When asked, “Why did God send his son to us?,” I am surprised at how many Christians’ answer is “To die for our sins.” But the Gospels tell us that Jesus came to give us an example of how we are supposed to live. The Great Commandment is the key to understanding that theme. Jesus' words and deeds reinforce that main message numerous times in the Gospels. Even the crucifixion itself can be seen as an illustration of what it means to truly live the Great Commandment.
When asked to identify the most important part of the law, Jesus responds with one of the original ten commandments (Love the Lord your God) but combines it with something that comes from the 19th chapter of Leviticus in the Old Testament: "and love your neighbor as yourself." This is a huge deal! He says everything else (all the other commandments) hang on these two things! Together, these two elements form what Christians call the Great Commandment.
The scribes and pharisees knew that the Great Commandment was a big deal. That is why they asked Jesus right away: who is our neighbor? And Jesus answers with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In my new book, I say the Samaritans and Jewish people of Jesus' time were like Republicans and Democrats today. They did not like each other very much. They tended to assume the worst about each other. But those people — the ones we have a hard time liking—are exactly the people Jesus tells us we must love “as ourselves.” Those last words are important.
And this is not just one isolated part of the New Testament. It is the major theme that runs through the Gospels, when they are taken all together. In my Oxford Annotated Bible, Jesus calls out hypocrites explicitly on nineteen separate occasions. Implicitly, he calls out hypocritical behavior almost an equal number of times. What is hypocrisy? It’s when we hold others to rules that we don’t apply to ourselves, or that we don’t apply in the same way to ourselves. In other words, hypocrisy happens when we don’t follow the Great Commandment. We see many examples of that with both religious and political leaders these days.
But I still think many Christians don’t get the impact of Jesus saying that all of the law depends on than what he identifies as most important — the Great Commandment. In John [John 8:4-11], the scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus with a woman who has been caught in adultery, a violation of another commandment for which Mosaic law decrees stoning. Jesus tells them that the one who is without sin should throw the first stone. The crowd melts away, with no one claiming to be without sin. After the crowd leaves, with no one throwing a stone, Jesus asks the woman if there was no one left to condemn her. When she says no one, he says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” Here Jesus models for us what the Great Commandment means in action: loving your neighbor as yourself means we should not choose to throw stones unless we are perfect, and none of us are perfect. It means none of the other commandments, even thou shalt not kill, are as important as the Great Commandment.
And finally, of course, Jesus does die for us. And on the cross he says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What a beautiful illustration of the Great Commandment in action. We are called to love our neighbors (the tough ones) as ourselves even if it kills us. That is hard. Probably not too many Christians can live up to that standard. So it's easier to downplay the Great Commandment and get really vocal about things like Roe v. Wade.
For me, being a Christian is not consistent with supporting what I see in most Republican candidates. A friend was shocked by this. He asked me to address how I could support Democratic candidates given their positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and freedom of religion. Here is what I told him.
Christians argue that abortion is bad because it violates “thou shalt not kill,” correct? And we have already established that Jesus told us the Great Commandment is more important than all the other commandments, including this one. But, that said, anyone who cares about following the commandments should want to minimize the number of abortions to the extent that is consistent with the Great Commandment.
Abortions are a function of unwanted pregnancies. A study conducted by Lancet Global Health concluded that, worldwide, 61% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion. Since 1990, the proportion of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has increased in countries where more legal restrictions are in place. In January of this year, The latest National Survey of Family Growth in the US showed that the contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has resulted in a decrease in unintended pregnancies in the US. This evidence is reinforced by the fact that the number of abortions performed in the US has decreased almost 20 percent since 2011, and most of the decline in abortions has occurred in states where access to abortion has NOT been restricted. If you truly want to reduce abortions, the evidence shows you should support the ACA. Republicans have been working nonstop for ten years to undermine and overturn the ACA.
We have learned again and again that laws are not the best way to stop behaviors like drinking, drugs and sex. Prohibition did not work. It make alcohol a lucrative criminal enterprise. The war on drugs has been a disaster. Another example of a lucrative criminal enterprise has been incentivized by bad public policy. Eliminating legal abortions will cause women who can afford it to travel someplace else to have the abortion. Poor women will seek out illegal abortion providers. The effect of so-called Christians opposing Roe v. Wade will be to undo the gains in reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions that have been made in the past ten years and to disproportionately harm poor women. Do you really believe that is how Jesus would approach the challenge of abortion? I, for one, do not.
Republican politicians say “vote for me and we will overturn Roe v Wade and eliminate abortions” while at the same time saying “vote for me and we will overturn the ACA because it is socialism.” Well, in 1992, with 8 Republican appointed justices, the Supreme Court still upheld the main finding of Roe v Wade in a 5-4 decision (Planned Parenthood v Casey). I think Republican politicians know very well that (1) abortion is an issue they can use to get Christian votes, (2) the Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn Roe v Wade regardless of how many Republican appointed justices there are [in part because of (1)], and (3) overturning Roe v Wade is not going to stop abortions in the United States. So Christians who vote Republican out of opposition to abortion are simply deceived.
Oh, and by the way, the ACA is not even close to socialism. Look up the definition of socialism and think about it.
Okay, now same-sex marriage… Jimmy Carter is one of my favorite Christians. As a politician and public figure, he has never been afraid of living his faith, even when doing so came at great personal cost. Say what you will about Carter, but the guy successfully commanded a nuclear submarine while he was in the Navy. He might not have been the most popular President, but he is not a hypocrite. Carter is on the record as saying he believes Jesus would approve of gay marriage. He said, “I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else and I don’t see that gay marriage damages anyone else.” I agree with him.
Now all the evangelicals lined up and used Old Testament scriptures to say Carter was wrong. But I think the evangelicals are wrong. And I think a lot of them are pretty much hypocrites in a lot of ways. They like to use the Old Testament to let their followers stay in their comfort zone, because living the Great Commandment is hard, and challenges comfort-zone Christians.
Now for religious freedom. I am all for it. So is Biden. Of course, like everything, there is a limit. Our Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but we don’t allow religions that decide they believe in human sacrifice, or other things that violate individual rights in certain ways.
That brings us back to abortion, I think. Because many would claim that abortion is murder—human sacrifice. But the fact is that not all religions believe that life begins at conception. So freedom of religion protects the right of those people to believe that. And, in fact, freedom of religion protects the right of people to not believe in religion at all. I support freedom of religion in all of those dimensions, and I think we have ample processes for resolving disagreements over where your freedom of religion conflicts with mine. What we clearly SHOULD NOT endorse, in my opinion, is the idea that freedom of religion means America should be governed by some sort of Christian Taliban, and that, frankly, is the way many Christians act.
Bottom line: Republican positions on abortion, the ACA, same-sex marriage, and freedom of religion are logically inconsistent with each other, if you think them through. For Christians, the only way out of that trap is by using the Great Commandment as your decision criterion. Current positions of the Democratic candidates on my ballot are more consistent with the teachings of Jesus than are the positions of their Republican opponents.
When in doubt, I like to remember some other great words from Jesus: “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to the Lord that which is the Lord’s.” So many things that are appropriate to address one-on-one and in a charitable way are simply not appropriately or effectively manageable as a matter of public policy.