On Religion: Chris Hedges, Heresy, Christian Orthodoxy, and Imperialism

Roy Herndon Smith

In this piece, I am responding to a quote from the journalist, Presbyterian Minister, and television host (on RT, formerly Russia Today), Chis Hedges: “And what I’m willing to do, which the mainstream church is not, is to denounce the Christian right as Christian heretics. You don’t have to, as I did, spend three years at Harvard Divinity School to realize that Jesus didn’t come to make us rich. And he certainly didn’t come to make Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen rich. And what they have done is acculturate the worst aspects of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, violence and bigotry into the Christian religion.”

While I agree with Chris Hedges’ critique of the Christian right for the most part, denouncing it as a Christian heresy is historically inaccurate and tragically ironic.

Hedges’ claim that “the Christian Right” has contaminated “the Christian religion“ with “aspects” of “American” society—“imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, violence and bigotry”— that are alien to Christianity is historically false. These evils have characterized the most dominant strands of Christianity throughout its history. In North America, throughout most of the time since the beginning of the European conquest, almost all Anglo and European Christian churches, including Hedges’ Presbyterian Church, justified and, in many cases, promoted imperialism, slavery and the systemic racism that followed the abolition of slavery, and the ethnic cleansing and literal and cultural genocide of the peoples of the First Nations. For well over a century, beginning well before the establishment of the Christian right, dominant groups, including liberal ones, in wealthy white American churches (the Presbyterians being one of the wealthiest) have implicitly and explicitly promoted capitalism as an inherently Christian economic system and have denounced those who critique capitalism as anti-Christians. 

Hedges constructs the first of two related tragic ironies when he denounces “the Christian right” as a heresy because it has infected Christianity with these evils. In order to declare a group “heretical,” in the sense that Hedges is using the term, as having false beliefs, one has to assume an orthodoxy, a body that asserts sole possession of right beliefs and ultimate truth. Such an assertion, in turn, assumes a hierarchical theology, which posits that a transcendent power possesses the universal truth to which orthodox, or right thinking, representatives have sole access; all those with different, or heretical, beliefs are wrong. Throughout Christian history, Christian authorities have used orthodox theologies to justify Christian imperialism and persecution of heretics, groups of people with different beliefs. Hence the irony, Hedges’ denunciation of the Christian right as heretical implicitly enacts an orthodoxy that has authorized and even required Christian “imperialism, … chauvinism, violence and bigotry.” 

Historically, Christian orthodoxy is synonymous with Christian imperialism. Until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 ACE, Christianity was a heterodox religion, meaning that groups with different beliefs constituted it. When Constantine became emperor of Rome in 313 ACE, he first granted Christians the right to worship as they pleased and then promoted Christianity. Some historians think Constantine saw, in Christianity, a religion that could help unify the empire under the sole authority of the emperor. The heterodox character of Christianity at that time was the main obstacle to using it to strengthen imperial rule. Constantine called The Council of Nicaea to establish Christian orthodoxy, the one set of right beliefs that one had to affirm in order to be Christian. The Council of Nicaea carried out its assignment and produced the Nicaean Creed, a quintessential statement of imperial theology, with God as the divine Emperor, the single source of truth, power, and goodness, and Jesus, His Divine Son, the Lord who rules creation. This theology authorized the foundation of the singular, universal (imperial), orthodox Church. This Church named Constantine a Christian Emperor, the earthly representative of the the risen Christ, who is charged with using his imperial power to defend orthodoxy against nonbeliving enemies of Christianity, especially heretics, those who wrongly claim to be Christians. After the emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire, in 380 ACE, Christian orthodoxy theologically justified the empire’s brutal crushing, as heretical, of any groups with different beliefs.

The equation of orthodoxy with imperial theology continues to characterize most statements of faith through which current churches define what it means to be Christian. For instance, Hedges’ Presbyterian Church begins its Book of Church Order with the claim that “Jesus Christ” is “The King and Head of the Church” and has “all power” “to establish” and rule “the Kingdom of God” (https://pcanet.org/about-the-pca-2-2-2/).

In a second irony, Hedges seeks to authorize his denunciation of some of the leaders of the Christian right who assert that Jesus came “to make us rich” as heretical with a contemporary Christian justification that has become so common that it has its own acronym, WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? This justification begs the question of which Jesus the person, in this case Hedges, using it is talking about. If it’s the orthodox Jesus, then those who assert that the road to riches lies through belief in and obedience to Jesus are stating a commonsense truth, if one wishes for wealth, go and submit to the omnipotent Divine Emperor, Who is the ultimate source of all wealth. 

If one is talking about the actual human being named Jesus, then a good deal of historical evidence indicates Hedges is right when he implies that Jesus was likely very critical of the rich, especially those who believed their riches were a sign of their holiness. However, this evidence also indicates that the historical Jesus was perhaps even more critical of the religious authorities of his time and place, especially those who used their orthodoxy—the claim that they adhered to every jot and tittle of divine law—to denounce those who did not or could not strictly follow the law, probably including Jesus, who, the evidence indicates, openly violated some of the orthodox strictures. In other words, the evidence indicates that some of these authorities likely considered Jesus to be a heretic. Hence the irony, Hedges uses the heretic Jesus to denounce the Christian right as heretical. 

This irony deepens with the evidence that the historical Jesus was not only critical of the orthodox religious authorities of his time and place, he also subverted the imperialistic theology that underlies orthodoxy. For instance, while a common symbol of the Kingdom of God in his time and place was the majestic cedars of Lebanon, one parable ascribed to Jesus compares this divine Kingdom to a mustard bush (Matthew 13:31-32), a weed that invaded and took over gardens. Similarly, another sign of the Kingdom of God, in the historical Jesus’ time and place, was unleavened bread; leaven was a symbol of corruption. Yet, another parable ascribed to Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to leaven that a woman mixes into a large amount of flour until it all becomes leaven—corrupt (Luke 13: 20-21). When Hedges denounces the Christian right as heretical, he implicitly uses the orthodox logic that equates imperial might with sacred rightness, precisely the logic that the historical Jesus, according to a great deal of historical evidence, subverted.