Monday, July 03, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 2

I apologize for the lateness of this posting. I hope you are all having a great vacation weekend and look forward to the discussion in the coming days!

The purpose of this lesson and the next is to frame the rest of our discussion within some of the history of the Bible’s use in American politics. My hope is that, as we wrestle with the history, we will start to uncover some of the more theoretical issues we will tackle later. I have tried to be fair, showing a broad range of history and a broad range of uses of the Bible. Nevertheless, due in part to constraints on time and space, I am sure I have missed some important issue, speech, or debate; your questions and comments are much appreciated to fill out the picture.

This lesson deals with American life from some of the initial European migrations to reform movements in the 19th century. The next lesson focuses on different movements in the 20th century. This week we will look at five issues: (1) European immigration to America, (2) the American Revolution, (3) the First Amendment to the Constitution, (4) slavery and civil war, and (5) the Second Great Awakening and 19th-century social reform.

1. Immigration and the Bible
At the heart of the changes wrought by the 16th-century Protestant Reformation is the doctrine of sola scriptura: ‘Scripture alone’ should guide church practice, not tradition or reason. This belief combined with newly and widely available translations of the Bible in colloquial languages to give rise to an ever-increasing number of interpretations of the Bible, as is evidenced by the ever-increasing number of Protestant denominations and churches. Though by this point in time we are quite used to having widely different understandings of the Bible, in the 16th and 17th centuries such diversity of interpretation was still new, and was resisted by many quarters. In England a number of groups arose to either ‘purify’ the official Church of England, or to separate from it entirely. Persecution of those groups, which we know as the Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers and others, led to migration to more religiously tolerant lands, first to other European nations (especially Holland), and later to America.
At stake in these migrations were communities’ rights and abilities to live life as they saw it defined in the Bible. In such a view what we consider ‘private’ religion and ‘public’ politics were undivided, and political structures were set up to reflect the various groups’ biblical understandings. For example, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony saw themselves as erecting a ‘city on a hill’ (see Matthew 5:14) that would demonstrate to the world what a biblically-ordered community would look like. Sin could not enter such a community, so the government erected laws that would help its citizens avoid sin (for instance, marriage was required by law) and harsh punishments to restrain sin.
Another, very different, example is the Pennsylvania colony established by William Penn and other Quakers. Penn’s ‘holy experiment’ was meant to reflect Quaker teachings of biblical non-violence, loving treatment of all humans, and democratic decision making. These ideals led to Pennsylvania’s unprecedented religious toleration (for its time), relatively just treatment of Native Americans, and refusal to form a militia—that is, until the Quakers lost political power. For many settlers in Massachusetts Bay, Pennsylvania, and other colonies, therefore, immigration to America was an opportunity to align their reading of the Bible with political structures.

2. The American Revolution
Though we commonly think of unjust taxation and unfair representation as the primary motivations for the American Revolution, biblical reasoning was brought to bear throughout the process. On one hand, Presbyterian pastor John Witherspoon gave biblical support to the revolutionaries through sermons on resisting injustice; on the other hand, Anglican minister and loyalist Jonathan Boucher preached against interpretations of Galatians 5:1 (‘for freedom Christ has set us free’) that were being used to justify the revolt. Pacifist Christians like Quaker Anthony Benezet offered an alternative when they argued that Christ’s injunction to love one’s enemies (Matthew 5:44) should steer the colonies away from any consideration of war.

3. The First Amendment to the Constitution
Drafted immediately after the ratification of the US Constitution in 1789, the first amendment of the Bill of Rights states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ These words, as we all know, have been argued over ever since. Though knowing their views does not settle the debate, looking at early interpretations of the clause by the ‘Founding Fathers’ is an instructive part of our historical overview.
The most famous interpretation of the so-called Establishment Clause was provided by Thomas Jefferson: the clause erects a ‘wall of separation between Church and State.’ The essential function of this ‘wall’ was to ensure that men (unfortunately, only men) of all religious persuasions could participate in political life without hindrance. Similarly, James Madison interpreted the clause to prohibit officially-sanctioned national days of prayer and the pay of government chaplains. Early Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, however, saw the clause as permitting a close relationship between Christianity and the state (for which he advocated), so long as that relationship did not infringe on others’ freedom of worship.
These arguments have been repeated over and over through the decades of American life, and we probably will not settle them here. Notable for our purposes, however, is the ambiguity of the Establishment Clause in regards to using explicitly religious language—such as biblical quotations—in political discourse. Even if Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ exists to allow political participation by a diverse constituency of religious and, we presume, non-religious people, what does that participation look like? Do the sacred texts of the various groups make it over the wall, or are they stopped on the ‘Church’ side of it?

4. Slavery and Civil War
From early on, the debate over slavery was waged along biblical lines. Puritan politician and minister Samuel Sewall wrote what many consider to be the first anti-slavery tract produced in America. Writing in 1700, Sewall quotes Exodus 21, Psalm 65 and Acts 17 to the effect that all humans are God’s children and none should be enslaved. He then goes on to counter the biblical arguments given for slavery—namely, that black people are the punished descendents of Cain and that Abraham owned slaves—by offering alternative explanations of those passages. Quaker organizer John Woolman and ex-slave Frederick Douglass are two other early figures that argued against slavery on explicitly biblical grounds. Indeed, Douglass summed up his political position by quoting Proverbs 14:34, "Righteousness exalteth a nation; sin is a reproach to any people."
Biblical positions motivated both sides on the Civil War that eventually broke out to address the issue; soldiers, preachers, and politicians quoted freely from the Bible to support their diverse positions. Near the war’s end, President Lincoln offered his own analysis of the conflict:

Both [sides of the war] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

These lines, coming from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, regard the war as divine punishment for slavery, a fulfillment of Jesus’ saying about ‘offenses’ (Matthew 18:7).

5. The Second Great Awakening and 19th-Century Social Reform
Other opponents of slavery were part of the great ‘evangelical’ revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening (~1795-1810). Charles Finney and Asa Mahan, two of the most popular revival preachers, saw no rift between ‘saving souls’ and advocating for structural change in society. In fact, the ‘holiness’ they preached was based on Old Testament guidelines, which they recognized as inherently political.
Though this evangelical fusion of social and spiritual concern did not last past the 19th century, in one form or another it did characterize many of that century’s various reform movements. Labor laws, prohibition, women’s suffrage, education, and health care were all issues picked up under biblical auspices. For the first half of the 19th-century or so, many evangelicals saw no problem advocating for structural change based on the Bible. In the second half, however, evangelicals eschewed structural transformation as the domain of the so-called modernists. While evangelical women formed private ‘benevolence societies’ to care for the sick and poor and Sunday Schools to provide education for a great portion of society, proponents of the ‘Social Gospel’ continued to use the Bible to address structural issues. Social Gospelers Walter Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong, and others offered biblical critiques of both the church and government’s failures to adequately care for the poor, especially in urban areas. Similarly, though not associated with the Social Gospel movement, Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan used biblical arguments to attack unjust labor conditions and economic practices.

Some questions to consider:
1. What are your reactions to the various uses of the Bible represented here? Do they challenge or affirm your earlier opinions about how the Bible should or should not be used in American politics?

2. We have seen that the Bible has often been used to support opposing political positions (such as on slavery or the American Revolution). What does the diversity of biblical perspectives say to you about how the Bible can or cannot be used in politics? Is there a caution that emerges from seeing so many different interpretations? A prohibition against the Bible’s use in American politics?

3. 19th-century evangelicals moved away from using the Bible to effect structural change, preferring to leave charity work up to the private sector. What do you make of this move? Does the Bible speak more to ‘private’ charity, public institutions, or neither?

4. What are some other pre-20th-century uses of the Bible in American politics?

Every week, I'll give a few of the sources that were most helpful in preparing the lesson.

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992).

Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission (New York and London: Continuum Press, 2004).
Information on Puritans.
Lincoln's Second Inaugural Speech.
Information on everything!


Anonymous said...

James here... The examples cited are interesting, but I would agree with Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a wall separating church and state. In today's society, as I noted in a previous post, I think the only appropriate role for religion in politics is to help us understand how we should treat other people, how we should treat the planet, how we should behave in the world, etc. Hopefully this will influence our political views and actions positively. As for creating political entities based on biblical principles, I have a real fear of that -- who interprets the principles and how? As for a prohibition of the use of the Bible in politics, I'd like to see that, but it will never happen. And on the charity question, I believe that is an area for everyone to address -- the churches, reflecting the lessons we learn from Jesus, and the private sector, reflecting the importance that each of us, individual or business, contribute something to the society in which we thrive.

Anonymous said...

David here ... I was watching Syriana last night -- great flick, by the way -- and was struck by the scenes from the Islamic school in which the fundamentalist Imam is teaching the students that separation of church and state is an idea of the corrupt West. Instead, he proposes one law: the Koran. Later in the film, two of the students pilot an explosives-laden small boat into the side of an oil tanker, apparently a little known teaching of the Prophet.
Trolling in our own backyard, I ran across two fascinating brief articles from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago: one on Ann Coulter (; the other on the "Jesus-less" Christianity of the religious right ( Both seem connected to our conversation.

jamie said...

here's a comment sent to me by a friend from California, Kent Davis Sensenig:

On the explicit biblical arguments against slavery, I offer two other
important, "ahead of their time" examples: 1) in 1690s Germantown (part of Philadelphia) a small group of Quakers and Mennonites published what may be the first New World/European document against Christians owning slaves (coming from the peace/free church traditions that had left the Old World, in part, due to religious persecution); and 2) David Walker
was a African-American freedman in Boston cerca 1830 who managed to
publish some radical anti-slavery tracts based directly on the Bible.
He got killed for his efforts;

and, secondly, on evangelical political agitation in the 19th-century, you rightly mention William Jennings Bryan (later the famous fundamentalist at the Scopes/evolution trial in his dottering old age in the 1920s!) He definitely had an economic analysis, but I would just add he was part of a much larger agrarian/farmers' agitation of the 1880s and 1890s against the railroad barons who monopolized freight-transport, the big Eastern banks who dominated access to credit and land etc. This movement (including the "Grange" co-op organizing) was big in the Midwest and, I think, South, and led to significant third-party politics (the Populist Party) in these decades (a proto-Ross Perot!) Bryan was their champion before he was drawn into the Democratic party for the presidential election of 1896, when he lost to McKinley who represented the rising tide of
imperialist-capitalist politcs that dominated (most) of the 20-century
(and now 21st) century American foreign policy (with a brief
"isolationist" interlude between the World Wars). With VP/"Rough
Rider" Teddy Roosvelt, MacKliney scored the USA's first colonial
conquests of Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Phillipines, stripping
them from the dying Spanish empire via the trumped-up war proganda
(Spanish-American War of 1898) fueled by the "yellow journalism" of the likes of William Randolph Hearst's (the "Citizen Kane" character) New York papers (not unlike Bush's trumped-up war in Iraq and the docile/brainless "cheer-leading" of the press and the likes of Judith Miller at the New York Times). Anyway, this agrarian movment predated the more urban-worker-focused, middle-class-led reform efforts of the Progressive Era of the first two decades of the 20th century, like
Upton Sinclair's muck-raking journalistic "The Jungle" expose of
meat-packing plant conditions.