Bible Reading and Faithful Politics

If you're a deeply religious person seeking guidance as you navigate the political realm, sacred scriptures can be distressingly puzzling. The problem is that (depending on your religion) they were written a long, long time ago, when no one knew about the problems we have to confront in the modern world. The Bible is full of specific instructions for things that most people today don't do (the proper method of ceremonial animal slaughter, for instance), and general instructions that different people apply to particular situations in radically different ways. Jesus says we ought to treat other people as we would have them treat us, but that doesn't really tell you whether net neutrality or an extension of copyright limits is a good idea.

But that doesn't stop people from trying. Today NPR has an interesting story about Christians having a "fierce debate" about which policy moves the Bible actually commands. You'll be shocked to learn that people mostly find scriptural justification for what they'd like to believe anyway. And that's what's so great about scripture: it'll tell you whatever you want. This is hands down my favorite part, featuring the right's favorite "historian," David Barton, whom you may recognize from his writing and speaking on how the Founding Fathers wanted to establish something like a Christian theocracy:

For other religious conservatives, the Bible is a blueprint for robust capitalism. Recently, on his radio program WallBuilders, David Barton and a guest discussed Jesus' parable of the vineyard owner. In it, the owner pays the worker he hires at the end of the day the same wage as he pays the one who begins work in the morning. Many theologians have long interpreted this as God's grace being available right up to the last minute, but Barton sees the parable as a bar to collective bargaining.

"Where were unions in all this? The contract is between an employer and an employee. It's not between a group," Barton said. "He went out and hired individually the guys he wanted to work."

Well obviously. And you know what else isn't mentioned in this parable? Bathroom breaks, that's what. Or power tools. Or rubber-soled shoes. So clearly, workers should not have the opportunity to avail themselves of any of those things either.

When conservatives complain about faith being pushed out of public debate, we should ask exactly what role people like Rick Santorum want faith to have. One of the foundations of debate is that I have to argue in terms you'll accept if I'm to have a chance to persuade you. So if I'm a Muslim and you're a Christian, I can't say we ought to cut agriculture subsidies just because the Quran says so. You don't believe in the Quran, so that reason has no persuasive power for you. Conservative Christians seem to want their own interpretations of vague passages of their particular scriptures to have some kind of persuasive force when discussing policy. But they don't. That doesn't mean they aren't free to try—they can argue all day if they like that, as Richard Land says in the NPR piece, "the Bible tells us that socialism and neosocialism never worked." But if they can't come up with a better justification than "the Bible says so," they won't persuade anybody who doesn't already agree with them.

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