November 4, 2009

Would Jesus Watch Fox News?

Rev. Scotty McLennan, former longtime Tufts University chaplain, visits campus to talk about his new book, Jesus Was a Liberal.

By Marjorie Howard

“I want to give a voice to religious liberals in the midst of these culture wars and also to build bridges both to conservative Christians and to secular people on the left,” says Scotty McLennan.

After 16 years as the university chaplain at Tufts, the Rev. Scotty McLennan moved to northern California in 2001 to become the dean for religious life at Stanford University. He reports that “life is good on the West Coast,” and that despite their outward differences, students at Tufts and Stanford are much alike: “East Coast students wear their stress on their sleeves; on the West Coast it’s internalized,” he says. “The students seem happy, but the reality is they’re just as stressed as ever.”

A model for the Rev. Scot Sloan, a character in the cartoon strip Doonesbury drawn by his Yale roommate Garry Trudeau, McLennan will return to Tufts on Wednesday, November 4, to talk about his new book, Jesus was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All (Palgrave-Macmillan). The Tufts Journal caught up with him by telephone at Stanford.

Tufts Journal: Why did you write this book?

The press is always talking about the culture wars between the religious right and the secular left—and there are a lot of us in between. I think it can be demonstrated from survey data that at least 20 percent of Americans, maybe as many as 50 percent, would call themselves liberal Christians—and that’s not just within Protestant Christianity, but also within Catholicism.

What’s missing, I think, is an understanding of what those liberal values mean theologically: tolerance and openness to people from other traditions or no tradition at all; rationality, so that religion is seen as utilizing logic and scientific method, not being a leap of blind faith; a progressive orientation toward the future, not just building on the past. Also, it means a freedom from authority, particularly from religious authority, the right of individual conscience. Those elements make up what I think is the liberal approach to religion.

I want to give a voice to religious liberals in the midst of these culture wars and also to build bridges both to conservative Christians and to secular people on the left, many of whom are represented by the new atheist books out by people like [Tufts Professor] Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

I want a dialogue in both directions, but I think it’s very important that Christianity be reframed for people who left it because they thought it came in only the conservative variety.

It seems as if it’s only the right wing that speaks for Christianity.

Exactly, but that didn’t used to be true. In the 1960s there were the Berrigan brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Caesar Chavez. You had a connection between Christianity and liberal politics. Starting with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the early 1980s, that shifted, and it shifted so dramatically that most of our students, when they think of Christianity, think of the right wing and the Republican Party.

Falwell used to say in the 1960s that religion had no place in the public arena and was a place only for personal engagement. But that changed, and Falwell took on the tactics of the anti-war movement and civil rights movement for his ideas, in terms of being anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and ultimately, also looking at science, in particular evolution, as biblically unfounded.

He used large demonstrations—look at what the anti-abortion movement did at clinics, for example. He was clearly engaged in local, regional and national politics, trying to build his platforms into party platforms. He was very successful. And Pat Robertson was involved, too. They got their message across on TV stations, on Christian radio stations. All of that became very effective.

Why do you say that Jesus was a liberal?

He came with a fresh, new progressive vision. He would change the traditional view. Instead of an eye for eye, he said to turn the other cheek. Instead of just loving neighbors, he said to love enemies, too. He spoke of a New Testament distinct from an Old Testament. He was not a biblical literalist; he would break one of the Ten Commandments if he thought it was the humane thing to do. For example, he would heal people on the Sabbath and allow disciples to glean for food in fields. He said the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.

He was a very clever logician and a rational thinker. With the story of the adulterous woman, a capital crime, he was able to devise a way to protect her by saying, “Let the person without sin throw the first stone.” He obviously challenged the religious authority of his day, and in that sense he was a liberal.

How does your book address the issues that divide liberals and conservatives?

In the first chapter, I address hot-button issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, intelligent design. If I felt that human life, personhood, began at conception, I would agree with anti-abortionists. But it seems biblically and societally, many of us think of life beginning at birth in the sense of becoming human.

The Catholic Church for almost 1,900 years did not see conception as a critical time for humanness to occur. If you go back to St. Augustine in the fourth century, it wasn’t thought that the soul entered the fetus until between 40 and 90 days after conception. Even Pope Gregory XIV in the late 16th century set the critical time at quickening when the fetus could be felt moving, in the 16th week of pregnancy. So it’s a fairly new concept, starting with Pope Pius IX in 1869, that the idea is the soul enters at the time of conception.

But I think the critical time, which is the Jewish idea during Jesus’ historical life, is that life begins when you take your first breath. I’ve been lucky to be present at the birth of two children and see them take their first breaths and turn from purple to ruddy little breathing children. The first cry—that’s the beginning of life, as far as I’m concerned.

There is nothing said by Jesus about abortion. The world he lived in was the Jewish world, which has a citation in Exodus that says that when people are fighting and someone injures a pregnant woman so she miscarries, he must pay a fine. On the basis of that passage, the rabbis argued that because all you do is pay a fine, obviously it’s not parallel to homicide or murder. That’s what Jesus’ mainstream Jewish world was, and he probably would have affirmed that.

What has been the reaction to your book?

I’ve had some tough interviews on Christian radio stations, and I had some trouble in San Diego. The Stanford [alumni chapter] had to go to four different venues there to find a place for me to speak. One was a university and two private high schools, and they said I was too controversial. I wasn’t even speaking about the book but about the church and state in the Obama era.

What will you talk about at Tufts?

Some things about the book will definitely come out in my talk, but the topic is how religious books get framed on radio and TV, so I will speak about the process of when you go public with these ideas and how those ideas get framed in the public realm and what is and isn’t asked.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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