Elimination Diet for the Bible in Public Life
Can the Bible be used to interpret American public life at all without abusing scripture? Sure, I know that is a loaded question, with the two words “without abusing” the most loaded.
Over the past four years, I’ve written numerous blog posts critical of how supporters of the former administration misused the Bible to advance Christian nationalist claims. The president was hailed as Cyrus the Persian, the non-believing king who liberated real Christians from their captivity under the Obama administration.
The president’s relationships with women were framed as if the president was King David, through whom God did great things, the king’s adultery and murder-order notwithstanding. Christian nationalist presidential advisers constantly defended the president and attacked political opponents as if the former were a savior and the latter were Satan’s minions. Oh, and holding up the Bible for that law-and-order nightmare moment outside a protest-supporting church. No words necessary.
Then we have our current president, who is the most deeply religious president since Jimmy Carter. He is a practicing Catholic, steeped both in Irish-American Catholic culture and in social justice Catholicism, especially for laborers. President Biden represents the political agenda George Packer calls giving everyone “a fair shake.”
When the president spoke to the nation after the bombing at the Kabul airport killed 13 Americans (as well as about 170 others), he said this:
Those who have served through the ages and have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says: “Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?” The American military has been answering for a long time. “Here I am, Lord. Send me. Here I am, send me.” Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice, of volunteering to go into harm’s way to risk everything, not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.
And I ask that you join me now in a moment of silence for all those in uniform and out of uniform, military and civilian, of giving the last full measure of devotion.
Of course, I would expect and I want the president to recognize the loss of life, to honor those who put themselves in harm’s way. (And have you read the stories of those young people? Heartbreaking, every single one. And I’m sure the stories for each of the scores of Afghans killed are heartbreaking, also.) What I did not expect was to hear the president invoke, on the behalf of a military mission, the story of God calling a prophet 2,700 plus years ago to speak to a sinful, unhearing people that they would soon experience destruction.
The president referenced this Isaiah passage because of the call-volunteer-sending pattern, which he saw as analogous to a soldier in a volunteer army being deployed. I can understand the president reaching into a book meaningful to him to frame a difficult moment. But in doing so as the president, he also added to the practice of using scripture to give warrant for whatever elected leaders want to do.
The Bible has been used over time by elected leaders in the U.S. to justify slavery and white supremacy, to take land from the native nations and to attempt genocide, to open the earth for as much fossil fuel as we can extract, to preserve patriarchal hierarchies, to hate Jews and Muslims, to fight wars, to find the nation always righteous and innocent, and to execute wrongdoers.
I understand why some observers want to banish religion from public life.
However, then there are the traditions of Christian support for the abolition of slavery, for universal human dignity triumphing over colorism, for women’s rights, for children and for public education, for the protection of immigrants and laborers, for the sovereignty of indigenous nations, for voting rights, for civil rights, for Black Lives Matter, for LGBTQ+ persons, for waging peace as strategically and fiercely as a nation fights a war. And advocates of all of these stances also appeal to the Bible for warrants.
For supporters of the immediate past administration, the biblical interpretations behind most of the above actions are abuses of scripture. For persons, myself included, who advocate for the actions listed above, the Christian supporters of the prior administration who see the devil in BLM and mask mandates and who see the hand of God ordaining this nation and specific leaders are the ones abusing the Bible.
Here’s a dilemma: I don’t want to banish religion from public life, and I hate the way the Bible is misused in public life. You may feel the same way about how the Bible is used and misused in church! But if public life is a place the Bible will be used, it will be misused, too.
Here is a thought experiment, albeit a scenario that will never happen: what if every elected leader in the nation took a one year fast from referring to the Bible in public life. Where would they go, to what would they refer, for inspiration and reasons for choosing particular actions?
Sometimes practicing an elimination diet is the best way to discover what is nutritious and what causes inflammation.
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.
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