The letters ‘WWJD’ used to appear on wristbands worn by younger members of evangelical churches, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Whether the question was being posed to the wearer or to those whom the wearer met was never quite clear, but the question was reasonable; confronted with a particular situation, what would Jesus do?
Would Jesus have supported slavery? Many of his followers in the 18th and 19th Centuries thought he might have done. George Whitefield, the 18th Century cleric who is a major figure in evangelical history actually campaigned for the legalization of slavery in the state of Georgia because he believed it necessary for the economic success of the state. The 19th Century abolitionist movement met strong opposition from Christians. Richard Furman, a Baptist leader in South Carolina in 1822 published an ‘Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States’; it was a defence of slavery that would be used up until the end of the American Civil War
What about democracy? Would Jesus have supported democracy? Not according to the 19th Century Methodist leader Jabez Bunting. When the question of adopting democratic procedures in church governance, Bunting was unequivocal in stating, ‘Methodism is as much opposed to democracy as to sin’. Bunting would have found kindred spirits among those of the 21st Century African dictators who profess an evangelical faith whilst presiding over the most corrupt regimes on Earth.
What about racial discrimination? Would Jesus have thought racism as something his followers should accept? Many evangelical Christians in the United States actively embraced racist attitudes, seeing no incompatibility between discrimination and their faith. Bob Jones University refused to allow admission to African Americans until 1971. The Religious Right emerged through government interventions to remove charitable status from institutions that practiced segregation.
What about equality for women? Didn’t Jesus treat women as equals? Didn’t he step outside the norms of society in his interactions with women? Conservative evangelicals insist that whatever Jesus might have done, the whole Bible must be taken into consideration; verses from Genesis are adduced to argue woman is subordinate to man. Even Bible translations are vetted to ensure they comply with the theme of male dominance; the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States passed a resolution in June condemning a gender neutral New International Version of the Bible.
Every step forward in human rights, every struggle for equality and dignity, has been opposed by conservative Christians. Scripture has been quoted in defence of oppression and degradation. It can come, then, as no surprise that a tradition that has had within its mainstream supporters of slavery, autocracy, racism and sexism should be opposed to gay and lesbian people. The religious Right in Ireland have launched a personal attack on my colleague Dean Tom Gordon for registering his civil partnership. In a world where millions are starving in east Africa, where environmental devastation threatens our future, where the international financial markets could plunge us all into bankruptcy, where HIV/AIDS threatens whole nations, they have not a comment to make on any of the issues, yet they can organize a meeting to attack an individual.
What would Jesus do?