Monday, June 26, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 1

And now, for something completely different. Or, maybe not.
For the next eight weeks or so I'm turning this spot over to Jamie Pitts (more on Jamie below -- and, yes, we will have to get the man a good nom de blog!) He will be the primary poster for an on-line "class" the centers on the Bible and politics. I'll continue to chime in, and sometimes I'll actually address that topic, although I promise to remain steadfast in my randomness. In any case, here's the first post from Jamie, and may a rich conversation begin:

From President Bush’s speeches, to recent Democrat efforts to learn ‘religious language,’ the use of the Bible in American political discourse is a contentious topic. Some say the Bible and politics have nothing to do with each other: either the Bible has nothing to say about politics, or our church and state policies prohibit such a mixture.

Others argue that the Bible can only be corrupted by politicians who invariably twist it to their own agendas. Proponents of this view often call on the church—the only organization, they feel, that can legitimately use the Bible—to engage in the ‘prophetic’ task of resisting status quo politics; some see this resistance coming through local communities that demonstrate an alternative politics, others through active revolt against the prevailing authorities.

Another approach sees little problem with using the Bible in American politics. After all, some argue, America is a ‘Christian nation’; biblical rhetoric can only call the nation back to its roots. Others in this camp are more cautious in speaking of America’s Christian identity, but still maintain that Christians can and should use biblical language in political discourse, since that language is (or should be) the foundation of their political views.

What are we to make of such confusion? Perhaps, if you’re like me, you throw up your hands in exasperation and decide that not using the Bible in political discourse is better than using it badly—or at least than using it when we’re not really sure how to do it correctly. That’s an easy stance when most of what passes for political discourse consistently mangles the Bible, clearly illustrating concerns about political manipulation of biblical language. But then, occasionally, you may find yourself passionately agreeing with a certain politician’s use of the Bible: a quotation about God’s justice to support a program for the poor; a verse on God’s love to advocate for more inclusive policy. What do we do then? Do we hold to a principle of separation of church and state? Or do we applaud the ‘right’ use of the Bible, at least just this once?

In this class I hope that we can explore a few of the issues surrounding this dense topic. We’ll look at some historical and contemporary uses of the Bible in American politics to get a feel for the context we’re working with. Then we’ll examine some of the places in the Bible itself where scriptures are quoted in ‘political’ contexts; Jesus’ use of Jeremiah and Isaiah to condemn the temple (Mark 11:17) is one prominent example. Finally, we’ll look at some of what theologians and philosophers are saying about religious language in public discourse, a non-technical examination of some of the positions mentioned above. This is only a rough plan for what we’ll be talking about in the next 8 weeks; my hope is that your questions and comments will lead us in new directions.

A note about the word ‘politics’ as used in this class: I am convinced that everything we do as the body of Christ is ‘political’ in nature, that is, it witnesses to the social life that all humans are called to in some degree or another. Thus, simple acts like communion or baptism can be powerful statements of economic solidarity and the inclusion of society’s marginalized. The Bible seems to reflect this understanding of the church’s political nature when it calls the church a polis (Matthew 5:14), a common Greek word for city, and an ecclesia (Matthew 18:17, among others), a Greek word used for political assemblies.

In common parlance, however, we use ‘politics’ to refer to what local, state, national, and international governments do. For most of us the mayor and the president do politics, not the pastor, and certainly not us when we gather on a Sunday morning (or Friday night, or whenever).

One goal I have for this class is that we would think through how we use the term ‘politics.’ Do we believe the church’s internal practices are really political? If not, why not? But in the meantime, let’s try to be sensitive to the linguistic issues involved in discussing faith and politics. In the paragraphs above I tried to walk the line, discussing the Bible’s use in ‘American politics.’ This phrase isn’t completely satisfying, but I hope it conveys that what we are mainly talking about is the Bible’s use in the politics that happen outside of the faith community.

A note about the class: I am very grateful to David for allowing me to teach this class on his blog. I hope that the same openness and care that seem to characterize his ministry can be at work in this class. In other words, I look forward to a gentle, honest exchange of deeply held beliefs about tough matters. I pray that our unity in faith would transcend disagreement, that we would be a true family of sisters and brothers—even if we disagree with each other, we have to stick together!

Logistically speaking, there’s not much to say. I’ll post new ‘lectures’ every Sunday evening for the next 8 weeks, and then we can discuss throughout the week. I’ll close each lecture with some questions to facilitate discussion, but please feel free to ignore them! I’ll also try to put up some bibliographic information for those interested in further reading.

For those of us in the DC area, we’ll be trying to get together for a couple of brunches. Details will be posted ASAP.

A note about me: I am just graduating from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California with a Masters in Divinity. The MDiv degree is pretty broad, but I tried to tie together theological and philosophical ethics with studies in Anabaptist theology. A focus for me in theology and politics is US-Mexico border culture and policy, and I have tried to write on those issues as much as possible. I’m also a musician, and I have played drums for several bands in LA and Austin, Texas (my hometown). I look forward to getting to know you all more in the coming weeks.


1) What is your immediate reaction to the phrase ‘Bible and politics’? Do you think the two should be forever separated? Forever united?

2) Is there any political speech that stands out in your memory for its use of the Bible? Any particular politician?

3) How do you feel about the description of the church as a political institution? Are the church’s ‘politics’ different in any way from other politics?