Truthdig Podcast: ‘Jesus Rode a Donkey’ Author
Linda Seger explains why Jesus’ teachings have more in common with Democrats than Republicans, how Christians have been manipulated into compromising their values and what the Bible really says about homosexuality.
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This is Truthdig. James Harris sitting down with Josh Scheer, and on the phone we have special guest Linda Seger. Linda has just written the title “Jesus Rode a Donkey.” Wait a minute before you begin to laugh or question that title. This book is about why Republicans don’t have the corner on Christ. Linda, tell me about this book, “Jesus Rode a Donkey.” What’s your main message here?
Linda Seger: The book is about Christian values from the viewpoint of the Democrats. I wrote it because, particularly before the 2004 election, we kept hearing about values and Christian values and we kept hearing that those are Republican values and that they were represented by this Republican administration. Well, I’m a Christian, and I changed from being a Republican to a Democrat when I was in my late 20s. And I have very specific Christian values that line up for me much better with the Democratic Party. So I thought that there needed to be a book that said, what were those values and how are they biblically based and theologically based? Why are there so many of us who are Christian Democrats instead of Christian Republicans?
Harris: That’s a nice synopsis. I’m going to get right to the criticism of your book. Many said that you have used Jesus, as your critics suggest, “to villainize the Republican Party.” Is there any girth to that claim?
Seger: There’s always the potential, with a book like this, to be very divisive, no matter what. I’ll tell you what I did do as I was writing it to try to get away from that. I had two Republicans read the book, Republican Christians, one ultraconservative and total, total backer of Bush, a military man. And his job was to help to make sure that it was pretty moderate. He felt it was moderate, and my other Republican reader did, too. But I have certainly gotten some of those letters that said, “Oh, you’re villainizing Republicans.” I really don’t think that I am doing that. I am definitely making some strong statements against this Republican administration and some of their policies.
Harris: What’s your strongest statement, would you say, against the Republican Party in this book?
Seger: I think there’s not been enough concern about the poor and the middle class; there’s not been enough concern about ecology. And I think these are areas where, as Christians, we are very much called to care about. For instance, ecology. Genesis 2 is so strong about — we are to be good and responsible stewards of the Earth. We are to care and cultivate the gardens, if we want to say it that way. I think that we have not been responsible stewards and that we are asked to do that. So there are these various areas. Whenever possible I always tried to quote Bush and people in the administration very specifically. I tried not to paraphrase it, and one of the things in some of the strong statements, my one reader would look and he would say, “Is that true?” and I’d say, “Yes” and I’d show my sources. And he said, “Well, then you have every right to say that.” He said, “Some people will be offended that you are saying that.” It’s been interesting to me: About half of my Republican readers who write me are very positive about the book. The other half of the Republicans who write me send me hate mail. So it kind of depends. Definitely, though, there is stuff in here to offend if one wants to be offended.
Josh Scheer: As we saw with David [Kuo], though, and also a few others, the Republicans were just kind of maybe using the Christians and so maybe they wouldn’t be offended because the Christian ones are going, “We were used by this party to win the elections” and . . . not that you’re talking about being a Democrat and maybe less conservative than something else, but you are talking about Christian values and maybe a different set of values that the Republicans had.
Seger: Here’s what I think is interesting. When I started looking at the documents coming from the National Association of Evangelicals, who tend to be mainly Republican, many of those documents are much more in line with Democratic Party policy. There’s been a shift with the evangelicals. I think it was about only 22 percent of them voted for [2004 presidential candidate John] Kerry. But in some polls now they’re saying 41 percent of them are not happy with the direction that this country is going in with this administration. They have two really interesting documents. One of them is called the “Call to Civic Responsibility,” and much of what they talk about — care for the poor and people with AIDS, better healthcare … these kind of things — are very much what the Democrats are much more concerned about. They also have a document on global warming and they cannot get consensus on this document, so it’s not official yet, but they actually have a group among the evangelicals that are very concerned with what’s happening with this issue and are, again, much more in line with Democratic policy at this point. My guess is that what’s going to start happening is that Christians, and particularly the evangelicals, who more represent the Republican Christian side, I think we’re going to see a shift. I wouldn’t be surprised if, maybe by the next election, close to half of evangelicals vote for Democrat, half vote for Republican, and then we can get away from this terrible divisiveness and the kind of hatred and the kind of ways churches are lining up behind one party versus the other and, I think, getting overly politicized as a result. Scheer: Do you think that, with the evangelicals, that their positions might make it so that the person coming in, though, might have to do something more conservative? I mean, you talk about James Dobson and Pat Robertson — they are Christians, right? You’re not calling them … ?
Seger: Yes, yes. No, I don’t doubt their Christianity. I don’t doubt Bush’s Christianity, either. I doubt some of his policies. I doubt some of the values and how those line up with his policies, but I don’t doubt — . You notice I didn’t say Democrats are Christian, either. The book is recognizing that of course many Republicans are Christians, but there are many Democrats who are also, and I think there’s been a lot of vilifying of the Democrats, as if there was no such thing as a Democratic Christian. Of course there’s millions of us out there.
Scheer: What about the issues of homosexuality and partial-term abortion, and the death penalty. What do you think about those issues where Democrats have sided not with abortion but being pro-choice, and some Christians do feel that is siding with abortion. Some Democrats, many Democrats, are for the death penalty, which is killing, which is, “Thou shall not kill.” And I don’t know what your positions are on homosexuality. …
Seger: The first thing is, I think abortion is one of the most difficult issues because it is true: The Republican Party has taken this pro-life position and the Democratic Party on the whole has taken pro-choice. But it isn’t quite so neat and clean. There’s a very interesting section of the Democratic Party now called Democrats for Life, and they are working with the pro-choice and saying, “Instead of being overly …. so moralistic, let’s look at being effective. Let’s really try to look at it. How do you stop unwanted pregnancies? That’s the real problem.” The real problem is not who’s for or against abortion, and nobody is for abortion. People are just saying, what do we do with these unwanted pregnancies? What do we do to help people who decide to keep a child but don’t have a lot of money? Like raising minimum wage definitely helps. Having better child care. But another thing that bothers and worries the Democrats is that in places and countries where abortions has been prohibited there’s actually more abortions and that they’ve become more unsafe, and women are dying. And they say, “Obviously, this isn’t very effective to just take a straight, moralistic, absolutely under no circumstances. …” So the big question has more to do with being effective than with a kind of moral position, because these moral positions are so difficult. I could say, “Yeah, I don’t think we should have abortions, either, but what are our choices? How could we actually be effective?” So I think that’s the big issue, and I know many Christians who say that’s the main reason they vote Republican.
Now, the homosexuality issue, I think, has been misinterpreted and become a wedge issue, because the Democratic Party is not for same-sex marriage; it is for equality of rights regardless of religion and race and gender orientation, etc. And so people who have long-term, domestic partnerships — and that could actually be a mother and her son or a father and his grown son … any number of relationships. They say, “Why don’t we look at these in terms of long-term relationships and how do we give equal rights?” And the other thing the Democrats say, which has generally been a Republican stand, is that this should be a states’ rights issue. Massachusetts has same-sex marriage, many states have same-sex benefits, and in a recent poll in Massachusetts, as people say, it either has made no difference or it’s been a better thing to have same-sex marriage. It’s not hurt the state. It’s not hurt people. I think some of these issues are difficult. There are certainly difficult issues, but I think some of them, like homosexuality, are being made into wedge issues when they shouldn’t be.
Scheer: I don’t doubt that it’s being made into a wedge issue. What I’m looking for is also, what’s the Christian take on homosexuality? Jesus — .
Seger: There it depends on who you talk to and how you read your Bible. There are only about six verses in the Bible about homosexuality, and if you look at them carefully, they are about degrading sexual behavior, and that they are usually paired with other verses about degrading heterosexual behavior as well. So they’re more about gang rape and these kind of issues. There is no verse in the Bible, really, about being lesbian. There’s a verse in Romans that is interpreted that way. It’s about women doing unnatural acts. But all the commentaries I read said, “unnatural acts” … the phrase of women, between women, is not there. Unnatural acts in biblical times was any woman who was overly aggressive or assertive. So a prostitute or even someone who took the lead, sexually, or anything like that. And that was a pretty consistent take on that verse. So I looked at those six verses and I thought there’s been a lot of talk, when there are six verses there and there’s thousands about the poor. And I said, aren’t we getting out of balance here? And when I look at those verses, you can interpret them either way, but a lot of them have to do with holiness codes from 3,000 years ago when the Israelites moved into Canaan, and when you put them into context, is this really saying something about loving homosexual relationships now? There doesn’t seem to be anything in the Bible about homosexuality as identity, and the only [citation] there is, the one section in the Bible — it’s pretty controversial, but David and Jonathan had a very close, same-sex love relationship. There is nothing that says whether it was gay or not. It just says they loved each other more than they loved someone of the opposite sex.
Scheer: So you’re saying there’s homosexuality in that time, too, and that they were trying to deal with it in the Bible.
Seger: Oh, yeah. I don’t think the Bible was trying to deal with it so much. I think anyone who says so much of the Bible is clear about it, I don’t think it is very clear about it. But there clearly has always been homosexuality. You go back to Sappho and her lesbian verses and the early Greeks and the fact that they were talking about it. And, Leviticus. It was being taught to them. The interesting thing about Leviticus is you have a group of Israelites who are moving into foreign land, differentiating themselves. They have to have lots of kids. It was sort of a command, “Have a lot of children because we’re going to be overwhelmed by these other people if we don’t help our own population.” So that very well could be some of the motivation for some of those verses in Leviticus.
Scheer: There’s another Christian issue that the Republicans have used. Maybe it’s a wedge issue to you. I don’t know. What about abstinence? Teaching only abstinence-only programs?
Seger: Well, here’s what the Democrats say about this. They say we should be teaching abstinence, but we shouldn’t only be teaching abstinence, because when they have looked carefully at what happens with abstinence-only programs, they said when kids have sex they don’t use condoms and they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not aware of birth control. And so they’re going to have sex anyway. You may as well educate them. You don’t want unwanted pregnancies. So what the Democrats want is they said, “We want a program that’s very thorough, that has abstinence-only, that has sex education, that really educates young people, whatever decision they make. And let’s face it, that their decisions are not always going to be good. At least you’re not going to end up with these unwanted pregnancies.” The other thing they found in a study of these abstinence-only programs: There’s a lot of facts in there that are not factual. There’s a lot of things said that are incorrect. One of them talks about a 43-day-old fetus as a thinking person. There’s a lot of sort of sexism in some of it. You know, poor guys; they just can’t stop themselves. There’s a lot of things in those programs. Henry Waxman from California was part of working with a study and had a very interesting analysis that I read of some of these studies. But the Democrats definitely feel that should be part of any sexual education.
Scheer: And I agree. This about Christian Democrats … are Christians going to be able to accept that, that people are having sex and that we’re going to be giving condoms because the right-wingers have kind of said, “No.” And we have Dr. — I call him “Dr. Non-Condom” — but Dr. Eric [Keroack] in the White House is controlling that. He has a no-condom policy and it’s abstinence only.
Seger: Well, here’s the problem. There’s a point that Christians have to be realistic and they have to recognize that the Christian life is not just, “Let’s follow the 10 rules.” It’s about being in a relationship and trying to gain wisdom and clarity about very, very difficult issues, and that many times Jesus said, “It used to be said this, but I say that.” And he comes out with things and you say, “Wait, that’s a contradiction of something that was said in the Old Testament.” And there is this fluidity and sort of a sense of flexibility at many times with Jesus, and he deals with very difficult situations and you expect him to do one thing and he does the opposite. For instance, a woman taken in adultery. She was supposed to be stoned. And what does he say is, “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” And everyone walks away. And you say, wait a minute. What’s that about? He wasn’t following the rule correctly. Well, he wasn’t. He was putting a rule of love and care and compassion over the rule. Now, how one does that with any Christian has a whole lot to do with — you’ve got to figure it out. It isn’t always so clear when things — . What do I put first? The life of the mother or the life of the fetus? There are going to be some times when a Christian has to say, “Oh my gosh. If I don’t do anything they’re both going to die. If I do this, the fetus is going to die. If I do that, the mother is going to die. I don’t have any real clear choices right here, so how am I going to figure that out? Well, I better do a lot of prayer and say, ‘It’s not going to be perfect.’ ” We live in a flawed universe. So I think when someone says, “What’s the Christian perspective?” to say, “There’s a lot of different Christian perspectives.” And some Christian perspectives I think are really pretty clear and others I don’t think are. I think the Christian perspective of caring for the poor and the oppressed is very, very clear. I just see thousands of verses in the Bible about this, and yet even that verse — I talk to a lot of Republican Christians. They say, “Well, the government isn’t supposed to do that; individual charities are.” And I say, “Well, if individual charities were going to do that, how come they haven’t fixed New Orleans? Where are those Christians who are supposed to go down and fix something that ordinarily a government — .” You need a compassionate government to do certain acts.
Scheer: Now would the Christians maybe be happier if they formed their own party?
Seger: No, and I don’t think they ever would. The Bible has a lot of different interpretations and a lot of different theologies and a lot of different things people focus on. And a lot of what happens with Christians is, you have to sit down and prioritize your values because there is no perfection in either political party and in what I would call this flawed universe. So when I prioritize my values, I don’t put abortion at the top. I put things that have to do with compassionate government up there. But other people would put abortion on the top and I would say each of us has to figure this out. How are you going to do this?
Scheer: Don’t you feel you’re going to get placated to in either party because they’re going to go right to whatever they think you’re going to want to hear? Isn’t that how the Republicans really kind of bamboozled the evangelicals? They said they would get to poverty down the line but they really just got to abortion and gay marriage?
Seger: Yeah. I think [Sen. John] McCain is doing that. He seems to have turned on so many of his positions. Suddenly he’s more conservative than the conservatives, and I thought, where did that come from? He’s never been like that historically. What is this all about? I think it can. I think what’s happening is going to be different between the Republicans and the Democrats in this next election. I think that the Democrats are going to start to find ways to talk about their faith, and I’m not talking about making it up. Barack Obama is a man of great faith. Hillary Clinton is a woman of great faith. Hillary Clinton has been in prayer groups and in Bible study, in fact, all the way through her husband’s presidency and continuing, and I think that they contain people from both parties. That’s how I understood it. I think others — . We have a Mormon running. Others of these people are people of faith, and I think what has happened with the Democrats, they so want to be equal and not tread on other people’s toes, that they have not always known how to express the fact that they are people of faith. And I think that the Democrats are going to start doing that more. Now one of the things I’m hoping that my book will help them, is to give them some ways of articulating this without becoming anti people of other faiths. Because we certainly don’t want to suddenly say, “We’re Christians but we’re against Muslims and Jews and Buddhists, etc.” …
Scheer: … [We hear that] we don’t know really that if Hillary was in this prayer group. … I mean, we hear things like that. Shouldn’t the actions — . I don’t know. With Confucianism, the teachings of Confucius say, “Practice what you preach. Don’t just preach it.”
Seger: Yeah, and people have to look at everyone’s value systems and their voting records and where do their values line up and who best lines up with your own particular values. And, yes, you do have to look at, so, what do they do, what do they say? I believe that just like when George Bush says, “I’m a Christian, I’m born again,” I believe him. And when Hillary Clinton says, “I’ve been in a prayer group and a Bible study,” I believe her. I have no reason not to. I know that she’s a Methodist. In fact, when people talk about a Christian nation, it’s funny because almost everyone in Congress is a Christian. We have a few who are not, although most of those seem to be other religions. But our Congress — you can start judging and do a litmus test and say, well, are they really so Christian? I think that’s really not a very good way to go. I mean that’s up to God to judge, not up to us.
Scheer: Yeah, but what I’m saying is, if I’m an atheist candidate, say, somewhere in the United States, and I’m running for Congress. Not just an atheist, but I’m a Jew, maybe, but I’m a half-Jew, half-Christian. I might go and say, “I’m going to play up the Methodist side because I know that’s going to win me votes. …”
Seger: Well, you’d better not do that because, probably, if you’re not Methodist, you don’t know what the Methodist side is.
Scheer: No, but I’m saying, if you have a Methodist side. If you can learn — . I mean, these people are skilled at — and this is BS — they’re skilled at changing the topic. They can figure out what to say to convince people.
Seger: What’s funny, though, is they’re not very good at it when they don’t know it. We know what happened with [2004 presidential candidate Howard] Dean is, someone asked what his favorite book was in the New Testament and he said Job, which is in the Old Testament. Don’t start talking about this stuff if you don’t know what you’re talking about. The hope is that people will speak from their heart. I think a lot of people respect [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman being Jewish because they know that he is devoted to his religion. And they might not respect his other policies or certain other policies, but I have no doubt that he seems to be a very committed Jew, and that’s great. And it’s interesting, this whole thing the Muslim in Congress who used the Koran. A lot of Christians were upset about that, but it’s quite interesting. He got the book that Thomas Jefferson had — Thomas Jefferson had a Koran — and he used that for part of his swearing-in. I guess there’s two different swearing-in ceremonies, but he used it for one of them. I think people need to be pretty careful about all this litmus test and trying to figure out who is and who is not a Christian and what that relationship is.
Scheer: Wouldn’t the easiest litmus test be, again, with the voting record and not if you start quoting the Bible? I mean — .
Seger: Yeah, I agree.Scheer: Quoting the Bible … couldn’t that be just a good memory?
Seger: Oh yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of people with good memories. I think it also has to do with — there’s a lot in the Bible. You could prioritize your values in any number of ways, so one looks at voting records, one looks at what they do, and then you say, “Well, what kind of person is this and do their values and their priorities line up with my values?” as much as possible. We can go through all the candidates and say, well, I might line up on some things and not on others, and look at that. Yes. There’s definitely action because this is politics. Politics is action moving into society that comes through government.
Harris: Linda, I’m doing a lot of listening. I know Jesus. I have a relationship. As you do. As every Christian claims to have with Jesus. And the problem I think I’m having with the argument that Jesus is in line with the ideologies and the thinking of the Democratic Party — .
Seger: Wait, wait, wait. That’s not true. I think Jesus would’ve been an independent. …
Harris: Maybe you’re going to answer my questions. So why do you believe that he’s an independent?
Seger: Here’s what happened with this book. Originally, my publishers wanted the book to be called “Jesus Is a Democrat,” and I said, “I can’t do that book because I think Jesus is an independent.” I don’t think to put him with either party is really the point here. But I said, I think that what we’re talking about is, “Let’s look at the Democratic Party from a Christian perspective because the Republican Party has been looked at from that perspective quite a bit. So I’m not saying that the Democratic Party is the only party with Christian values. I don’t think that’s true at all. What I am saying is that there are many policies that I think are much stronger with the Democratic Party that are more in line with biblical policies. Now, I’m not saying 100 percent. But I think that if you decide that the Bible — if one looks at the Bible carefully and says, “I see a strong care for creation and I see that we are asked to be responsible stewards, so that leads me to a certain ecological position.” And then I look at both parties and I say, what party I think is a better steward of the Earth in terms of their policy. I don’t think there’s any question which party is a better steward of the Earth. I think the Democrats clearly have much better policies that care for the Earth more. And so if I’m going to put that as one of my high values and say, “Which party will I vote for?” I’m going to go with the Democrats on that one.
Harris: So what I’m saying is that I think Jesus has a problem with politics in general.
Harris: I think if you look at the history of our country, you look at the state of affairs in the black community today, you look at the genocide that’s going on in the inner cities, if you look at the state of affairs in the Jewish community, in Latino-Chicano communities, there’s a lot of unrest, and I think Jesus —
Seger: Oh yeah.
Harris: — if he were and is the great person and the caring person that we know him to be through the Bible, I think he would have serious problems with Hillary Clinton and John McCain because for them it is about positioning. For Jesus it was not about positioning; it was about doing the right thing, and I think that’s gotten lost. And so that’s why I have a problem with your effort to relate him to any party. I think he would be offended by that.
Seger: Yes. I’m not trying to relate him to a party. I’m trying to relate him to party policies. In other words, if you say, OK, I think, when I read the Bible and I see Jesus’ concern for the poor and the oppressed and the disenfranchised and then I look at our society and I say, gosh, there’s a whole lot of people who are poor and oppressed and disenfranchised, and many of them are from various races, black and, as you say, Latino, etc., some even white, and if I look at that as I say, OK, if I think that’s an important value, what policies do I see in the various parties that I think best address that value? I get the values from my understanding of Jesus, my relationship with him and my understanding of the Bible. Then I look out at politics and I say, who do I think best expresses the values and what policies? So we’re not just talking about candidates; we’re talking about policies as well. I think that raising the minimum wage is a good thing. And I think it helps the people who are poor, who are working hard and cannot make a living even with two jobs. So when I say, what policy best expresses that? I might say, I think the Democrats are doing a better job with certain policies that care for the poor and oppressed. So it isn’t like saying, well, Jesus is on the Democratic side and not on the Republican side. Where we see policies trying to come into our society to fruition that seem in line with what Jesus cared about, when I start to vote, I’m going to look at the policies and I’m going to look at the candidates. And some of these candidates, you say, gosh, I like them on this policy and I don’t like them on that policy. And just what you mentioned also about saying, who do I think is honest or not? Because that’s another thing, what people say — . Oh, it sounds so nice. He talks about Christianity, and then you look at the policies and say, hmmm, tsk, I don’t know, I don’t find them lining up. So all of us go through all these candidates and say, well, I don’t know. Who do I think is best in line with the kind of person I think is going to help create a society that is the most in line with the values that I find and help actualize those values.
Harris: I’m glad you had the chance to straighten that out. I get what you’re saying, and I hope our listeners are able to at least gain some sense of understanding of what you’ve just said. So it’s not necessarily about Jesus being a Democrat but that the Democrats seemingly are in line with what Jesus might have intended.
Seger: Right. Clearly with certain policies, with Jesus. There might be others where people say, well, I don’t know about this policy. The whole pro-choice/pro-life thing — that’s just a tricky issue. And, yes, you could say, well the Bible says this about life and then there’s another verse that seems to say, well, under certain circumstances. … I think that’s the real wedge issue. But that’s why I was so impressed with Democrats for Life. And people can go look it up: democratsforlife.org. Very interesting program. They want to reduce abortion by 95 percent in 10 years. So they want to be effective, not just moralistic, and I think that’s important. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some candidate where someone could say, boy, this one’s totally in line. But I think what has sometimes happened with George W. Bush — there are times I have heard people talk about him as if they were worshiping him and they make it sound as if we criticize him, as if we’re unpatriotic and also un-Christian. And I say, George W. is not my god, but I hope he’s nobody’s god. He’s a man who happens to be in power and does a lot of stuff that some of us don’t agree with and other people do.
Scheer: Now, make it clear though, with abortions, you don’t believe in just ending abortion and not supporting the child through life, right? Because — .
Seger: I think one has to look at the complexity of the whole issue, because if you force a woman to have a child and then you don’t give her enough money to make a living and you don’t help her with child care and the kids don’t have enough food on the table and they can’t get healthcare, I think there’s something not very Christian about that. That’s why that issue is so complicated. It’s not just about that fetus; it’s about what’s going to happen in the next 20 years or 40 years in that person’s life and do we really care or do we just care about the embryo and the fetus? I think that’s why it’s such a complicated issue. Scheer: Well, thank you for helping us shed some light on these complicated issues and thank you for joining us.
Harris: She’s written the book “Jesus Rode a Donkey.” You might grab a copy. For Josh Scheer, this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.Wait, before you go…
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