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Garret Keizer

Guerrillas in Jesus Land

A different way to be Christian in America.

Perhaps you got one too—the map a friend emailed to me the day after the 2004 presidential election, the one that shows a blue America of Canadian provinces and seacoast states capped over a vast, red territory labeled "Jesus Land." The implied equation of Christian faith and right-wing politics also appeared on a picket sign my daughter saw when she and a carload of like-minded college students drove to an airport to protest the arrival of George W. Bush. Ranked in a vertical row and each stamped with a large black X were the letter "W," a swastika, and a cross.

My first reaction, both to the map and to my daughter's description of the sign, was to say, "They asked for this." Of course, by "they" I meant the Religious Right. I meant the way that a large number of American Christians seem willing to offer their political allegiance to any candidate who professes his allegiance to Christ. I meant what has emerged as a compelling, if ultimately unfair, argument for the bankruptcy of evangelical religion. Once you make "confessing Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior" the sine qua non of faith, haven't you made yourself the dupe bar none of any party willing to make the same confession?

So much for my first reaction. My second thought was that I might be seeing early glimmers of a backlash against evangelicals and even against co-religionists of different stripes. When Iraq war veterans begin to evaluate how they came to be maimed, when the post-Depression generations get their first bitter taste of pre-Depression social "security"—when the falling abortion rate reverses itself because fewer and fewer people have the means for supporting an extra child while more and more children lack the wherewithal to avoid getting pregnant, a whole lot of fairly amiable people sitting down to potluck suppers in church basements are suddenly going to seem like the ugliest, stupidest creatures to have walked the earth since the dumber dinosaurs stumbled into tar pits. People who clucked about their "values" while missiles blew children apart. People who thought they were making a "faith statement" when they clapped a Jesus-fish on the tailgate of their ten-mpg SUV. What makes me so confident of a backlash? The fact that I'm a Christian and that's how some of these people are starting to look to me.

So much for the second reaction. In a more sober state of mind, I began to reflect on a strange mix of duty and irony. The duty is that of thoughtful Christians to expose the hoax of "compassionate conservatism" and to resist the drift toward theocratic despotism. The irony is more complex. For one thing, there is the irony that in doing what I've just stated, Christians of liberal sympathies could emerge as the true evangelizers; that is, as the only voice that isn't preaching to the choir. And it may be, too, that nonbelievers will emerge as the true "people of exile," conscious of what it means to weep by the waters of Babylon and to preserve the memory of a Zion where international law was respected and the hungry were fed. The prophetic words "Comfort ye my people" may in the end be taken to heart by the very same people who have hitherto had no use for prophecy. The stone that the builders rejected will become the chief cornerstone.

So much for irony. And so much for self-congratulation. Christians of my ilk face a difficult temptation, one to which I could easily have succumbed had I stood where my daughter stood at her protest. I mean the temptation to distinguish oneself from the Christian Right for no other reason than to preserve one's own respectability. I mean the temptation to care more about justifying oneself than about fighting for justice. I think of those Hellenizing Jews of the Maccabean period who joined their Greek masters in decrying the backwardness of "fundamentalists" who wouldn't try a nice piece of pork.

We are back to irony, because the temptation I've just described recapitulates what I see as the very error of the Religious Right. It is the error commonly committed by the person who desires more than anything else to be "a player." Isn't that the desire that has led so many Christians to become the lapdogs of global capitalism and preemptive militarism: the wish to come away from the margins and into the mainstream, to count as a force to be reckoned with—to count, quite literally, in the polls? If I give way to the same desire that informs the Christian Right under the pretext of opposing the Christian Right, what have I accomplished?

Of all the sayings attributed to Jesus perhaps none are as relevant to our current political situation as these two: "One's foes will be members of one's own household" and "Love your enemies." Should it come as such a surprise to find so many of my political enemies within my faith tradition? I intend to oppose them as enemies. But I also intend to make it clear that if you want to attack Christians as Christians, then you are also attacking me. I want no exemption. No safe conduct pass. I intend to wage guerrilla war within the borders of Jesus Land, but it is still my country.

I can't claim to have all this figured out. Earlier this year I published an essay attacking the Religious Right in Harper's Magazine. In the following month an essay of mine attacking "compassionate conservatism" appeared in Mother Jones. And here I am writing to affirm my solidarity with Christians in Books & Culture. As I said to my wife the other evening when we were trying to replace a broken light switch in our kitchen, "I know for sure these are the three wires I want. I'm just not sure I've got them connected to the right screws."

Garret Keizer is author most recently of Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperSanFrancisco).

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