The American Christ


The Socialist party leader and perennial presidential candidate Eugene Debs was also a biographer of Jesus. In Jesus, the Supreme Leader Debs argued that Jesus “organized a working class movement...for no other purpose than to destroy class rule and set up the common people as the sole and rightful inheritors of the earth.” The heroic days of the early church, said Debs, had been true to Jesus’ message, but then Christianity was co-opted by the Roman Empire and became the religion of the oppressing classes: “The dead Christ was then metamorphosed from the master revolutionist who was ignominiously slain, a martyr to his class, into the pious abstraction, the harmless theological divinity who died that John Pierpont Morgan could be ‘washed in the blood of the lamb.’ ” Another socialist depiction of Jesus was Upton Sinclair’s They Call Me Carpenter (1922). Lew Wallace and Charles Sheldon had smoothed over the awkward matter of Jesus’ teaching against great wealth; Sinclair seized on it. “Mr. Carpenter,” a modern transfiguration of Jesus, lives with strikers, socialists, and the impoverished Mexican inhabitants of Los Angeles. Sinclair emphasizes Jesus’ wrathful sermons against hypocrites and Pharisees (updated as Hollywood entrepreneurs and the established churches) and has Carpenter declare: “The days of the exploiter are numbered. The thrones of the mighty are tottering, and the earth shall belong to them that labor.”


By 1922, however, the American Socialist party’s greatest days were over. The socialist movement had been split by the Russian Revolution and the question of whether to remain committed to an indigenous socialist program or to join the Communist Third International, with its headquarters in Moscow. American socialism also suffered because of its resolute opposition to the First World War. In 1915, before the Americans became active participants in the European war, The Masses ran a cartoon captioned “The Deserter.” It showed Jesus, his back to a wall, facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from the principal belligerent powers.

Once America had entered the war, in 1917, many Christians came to believe that in their place Jesus, too, would have gone off to fight. A New York minister named Wesley Johnston, for example, declared that “Christ was the greatest fighter the world has ever seen...the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” Another minister, Harold Bell Wright, agreed that “a thirty centimeter gun may voice the edict of God as truly as the notes of a cooing dove....The sword of America is the sword of Jesus.” The socialists who continued to hold out against American participation in the war, and the clerical minority that joined them in the name of Christ’s message of peace, found themselves persecuted, their journals forced to close, and their leaders, including Eugene Debs, imprisoned.

It was not only the war and the Russian Revolution that led to the decline of American socialism, however. The vitality of American business during the 1920s also played a part, and it is no coincidence that two biographies of Jesus from that decade are celebrations of capitalism. The more flagrant is Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1924). Barton was a partner in the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, and it seemed to him that he was doing for the twentieth century what Jesus had done for the first. His lead quotation, “Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business,” sets the tone for the book, in which Barton presents Jesus as an advertising genius.

The hard-hitting, straightforward language of the parables, the bluntly effective managerial style, and the man’s sheer energy won Barton’s praise. Some people think of Jesus as effeminate and weak, said Barton, but in fact, he was “a great outdoorsman,” “the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem,” and an unrivaled entrepreneur. “Every one of his conversations, every contact between his mind and others, is worthy of the attentive study of any sales manager.” What were his twelve apostles but a marketing organization that set forth and conquered the world? Why were they so successful? Because they believed in the quality of the product! The Man Nobody Knows sold half a million hardback copies, and it is still in print, not just as a historical curiosity but as an inspirational guide.

Defenders of capitalism usually emphasize that theirs is not solely a system designed to facilitate the piling up of fortunes. They stress instead that it provides money for the protection of families and a higher quality of workmanship than can be found under any other economic system. These themes are stressed in another capitalist-Jesus biography from the 1920s, Robert Norwood’s The Man Who Dared to Be God (1929). Solving the mystery of what Jesus did up to the age of thirty, Norwood tells us that he was a successful boatbuilder on the Sea of Galilee. On leaving home, he tells his mother: “Let me go to Capernaum and build boats. It is a good business. The lake towns are prosperous....There ought to be a fine chance for a handy man to lead some of that prosperity hither to Nazareth.”