Do scripture and stump speeches go together?

Barton College professor tackles biblical principles in politics

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Professor Rodney Werline stands in the Howard Chapel at Barton College on Sept. 22.Werline co-authored a book with Frances Flannery titled "The Bible in Political Debate: What Does It Really Say?"

WILSON — America is dividing itself between Republicans and Democrats as the race toward Election Day continues. But long ago America began dividing itself in another way — those who see America as being a Christian nation with objective truths pitted against those who see America as a force for secularism.Biblical scriptures have etched their way into political speeches and conversations. When a politician tosses out a biblical reference, one has to stop and ask, “What is he or she really saying?” Debates about interpretation of Scripture extend well beyond theological schools and churches and often find plenty of controversy within the public square.”Since politicians vary widely from person to person, I think their reasons for including the Bible also vary widely,” said Dr. Frances Flannery, professor of religion and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace at James Madison University. “Some, no doubt, are ardent believers in the Bible. They are acting out of their faith and thus also their moral conscience, since their religious beliefs shape their ethics.”Flannery and Dr. Rodney Werline, professor of religion and the director of the Center for Religious Studies at Barton College, co-edited the book, “The Bible in Political Debate: What Does it Really Say?” a collection of 14 essays by nonpartisan biblical scholars of many creeds who examine the use of the Bible in political debates, delving into the original historical contexts and meanings of the biblical verses commonly cited. The book lays the political speeches of well-known politicians alongside the Bible.”Others, I’m sure, use the Bible more like a symbol or a prop,” Flannery said. “They may not be devoted to it, and may not have even read it, but they recognize that it will earn them instant support for their policy positions from a certain portion of the electorate. Politicians who often quote the Bible during their political campaign or in office will often find plenty of theologians or experts to take them to task for their interpretations.”Given that our Constitution establishes the separation of religious powers and state powers, this is tricky territory,” Flannery added. “When politicians assume the Bible has a simple, clear answer on any policy issue, they are ignoring two very important things: Different faith backgrounds in the room, even within one faith tradition, lead to different interpretations of the Bible, so the politician’s reading should not be presented as the only one possible, especially as the reading decides policy.”And the Bible rarely speaks directly to contemporary policy issues, and when passages are read in context, their meaning is usually pretty complicated, not simple and straightforward,” Flannery said.While there is a lot of broad agreement on doctrine between Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics and Methodists, those traditions often interpret specific passages of Scripture very differently.In a recent address at Liberty University, Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, a Presbyterian, announced he would read “Two Corinthians, 3:17” which most Christians refer to as “Second Corinthians.”Not all educated Americans have studied the Bible,” said Werline. “Voters should ask themselves, ‘Is the politician using the verse in the correct context? Why does he or she say that? What does that really mean?'”President Barack Obama, a Christian, paraphrased a verse from Leviticus, Chapter 19 in a presidential speech defending his views on immigration.”Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too,” said Obama. “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.””It is a mistake to think the Bible says one thing about a particular topic because it may say several different things … that might conflict with one another,” said Werline.”Certainly, the idea that the Israelites were once strangers in Egypt is central to the self-identity of ancient Israel, and many laws instruct the Israelites to protect the helpless, specifically naming women, children and aliens in the land,” said Flannery.”The problem with using these passages to support immigration reform is that ancient Israel also had ideas about immigration that we would never support in the U.S., such as requiring that immigrants give up their religions, gods and customs and totally assimilate,” she added. When politicians use references from the Bible in political debates and speeches it implores the Bible in a host of controversial social and political issues.”Hector Avalos has written on the topic of immigration for our book, and he is totally opposed to using the Bible in any way to decide policy matters,” said Flannery. “Part of his point is that since the Bible doesn’t speak directly to our present context of illegal immigrants and vetted refugees, the Bible can be interpreted, with some convincing support, as being either ‘For’ or ‘Against’ illegal immigration.”On the one hand, one could conclude that the law of the land must be followed because governments are ordained by God (Romans 13:1-7). On the other hand, one could look at texts like Leviticus 19:33-34 that forbids oppressing aliens to support the protection of immigrants, no matter their status.”Flannery added, “On this issue, as on so many contemporary issues, it seems the Bible can only be applied to a policy debate by picking certain passages and ignoring others.”Released this week, the book discusses issues most Americans debate, such as abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, separation of church and state, climate change, school prayer, and how the Bible is tossed in the mix of discussion.