worship and intellectual debate, certainly not as a place for moral guidance as they change the rules with the politics of the age.

    May 21, 2011 at 3:46 am |
    • leecal

      It hasn't been amended. "Murder" is a better translation than "kill". Ancient Hebrew had different words for intentional and unintentional killing, just as modern English does.

      May 21, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  20. Will

    This is funny. We are at war, and the American athesits( CNN) are attacking christians. They come up with ways to push faith out of our society. Media is trying to play dictator of peoples thoughts and beliefs. Stop hustling false stories and stop insulting my faith. If you wrote a story against muslims, you would go to jail for a hate crime. On the other hand you insult my faith well its okay because the media and there HBO and vile and facist ways is okay. Because they are the bullies and they can get away with. But you will be judge and God will be waiting. By the grace of God you may be saved......

    May 19, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • OneAtheistUnderGod

      Your imaginary friend can not do anything buddy, sorry. Its all in your head and your beng brainwashed like the

      rest of society. You should learn to think for yourself instead of a fairytale of a book controlling your life making you

      follow all these rules so U can have happiness when your DEAD!!! really DEAD. He cant show his face or even

      give you anything while your alive but once your DEAD U get whatever you've desired? That doesnt sound like bull

      to you? Probably not cause your brainwashed.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:26 am |
    • vinbl1952

      Victimization much? Raise a few hard questions about adapting Christianity to one's cultural and emotional biases, rather than living out Bible-based values that go against the grain of one's taken-for-granteds as an American, and you think your "faith" is being insulted.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:03 am |
    • charlie888888

      The US is not at war in anything other than political sloganry. Like the war on drugs, poverty etc.
      Oh sorry I forgot. There is the korean war which is still ongoing.

      May 21, 2011 at 4:36 am |
    • leecal

      How is CNN "pushing faith out of society"? You are freely promoting your faith on a section of CNN devoted entirely to religion! Sorry Will, but you're not a persecuted minority. You and your ilk are running the show.

      May 21, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Cindy

      Gosh Will, have you ever spent 5 minutes actually thinking about the liklihood that there is no god? In your experience have you EVER come across anything real that was too good to be true that actually was true? No? I rest my case. You don't need to believe in god to live a good life and enjoy it.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
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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.