Friday, July 14, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 3.3

And now for the final post of this week's lesson:

3. The Bible in Recent American Politics

In the last posting I mentioned the relationship between Ronald Reagan, the Religious Right, and the rise of biblical language in American politics. This mixture, as we will examine, continues with conservative President George W. Bush, but did not skip the Clinton administration. Indeed, from his famous ‘New Covenant’ speech to his second inaugural speech, Clinton drew heavily from the Bible for both quotes and imagery:

1. DNC Acceptance Speech, 1992: Clinton used the biblical language of the ‘new covenant’ (also used by the Puritans) to describe the government he would lead. He also quoted Proverbs 29:18 (‘without vision, the people perish’) to justify such a large-scale reimagining of the government’s role and purpose.

2. First Inauguration Speech, 1993: At the end of this speech, Clinton quoted Galatians 6:9 (‘and let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not’) to encourage America to work hard for his vision of a new government.

3. Second Inauguration Speech, 1997: Clinton started this speech with reference to America as the ‘promised land’ (also an old Puritan idea), and continued to speak of the ‘new American promise’ throughout. Noting that he had been given a Republican Congress to work with, Clinton decried partisanship and called upon Americans to be ‘repairers of the breach’ (Isaiah 58:12) between the parties.

After Clinton, of course, George W. Bush came to power, relying heavily on the strength of the Religious Right to get him there. In efforts to stay true to his ‘base’—and, presumably, himself—Bush’s speeches are often peppered with biblical language and imagery:

1. First Inaugural Speech, 2001: Bush declares that America will be the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), fueled by private initiative to take care of the poor. ‘And I pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.’

2. June 24, 2002 The President ends a call for new Palestinian leadership with a quote from Deuteronomy 30:19 ("I have set before you life and death; therefore, choose life."). The quote is meant to urge all parties involved towards peace, but quoting from the Jewish Scriptures alone proves divisive.

3. September 11, 2002: On the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Bush pulls from John 1:1-5:

Be confident. Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.

John 1, of course, calls Jesus—not the American ideal of freedom—the light that is not overcome by darkness.

Up until a few week’s ago, Bush’s chief speech-writer was evangelical Christian Michael Gerson. Though Gerson repudiates explicitly Christian language for political speeches, he argues that ‘there is a responsibility for public officials to maintain a principled pluralism that respects the important role of faith, but does not favor any sectarian creed.’ That being said, Gerson names the Sermon on the Mount as a central influence on his and Bush’s thinking, especially in its portrayal of a just God, and in its populous-oriented rhetorical style. But Gerson is cautious to state that policy cannot be gleaned directly from the Bible, but rather that ‘the Gospel stands in judgment of all human institutions and ideologies. It’s not identical with any one of them.’

Since the rhetorical humiliations of the 2000 elections, Democratic politicians have been eager to utilize the religious language that has won conservatives so much support. Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, and other religious figures have been called in as advisors to help the Democrats learn religious speech that is true to their beliefs (disclosure: I work for Sojourners). Clinton notwithstanding, Democrats are traditionally known for their phobia of religious matters. After the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the beginning of the 20th century, and the later rise of the Religious Right, religion has been viewed almost exclusively as the domain of conservatives. But Wallis and others are seeking to spark a ‘progressive’ religious politics that, in their view, is more ‘biblical’ than the politics championed by the Religious Right. At a recent Sojourners conference on faith and politics, both Democrat and Republican politicians mixed the Bible into calls for an end to poverty. But the keynote speakers at two major events were Democrats, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama used their time to pick up Wallis’s progressive religious rhetoric. Clinton limited her biblical quotes to a reference to caring for the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:31-46), but Obama’s speech addressed the use of the Bible at length. Recognizing that the Bible is mainly used in politics by evangelicals with considerably different agendas than his own, Obama sought a nuanced position in which the Bible could be used in a more helpful way. He distanced himself from the conservative position of ‘biblical inerrancy,’ claiming that political realism and cultural pluralism necessitate a more careful, less literal use of the Bible. Chastened though it may be, this vision ensures that the use of the Bible in American politics will only increase in years to come.

For Bush’s speeches.

The Believer: George W. Bush’s Loyal Speechwriter
By Jeffrey Goldberg

The New Yorker, 2/13 and 20/2006
Barack Obama’s recent speech.

Stephen B. Chapman, ‘Imperial Exegesis: When Caesar Interprets Scripture’ in Anxious About Empire, edited by Wes Avram (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004).
Analysis of Bush and Gerson’s use of Scripture.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 3.2

Here's the second section of the lesson on the Bible and Politics in the 20th century. I'll post a final section in the next couple of days on moves in recent politics.

2. Further Divide: The Civil Rights Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right

The next great outpouring of biblical language in American political discourse came in the decades of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The Civil Rights Movement was at the forefront of efforts to engage political structures with a biblical message, but the Religious Right was not far behind. Both movements began at the grassroots as church-based organizations for social change; both also emerged from the grassroots to have significant voices in national and state governments; and both used the bible extensively to make their political points. Nevertheless, each group used the Bible in distinct ways and for distinct ends.

The Civil Rights Movement: MLK and followers

Martin Luther King’s speeches and activities were heavily informed by the Bible. King claimed Matthew 5:47—‘love your enemies’—as the basis of his refusal to use violence, and much of his rhetoric was explicitly pulled from the Bible. For example, the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, draws on Amos 5:24 (‘let justice roll like a river…’) and Isaiah 40:4-5 (‘every valley shall be exalted…’) for its rhetorical punch-lines. Similarly, King’s last speech, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ uses numerous biblical references as it implores preachers to speak out for justice in a time comparable to the Exodus.

The fruits of King’s biblical politics are varied. During his lifetime, he propelled the initial dismantling of segregation laws and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (removing poll taxes that kept poor blacks from voting); he later began to openly protest the Vietnam War. King also opened the door for many religious figures to enter the realm of politics. The most famous of these figures are, of course, Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom staged unsuccessful presidential campaigns. Lesser known, perhaps, are activist John Perkins and Congressman John Lewis. In addition, King’s legacy has fueled a number of theological and church-based political movements. Among these we can count certain streams of black liberation theology, the progressive evangelical movements that started in the early 1970s (e.g., Evangelicals for Social Action and Sojourners), and several denominational justice programs. Like King, many of these followers use highly biblical rhetoric in their political advocacy.

The Religious Right
Although evangelicals and fundamentalists had mostly avoided the American political forum since the Great Reversal of the early 20th century, the conservative Christian political voice exploded onto the scene in the early 1970s. During the preceding decades, a series of legislation had begun to curtail Christian influence in education and politics, and the tide of dissent began to be ride. But it was the decision of Roe vs. Wade in 1973 that galvanized the then-disparate opposition into the movement we know as the Religious Right. Specifically, Jerry Falwell and others organized a grassroots network that eventually wielded enough power to play a significant role in national electoral politics. Falwell’s Moral Majority (founded in 1979) helped stage President Reagan’s first victory, and Reagan responded with speeches that included Christian and biblical language. (For instance, Reagan quoted Isaiah 40:29, 31 to explain God’s blessing on the war on communism.)

Later, Pat Robertson organized the Christian Coalition to help stage his own unsuccessful presidential bids, but also to oppose the influences of the liberal Clinton administration. The Coalition’s vision statement, as stated on their website, begins with a quote from 2 Corinthians 5:17—‘…all things are become new’—to illustrate their renewed quest to ‘defend America’s Godly heritage.’ Former Coalition boss Ralph Reed is currently running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia on a platform that, among other things, advocates for the display of the 10 Commandments at courthouses and other political institutions. For the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and other groups on the Religious Right, biblical language is at right at home in the political discourse of this ‘Christian America.’


1. Take a minute to read Isaiah 40 ( How do you feel about the way King used it? About how Reagan used it?

2. Reflecting on section 1 of this lesson, do you think the different ways the Civil Rights Movement and the Religious Right use the Bible are influenced by the earlier fundamentalist-modernist controversy?


Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. (website of the Christian Coalition) (source for King’s speeches)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 3.1

Since I tend to write a lot (see last week), I've decided to break up the lessons into three or four parts. Today's post represents section one of lesson 3, and the rest of the lesson will come in the next few days.

Few of us, I imagine, would disagree that something changed in the 20th century in the way the Bible was used in American politics. Even in this age of Bush’s ‘evil doers,’ it is probably hard for most of us to imagine a president giving a speech like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which a number of Bible passages were quoted to call out the nation’s sin of slavery. Indeed, whatever has changed in the last 100 years or so is precisely why so many are uncomfortable with President Bush’s religious and moral rhetoric: for some it is not ‘religious’ (or ‘Christian’) enough, for others it is far too religious.
In this lesson we will examine the fate of the Bible in American politics during the 20th century. In effect, we will be looking at the historical conditions that have given rise to the need for a class like this one. On one hand, I hesitate to offer this lesson, because your comments during the past two weeks are perfect evidence of the tensions described herein. But, on the other hand, attention to recent history may help clarify our understandings of one another’s positions. It is with this goal in mind that I offer the following reflections.
This lesson is in a sense a reflection on the split between conservatives and liberals at the beginning of the 20th century. That split ostensibly occurred along theological lines, but it has enormous effects on what each of us perceives to be the relationship between religion and politics, and by extension the use of the Bible in politics. We will examine the split in successive stages, starting with the Social Gospel and evangelical quietism. Then we will look at the emergence of the black church as a political force during the Civil Rights movement, followed by the reemergence of white Christian conservatism as the Religious Right during the 1970s and 80s. Finally, we will look at moves made by recent political figures to adopt biblical language. As always, please feel free to fill in my gaps and correct my errors!

1. The Great Reversal and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy
From 1900-1930, roughly, American Protestant evangelicalism underwent a ‘Great Reversal’ away from its earlier interests in progressive social change. Theological issues were important here, as an increasing interest in personal holiness and the ‘dispensation of the Spirit’ focused attention away from societal structures. But, as historian George Marsden argues, more important than those issues was the growing split between fundamentalists and ‘modernists.’ Originating in disputes over the divinity of Christ and, especially, the authority of the Bible, the ‘fundamentalist-modernist controversy’ soon spilled over into other areas. Because, at the time, social issues were primarily the provenance of theologically liberal Social Gospelers (discussed in last week’s lesson), many fundamentalists began abandoning social and political concern altogether.
For a time, though, theologically conservative Christians continued to exert political influence, but now progressive issues were given up in favor of attempts to defend the fundamentalist view of scriptural authority. Nowhere is this shift seen better than in the debate over Darwinian evolution. For many conservative Christians, evolution represented an affront to biblical doctrines of creation and providence. William Jennings Bryan, the former monopoly breaker and defender of the poor (as discussed in last week’s lesson), now signed on as the fundamentalists’ foremost defender of biblical authority, serving as the prosecutor of a rural-Tennessean school teacher who taught evolution (in the Scopes Trial, 1925). Though Bryan won the case, the defense made a widely-publicized mockery of his and other fundamentalists’ understanding of the Bible, and the intellectual legitimacy of fundamentalists was forever called into question.
Bryan’s fall, alongside other public embarrassments, severely restricted fundamentalist involvement in American public life. For several decades, fundamentalists chose (or were forced into) a quietist path in which they focused on building their own societal network of schools, churches, and businesses. Concern for larger society was regarded as ‘liberal,’ and most fundamentalists stayed away from what we have defined as American politics. Given that their reputation was severely damaged, however, it was highly unlikely that they would have been welcomed into American politics. Indeed, many liberal Christians felt it necessary to distance themselves from fundamentalists to the extent that they dropped explicitly Christian language from their public discourse. For a time at least, the Bible was more or less silent on the political front.

See especially Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture.

Where do you locate yourself on the spectrum between fundamentalism and 'modernism' (or liberalism)? Can you see how your theological heritage has influenced your opinions on the use of the Bible in American politics?