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Review: The Hijacking of Jesus

hijacking-of-jesus.jpegThe Hijacking of Jesus is a thin little book about how religion became a polarized political battle zone, and what to do about it.

The book is a curious beast, though: it has a meandering style that belies the tour-of-the-countryside method of a magazine writer, which Wakefield is. This can work in a longer piece, but only if there is some thread tying the whole together; some theme that the author seems to be following that drives the tour forward. Wakefield fails to deliver that. Instead, he delivers a book with a few excellent chapters, a great overview of the history, and a total lack of a thesis.

He definitely has opinions: he’s against the Moral Majority and especially against Dobson, Falwell, and D. James Kennedy; he’s pro-choice; he’s pro-gay-rights; he’s against megachurches (for somewhat mysterious reasons having to do with their having production values); he’s a big fan of Jim Wallis and William Sloan Coffin; he’s for collaborating with people even if you disagree on some things.

But what he fails to do is tie all that together into something more than “Mainline Churches Good; Evangelical Churches Bad.”

In those places where he’s not expected to make a point, however, this is fine: his history is great and exhaustive (chapter four is almost worth the cover price by itself) and his theology is well put (and excellently contrasted with the pro-war, pro-control, pro-discrimination Evangelical mindset).

But even here the tour guide motif sometimes runs dry. The thrust of the book is the takeover of religion by the right and the atrophy of the Mainline Churches, but Wakefield fails to make a case for what drove the Mainlines out. He theorizes that it might have been watered down theology in favor of social activism, or maybe too much theology and not enough activism, or perhaps not enough of either. But his indecision on this point ultimately hurts his case when he tries to say what the problem was and how it should be fixed.

His discussion of the wedge issues is better; he identifies abortion and gay rights as the tools of the trade here (and civil rights and the Vietnam War as their historical antecedents). He quotes the rather balanced United Methodist Church statement on abortion, and notes that it is a battleground being fought over by the Institute for Religion and Democracy, which is attempting to take over the UMC from the inside and refashion a historically Mainline church into a more Evangelical one. And he talks about gay rights as the “line in the sand” that evangelicals are not willing to cross, after giving in (in his telling, reluctantly) on “integration” and “women’s ordination.” (p122)

But when the historical path crosses the current wedges and enters the future battles, the book largely falls apart. His history casts the Evangelicals as aggressive and theologically misguided, but it’s hard to say that they were doing anything more than attempting to spread what they saw as the truth. The utter collapse of the Mainline churches is the heart of the matter, along with the parallel collapse of the Dixiecrat coalition, which leads to a similar shift in the political arena (although this parallel receives very little attention in the book). And since he has failed to assign blame on the Mainliners for anything, the problem cannot reveal itself to be solved.

Instead, the final chapters of the book talk about how various groups– Jim Wallis’ Sojourners and Michael Lerner’s Tikkun foremost among them– are mobilizing to confront the horrors yet to be visited on us by the Republican administration that’s now out of power. We’re told of the gathering forces and how many people are on their email lists, but not how these lists are supposed to revitalize a flagging tradition with new blood and new ideas. Their focus on “poverty, environment, equality” seems good to me, but at the same time seems like exactly the things that no one in the largely-Republican Evangelical community is going to cross the church aisle for.

Ultimately, then, this book is a poor substitute for Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics, a much more actionable take down of the idea of a politicalized religion, whose aim is not to inform you of how we got here (for that, Hijacking is better), but instead to point the way forward, and hope that we can get there.