The Bible doesn’t mention anything about contraception or abortion, but this hasn’t stopped 89 million American evangelicals acting as if “thou shall not consume a pregnancy pill” were one of the Ten Commandments. For the benefit of my mostly American audience, it’s not. In fact, the first four of the Hebrew God’s Decalogue amount to nothing more than “maniacal throat clearing,” to steal a phrase from the late Christopher Hitchens.
The decision of the five conservative justices to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, thus granting religious personhood to 90 percent of U.S. corporations, which means that certain for-profit companies may refuse to cover forms of birth control they find morally objectionable, has been debated from every angle except one: the theological perspective.
An overwhelming majority of hyper-religious Americans, and Americans in general, are incapable of debating the theological aspect of their faith. Not only do a staggering majority of Americans have no idea what is or isn’t written in the Bible, they have not a morsel of knowledge as it pertains to just about all aspects of historical context and biblical scholarship.
At a time of heightened controversy surrounding women’s reproductive rights, most discourse relies upon the political, philosophical and legal dimensions of access to abortion and contraception. In almost all instances, religious traditions and theological perspectives are not fully explored beyond an occasional reference to the biblical commandment, “thou shall not kill.” The nation’s collective biblical ignorance not only prevents any reasonable theological debate, but also allows Christian fundamentalists, like Hobby Lobby and its Christian Right supporters, to contort scripture to their own advantage.
The Right has successfully rebranded the brown-skinned liberal Jew, who gave away free healthcare, was pro-redistributing wealth, and hung with a prostitute, into a white-skinned, trickledown, union-busting conservative, for the very fact that an overwhelming number of Americans are astonishingly illiterate when it comes to understanding the Bible. On hot-button social issues, from same-sex marriage to abortion, biblical passages are invoked without any real understanding of the context or true meaning.
If you need to know what drives the Christian Right’s rabid enthusiasm to rally behind Hobby Lobby, it’s important to understand how social conservatives have morphed Jesus into a muscular, masculine warrior as a means of combating what they see as the modernization of society.
“A significant impetus behind the assault on women and modernity was the feeling that women had encroached upon traditional male spheres like the workplace and colleges. Furthermore, women’s leadership in the churches had harmed Christianity by creating an effeminate clergy and a weak sense of self. All of this was associated with liberalism, feminism, women, and modernity,” Thom Hartmann writes.
Biblical illiteracy has made its way all the way up to the bench of the nation’s highest Court. In 2002, Justice Scalia defended his pro-death penalty stance by claiming that the Bible forgives those who wrongly apply the death penalty to innocent persons on the grounds that the wrongly convicted will have an opportunity to set the record straight in the courthouse of the afterlife.
More than 95 percent of U.S. households own at least one copy of the Bible. So how much do Americans know of the book that one-third of the country believes to be literally true? Apparently, very little, according to data from the Barna Research group. Surveys show that 60 percent can’t name more than five of the Ten Commandments; 12 percent of adults think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife; and nearly 50 percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
According to the American Bible Society’s 2014 "State of the Bible" report, a majority of U.S. adults (81 percent) said they consider themselves highly, moderately or somewhat knowledgeable about the Bible. Yet less than half (43 percent) were able to name the first five books of the Bible. The report also showed that only half knew that John the Baptist was not one of the 12 apostles, while roughly 82 percent believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a biblical verse.
"All the research indicates that biblical literacy in America is at an all-time low," Kenneth Berding, professor of New Testament at Biola's Talbot School of Theology, told the Christian Post. "My own experience teaching a class of new college freshman every year for the past 15 years suggests to me that although students 15 years ago knew little about the Bible upon entering my classes, today's students on average know even less about the Bible."
No one should take the Christian Right’s attitudes toward sexuality and abortion seriously when so many evangelicals believe Sodom and Gomorrah to be a married couple. Put another way: one should not be allowed to hide behind the veil of “religious freedom,” as an excuse to discriminate against others, when one has little or no understanding of their own religion.
Knowing the New Testament is not simply a matter of reading the Bible cover to cover, or memorizing a handful of verses. Knowing the Bible requires a scholarly contextual understanding of authorship, history and interpretation. For instance, Hobby Lobby and pro-life activists hide behind the “thou shall not kill” commandment, but the Bible demands death for a whole range of minor indiscretions, from cursing your parents (Exodus 21:17) to drunken behavior (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), from working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14) to a woman lying about her virginity (Deuteronomy 22:20-21).
Invariably, Christians dismiss these complicating and contradictory biblical laws with an, “Oh, that’s the Old Testament” defense. Typically they then claim the New Testament supersedes Mosaic Law—the 613 commandments of the first five books of the Old Testament. But Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
In other words, if the followers of Christ are to apply their religious beliefs in a way that is consistent with the laws and traditions of their faith, how does this not challenge a great number of the nation’s secular laws? The Supreme Court has set precedence in a way that allows corporations to cherry-pick which of the nation’s secular laws don’t suit them, while simultaneously allowing these same corporations the right to cherry-pick their own religious beliefs.