Who Were the Original Pharisees?
Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he consistently confronted and voiced His displeasure with a certain political and religious class within first-century Palestine. They were called the Pharisees. The Pharisees did not hold all the political power of the day. Another religious group, the Sadducees, actually held the highest offices within Jewish religious society such as high priest. But it was the Pharisees who the people looked to as the moral guides of the times. Their misuse of this influence of the moral high ground is why Jesus frequently confronted them.
The entire chapter of Matthew 23 is a message delivered by Jesus in which He rebukes and warns about these religious leaders. Here is a list of His complaints with the Pharisees whom He rebuked as hypocrites and blind guides to the people:
- They don’t practice what they preach (v. 3)
- They overburden the people but do not assist with those spiritual burdens (v. 4)
- Their spiritual experience and lifestyle is all a performance to be seen by others (v. 5)
- They are overly invested in being honored and esteemed socially (v. 6-7)
- Their behavior contradicts the values of the Kingdom of God (v. 8-12)
- They block the pathway for the people to enter the Kingdom of God (v. 13)
- They create a culture and following of religious hypocrites (v. 15)
- They place greater importance upon wealth and power than upon God and spiritual realities (v. 16-22)
- They maintain legalistic standards of faith but violate the basic values of the faith (v. 23-24)
- They focus upon external appearances but are internally corrupt (v. 25-28)
- They repeat the mistake of prior generations in destroying and corrupting truth that God wants given to the people (v. 29-32)
- Their activity and presence has brought a curse upon the people (v. 33-39)
This is not the touchy, feely, “Jesus is only about love” that a lot of Christians reference today. It is an explicit rebuke toward a system of leadership that has obstructed spiritual growth and development among the people. This obstruction was brought about for the sake of the Pharisees’ own power, influence and gains within the society and generation in which they lived.
History of the Religious Right
In 2016 while the world was slowly moving toward the shocking culmination of the Presidential elections that installed Donald Trump into the White House, I recorded the original six episodes of my History of the Religious Right series. This was meant to be a respectful look at the history of a major movement in American Christianity and politics. I had a personal interest in the project and the research invested into it because there was a time when I proudly considered myself part of the religious right.
Unfortunately, the sincerity and intent of this podcast series was missed by more than a few listeners. The final episode in the series was titled “End of the Religious Right.” By the end of the year and into early 2017 I received several messages scoffing at how badly I missed the facts on this. The election of President Trump, in the mind of these listeners, proved the Religious Right was not at an end.
These gloating listeners, like many purveyors of news and information today, made the mistake of reading the headline but not bothering to listen or consider the actual message. When I suggested the Religious Right was arriving at its end in that final podcast episode I was not referencing the end of its power or influence in society. I was referencing the loss of its original values and mission. A party once focused upon family values and a moral society was now interested in power at almost any price.
I have referenced Mark 8:26 in several posts and podcasts since that time when considering the Religious Right and Conservative Christian movements of American politics in the age of President Trump. They gained the power but at the cost of their soul.
For what does a man profit if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul? Mark 8:26
Conservative Republican Christianity, the Religious Right, has become the party of the Pharisees. It is a party that has placed personal power and achievement ahead of spiritual priorities and values, and its leaders have led millions of followers within the church today to do the same – effectively blocking their spiritual growth and pursuit of truth.
This rebuke to our modern Pharisees is not aimed at the political leaders of our day, from which little more than this should be expected. It is aimed at those who, in the name of God, lead believers toward beliefs and outrages that support their personal power and influence rather than the Kingdom of God.
Modern Day Pharisees Examples
Jerry Falwell Jr.
Jerry Falwell was a pioneer in the Religious Right movement. He has since passed away but his son presumably carries on the tradition and standard.
Falwell remains the leader of Liberty University in Virginia and a vocal proponent of the agenda of the Religious Right and Donald Trump. The two have become nearly synonymous in Falwell’s speeches and endorsements. In the runup to the 2018 Congressional elections he tweeted:
Many of the supporters of the early Religious Right movement encouraged Christians to be more active in American politics. Their rationale was that if we wanted to maintain a nation built and managed according to Christian values, then Christians needed to take Christian values to the voting booths. Interestingly, Jerry Falwell Jr. seems to be countering this logic. Statements and tweets from the head of Liberty University suggest he believes we should separate Christian values from personal interests when it comes to politics and voting. And the priority in voting should be personal interests. This line of thinking is in direct opposition to the original intent of the Religious Right.
In responding to critics to his endorsement of Donald Trump for President, Falwell stated, “I think they just need to read the teachings of Jesus more closely and stop trying to apply the teachings Jesus meant for personal everyday life to the government.” He went on to add, “I don’t think Jesus would have said, back when he was alive, to his disciples, ‘Only vote for the Roman emperor who is one of my followers.’”
Later, in a tweet during the runup to the 2018 elections…
I don’t agree with Falwell’s positions. I believe our faith and values should be prioritized in informing our votes and political philosophies. At the same time, there is nothing inherently wrong in believing that these things should be separated. What is wrong is presenting this line of thinking under the disguise of Christian leadership. Jesus said, “seek first the Kingdom of God.” He did not say seek first the political power and victories and then seek the Kingdom of God.
Falwell has demonstrated his continued role as a blind guide leading the blind. (This reference is from Matthew 15, another rebuke of the Pharisees.) He has linked support of Donald Trump to a Christian based position toward politics. As a figure consistently profiled as a leader among the Religious Right he has signaled where other Conservative Christians should place their own vote. That is how an endorsement works.
Robert Jeffress has been among the most vocal and consistent supporters for President Trump since the 2016 campaign. Jeffress is the leader of a 13,000 member congregation at First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. He also hosts a daily radio program that is broadcast on more than 900 radio stations.
Following the inauguration of the new President, Jeffress preached a sermon in Washington DC with Trump and much of the new leadership establishment looking on in which he explained that God was not against building walls. He went on to compare Donald Trump to Nehemiah in the Old Testament.
Jeffress has suggested in the past that President Obama’s administration prepared the way for the anti-Christ (the inconvenient fact of Trump following Obama has not been commented on) and former Republican Candidate Mitt Romney should not be supported because he is a Mormon. When it comes to President Trump however, moral failings are part of human nature and a thing of the past.
The forgiveness, grace, mercy, and adoration not afforded to Obama and Romney have been gushed onto President Trump by Jeffress. Since the 2016 campaign, he has provided religious support and cover for the President, regardless of Trump’s moral failures that have frequently been exposed in the media. He does not deny the moral failings. He merely justifies Christians’ pardoning them.
When discussing the President’s known adultery with multiple pornography starlets Jeffress has excused this behavior and activity as “totally irrelevant” to his and Christian Americans’ support of the President.
Jesus explained that it is the things that come from the inside of a man that make him clean or unclean (Matthew 15 again). It is not what he achieves or the power he amasses. Words and actions reveal the state of the heart and that is what condemns a person. The modern-day Pharisees like Jeffress reverse this truth. The state of the heart is not the priority for us to look at. We should be more concerned with what can be accomplished politically.
Ralph Reed was among the early and most influential leaders of the Religious Right in the 1980s and 90s. He served as the first Executive Director of the Christian Coalition and currently leads a very influential organization known as the Faith and Freedom Coalition. In the mid-90s he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as part of the surging Religious Right and its opposition to Bill Clinton.
It was around this same time period that Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition pushed the explicit message that “character matters” out of a concern that the immorality of our nation’s leadership was leading the young people of America down a dark path. It was due to this belief that Reed and his peers fired up the Religious Right in the late 1990s to push for the impeachment of President Clinton after the discovery of his lies and adultery with Monica Lewinsky.
Less than two decades later the tables turned. Reed was the head of candidate Trump’s religious advisory board when a video surfaced of his bragging about sexually assaulting married women.
[WARNING: THE VIDEO CONTAINS EXPLICIT MATERIAL FROM THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES]
This was different according to Reed. He explained that these were “inappropriate comments” but this was not what people of faith were really concerned about.
In a Washington Post article, Reed compared this behavior to Hillary Clinton’s failings such as the “corrupt use of her office to raise funds from foreign governments and corporations and her reckless and irresponsible handling of classified material on her home-brewed email server, endangering US national security,” as the things that would drive the evangelical vote. (Side note, President Trump is facing allegations of doing all of these things since coming to office less than two years ago.)
Ralph Reed, a leader of the Religious Right once said, “Character matters and the American people are hungry for that message. We care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.”
This conviction appears to have been sold for the price of a presidency in 2016
It’s Not Just Trump
The issue is not simply about supporting or not supporting Trump. President Trump and his endorsement among the modern-day Pharisees simply provide the clearest examples of the violation of Biblically-based values and priorities for the sake of power and influence in Washington D.C.
The movement of the modern-day Pharisees, however, goes far beyond this and is shaping the way Christians see the world today. From the debate over the national anthem at NFL games to treaties with Iran; immigration policy to saying Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas; there has been a loss of faith, compassion, and sound reason when it comes to Christians interfacing with the issues of our day. The vacuum left by these former convictions and priorities has been filled with anger and in many instances a blind loyalty. This is what it looks like for the blind to be led by the blind!
Conformed To This World
The movement of support among Christian America for Donald Trump and hardline conservative positions is not incidental. Although made up of religious people, it is not a religious movement.
White evangelicals made up 26% of the American electorate in 2016 and 81% of them voted for Donald Trump. This was a higher percentage than voted for either of the previous two Republican candidates for President, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. The shift in 2016 from 2008 and 2012 was not the greater appeal of Trump’s womanizing, boastful and frequently embarrassing and bizarre behavior. It was the one thing that Trump explicitly promised to members of the Religious Right that other and previous candidates did not. He promised to fight for them!
The Christians who supported Donald Trump come from sets of demographics that have been losing more and more ground in recent years. The 81% of evangelicals who supported Donald Trump are an increasingly older segment of American society. Between 2006 and 2017 white evangelical Protestants dropped from representing 23% of the American population to just 15%. The shrinking of this religious segment is happening mostly in the younger age groups. White evangelicals represent 26% of seniors over the age of 65 but only 7% of Americans under the age of 30.
These older Christians have seen America change drastically. The loss of the culture war and the failure of the moral majority was sealed under President Obama with the legalization of gay marriage.
This followed two decades of globalization and an American economy that was moving from a manufacturing base to a service sector base. The most profitable American companies in 1990 were General Motors, Ford, Exxon, IBM, and General Electric. In 2016 they were Apple, JP Morgan, Berkshire Hathaway, and Wells Fargo.
This is representative of a seismic shift in what the American worker and economy looked like from 1990 to 2016. Lost in the cracks of that shift were large segments of the middle class.
This economic transition left many Americans behind also as they aged. The culmination came in the 2008 economic meltdown which saw even their retirement and savings evaporate in the scalding exposure of Wall Street and Washington corruption and excess.
Many of these lost members of the middle class easily identified with the traditional values and hopes of the Religious Right. Now they have become united in common bonds of anger and fear.
By the time we arrived to 2016 those who once considered themselves part of the moral majority pursuing the American dream had seen their work, their family, their savings and their values assaulted on all fronts. They were sick of it! They wanted a candidate who would fight for them. Their religious views became merely a point of organizing them into voting and support categories.
This was the moment when true and godly leadership within the Church and within the American religious system might have had a moment of recalibration. Rather than nursing anger, fear and blindness toward hope in politics and avenging our enemies through the channel of elections American Christians should have been led inward. They should have been led back to their priorities, back to hope in God rather than a hope in Washington. That did not happen though.
Defending Politics but Contradicting Values
Many have argued that this concern about the Religious Right and its figureheads’ support for President Trump is misguided. The President is obviously a man with personal character flaws. He is a sinner fallen short of the glory of God like all of us and no one except Jesus is perfect.
Let’s ignore, for the moment, the glaring double standard with which this position has been held among those in the side of the Religious Right and Conservative Christianity when it came to the Obamas or the Clintons. The mercy, forgiveness, and benefit of the doubt were seldom extended to these Democratic leaders in the same manner it has been extended to President Trump.
The blind and full-throated support for the President among those who once presented themselves as the vanguard of Christian morality in politics and American society goes well beyond the person and also to his policies.
Support for the President’s positions on immigration among Christians has been somewhat befuddling. A strong border and immigration policy are not at odds with Christian faith but the apparent mean-spiritedness of the Trump immigration policies should at least be questionable. The border wall is more about grandstanding than it is about any real or coherent policy. The separation of children from their parents at the border seems to violate the values of many of the most basic teachings of Jesus.
|Christian Doctrines and Values||Vs.||Modern Republican Doctrines and Values|
|The Good Samaritan – looking beyond nationalism and politics, embracing the foreigner as a neighbor||vs||“From this day forward it’s going to be only America first. America first!” President Trump inauguration speech 2017|
|Whatever you do to the least of these; the prisoner, the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick||vs||A mean spirited immigration policy built upon demonizing the strangers.|
|Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God||vs||“I would just bomb the sh*% out of them. I would just bomb those suckers.” Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign speaking on foreign policy and receiving a rousing applause from his audience.|
This is not to suggest that American foreign policy, as envisioned by Christians, should recline to turning the other cheek. There is a balance. Scripture also calls for wisdom, knowledge, and understanding as premier values and character traits among the people of God. Wisdom is not the same as anger, however. According to scripture, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum in fact. The current political atmosphere frequently supported by Christians is one of malice and wrath. The values of our faith have been subordinated to the expression of our anger and we have been deceived by the modern-day Pharisees into believing that victory at the polls validates this standard.
God alone should validate us!
When Faith Becomes Merely Another Ideology
Believers expose themselves to a great risk when the Word of God ceases to be the standard that governs their responses to the world and its issues that surround them. Religion becomes only another ideology used by the powerful to manipulate the masses – Christians included.
The Roman Emperor Constantine used Christianity to propel conquest and slaughter. He reported a personal vision of the cross of Christ and God speaking to him the words, “In this sign, conquer.” The commission violated countless values and standards of the Christian faith but the people followed and the church became corrupted.
In the age of discovery, Europeans annihilated massive civilizations of the western hemisphere in the newly discovered North and South American continents. Much of the destruction was an accidental result of disease. But much of it was also a deliberate conquest and pursuit of gold, justified and managed under an ideology of Christian missions that accommodated the genocide of the natives.
From abolition to civil rights, Christians have historically been found on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of truth when they allow their faith to be hijacked by modern-day Pharisees seeking power and influence rather than truth and righteousness and the heart of God. Adolf Hitler himself garnered great support among the majority of Germany’s Christians when he aligned his pursuit of power to their desires for a moral cleansing of Germany.
Following modern-day Pharisees is not only wrong – it’s a trap.
Do not mistake this as a call for Christians to take more liberal positions in their politics or even to separate themselves from politics. This is not my point at all. My point is that Christians should place a higher focus and priority upon their walk with God and the values inspired by that relationship than they are with politics. And our politics should be informed by our scripture-based values and priorities. These might not always be in agreement with one another’s views but the pursuit and value of truth should always rank higher than loyalty to any political party or individual.
The Costs of Losing the Moral High Ground
There are public policy and social issues that require input and consideration of moral judgments. Historically in American politics, the church and Christianity have played a significant role in these areas. Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing to today that role was formalized and organized within the organizations and voices of the Religious Right. What happens however when those voices and those organizations are no longer believed? What happens when their judgments are no longer seen as legitimate but merely another political opinion?
Most Christians hold a Biblical and faith-based values position on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, capital punishment, special rights for transgender people, immigration, poverty, and many other issues. Many leaders of the Religious Right are fairly associated with statements similar to the following:
- Abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn child.
- Gay marriage is immoral based on the Word of God.
- A nation has a right to enforce its borders but must do so balanced with compassion and kindness.
The only reason the Church and its leaders are listened to in the political arena is due to their status as possessors of the moral high ground. They are the salt of the earth. They inform society when something is right and when something is wrong. They may also be experts on international relations, domestic politics, or immigration policy, but their status and influence is not linked to this expertise. It is linked to their knowledge of right and wrong.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Matthew 5:13
When believers sell their standards and commitment to what is right and what is wrong, they lose something far more significant than elections. They lose the value they bring within the systems of society to keep it safe from injustice, immorality, and darkness.
In this era of the end of the Religious Right, the legitimate standards and judgments of Christians toward social and political issues have been traded out for political power. The hypocrisy of this transaction is evidenced by all. In the coming days, months and years we will see the voice of faith fading more and more in our culture. The modern-day Pharisees won the presidency and they are now prominently featured on the daily news, but they sold out on the end terms of the war between right and wrong.
This is the end of the Religious Right and it is the time for believers to know the truth and the boundaries of right and wrong in their homes like never before. There is a cost to selling out the moral high ground and that cost includes darker days ahead.