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According to Jonathan Chait, the author of The Big Con:  Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America, “In the conservative mind, the Ronald Reagan presidency lives on in the golden shimmering past, an ideal that Reagan’s successors must strive to approach but can never fully live up to, like the teachings of Christ.”

Although Reagan left the White House in early 1989, Chait describes how, more than two decades later, conservatives invoke Reagan with the fervor of religious acolytes, “seeking to spread his word to the faithful and beyond.”  As Chait tells it, the conservative press treats Reagan as if he remained a living, breathing presence.  They cite him almost daily, asking:  “What would Reagan do?”

Do you recall, during the debates between the candidates vying for the Republican Presidential nomination, how each candidate tried to distinguish himself from the others by claiming to be the most conservative and thus, the most Reagan-like?  In other words, WWRD has become the litmus test for deciding whether a particular issue or individual passes muster among red-state Americans.

So, take your pick:  WWRD or WWJD?

When the Washington Times listed the key lessons Americans learned from Reagan, the list included, most prominently, “lower taxes.”  In an editorial written for the Weekly Standard, William Kristol urged then-President George W. Bush to “start recapturing the Reaganite high ground of tax cuts and economic growth and opportunity.”  Any self-proclaimed conservative today aspires to emulate Reagan and cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes.

Why belabor the obvious, you say?  If you asked that question, then you’ve illustrated how narratives about the lives of public figures can be re-shaped for ideological purposes.  Because the written record, if one wishes to consult it, demonstrates the unthinkable—namely, that Reagan was far from the politician who epitomized conservatism at its purest.

True, Reagan enacted a substantial tax cut during his first year in office and “unapologetically targeted [it toward] the highest income levels.”  But here comes the gotcha moment.  “Panicked by rising deficits,” Reagan’s administration “signed on to the largest tax increase in American history in 1982 and another major tax hike in 1983.” No!  No!  No!  You say.  That simply can’t be!  But it is.  Did you really forget?

Despite the immense quantity of documentation (photographic, electronic and printed) pertaining to the Reagan Presidency, despite the constraining effects provided by the memories of millions of Americans who directly experienced the Reagan era, the life of Reagan is being re-imagined with virtually no protest.

Whether we’re progressives (who hate Reagan) or conservatives (who adore him), we nod our heads whenever Reagan is touted as the “cut-taxes-no-matter-what” President.   Still—if we earnestly wanted to ask WWRD today, the answer might not be that he’d cut taxes—at least, not if we turn to the historical record to formulate a possible answer instead of relying on today’s partly fictional account.

We have, in this re-imagining of Ronald Reagan, an example of how the collective memory of a public figure—in this case, of an American President—can be distorted (by some) for ideological purposes.

By analogy, we might wonder how much the narratives provided by Jesus’ disciples changed during the years that followed his crucifixion.  The earliest New Testament Gospel is the Gospel of Mark; most Biblical scholars assign it a date of about 70 CE at the earliest (a few scholars find evidence suggesting the early part of the 2nd Century).  Mark’s author makes mistakes about Galilean landmarks and customs during the time of Jesus; this supports the conclusion that he never, himself, traveled to Galilee.  Scholars also generally agree that the final portion of the gospel, Mark 16:9-20, which describes the encounter between the resurrected Christ and his disciples, is a later addition.

If two decades have allowed our collective memory of President Reagan to drift in spite of enormous documentary evidence, how did three decades minimum between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospel of Mark affect the collective memory of Jesus’ followers?  Note also that, today, skepticism is built into our worldview.  In the early centuries of the common era, belief in demons and magic was widespread, placing few checks on narrative renderings of events.

Until quite recently, most Christians assumed that the Gospels were sources of historical information.  Nineteenth-Century critical scholarship, however, witnessed an explosion of interest in reconstructing the life of Jesus.  Theologians like David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) studied the Gospels, intent on excavating the details of Jesus’ life.  Strauss hoped to write a historically-grounded account for his German audience.  Instead, he discovered that the Gospels contained only a few, truly historical fragments and these were so sparse that he decided it was impossible to reconstruct the personality of the human named Jesus.  The only Jesus accessible through the apostolic testimonies matched post-dated prophecies and proto-messiahs drawn from Jewish messianic literature.  Strauss’ efforts laid the groundwork for the research of later, highly-respected “life of Jesus” researchers like the Nobel-prize winning Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) who agreed with his conclusion about the irretrievability of the details of Jesus’ biography.

Strauss also realized that both supernaturalists and rationalists used faulty approaches when they attempted to construct the life of Jesus.  They read their own opinions about him into the thought-world of primitive Christianity.  Focusing on the passages that supported their views, and from these, they constructed the Jesus they wanted to find.  That Jesus was little more than the reflection of their own psychic faces, reproduced in the ancient, splotchy mirror of the Gospels.  Conservative theologians “found” a picture of the Jesus of conservativism; liberal theologians “found” a picture of the Jesus of liberalism.  Both pictures were, and remain, historically untenable.

Thanks to the research of scholars like Strauss and Schweitzer, the “life of Jesus” approach to reading Scripture was largely abandoned, although it was dusted off in the mid 1980’s and tried again by the (liberal) Jesus Seminar.

What can we learn from the Gospels?  Mostly, we find in them a record of the primitive church’s views about Jesus.  Read through the eyes of his early followers, Jesus rises from the page in the form of a visionary preacher with an apocalyptic message, the bearer of news about the immanent end of time and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Is the absence of solid, biographical information about Jesus necessarily fatal to Christian theology?  Absolutely not.  Some Christian scholars—Paul Tillich, Gordon Kaufman, David Tracy, and Sallie McFague come to mind—acknowledge this absence and move on to develop compelling theologies in spite of it.  Nonetheless, too many theologians working today fail to acknowledge the abyss between the Jesus whose life story has been almost completely lost to history and the Messiah they claim to find in the Gospels.  Non-specialists follow their lead.

The similarity to the Reagan legacy is striking.  The press, right-wing Republicans, left-wing Democrats, and our fallible memories fail to acknowledge the abyss between the Reagan whose actual life was extensively documented, and the so-dubbed arch-conservative who “always” opted for cutting taxes.  Young people who didn’t witness the Reagan era follow their elders’ lead.

WWJD or WWRD, take your pick.  But to which J or R are you referring?  To a Jesus or a Reagan who reflects your own psychic face and who conveniently shares your opinions?  Or are you referring to a Jesus about whom you admit you know little?  Or to an Reagan whose historical record you’ve studied at least a little?

Post-moderns no longer believe that it’s possible to separate fact from fiction.  There is no such thing as “fact” post-moderns like to say; there are only “accounts” refracted through social norms and personal experience.  Perhaps.  But does this mean we should abandon the effort altogether?

There is a difference between the Gold-standard-for-cutting-taxes (wishful-thinking) Reagan and the author-of-the-largest-tax-increase-in-American-history (actual) Reagan.  There is a difference between the Christ-of-Christian-theology (speculative) Jesus and the Jewish-eschatological-preacher-about-whom-little-is-known (human) Jesus. Paying attention to the difference matters.  It saves us from mistaking the one for the other and dishonoring Truth.

And Truth, even if we can only hope to glimpse it imperfectly, is worth the effort, don’t you think?

References:  Jonathan Chait, The Big Con:  Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 2007); James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought:  The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1997).