Monday, April 23, 2007

The Bible, Politics, and Pseudoprophecy

I wrote previously that if you accept political speechifying that you agree with in the name of God, then you have to accept it when such phony 'prophecy' is contrary to your own political views. Jonathan Marlowe responded:

However, it would at least be the right kind of discussion to have.

In other words, arguments over faithful biblical interpretation are more interesting and important than the Enlightenment's argument about the separation of faith and politics.

Let's have arguments over what is biblical and what is not - rather than what is political and what is private.


I tend to be generous about the politics of other Christians. That is, I don't think that a person ceases to be a faithful Christian if s/he has political opinions that are liberal or conservative.

Why? Well, in my life I've been all over the political spectrum. There aren't many subjects that I haven't changed my mind on over the years. And because I've had a lot of political movement in my own views, I don't think that I have reached my final position on what is a correct understanding of public policy. Nor am I inclined to think that someone is necessarily evil because they hold political views other than my own. If I did, I'd have to condemn myself. For example, I once supported campaign finance reform (e.g. McCain-Feingold). Eventually I came to my senses, but I don't think that I was wicked or damned to Hell because I once thought that McCain-Feingold was a pretty good idea. People can disagree on political issues and still be faithful believers in Christ.

I say this because although the Bible has an enormous amount of information about who God is, and a lot to say on ethics, it has virtually nothing to say on public policy. Nor, I would add, does it have much to say on auto mechanics, but that doesn't make it a diminished book. The Bible, contrary to the fantasies of Jim Winkler, doesn't say which Senate Resolutions should be passed and which should be voted down. God left it up to us how to govern our nation and replace our motor mounts.

So it is completely appropriate for Christians to espouse a wide variety of public policy positions. But it is inappropriate for Christians to say "God wants us to support this bill to ban gay marriage/confiscate handguns/mandate prayer in schools/fund Social Security." It's inappropriate because the Bible never says these things.

And therefore it is wholly improper for the institutional Church to state that one position on a public policy issue is the only legitimate view for Christians to hold, or for pastors to give political speeches from the pulpit, as though they were reading the Word of God. Let individual Christians express any political view that they wish, but let them not claim that they have the same authority as the actual prophets of the Bible, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah.

UPDATE: Henry Neufeld has an excellent response to this post. Go read it.

13 comments:

Jonathan said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure whether you quoted me in order to agree or disagree with me.

As for the Bible and guns, Asbury professor Ben Witherington certainly sees a strong connection.

Could we agree on this? If it's Biblical, let's preach it. If it's not Biblical, let's not preach it. Agreed?

John said...

Witherington's thesis is hard to connect because it rambles from subject to subject. It's hard to say what he's saying. At first, he makes a Biblical argument against violence. Then he says that guns are okay, but only in the hands of the state (Witherington, apparently, has never studied history). Then he says that he means only specific guns "automatic weapons" -- which are already illegal anyway. Huh? What exactly does BW3 want enacted, and where is its Biblical support found?

Yes, I'll agree that if it's Biblical, we should preach it.

I quoted you not in order to disagree or agree with you, but to introduce a topic that I've been thinking about for a while.

Dan Trabue said...

"I say this because although the Bible has an enormous amount of information about who God is, and a lot to say on ethics, it has virtually nothing to say on public policy."

Don't you think that much of what was done in Israel's policy-making covered in the OT would at least shed some light on public policy-making? They had policies in place for dealing with crime and punishment, for dealing with disagreements, for dealing with the poor, marginalized and foreigner, to deal with those who'd acquire wealth unjustly...etc.

Wouldn't you think?

John said...

I think very little, Dan, unless we wish to also import Israel's other public policies, such as exterminating the (remaining) Native Americans and slaughtering homosexuals and Wiccans. Also, we would also have to have kings instead of a republic, a ban all faiths except Christianity.

Dan, if we take the Bible as a public policy document sanctioned by God for modern America, then we can't pick and choose which policies we would like to keep and which would turn us into a bloodthirsty tyranny.

Dan Trabue said...

I'm not suggesting we take OT policy and make it ours. I am saying

1. That public policy IS discussed quite a bit, at least in the OT
2. That what policies Christians advocate for can be informed by info found in the OT.

For instance, we can see - throughout the bible and especially in the OT where Israel was setting policy - concern for the poor and marginalized and the notion that it's acceptable to set policy to address that.

Now the policies that they used to address it (including leaving some portion of crops in the field, returning land to original owners on a regular basis, etc) don't necessarily fit well with modern realities.

But we can see clearly that there is no biblical problem with creating policy to deal with it. So, when many Christians say that we shouldn't try to have gov't solutions for poverty related problems, well, there's just not a biblical precedent for that.

That's my point.

John said...

It is true that the OT speaks at length about the importance of caring for the poor. But it speaks even more against idolatry. So if we take amount of text to be the value of an OT text for modern American policy making, then illegalizing non-Christian religions should be a top priority.

Again, if we take the Bible as a public policy document, or one that informs nation-states on public policy, then we can't pick and choose which OT policies we would like to import. We would have to take the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Too often Methodist agencies reason from politics of the day to the Gospel when they should be reasoning from the Gospel to the politics of the day.

Rights, reason, liberty its all there in the bible. The US and other nations come as no surpise to GOD.

I thought the Enlightment was about faith and reason, not separation.

Dan Trabue said...

"Again, if we take the Bible as a public policy document, or one that informs nation-states on public policy, then we can't pick and choose which OT policies we would like to import."

Why not? Why can't we - shouldn't we - take what values we find in the Bible and that we find applicable to our setting and use our voice to advocate for them reasonably?

We wouldn't do this for laws condemning idolatry because we are not a theocracy - it doesn't make sense to do so in our context. But why wouldn't we find concern for the poor - which goes beyond merely religious reasoning - and advocate for responsible policies to deal with those concerns?

I'm definitely not talking about implementing religous systems - God forbid!! - but rather secular policies which we might find our Christian faith informs us of.

I mean, I'm sure you're not opposed to laws against murder even though murder is a wrong that we find mentioned in the OT. Right?

I'm not sure where you're drawing your line here.

What I'm saying is that there are some policies that we may have an opinion about because of what the Bible says that are secular or a-religious in nature. We ALL agree that murder is wrong. Most of us agree that we ought to look out for the least of these - even atheists and secularists - or, if not look out for the least of these out of compassion, that we ought to do so out of self-interest.

We CAN be informed about what Israel did and didn't try to implement and apply some of the same reasoning to our problems - if not the same exact solutions - without insisting on implementing the whole of OT law. Why in the world couldn't we?

John said...

Dan wrote:

Why not? Why can't we - shouldn't we - take what values we find in the Bible and that we find applicable to our setting and use our voice to advocate for them reasonably?

Because the OT law isn't divided into 'required' and 'optional' sections.

We wouldn't do this for laws condemning idolatry because we are not a theocracy - it doesn't make sense to do so in our context. But why wouldn't we find concern for the poor - which goes beyond merely religious reasoning - and advocate for responsible policies to deal with those concerns?

If you're saying (my paraphrase) "The Bible teaches that society should care for the poor, so the American national government should do likewise", then that's a theocracy. And if you're saying that care for the poor goes beyond the Biblical text to basic reasoning, then you're not taking the whole of Biblical teaching and deriving public policy from it; you're predetermining public policy positions and proof-texting support from the Bible, while ignoring passages that directly refute your own public policies.

I'm definitely not talking about implementing religous systems - God forbid!! - but rather secular policies which we might find our Christian faith informs us of.

Again, if you're saying that the American national government should adopt certain policies because they are Biblical teaching, then you're saying that we should implement a religious government.

I mean, I'm sure you're not opposed to laws against murder even though murder is a wrong that we find mentioned in the OT. Right?

No, I think that murder should be illegal because it is conconsesual violence, not because of what the Bible says. I also think that homosexual conduct and bowing before idols is wrong. But I don't think that they should be illegal. God condemns all of these things roundly and repeatedly, especially idolatry and worshipping false gods. And if we're going to have (God forbid) a Biblical government, then we must ban all of these practices, just as we must also care for the poor.

I'm not sure where you're drawing your line here.

I'm not drawing any line at all. That's the problem -- there is no line in the Bible between required and OT optional laws. Your position requires that there be such a line.

What I'm saying is that there are some policies that we may have an opinion about because of what the Bible says that are secular or a-religious in nature. We ALL agree that murder is wrong. Most of us agree that we ought to look out for the least of these - even atheists and secularists - or, if not look out for the least of these out of compassion, that we ought to do so out of self-interest.

If this is so from a Biblical perspective, then why did not ancient Israel permit a general freedom of religion?

We CAN be informed about what Israel did and didn't try to implement and apply some of the same reasoning to our problems - if not the same exact solutions - without insisting on implementing the whole of OT law. Why in the world couldn't we?

We can be informed by a lot of things, including Christian teaching and world history. But you're not advocating implementing OT laws against idolatry in a different way. It sounds like you're thinking about throwing them out entirely.

If you're going to say that America must implement certain policies because the Bible says so, then you also must implement the policies that you don't like because the Bible says so.

Dan Trabue said...

"If you're going to say that America must implement certain policies because the Bible says so, then you also must implement the policies that you don't like because the Bible says so."

Read what I've said again. I'm NOT NOT NOT saying that we should implement policies because the Bible says so.

I'm saying that each of us if ethically informed from one source or another. Christians are ethically informed from, amongst other places, the Bible. We can, do and should take that in consideration when we form opinions, being people of the Bible and all.

This is not the same thing as saying that we ought to implement OT rules en toto.

An atheist might be informed by, let's say, Aesop's fables, where he learned many truths about hard work and honesty. This atheist might vote for policies in support of honesty and against cheating and he may well be influenced by Aesops fables.

But he wouldn't try to implement rules verbatim that were found in Aesop, I wouldn't think.

That's all I'm saying here.

And we can and ARE influenced by parts of the Bible, and that may contribute to the whole of our ethical reasoning which we may use to implement policy.

That's not the same as saying I want to implement OT laws.

John also said:
If you're saying... "The Bible teaches that society should care for the poor, so the American national government should do likewise", then that's a theocracy.

No. It's not. Not if that's what our representatives voted on because that's what the people wanted. Having said that, I'd suggest that any representatives that gave that as a sole reason for voting for a policy, that said politician would be wrongheaded to have said so.

The truth is that many people - Christians and not - gather some moral truths from the Bible, and from Aesop, and from the Iroquois nation, and from CS Lewis and Ayn Rand and that we make our votes for policies based upon our ethical treatises that we've read along with the facts at hand and personal experience.

There's nothing wrong with being ethically informed from many sources including the Bible and there's nothing wrong with not accepting every teaching in those various sources and just taking bits and pieces of what makes sense to us.

Isn't this just the way we mature and make decisions ethically?

John said...

Okay, Dan, I think that I see what you're saying here -- that the Bible is a source of ethical teaching, among others, that necessarily informs our perspectives on public policy because such sources have that impact on us.

An atheist might be informed by, let's say, Aesop's fables, where he learned many truths about hard work and honesty. This atheist might vote for policies in support of honesty and against cheating and he may well be influenced by Aesops fables.

Well, possibly. For a lot of people, yes, this is the way. But here is where my libertarian politics uncouples from my conservative morality. Conservativism and liberalism (nebulous terms as they are) have both moral and political dimensions, but libertarianism has only a political dimension.

So although my conservative morality has certain propositions about sexual ethics and idolatry, it comes to a complete stop when it's time to formulate public policy. I would not favor prohibitory laws because of morality, but on the principle of non-consensual harm.

I think that as a Christian believer I have certain moral obligations. But I do not think that I have a political right to force other people to live according to them. In Ben Witherington's piece (which Jonathan linked to), Witherington argues that Christians shouldn't own guns, so therefore the American national government should forbid people from owning guns. Huh? It's an enormous leap to suggest that Christian morality should not only be followed by Christians, but forced onto non-Christians.

Dan Trabue said...

Agreed. But if I, for instance, have concern for the poor and make the case to my fellow citizens that, aside from any biblical compunction to care for the least of these it is only fiscally responsible to aid the poor (so that they don't become a greater expense down the road - in jail or on drugs, for instance) and the majority of our fellow citizens agree that, for many reasons - moral, fiscal and otherwise - that we ought to assist the poor, then that is how our system ought to work.

I'm sure you agree with this. I apologize if it appeared I was talking about "forcing" my religious beliefs off on others via the gov't. That was not the intent of my argument.

John Meunier said...

Interesting discussion.

John, I'm curious about your position on IRD given your take on the separation of church and pubilc policy - something I largely agree with but for the reasons Willimon and Hauerwas argued more than a lack of public policy talk in the Bible.

I was reading the interesting report about the "Queering the Church" meeting at Boston on Dale Tedder's blog when I went to go learn more about IRD.

That organization is explicit in its attempt to connect faith and public policy. As it says in its purpose statement.