Baker Academic

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Obama, Romney, and the American Jesus - Le Donne

In the season of American presidential campaigns it is quite difficult to avoid the talking points. So I am told. I really wouldn’t know since I don’t try to avoid them. I’m a politics junkie. As a social memory theorist, I find the whole process fascinating. It’s a bit like watching a Mel Brooks flick for the tenth time; I can’t help but watch the whole thing become more and more absurd, even if I know the outcome. If you’re like me, and I pray that you’ve chosen a more pious path, I would highly recommend Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.

Your standard U.S. presidential campaign debacle involves one middle-aged-white-millionaire-agnostic -who-pretends-to-be-a-protestant-farmhand and a clone of the first guy who has a slight variation on a few key issues. It’s like watching a boxing match between two twin brothers—only one parts his hair on the right while the other does on the left. For the bulk of American history this has been so. Hell, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that we got our minds around a Catholic in office. We have never elected a woman candidate. Never an Italian candidate. Never a Jewish candidate. But 2008 was very different and 2012 promises even more plot twists.

While the ideological differences might be overblown, Obama and Romney aren’t your typical clones. We’ve never seen a standing African American president duke it out with a Mormon contender. This complicates matters for the average Jesus-loving voter. Most Evangelicals—who tend to guide a few key talking points—are suspicious of Mormons. But, for lack of a better option, many American Evangelicals are rooting for a Mormon this go-around. I confess that I find such vaudeville theater positively droll.

Prothero's book provides several windows into how Americans (old and new) have appropriated Jesus as a vehicle for their own ideologies. And while most politicians are clones of each other with slightly different shades of teeth whitener, the population of America is a big one and a diverse one. This means that there are many, many American versions of Jesus. It also means that the Obama camp and the Romney camp have different notions of Jesus. Chapter five is titled “Mormon Elder Brother”, chapter six is titled “Black Moses”, but it would be a misstep to think that either chapter bespeaks the Christologies of Romney and Obama. These chapters will, however, help American voters understand themselves a bit better.

There is really no way to tell what Romney’s Jesus is like. He doesn’t tend to talk publicly about his religion, much less about Jesus. He has lived in a very Catholic (and post-Catholic) part of America; has this influenced his notion of Jesus? He has been wealthy since birth; has this influenced his notion of Jesus? Your guess is as good as mine. What it interesting to me is that Mormon voters, if they identify Romney as an “insider”, project their own notions on to Romney. Prothero’s chapter on Jesus the “Mormon Elder Brother” might help us understand what is being projected.

Likewise, there is really no way to tell what Obama’s Jesus is like. He doesn’t tend to talk publicly about his religion, much less about Jesus. He has lived in WASPy areas of America; has this influenced his notion of Jesus? He has an Ivy League education; has this influenced his notion of Jesus? Your guess is as good as mine. What is interesting to me is that African American and American Baptists voters, if they identify President Obama as an “insider”, project their own notions onto him. Prothero’s chapters 3, 6 and 8 might help us understand what is being projected.

Religion is always a factor in American politics. Perhaps this will prove an understatement in 2012. And, as Prothero rightly argues, most Americans are “Jesus people”. Even if our notions of Jesus vary widely, Jesus continues to be an important national symbol by which we orient ourselves. Jesus is the elephant in the room… he’s also the donkey in the room it seems.

In a future post, I’ll write more about Prothero’s book. His chapter on Jefferson’s Jesus is tantalizing.

Anthony Le Donne (PhD) is the author of Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?


  1. I have Prothero's book on my desk. Been thinking about assigning it for my Jesus and the Gospels class.

  2. So far, the feedback from my students is great - and I've learned a whole lot myself in preparation.

  3. I read it a few years ago and agree that it is very interested and engaging. I would point out two things about Romney and Obama. Romney has been raised to be a sort of Mormon Messiah, the John Kennedy of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the hopes of his people have been laid upon him. Vanity Fair does a great article on this.

    President Obama was raised around WASPs, starting at 10 when his mother shipping him back from Indonesia to Hawaii, but as an adult he made a conscious choice to choose his blackness in culture, family, politics and yes, religion. So, insofar as President Obama accesses Christian teachings it can be shown that they are deeply tied to the same churches who raised up our black leaders during the Civil Rights movement. Social Justice and building political voice are two of these core tenants.

    However, both these men because of their "differentness" their "otherness" have learned to be chameleons, and they probably both perfected it a Harvard. I wonder if this why some many of our presidents hail from HU?

  4. After reading these chapters in Prothero's book, I feel like I do have a better understanding on what Romney and Obama's view of Jesus MAY be like. Prothero goes through how Mormons' view of Jesus has changed since its founding and how this view is split between Mormons even today. Prothero also goes over how many Black Christians view Jesus. As Anthony pointed out, people's view of Jesus vary widely, even within a certain religion. In the end, it is impossible to know how Obama or Romney think of Jesus, but a president's religion should not be a major factor in who will run our country for four years.

  5. What I find most interesting about Stephan Prothero's book and thinking about Obama and Romney's versions of Jesus is that, as you accurately state, their Jesus could be anything. As Jesus became a national icon, every person developed their own version of him in their mind. I'm sure there are even quite a few people who love and respect Jesus, but completely disregard the religions he comes from and stands for. He has become a man that can mold and be shaped into whatever we want him to be, depending on what we are looking for.
    Even I am finding that as I grow older, I associate Jesus less and less with religion, and I come from a rather religious background. He's developed into a man of morals and ideals, a man that can be respected regardless of who you are. At least that's how he seems to be in my mind.
    Something I am a bit curious is this Elephant and Donkey analogy. Especially if it is being connected in some way to Jesus, because I have seen many pictures and even games referring to Romney and Obama as an Elephant and a Donkey. What is this signifying exactly?

  6. Jesus' potrait varies greatly when going from person to person, so it is not possible to know how Obama and Romney feel about Jesus. In Prothero's chapters he discusses how Jesus is seen and thought of in Mormon and black culture which provides evidence that there are a variety of portraits of Jesus. Prothero mentions that the Mormons Jesus has white, blue eyes and is physically built. Where as the portrait of Jesus in black culture is much different. One such portrait that Prothero mentions is that Jesus came to lead the black nation of Israel and that His heart, soul and mind are colored. Again, there cannot be one universal portrait of Jesus because there are so many different cultures in the American melting pot.

  7. I found Prothero's book quite interesting as well as complete. As many have mentioned, America is extremely diverse. There are so many cultures, some mixing throughout the years, that make up America. Prothero's book helps us see that there is no ONE SINGLE Jesus, but rather that there is a Jesus for everyone.

    I think Prothero's book shows that everyone has their own portrait of Jesus and even within a certain group (e.g. Mormon and African American) there are many variations of Jesus. Reading the chapter suggested in the post on both of these groups does give us an insight of what version of Jesus is accepted by Romney and Obama. However, because of the variations within each group, I agree with Anthony in that it would be hard to guess correctly the version that best suits either individual.