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Faith in ignorance: Politicians who quote the Bible often don’t know anything about the Bible

Two biblical scholars explain that Scripture offers no easy answers — and no one really takes it “literally”


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Phil Torres
October 8, 2016 1:30pm (UTC)

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists, claiming that the Bill of Rights’ First Amendment establishes a “wall of separation” that divides church and state. As the First Amendment put it, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Yet contemporary American politics is infused with religion — in particular, with Christianity. The president is sworn in on a Bible, and it’s almost unthinkable that she or he could be openly atheistic and claim that God is a fiction and morality comes from something other than the supernatural. Even more, Scripture is often used by politicians, pundits and everyday Americans to justify their political beliefs.

For example, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., famously dismissed climate change in 2009 by citing verses in Genesis and Matthew and saying that “the Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth — this Earth will not be destroyed by a flood.”

Similarly, President Barack Obama referenced Exodus 23 in a speech about immigration, declaring that, “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

Donald Trump has used the Bible as a prop to persuade evangelicals to vote for him. (According to Trump, the Bible is his “favorite book,” followed by “The Art of the Deal.”)

Both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals — and even non-Christians, such as Bernie Sanders — have used the Bible to support their social, political and economic positions. But what does the Bible actually say about hot-button issues like climate change, immigration, gay marriage, abortion, taxes, women, family values and social welfare?

That’s the topic of “The Bible in Political Debate,” edited by Frances Flannery and Rodney Werline. In it, 14 biblical scholars — whom Flannery describes as “the real biblical literalists” — peel away the layers of accumulated tradition to get at what the Bible’s authors really thought or to show how applying biblical insights to current events can be deeply problematic. The book is a fascinating exploration of an ancient text that many Americans believe they know but often don’t and an attempt to ascertain the most plausible interpretations of Scripture.

“This book is not a liberal rant,” Werline said. “But it is a plea for critical thought and conversation, and I think that’s what will make it uncomfortable for a lot of people when they read it, whether liberal or conservative.”

To better understand the book’s approach, I recently sat down with Flannery and Werline to discuss the Bible, politics and the problem of overconfidence among certain believers.

Why do you think it’s important for biblical scholars in their ivory towers to weigh in on what the Bible says about issues like those listed above? Isn’t the Bible pretty straightforward about gay marriage, social welfare and so on?

Rodney Werline: Well, the fact is that it’s not straightforward on those issues. Our world and [the world of the Bible] are millennia apart. The cultural, social and ethical issues, scientific knowledge and political structures — all these were so different. If you add onto this advances in psychology and medicine, the Bible really doesn’t translate.

Not only that, but even when [the Bible] does speak to matters related to life, work and poverty, it doesn’t just say one thing. You can find multiple voices. And I think a lot of historical-critical scholars of the Bible — we’ve known this for a long time, and we’ve watched these conversations happen in public.

Yet we haven’t had a forum, haven’t established a forum to weigh in on public discourse, and that’s what this book is an attempt to do. The Bible may not say anything about a topic or it may say multiple things, and even then it’s saying them in such different contexts that easy adaptation of what the Bible says into a policy conversation is just not possible.

Frances Flannery: The danger is that when politicians cherry-pick from the Bible without understanding that there are other interpretations, they in effect take their faith position and impose it on everyone else. This is especially true when they use the Bible to argue a policy point, which is the way they most frequently use the Bible.

There are exceptions, such as in the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate when Tim Kaine cited Scripture not to decide policy, but to guide his personal decisions about character. But generally politicians use the Bible as a bludgeon, as a hammer to make their point, while uncritically assuming their interpretation is the right one. That can be dangerous.

On a related note, what do you think is the most significant, politically relevant misconception of the Bible?

Flannery: That the meaning is clear and plain — and that it’s easy to map the culture of the Bible to contemporary issues.

Werline: I agree with that. I think the Bible can be difficult to use properly.

One often hears politicians say that the United States is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. In your expert opinions, to what extent is this actually true? Were the Founding Fathers “Christian” in the contemporary sense of that term?

Werline: I don’t think the Founding Fathers had a form of Christianity that we would immediately recognize today because of the presence of deism. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s attitude towards the Bible was that it needed to be edited [so he literally cut the Bible up].

I can’t imagine a modern politician standing up and saying, “I’m working on my own edition of the Bible in which I’m cutting out sections.” And some Founding Fathers had very little or no faith. Others on occasion manipulated people with faith to achieve a certain outcome or goal.

Either way, the Constitution clearly keeps religion apart from the state. The word “God” does not appear once in the Constitution, although the Declaration of Independence refers to God. With Article 6 and the First Amendment later on, you have clear statements about keeping those things separate.

Flannery: Those Founding Fathers who espoused deism — such as James Madison, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson — wouldn’t have felt comfortable, I think, with the kind of debates that we have today in which politicians assume a non-rational, faith-based interpretation of the Bible and use that to justify policy positions.

Werline: Yeah, there was a variety of beliefs among those people, so I don’t think you can speak of the whole group as having one consistent idea. There’s a huge difference between James Madison and Patrick Henry, or Ben Franklin and Patrick Henry, or Jefferson and John Adams. In fact, Adams’ theology over time became more liberal. So you can’t pin them down about having a single position about faith, or believing they were in the process of founding a Christian nation.

Do you think that biblical literalism is a bit of a misnomer? It seems that many fundamentalists don’t hold literal interpretations of verses like, say, Matthew 5:39, which tells Christians not to “resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Many literalists seem quite selective in their reading of the good book.

Flannery: In a way, biblical scholars are the true literalists. We’re not trying to “rescue” the text or read it though our own faith traditions or histories of interpretation. We want to go back and look at the original languages, in the original context, and ascertain what the Bible says, whether we like it or not. For instance, was the Bible OK with slavery? Apparently so.

A lot of what people who claim to be biblical literalists are doing is operating out of an American Protestant tradition that’s only a little bit over 100 years old in order to claim a “plain meaning” for the Bible that doesn’t actually exist outside their faith tradition. Most of the time they don’t even realize they’re doing this because each person’s religion seems uniquely realistic to them.

But by not knowing their own history or the history of the Christian church over the last couple millennia they don’t understand that their approach to Scripture is relatively new in Christianity and is anything but literal. It’s absolutely interpreted, cherry-picked and specific to their tradition.

For instance, they don’t support the law [in Deuteronomy 21:18-21] that says we should stone a recalcitrant son, yet they lift up a law they see as being against homosexuality and apply it without understanding the ancient context — without knowing how different it is from the modern context.

Werline: I like your term “selective literalism.” In listening to people, including my own students, I’ve noticed a strange, almost contradiction: Many are selective metaphorical literalists. For example, they take a passage like the one in 2 Chronicles [7:14] that says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land,” and they take it literally and apply it to the U.S.

The verse isn’t about the U.S., but all of a sudden it’s metaphorically applied to any nation or this nation. So I agree with Dr. Flannery that biblical scholars are the true biblical literalists because we’re trying to get at what the Bible literally says without letting our own biases distort our interpretation.

While you were compiling this book, what surprised you most about the conclusions that other biblical scholars came to?

Werline: I was really surprised about how our authors were so willing to let their interpretations stand without rushing out there and trying to “rescue” Scripture. Some of them, like myself, are Christians who are involved in church and even preach on occasion — or teach in their synagogues. Yet everyone maintained an objective, honest scholarly attitude.

The other thing I enjoyed in the editing process was the way these authors set up their essays. There’s something about them — a kind of plot. They were all so good at doing this; it makes the reader want to reach the end of the book, to find out how it’s going to turn out. That’s what made me want to keep scrolling while editing.

Flannery: I wasn’t surprised that there was such a wide variety of interpretations, and I wasn’t surprised that some of the interpretations differed from my own views. Indeed, this is one of the points we’re making: When biblical scholars go to our conferences, we have papers, panels and discussions on verses about how the meaning is not plain; it’s often complicated and may be convoluted or contradictory to some other passage we’re trying to understand. That’s what we aim to do as biblical scholars. So I wasn’t surprised by anything in that regard.

What’s different between us and the politicians and pundits who use the Bible is that we ground our discussion about who’s correct using a set of robust methodologies that we all agree on. So it’s not about claiming that an interpretation is “just true” with no evidence.  We provide evidence and have a critical methodology. And based on this common framework, we determine whose interpretations are sound.

That being said, all of the views in our book are sound in this sense. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other scholars who would read a passage and argue it differently. We’re not trying to provide the answer of what the Bible says, but to offer some answers from biblical scholars who are experts in reading the original text. This is light-years away from a politician assuming there’s a single obvious meaning and then forming a policy based on that.

Werline: Indeed, this book is not a liberal rant. But it is a plea for critical thought and conversation, and I think that’s what will make it uncomfortable for a lot of people when they read it, whether liberal or conservative.


Phil Torres

Phil Torres is the founding director of the X-Risks Institute and the author of "Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks." He’s on Twitter @xriskology.

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