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Jesus for president? It’s more complicated than it looks

A proliferation of signs, shirts and stickers advocating ‘Jesus 2020’ has inescapable political implications that merely disavowing politics doesn’t resolve.

Jesus 2020 signs. Photo via Facebook

(RNS) — Apparently, Jesus makes quite an impact at the polls.

The influence that Jesus and his teachings exert on the voting-booth behaviors of certain segments of the population is well-established. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that 49% of Americans — and 68% of American Christians — believe that the Bible should have “some” or a “great” influence on U.S. laws.

We have yet to find Jesus’ name on the ballot. But that hasn’t inhibited a proliferation of professional-looking signs, shirts and stickers bearing the slogan “Jesus 2020” nationwide.

This campaign, of course, isn’t actually about electing a 2,000-year-old Jewish man from Nazareth to our nation’s highest office. Rather, the organizers of the movement, Martha Sikes and Joyce Hubbard of Sampey Memorial Baptist Church in Ramer, Alabama, hope it will lead “people to elect (Jesus) to be the leader in their life.”

Local coverage reported several weeks ago that the church has sold more than 30,000 signs and given away another 7,000. The official Facebook page, which displays photos of signs in yards from coast to coast and most places in between, attests to cross-denominational and nationwide support.

The campaign coordinators attribute the rapid spread of their signs across our cultural and literal landscape to “God’s perfect timing and design.”

“Jesus 2020” is not the first case of Christianity appropriating political structures and symbols for proselytization. In the U.S., there have been several movements that associated Jesus with political power, from a series of Washington for Jesus rallies in the late ’80s and ’90s to Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s 2008 book, “Jesus for President,” which was followed by a national speaking tour.

RELATED: Jesus isn’t on the ballot. That doesn’t mean Christians can opt out.

What is striking about this latest manifestation of electoral evangelism is the fact that it is, according to its originators, apolitical.

“Please refrain from sending us a picture of your sign if there are political signs visible,” the organizers wrote to participants on their Facebook page in September. “While we know that Jesus hung out with ALL kinds of sinners, we don’t want to deal with the political debates that ensue after posting those pictures here. We are trying to keep the devil from having a part in our ministry!”

Despite the organizers’ scrupulous attempts to prevent political leaven from polluting their efforts, the fact remains that they’ve chosen an explicitly political medium for their religious outreach.

“In our highly polarized times,” observed Corey D.B. Walker on the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Sightings webpage in 2014, “we are experiencing a moment in which our political concerns are framed within a theological architecture.”

By framing theological concerns within a political architecture, the “Jesus 2020” campaign seems to indicate that the reverse is also true.

The danger of this, Walker notes, is that when political language is “imbued with the spirit of religion … (it) blurs the boundaries between religion and politics to such an extent that the political becomes synonymous with and an extension of the religious, even for those without an explicit religious” (and to this we might add, political) position.

Using political motifs for the sake of religious proselytization, in other words, has inescapable political implications that merely asserting apoliticism doesn’t resolve.

For many Christians, for instance, the Jesus 2020 campaign raises questions about what voting for Jesus might mean to historically disenfranchised communities and how associating Jesus with the nation’s highest office relates to America’s marginalized groups — the economic, political and cultural “least of these.”

Moreover, will advertising the belief that “Jesus is the only cure for this nation’s problems” allow the electorate to ignore their temporal obligations to their neighbor?

Exhortations to vote for Jesus may imply a repudiation of politics altogether, but as the past four years have reminded us, it can also lead to the subordination of politics to whatever interpretation of Jesus gains the upper (political) hand.

(Ryan Dradzynski is a writer based in Alabama. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)