The Bible in Political Debate

What Does it Really Say?

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Frances Flannery, Rodney A. Werline
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , September
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Bible in Political Debate, edited by Frances Flannery and Rodney A. Werline, consists of essays by various authors on topics such as “the Bible and Family Values,” immigration, abortion, climate change, “Work, Poverty, and Welfare,” homosexuality, the divine sanctioning of governments, evolution and creationism, the “Use of the Bible in Colonial Land Claims in North America,” slavery, and the status of women in the Bible and in American culture. The book concludes with two essays entitled “What Is ‘the Bible’?” and “Compromise as a Biblical Value.” Given the relative strength of religious adherence in the United States—in contrast with the greater degree of secularization in Western Europe—the relationship between the Bible and politics remains a lively topic in the US, and this book aims to sort through the issues surrounding politicians, pastors, and lay people when they seek to claim that a particular verse can provide guidance with regard to a controversial political topic. The editors note in their introduction that there have been many books that discuss topics in religion and contemporary politics, but it is somewhat rare for such contributions to come from biblical scholars, those who specialize in studying the ancient texts in their original languages. “This book seeks to address that gap” (9). The contributors are diverse, representing Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and agnostic perspectives. The claim by the editors that the “contributors include both conservatives and liberals” is puzzling to me though, as I did not find conservative perspectives represented in this book with any vigor.

My overall response to The Bible in Political Debate is not highly enthusiastic, for reasons that I will now explain. Some of the topics addressed are very current—climate change, abortion, and homosexuality—but others are historical, such as the Puritans in colonial America thinking of themselves as the new Israelites and of the Native Americans as the new Canaanites. At other points, references are made to statements by presidential candidates in the 2016 election cycle. There is thus a lack of historical focus, and that makes the book’s message a bit muddled. Another issue is that a potential reader of the book may think that they will gain from the book a sense of how particular Bible verses or themes can be appropriately applied to contemporary problems; yet, the message of many of the chapters is that the Bible was written so long ago, and in such a different historical and cultural context, that it does not really have much to say that is of use for us today.

The chapter on slavery illustrates this point well in that it surveys how the defenders of slavery loved to quote the Bible, but then it concludes with “What cannot be stressed enough is to remember that the Bible cannot take a side in moral issues. As a collection of ancient documents of mixed genres, it should not be expected to provide solutions for complex contemporary concerns in a post-Enlightenment world” (152). I find this statement very odd, because the author shows no trace of being aware of the important correspondence between Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller, who were articulating the anti- and pro-slavery arguments before the Civil War and focusing their arguments on the interpretation of the Bible. Wayland argued very forcefully that even though the institution of slavery was not directly rejected in the Bible, there were crucial moral principles asserted in the Bible that were utterly at odds with the institution, and those principles have worked as a kind of moral yeast in history that were inexorable in leading to slavery’s extinction. In historical hindsight, we can see clearly that Fuller’s wooden literalism was a bad model for biblical interpretation, and that Wayland’s insight into the spirit of the scriptures and their dynamic influence on history was a wonderful model that we can and ought to follow today.

The chapter on abortion is also problematic, and for similar reasons. After surveying the relatively small number of biblical verses that seem to have some remote bearing on the topic, the author concludes that the Bible does not have any significant contribution to make to the debate over abortion. It does not seem to occur to the author that there could be moral principles contained in the Bible that are highly relevant to the debate, and that the influence of those principles can be seen in human history. Both sides in the abortion debate—pro-choice and pro-life—have argued that they are in tune with the spirit of the Abolitionists. The opportunity to address those claims in the spirit of Wayland’s arguments was not even close to being apparent on the author’s radar screen. It is also disappointing that the author did not seem to have a working knowledge of the philosophical literature on abortion which has been published over the past sixty years.

The chapter on homosexuality was clearly written from a progressive stance, and it argued that the so-called “clobber verses” in the Bible against homosexual acts should not control the thinking of people of faith today. The book would have been stronger if it had had a response, or parallel chapter, written from a conservative viewpoint. Such a chapter would have not just referred to the “clobber verses,” but also to the idea that there is a yin-and-yang principle of male and female complementarity built into the fabric of the universe, as seen in “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27) and “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Mark 10:6-7). Proof-texting is not helpful, whether it comes from the left or the right; what is needed is a deeper probing of theological anthropology. One finds such deeper probing, from the progressive side, in an author such as James Alison, but not in this book’s chapter on homosexuality.

In sum, I cannot provide a strong recommendation for this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frances Flannery is Director at the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace, and Professor of Religion at James Madison University, USA.

Rodney A. Werline is Professor of Religious Studies, Leman and Marie Barnhill Endowed Chair in Religious Studies, and Director at Barton College Center for Religious Studies at Barton College, USA.


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