By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University
In an essay I recently published at “Religion Dispatches,” I used Gary Laderman’s fascinating concept of “Republicanicity” as the launch-pad for the suggestion that what separates developments in the Republican Party from anything happening among the Democrats is simply this: the Republican Party is undergoing a battle to define its orthodoxy, a battle that has no direct parallel to arguments and power-struggles taking place on the political left.
In short, a plurality of voices, sharing little more than a name in common, is currently in the process of sorting out a platform to which all bearers of the name might reasonably agree.
I compared this to developments in the period of early Christian formation, since what we have learned in recent years is that orthodoxy doesn’t come first; heresy does. Put another way, the diversity of opinions all going by the same name, ‘Christian’, eventually created an untenable situation in which everyone recognized that all of the positions then bearing the name were no longer compatible. All Christians might refer to Jesus of Nazareth as “Christ” and as “Son of God,” or even as the Second Person in the Divine Trinity, but as for what those names meant and how they were to be imagined, opinions diverged wildly.
The gospels were composed as one attempt to answer two burning questions lying at the heart of this new movement: Who was he? and Why did he die that way? Their answers differed as well, and in John’s case, his answers were put in such a way as to reject the other three gospel versions (Jesus never prayed in Gethsemane, according to John, because Jesus never doubted or wavered. He and the Father were one).
It is important to keep in mind that these debates were never just debates about theology; they were political debates about who would control the movement, and that question always hinged on access to money, among other things.
One of the most shocking examples of how wide a range of beliefs within a single movement can be may be found in the so-called Gospel of Judas. In this gospel, we are informed not only that Judas never betrayed his Lord, but that he was actually the most favored disciple, deemed so trustworthy that he was called upon to perform the most difficult task of all: ensuring the death of his master. In so doing, Jesus assures him, “you will release the man within me.” Jesus is apparently referring to the spirit that is housed a bit uneasily in a bodily frame. Hence Judas did not engage in an act of betrayal, but rather in an act of deliverance and liberation.
Who was he? A Knowledge Savior, come to earth to show us the path to liberation. Why did he die that way? To illustrate the fact that death is the release into spirit, not a loss and not a tragedy. To render the most tragic kind of death imaginable as an anti-tragic triumph was the clearest symbolic way to make this point. Naturally, the other gospel writers (those who identified with other members of Jesus’s inner circle) had a hard time with that. Particularly because the people making this highly counter-intuitive argument were rich elites whose belief that they alone had access to secret knowledge made them the most obvious candidates for leadership positions in the movement.
Turn now to the fascinating attempts at defining party orthodoxy that we have witnessed at the last several Republican debates.
All of the candidates share the name ‘Republican’, but that is about as far as their agreement extends. The two central questions around which this entire election cycle will pivot is, Who are we? And How did we let Obama take the White House? Answers to any given question seem ultimately to be addressed to one or both of those prime party directives.
A fascinating moment in the Tea Party debate came when Governor Perry’s orthodoxy was challenged in light of an executive order he issued requiring all Texas schoolgirls to receive a vaccine for the sexually transmitted virus responsible for cervical cancer. The other candidates went through an orgy of recrimination, conniption after conniption all designed to call his orthodoxy (and his moral judgment) into question.
His Abstinence Only credentials were questioned. His Libertarian credentials were questioned (especially by Michelle Bachmann’s sudden discovery of the importance of, well, a woman’s right to choose). And his medical judgment was questioned (in one of the true howlers to come out of that debate, Bachmann’s since-retracted claim that the vaccine caused mental retardation in at least one instance).
Who are we? And how did we let Obama take the White House? With reckless sniping and self-serving Know-Nothingism such as this, one suspects.
But none of this captures the essence of what is unfolding. Much as in the case of early Christian formation, arguments over orthodoxy were not just arguments about theology. They were arguments about money and power. Yes, Luke tells us that the early Christians pooled their resources and gave each according to his need. But the next thing Luke tells us is that some Christians kept their money in hiding and when this was discovered, Peter—through a terrifying exercise of power—called them out publicly and witnessed the couple drop dead as a stone.
The real story of the executive order issued by a man who also appeared to revel in the 234 executions Texas has performed on his watch is a story about money, Merck money in this case. Yes, as the Governor insisted, the Merck corporation donated $5000 to his gubernatorial campaign (and he was offended, he sniped, that Sister Bachmann would suggest that he could be influenced by such a sum–he’s not that cheap, it would seem).
Indeed he is not. Merck donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Republican Governors group he chairs, and more besides. And they produced the vaccine to which every child in Texas was required to submit. And so on: you line my pockets, I’ll line yours. Despite his repeated poor performance sin these debates, Rick Perry continues to raise money like a juggernaut. And he is not lining his coffers with $100-200 contributions from the hoi polloi; no, he is after the big money. His campaign is currently running on enormous infusions of cash from a select few corporate interests committed to his candidacy. It is striking that his arguments and ideas have nothing to do with their support; his behavior in the state of Texas does.
Judas is not only the most maligned figure in the New Testament; he is the disciple about whom there was always the greatest confusion. In the New Testament itself (the Gospel of Matthew versus Acts of the Apostles), we see two very different views of the man. In one version, he regretted what he had done, threw the money back in the faces of those who paid him for his betrayal, and committed suicide. In the other, he took the money he was paid for his betrayal, bought himself a plot of land, then dropped dead as he walked through the fields surveying his profits. Outside the New Testament, as we have seen, he was remembered not just as a disciple, but even as the favored disciple, the man with the most difficult job in the entire movement.
I am suggesting that, while we have not quite reached the magic number 12 in the current Republican field (at least not yet), Rick Perry is currently playing the role of Judas to the tormented advocates of orthodoxy. His latest problems—aligning himself with a minister who referred to Romney’s and Huntsman’s faith as a “cult”—seem to place him slightly at odds with other followers of the Lord.
The name for the group that penned gospels like the Gospel of Judas was “Gnostic.” It derived from the Greek word for “knowledge,” and they got the reputation for being Christian know-it-alls. But they were also notoriously among the wealthiest and well-connected of Christians.
Taking the longer historical view, then, Rick Perry appears as the new Judas-figure in a movement uncertain about its path. As for whether his gospel will become the new Republican orthodoxy, I have my doubts. The Gnostics may have appeared to be in the ascendant for a time, but they lost their influence in the end and were eventually declared heretical. This much is certain, if Governor Perry manages to sell his heterodoxies, then the real story will be the money it took, not the theological arguments he expressed.