Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Rudy Giuliani shares a tweet from a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center. Notice how Giuliani uses Jenna Ellis’s tweet of Psalm 27 to make a political statement. When he says “we all matter” I think we all know the message he is sending in the midst of our post-George Floyd moment. In a follow-up tweet, Ellis gives Giuliani an “Amen.”

As the coronavirus cases spike, Ellis retweets an anti-masker attacking California senator Kamala Harris:

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not understand history. It’s tweet today seems like a defense of Confederate monuments. I am guessing Russell Kirk is taken out of context here. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, history is always created from a dialogue the between past and the present. Sometimes the past is useful in the present. Sometimes the past is a “foreign country.” Ironically, the Falkirk Center and the rest of the Christian Right activists who talk about the past, have mastered the kind of cherry-picking Kirk may be warning against here.

What is the relationship between the following tweet and Jenna Ellis’s anti-mask retweet above? It seems that “rights” are a form of self-fulfillment, while concern for others is a form of self-denial. John MacArthur’s lesson might be useful for evangelicals as they think about masks and the spread of COVID-19.

Florida is seeing record numbers of coronavirus cases. Paula White is opening her church:

Wow: This is an amazing tweet from Trump’s #1 court evangelical:

Tony Perkins is hosting a video conference called “Arise and Stand.” You can watch it here.

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

Vice President Pence stood firm in the face of the media mob this Sunday, as well as the mob in the streets, by refusing to repeat the divisive slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” He was pressed to do so during an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Of course Black Lives Matter, as do Asian lives, Hispanic lives and Caucasian lives. That’s the truth. And it’s also a central Christian principle that the color of our skin is the least unique thing about us. What makes us special is that we are made in the image of God, and the vice president strongly believes that. 

Read the rest here.

I’ve said this before, this pivot toward “all lives matter” is simply a way for those on the Christian Right to avoid tough conversations on race in America following the killing of George Floyd. When Pence refused to say “Black Lives Matter” on television he was sending a message to the Trump base.

all lives matter cartoon

It’s all about the Supreme Court justices for Ralph Reed.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran have a nice response to Reed’s way of political thinking:

When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resources families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marion icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

Read the entire piece here.

Ralph Reed, perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Right, is responsible for what Hauerwas and Tran call a “failure of political imagination” among evangelicals.

According to Robert Jeffress, the “eventual collapse of our country” is now certain:

And last but not least, David Barton is on the Eric Metaxas Show today. When activists indiscriminately topple and deface monuments, it just provides ammunition and fodder for Barton’s Christian Right view of the past.

Barton defends a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a white supremacist who helped found the KKK. He seems to think that such a statue is essential to his ability to teach history. This comment even makes Metaxas squirm: “I think we all would agree that lines can be drawn, we don’t have a statue to Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, Metaxas’s obsession with Godwin’s Law serves a useful purpose.

When Metaxas says that debate over monuments is “complicated,” he reminds me of something I wrote at the end of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:

In 2010 the political commentator Glenn Beck devoted an entire television program to a discussion of George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century evangelical revivalist and the precipitator of the event known as the First Great Awakening. Near the end of the show, Beck’s conversation with his guests–two early American religious historians–turned to the topic of slavery. Beck wondered how Whitefield could inspire anti-slavery advocates in England such as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” while at the same time owning slaves. Befuddled by this paradox, and clearly at a loss for words, Beck turned to the camera and said, “Sometimes history is a little complex.”

Barton peddles an unbelievably dumb theory about the origins of slavery and race in America. He says “out of Jamestown” came “slavery and intolerance and classism and racism.” But out of Plymouth came “liberty and freedom and constitutional government, bills of rights, etc.” His source is an uncritical use of an 1888 wall map showing these “two strands of history, one bad and one good.”

Apparently, Barton has never studied New England’s Native American history or the intolerance the Puritans showed to the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. But wait, it gets better. Barton says that “both of those groups were Christian, but Jamestown was not biblical. They [just] professed Christianity. That’s much of what we see in America today. 72% of the nation professes Christianity, only six percent have a biblical world view.” Slavery started in Jamestown, Barton argues, because the settlers didn’t “know the Bible.” This is interesting, since during the early 19th-century Virginians used the Bible to justify slavery. I guess they were more biblically literate by that time. 🙂

Barton seems to suggest that New England did not have slaves. Wrong again. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of Barton’s heroes, a man who Barton would probably say had a “Christian world view,” owned slaves. Granted, New England did not have a slave-based economy, but slavery was not illegal prior to the American Revolution. If you want to learn more, see Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. and Joanne Pope Melishs’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Barton goes on to say that today “we look at past generations through today’s filter and today’s lens and you really can’t do that.” This is rich coming from a guy who has built his entire career around cherry-picking from the founding fathers and then applying such cherry-picked passages to contemporary Christian Right politics. (See my comments about the Falkirk Center’s tweet about Russell Kirk).

He then uses this argument to reject systemic and institutional racism. Here is Barton:

So all the notion that America is institutionally racist–you gotta see what the atmosphere was like in that day–we were leading the world in the right direction that day. Now we can look back where we are today and say we weren’t perfect…but we’re not the racist nation everyone is trying to make us out to be. When you know history, you see that all clearly.

Barton speaks as if the Civil War–a war over slavery in which 700,000 people died–never happened. Is this “leading the world in the right direction?” Heck, he sounds as if slavery never existed in the United States. He dismisses four hundred years of slavery and racism by saying, “yeah, we weren’t perfect.” Barton is not a historian. He only cares about the parts of the past that advance his political agenda. Read this recent post to see the depths of racism in the evangelical church or grab a copy of Believe Me.

And finally, Metaxas praises Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a great moment of national unity. He says that Lincoln showed “graciousness” toward his enemy. He said that because of this graciousness, Lincoln and Grant allowed the Confederate monuments to stand. Barton says that Lincoln’s “zealous” Christian faith is why he tried to reconcile with the South after the war. He says that Lincoln took seriously Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 about “reconciliation.”

There are so many problems with this part of the interview that it is hard to know where to start.

  1. Lincoln did want to the bring the Union back together and he tried to use his Second Inaugural Address to do it. But let’s remember that this address was delivered after victory in the war was all but secured. The Union won. Whatever reunion needed to take place, Lincoln believed, must happen on his terms. The idea that he would allow Confederates to continue to celebrate their slave-holding “heritage” with the erection of monuments does not make sense.
  2. Metaxas seems to think that these Confederate monuments were erected during the days of Lincoln. Most of them were built in the early 20th-century as a way of defending the Confederate’s “Lost Cause”–a commitment to white supremacy. Lincoln had nothing to do with them.
  3. Lincoln was not a Christian. Nearly all Lincoln scholarship is clear about this.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5 has nothing to do with the Civil War or nationalism.
  5. But most disturbing is the fact that Barton and Metaxas seem to be endorsing a white romanticized idea of reunion and reconciliation that left out African Americans. The best book on this subject continues to be David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Until next time.

American Bible Society names its next president

Bible Cause Cover

Bob Briggs is the new president and CEO of the American Bible Society. Briggs is a good guy. While I was working on my book on The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I interviewed him at a Barnes & Nobles outside of Philadelphia. He was very helpful and was one of a few ABS leaders who seemed supportive of the way I was telling the story. I don’t know what he thought about the finished product, but I got the sense that he did not look upon my work with suspicion. I look forward to seeing where he takes the Society.

Here is the press release:

PHILADELPHIA, June 23, 2020: American Bible Society, one of the nation’s most enduring nonprofit organizations, announced today that Robert L. Briggs has been appointed as president and CEO of the 204-year-old Bible ministry. Briggs, who served most recently as interim president and CEO following the retirement of Roy L. Peterson has served at American Bible Society through various leadership roles for nearly 20 years.

“Robert’s time at American Bible Society has been marked by a deep love of Scripture and a passionate commitment to global Bible ministry,” said American Bible Society Chairman of the Board Jeff Brown. “Not only does he bring a wealth of experience and knowledge of the organization to the role of president, but he also has the ardor, hard-earned wisdom and grace to truly make a difference in the lives of thousands of people as he leads American Bible Society’s ministries in trauma healing, Bible translation, and Bible engagement.” 

Briggs steps into his role as president with a rich history in the transformative ministry of Bible access. Briggs has served American Bible Society in a variety of leadership roles, including senior vice president of U.S. Ministry and vice president of advancement. Prior to that, he led the Global Ministry team and served internationally as a member of the Global Council of United Bible Societies, chairing the nominations committee. He is a founding member of the steering committee for Every Tribe Every Nation, an alliance which brings together the largest Bible agencies in the world that are working to ensure that 100 percent of the world’s population have access to Scripture.

Briggs

Bob Briggs

“I am deeply humbled that the Board of Directors of American Bible Society has trusted me to step into this role. My commitment runs deep to serve those who hunger for the truth and healing that God delivers through the words of Scripture,” says Briggs. “Particularly in this moment in our history, a moment of anguish and pain for so many, the authentic message from the God of the Bible offers the hope and healing we all yearn to experience. May God help us in these days.”

American Bible Society is headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was founded by many of the same leaders who founded the United States, including Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress, and John Jay, first chief justice of the United States Today, the organization is living out its mission to see all people experience the life-changing message of God’s Word through a variety of programs, including global Bible translation and distribution, Scripture provision to armed service members, Bible-based Trauma Healing and the launch of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

Drawing on decades of experience, Briggs steps into the role of CEO at a time when the message of the Gospel has never been more urgent, but Bible engagement is on the decline. American Bible Society believes in the transformative power of the Scriptures to heal oppression and discouragement and bring justice and restoration. At this critical moment in our nation’s history, the need for the Bible is paramount. American Bible Society seeks to continue its legacy of innovation and ensure all have access to the Bible in a format they can understand and afford so that all people can experience its life changing message. 

Briggs and his wife Susan live in Philadelphia. They have five adult children and six grandchildren. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and prior to joining American Bible Society, he held leadership roles with the American Diabetes Association and co-founded Cityhill, a Christian publishing company.

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

COurt Evangelicals

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since yesterday’s update?

Franklin Graham is on the stump for Trump. This is from his Facebook page :

In the last presidential election in 2016, I reminded people across the country that the election was not about Donald Trump’s previous lifestyle or Hillary Clinton’s lost emails, but it was about the courts—Who do you trust to appoint conservative judges to the courts? Donald J. Trump won the election, and in the next few days he will be making his 200th judicial appointment. That’s more than any president in the last four decades during the same time frame. Thank you Mr. President! This will be a legacy that truly will keep on giving—in the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

And Twitter:

Al Mohler is questioning science and COVID-19 experts and promoting a Trumpian populism:

Charlie Kirk is running a “Students for Trump” convention in Arizona featuring Donald Trump.

A few observations:

  • In the opening prayer of this convention, the minister thanked God that “All Lives Matter.” The prayer was filled with Christian nationalism, law and order, and Trump talking points. The crowd cheered during the prayer at the appropriate points.
  • Ryan Fournier, the founder of Students for Trump, calls the event “the most aggressive political outreach movement in political presidential campaign history.” Wow!  That’s specific.
  • Florida Matt Gaetz spoke. So did Donald Trump Jr.
  • Trump said nothing new to the 2000 students who showed-up. It was just another campaign rally.

Eric Metaxas interviews one of his “mentors in terms of thinking of race in America,” conservative talk show host Larry Elder. Elder talks about his new documentary film “Uncle Tom.” Elder makes the common claim that the Democrats opposed the 13th Amendment (ending slavery), 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law for African.Americans), and 15th Amendment (African American right to vote). This is largely true, but he fails to consider that the Democratic Party of the 1860s and 1870s is not the Democratic Party of today. See Princeton historian Kevin Kruse’s debate (if you can all it that) with conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. This entire argument ignores a fundamental element of historical thinking: change over time. Metaxas totally endorses Elder’s approach, claiming that Americans “don’t know the facts.” Elder and Metaxas are peddling some really bad history here.

Elder claims that racism “is no longer a problem” in American life. This reminds me of a family member who recently told me that I was “living in the past” by suggesting that the history of racial discrimination in America might have something to do with race in America today.

In his second hour, Metaxas and his crew argue that the division in the country is the work of Satan, “the accuser.” Metaxas has the audacity to say that Satan “takes things that are true and twists them into a lie.” Wait, I thought Metaxas supported Trump! 🙂

Metaxas wants a view of history that celebrates all that is good in America. He extols all the Bible-believing Christians who were abolitionists. Yes, this is true. There were many good Christians who fought against slavery. But the present always shapes how we think about the past. As the country is trying to come to grips with racism–both individual acts of racism and the deeper problem of systemic racism–now is the time to take a deep, hard look at how we got here. That will mean taking a hard look at the dark moments of the white evangelical past. This is not the time to get defensive and engage in whataboutism. (Hey, what about Harriet Beecher Stowe!).

Metaxas then interviews Jenna Ellis of the Liberty University Falkirk Center.  In this interview, Metaxas says that “the only reason we abolished slavery is because of the Bible.” This is not entirely true, as I argued in Believe Me.  Slaveholding southerners actually used the Bible to justify slavery and accused northern abolitionists of not being biblical enough. As multiple historians have shown, the Bible was used to fortify racial discrimination to a much greater extent than the Bible was used to end slavery or advance racial justice in America. But Metaxas doesn’t care about that. He needs a usable past. Everything else can be conveniently ignored.

Speaking of the Falkirk Center at Liberty University:

And Lance Wallnau brings the fearmongering:

Until next time.

Some Thoughts on the American Bible Society’s Response to Trump’s St. John’s Church Photo-Op

Trump St. Johns

When Trump went to St. John’s Church on Monday he held-up a Bible. He did not read it. He did not even open it. We still don’t know exactly why he did this, but we have some pretty good ideas. My view is that Trump was holding up the Bible for political reasons. He wanted to show that God endorsed the message he had just delivered about “law and order” in the White House Rose Garden. He believed that such a public display would fire-up his base–a group of white evangelicals who get very, very excited whenever the president gets close to a Bible. Why do they get so excited? This is a story I unpacked extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

I cannot think of a time in American history when a United States president brandished a Bible in this way. Most American presidents have gone to church. Most American presidents have, at one point or another, cited the Bible. And many American presidents have used Christianity for political purposes.

But Trump waved the Bible as a kind of talisman–a material object waved as a symbol of spiritual and political (the two are often inseparable in the minds of many white evangelicals) power. The words of the scriptures were not important. They never have been to Donald Trump:

Trump and BIble

I don’t think Trump really believes that the Bible has any spiritual power in the way that his evangelical base believes that it does. (Think about it–have you ever seen Trump reading from a Bible?) But he does believe the Bible, as a material object, is a book enchanted with magic political powers. On Monday he used this magical book as a prop in a public performance of Christian nationalism. (On Bible “performances” see Seth Perry’s excellent book Bible Culture & Authority in the Early United States).

And now on to the American Bible Society.

Whitney Kuniholm, senior vice-president of the American Bible Society in Philadelphia, has issued an official statement about Donald Trump’s use of the Bible during his St. John’s Church photo-op. Here is Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today:

In this time of pandemic fear and social isolation, in this time of racial injustice and senseless violence, in this time of economic uncertainty and generational pain, we should be careful not to use the Bible as a political symbol, one more prop in a noisy news cycle,” said Whitney T. Kuniholm, senior vice president of the American Bible Society.

“Because, more than ever, we need to hear what’s true. ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (Amos 5:24 NIV). ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…’ (Ps. 23:4 KJV).”

What should we make of this statement?

First, it is worth noting that the American Bible Society would never have made such a statement prior to the 1990s. Until recently, the Society did not interpret the Bible. (More on this below). If Christians couldn’t decide whether the Bible should be employed to promote social justice or uphold law and order, the American Bible Society stayed out of the debate. The Society did not even take a stand against slavery in the Civil War. Southern slaveholders needed Bibles too. It also tried to rise above the sticky doctrinal

Bible Cause Cover

Society publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effect the book had on sinners and potential converts. These publications are filled with stories of Bibles that would not burn when unbelievers tried to destroy them by fire and Civil War soldiers who claimed that a pocket Bible stopped enemy bullets. Even if the Bible was never read or opened, it was enchanted and could thus serve a divine purpose.

If Trump’s stunt at St. John’s Church occurred in the 19th-century, I have no doubt that the Society’s magazine would print testimonial letters written to the “Bible House” in New York City by people who had a spiritual experience from witnessing the Bible brandished by such an important person in such an important setting. Again, the agents of the America Bible Society got the book in the hands of the right people and then simply let the Bible do its work. The correspondence proved it.

Second, it is worth noting that the Society’s statement about Trump’s visit to St. John’s church suggests that the Bible should not be used as a “political symbol.” On one level, Whitney Kuniholm’s statement is consistent with the history of the organization. The American Bible Society has never endorsed any political candidates or entered into specific political debates.

But on another level, the American Bible Society has always championed the kind of Christian nationalism that Trump displayed at St. John’s Church. To be fair, the Society never saw the promotion of Christian nationalism as a “political issue.” The claim that America was a Christian nation in need of the word of God was an uncontested one for much of the Society’s history.

Here is more from The Bible Cause:

The ABS never let its constituency forget that it was the American Bible Society. The Society never operated from the fringes of American life. While it has been willing to work with any Christian body interested in promoting the Bible, the ABS has always gravitated toward the particular expression of Christianity that its board and staff believed to be the moral guardians of America’s status as a Christian nation. This was rather easy in the nineteenth century, a time when evangelical religion held cultural power. But in the twentieth century, particularly after the Fundamentalst-Modernist controversies of the 1920s, this required more of a conscious decision. As we will see, for most of the twentieth the ABS made its peace with the Ecumenical Movement as embodied  in the National Council of Churches, but with American presidents, businessmen, and celebrities who were associated with these historic denominations. Since the 1990s, as the power of mainline Protestantism to shape the culture waned, the ABS cast its lot again with evangelicalism.

The evangelicals who cheered Trump’s use of the Bible at St. John’s Church believe that he was doing his part to bring the sacred text to the heart of American political and cultural life. He was not only proclaiming the divine authority of the Bible, but he was also affirming the idea that the United States is a Christian nation. By merely displaying the unopened Bible before the cameras, Trump was telling the world that the nation’s most cherished values–in this case law and order–stem from this book. The ABS–for good or for bad–has always embraced a similar view and they have struggled in recent decades to adapt such a view to a more diverse and pluralistic society.

Third, if recent history is any indication, the American Bible Society should actually celebrate, not condemn, Trump’s use of the Bible. Let me explain.

For much of its history, the American Bible Society measured success in terms of how many Bibles it was able to send around the world. Insiders called this the “tonnage” approach to Bible work. One of the criticisms of the tonnage approach was that it was impossible to gauge the spiritual impact of the scriptures on people’s lives apart from the anecdotes and stories told through the correspondence of colporteurs, agents, and constituents. It was one thing to spend millions of dollars producing and distributing Bibles, Testaments, and scripture portions, and quite another thing to know if those scriptures were simply placed on a shelf, treated like a family talisman, or actually read. While the Society had always accepted this as a valid critique of its organization, there was never any serious attempt to try to respond to it apart from something akin to the mantra “let the Bible do its work.” Ship Bibles and let God do the rest.

This all began to change when the American Bible Society moved from a mainline Protestant organization to an evangelical one. I wrote about this shift, which occurred in the 1990s, in the final chapter of my book The Bible Cause, but I also published a shorter version of the story here. Under the leadership of President and CEO Eugene Habecker, the Society stopped measuring success by tonnage and started measuring success through something that was eventually called “scripture engagement.” (As noted above, they also did away with the “no note or comment” policy).

Today, scripture engagement is at the center of the Society’s mission. The end goal of scripture engagement is to expose people to the Bible in the hope that they will pick-it up, read it, be transformed by its life-changing message, and then work to restore the Christian fabric of American culture that has been ripped apart by the forces of secularization. The first step is exposure. Though ideally, a full engagement with the Bible would require a person to actually open-it-up and read the text, a simple encounter with the closed book, whether on a television show or through museum glass at a place like the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., could get the ball rolling. (I wrote about this in the context of the Museum of the Bible in a chapter of this book). The advocates of scripture engagement are confident that “the Bible will do its work.” This idea of scripture engagement is at the heart of the Society’s new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which will open soon on the Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

So needless to say, it surprised me that the American Bible Society came out so strongly against Trump’s photo-op. Why aren’t they pleased that Trump has the entire nation talking about the Bible? The Society could not have asked for a better “scripture engagement” moment. In fact, Christianity Today is reporting that the Society is taking the opportunity to give away free Bibles.

When Trump stood before St. John’s Church’s and lifted a copy of the Bible, he was proclaiming that the law and order of the United States was based on the Old and New Testament scriptures and that he would be God’s agent to advance such a view of American life. Millions of people around the world were “engaged” with the Bible on Monday. The folks at American Bible Society may not like Trump’s style, but they have been endorsing this kind of thing since 1816.

Is the United States of America in the Bible?

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Short answer: NO.

Bible scholar Pete Enns explains:

America is not in the Bible.

In no way, shape, or form.

Not a hint. Not a whiff.

America is not in the Bible, not even here:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

This verse gets cited a lot in American politics. But “my people” refers to the people of Judah, the survivors of the 6th century BCE Babylonian Exile, who have returned to their homeland and are humbly seeking God to rejuvenate their kingdom.

This passage has nothing to do with America or any political entity other than the ancient theocracy of Judah.

It is not proof of God’s stamp of approval on our political actions, no matter how many speeches end with “God bless the United States of America.”

It cannot leap over the millennia and simply be mapped onto American democracy.

It is not a blueprint for how to ensure that God will “Make America Great Again.”

It is not justification for privileged Evangelicals to impose their moral vision through political means.

It is not an invitation to perpetuate tribal thinking and see ourselves as closer to God than, say, Canada or Mexico.

If anyone wants to bring this passage into the present, let it be on the level of their own lives and the life of their church (if I may restrict my comments to the Christian tradition).

See this passage as a call for followers of Jesus and public Christian leaders to be humble, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from their wicked ways. Let it be, in other words, a call to inner spiritual transformation.

When that inner work is taken to heart, it will be hard indeed to see how anyone could ever countenance thinking that the Infinite Creator of the infinite cosmos could be pinning the divine hope on one small landmass in the western hemisphere that decides to write itself into an ancient Jewish story.

Read the rest here.

Thinking Critically About the Museum of the Bible

RNS-BIBLE-MUSEUM i

Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron talks with Jill Hicks-Keeton, co-editor (with Cavan Concannon) of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction.  Full disclosure:  I have an essay in this book titled “Letting the Bible Do Its Work on Behalf of Christian America: The Founding Era at the Museum of the Bible.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Why does this museum demand so much attention?

Part of the reason is the money invested in it. It’s in a very public place, near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One might even think, mistakenly, that it’s a Smithsonian. This museum is poised to have some influence on the way that the public understands the Bible. Our job as educators in the field of biblical studies is to use the museum as an opportunity to teach a wider public about the academic study of the Bible and its history.

What are some of the major criticisms of the scholars?Museum of Bible Intro

If one were to read all essays, they make a case that the museum is deeply intertwined with the evangelicalism of the founding Green family. Many people say it’s not a problem for people to use private money to invest in something they think is important, (but) we bristle at the public representation of their project. They say they have no perspective and no agenda. We don’t think that’s possible or true.

Are scholars saying the museum should come out and say what its perspective is?

That’s one way to rectify what they think is wrong. But the volume is not written for the museum. Our job as scholars is to analyze and catalog and chronicle what’s happening with how the Bible is represented. If the museum leadership doesn’t make changes as a result of the book, we won’t feel like the book has failed. It’s written for a wider audience and not in order to change the museum.

Read the entire interview here.

Even White Evangelicals Oppose Trump’s Bible-Signing

Trump BIbles

Check out journalist Joanna Piacenza piece at Morning Consult.  According to a Morning Consult poll, most white evangelicals think that Trump’s signing of Bibles at an Alabama Baptist church earlier this month was “inappropriate.”  U.S. adults, Republicans, Christians, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants also think Trump’s signing of Bibles was “inappropriate.” The only identity group that thinks the president’s signing of Bible is appropriate are Trump voters, but only by a 43% to 42% margin.

Read the piece here.  I was happy to help Piacenza with her story.

Trump is Signing Bibles in Alabama

trump Bible

Some of my thoughts on this story can be found in Sarah Pulliam-Bailey’s coverage at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, said he has never heard of any president signing Bibles before. The American Bible Society, he said, produced a Bible commemorating President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but it came out after his death. There’s a tradition in many families that generations would sign a Bible.

Trump’s actions, Fea said, fit his appeal to many white evangelicals in the South.

“The fact that people are bringing Bibles to him says a lot about them,” Fea said. “It seems to imply that they see him not only as a political leader but a spiritual savior for the nation.”

Trump has appealed to them as someone who can protect them from the decline of a Christian nation, Fea said.

“The message of the Bible represents for many white evangelicals a source of spiritual comfort in the midst of suffering,” he said. “It says volumes about how evangelicals see … Trump as a figure sent by God to protect them from all storms of life.”

Read the entire piece here.

It is worth noting that Trump is signing a Bible distributed for disaster relief by the American Bible Society.

Oh the irony of it all!

When Bibles Survive Fires

Bible Cause Cover

Over at The Washington Post, Lindsey Bever reports on Bibles that survived a church fire in West Virginia.  Here is a taste:

Within hours, the small West Virginia church where the Rev. Phil Farrington and his congregation had worshiped for the past several years was gone.

The pastor had received a call from the fire department early Sunday morning, telling him that there was a fire at his church, Freedom Ministries, in Daniels, about 70 miles southeast of Charleston.

“We rushed out there,” he told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “I sat down on the ground and cried and watched it burn.”

Firefighters from several departments worked for hours to beat the blaze — as the flames swallowed the structure and smoke billowed high into the air. Fire officials said the structure sustained heavy damage. But when it was over and firefighters were combing through the rubble, they uncovered church possessions that had survived: Bibles. Farrington said the sacred texts had been scattered throughout the sanctuary, most in seat-back pockets for parishioners and one that was kept on the pulpit for him.

The Coal City Fire Department posted pictures on Facebook showing the Bibles, which had been collected into a pile on the soot-stained ground.

“Though odds were against us, God was not,” the fire department wrote in the post over the weekend. “Picture this, a building so hot that at one point in time, firefighters had to back out. In your mind, everything should be burned, ashes. Not a single bible was burned and not a single cross was harmed! Not a single firefighter was hurt!”

Farrington said he sees it as a sign from God that nearly two dozen Bibles were untouched, as were three crosses — two wooden crosses on the walls inside the church and one on the rooftop made of stone.

“In the midst of the fire, God’s word will always stand,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

This reminded me of the following passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (p.64).

In 1840, ABS agent Sylvester Holmes stumbled upon a woman near Nashville, Tennessee, trapped in an abusive marriage with a “whiskey lover” who became enraged whenever she read her Bible.  One day that husband, presumably in a drunken stupor, decided he was going to burn his wife’s Bible.  He ripped it from her hands and threw it into the fire where it was “consumed to ashes.”  As soon as the Bible began to burn, the “wretched” husband lost the use of his hand and could not speak.  In a similar story, a German man living in Syracuse, New York, took the Bible he received from an ABS agent and threw it into a fire, but he “could not make it burn.”  He eventually took the Bible out of the fire and, “in its singed state,” began to read it, leading him to request another Bible from the agent.  

Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

Bible in Schools

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at USA Today:

The Supreme Court barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in 1963. But the ruling also said courses about the Bible were permissible, so long as they were “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”  

Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press for Bible classes, which were hardly objective or secular. As I noted in my 2002 book, “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” a Florida teacher of “Bible history” said his class had helped recruit more than 100 new members into an after-school “Youth for Christ” course. And in South Carolina, a graduate of her own school’s “Bible survey” said the course had persuaded her to become a missionary. “I want everybody to have what I have,” she told her teacher, “And I’d like to spend my life sharing it with them.”

Both of these accounts appeared in the evangelical press, which didn’t disguise the purpose of the Bible classes: to spread the Christian Gospel. And that seems to be the same goal behind a recent round of state legislative proposals to enhance “Bible literacy” in our public schools.

Read the rest here.

I agree with Zimmerman.  I see no other reason why evangelicals, and mostly evangelicals, are pushing for these Bible classes.  At the heart of all of this is the longstanding evangelical idea that God does not need human agents to spread his message in the Bible.  Just give kids a Bible and “let the Bible do its work.”  In other words, if kids are exposed to the Bible, God will miraculously illuminate the text and some will embrace its life-changing and live-saving message.  This is Evangelicalism 101.  And it has a long history.

For example, the American Bible Society regularly described its mission in terms of the “Bible doing its work” without a teacher or preacher.  Here is a passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015):

The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people…on an entirely new trajectory of life….The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher….The Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America.  Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they just dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or ship, or to someone they met on the road–and let the Spirit do the rest….Bible Cause Cover

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts.  For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience.  So he purchased an “elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of the trunk.  Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized.  “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man  “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.”  One day, while “rummaging through his trunk ,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there.  In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave.  Each day, he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed.  But one morning, as he was “committing this outrage”  to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.”  These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to the “foot of the cross.”  There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism–the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.”  It has led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners….”

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences.  This was  a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or a railcar and immediately turn to a verse of passage that spoke to a specific need.  Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity–the Holy Spirit.  When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message.  Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader.  This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moved the deep tides of the ocrans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.”  If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Today the final sentences in the paragraph above could be rewritten this way:  “If the Christian Right could get the pure word of God, even without spiritual or proselytizing teachers, in every school in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

The Bible Never Left Public Schools

Trump and Bible

No one knows more about Bible courses in public schools than Southern Methodist University religion professor Mark Chancey.  Today Chancey weighed-in on the recent Donald Trump tweet about the Bible.  (Some of you may recall that we posted on this yesterday).

Here is a taste of Mark’s piece at The Washington Post:

I can’t heartily endorse Trump’s tweet because its words reflect a deep misunderstanding about the way the Bible, in the present and the past, has been handled in public school.

In fact, the measures to which he seems to be referring, state-level bills promoting study of the Bible in public schools, aren’t new and aren’t necessary. It’s already legal to teach about the Bible in U.S. public schools, but the topic has been swallowed in recent decades by politics and culture war that blur that fact. What American public (or private) schoolchildren in 2019 desperately need is broad religious literacy. The backstory of the measures Trump cites, unfortunately, instead makes clear that our youth are sometimes being subjected more to culture war than cultural literacy.

A little history: Courses like the one Trump mentioned, focused on teaching the Christian and Jewish Bibles, have been around for a century, and in most states, at least some schools teach them. But even in their heyday, they were never omnipresent. The president’s expression of nostalgic longing (“Starting to turn back? Great!”) reflects misconceptions of the Bible’s historical role in the schoolhouse.

But perhaps that’s not a coincidence. The idea that a certain Christian-centric view of the Bible was always taught to American public schoolchildren until very recently feeds into a narrative of loss and restoration popular with his base.

Read the entire piece here.

What Should We Make of Trump’s Tweet About Bible Classes in Schools

Here some context from

I have written about these Bible classes before.  So has Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey, who is an expert on such classes.

I would refer you to these posts:

post on Kentucky’s attempt to start Bible classes in public schools.  It draws from my own work on the Bible in America, including The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).

post on Mark Chancey’s work.

Finally, I have written extensively about this idea of “turning back” in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me 3d

More From *The Washington Post* on Sessions and Romans 13

Bible book

Kyle Swenson has a follow-up piece.  Good to see quotes from the Pietist Schoolman (Chris Gehrz) and Thomas Kidd.

Here is a taste:

Yet the lines have consistently been deployed to check opinions and activity running against the powers that be. As Thomas Kidd wrote on the religion blog Anxious Bench in 2014, Romans 13 was “the most commonly cited biblical text in Revolutionary America.”

The lines were championed by both colonists agitating for rebellion and loyalists. According to Anxious Bench’s Chris Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, the latter camp included clergymen such as New York’s Charles Inglis, who cited the scripture as proof that Christians “who really believe in a divine Revelation” should “make no Conscience of dishonouring the King, and rebelling against him” because it would be “knowingly trample on the Law of God.”

Pro-independence advocates, however, often followed the instruction of preacher Jonathan Mayhew, who “insisted that submission was contingent upon a ruler being just,” according to Kidd.

Following the American Revolution, Romans 13 became a frequent topic of sermons as the country debated slavery.

“The second spike you see is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong,” John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told The Post on Thursday. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

According to Gehrz, the passage largely disappeared from American pulpits after the Civil War. It did, however, make appearances overseas in the darkest moments of the early 20th century. Romans 13 was reportedly favored by Adolf Hitler and pushed by the Nazis to legitimize their authoritarian rule in 1930s Germany.

Read the entire piece here.  Read the original article here.

Nice work all-around!

When the Bible Gets Caught-Up in an Immigration Debate

Bible book

Check out Sarah Jones’s recent piece at The New Republic on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13, “Who Would Jesus Lock Up.”  The subtitle reads: “Using the Bible to defend the government’s most indefensible policies is a longstanding American tradition.”  Very true.

Here is a taste of Jones’s piece:

But exegesis belongs to the realm of theologians. Sessions’s comments are troublesome not because they misrepresent the Bible or constitute a needlessly religious justification for a secular policy, but because they echo some of the darkest chapters in American history.

As Christian historian John Fea told The Washington Post on Thursday, American southerners frequently cited Romans 13 in defense of the institution of slavery. “[I]n the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong,” he said. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.” Slavery was legal, after all; to question Southern law was to question God.

In fact, early debates over the morality of slavery frequently played out in churches, a practice that continued as war broke out. Abolitionists had no difficulty defending the morality of their position, given the horrors of chattel slavery. Confederates, meanwhile, took up the language of a shared faith and deployed it in the service of propaganda.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course the Bible has also been used in American history to defend what some might call “defensible” positions.  Barack Obama did this all the time.  So did the Founding Fathers.

What strikes me about this whole Sessions controversy over Romans 13 is that the debate taking place online and in the media seems less about whether it is appropriate  to invoke the Bible in public debate in the first place, and more about which Bible verses should be used.

For example, here is Chris Cuomo of CNN.  Cuomo thinks Sessions’s use of Romans 13 is reprehensible. Then he goes ahead and uses his own Bible verses to show why Sessions is wrong:

Here is a piece on my friend, Holy Cross University professor Mathew Schmalz:

So what does the Bible say? College of the Holy Cross scholar and Associate Professor of Religious Studies Mathew Schmalz examined that issue more than a year ago, in an article for The Conversation.

Schmalz said the Bible is unambiguous in affirming the obligation to treat strangers with dignity and respect.

“As Matthew 25 makes clear, the Christians should see everyone as ‘Christ’ in the flesh. Indeed, scholars argue that in the New Testament, ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbor’ are in fact synonymous,” Schmalz wrote. “Thus the Golden Rule, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ refers not just to people whom you know – your ‘neighbors’ in a conventional sense – but also to people whom you do not know.”

Schmalz, an expert on the papacy and the founding editor of the Journal on Global Catholicism, has published opinion pieces in Newsweek, Salon, the Washington Post, Commonweal Magazine, and The National Catholic Reporter.

“It is true that the application of biblical principles to contemporary matters of policy is less than clear to the many Christians who have taken opposing sides regarding how the United States should deal with immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees,” Schmalz wrote. “However, in my reading of the Bible, the principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.”

The Southern Baptist Convention quotes Leviticus 19:33-34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35-40, and Hebrews 13:23 in its recent resolution on immigration.

Here are evangelicals from the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable citing the Bible:

So when does the Bible apply to a given policy issue and when does it not?  Maybe I will just go back to being a Catholic (like Mat Schmalz and Chris Cuomo).  Then I don’t have to worry about a thousand different interpretations of the Bible and just follow what the Church teaches on the matter.

Romans 13 and the Patriots

RevisedCheck out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history.  He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.

Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority.  They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it.  The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church.  Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England.  He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason.  His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.  Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.

Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy.  But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced.  Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified.  According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason.  Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.”  Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.”  Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission.  Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.”  It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”  It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.”  Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government.  Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.”  As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”

For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical.  How could God require his people to live under oppression?  God has promised his people freedom.  But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts.  In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified.  Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property.  His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.  This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.

Let’s be clear.  Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government,  but it does not seem to require unconditional submission.  It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.

Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the  American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13?   I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree.  (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).

Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13?  I would say yes.  Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.

Why Luke 18:16?

Suffer

The New York Sun, March 21, 1915.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Last night I noted that the most popular Bible verse cited in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16. Read my post here.

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Several of you have asked why Luke 18:16 was so popular.   On Twitter I asked Lincoln Mullen, the man behind America’s Public Bible, why Luke 18:16 appears so many times. in newspapers during this period.

Here is his answer:

Here is my section on Sunday Schools in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

Evangelicals concerned with moral reform of American life concentrated much effort on the religious education of children and young people through Sunday Schools.  Some of the earliest Sunday Schools in America were formed in the eighteenth century to provide biblical instruction to the children of the urban poor, many of whom spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble.  Children would gather in churches to sing hymns, pray, read the Bible, and hear a short sermon.  They were rewarded for regular attendance and their hard work memorizing Biblical passages.  If records of enrollment in Sunday school classes are any indication, the efforts of these schools were successful.  By 1832 there were over 300,000 boys and girls attending Sunday schools in the United States, or about 8 percent of the young people eligible to attend such classes.  The numbers were even higher in urban areas.  For example, in the same year, close to 28 percent of Philadelphia children were attending Sunday Schools.  Because these schools focused on reading and writing, many of them drew large numbers of free blacks–both children and adults.  Starting in 1824 a benevolent organization called the American Sunday School Union was formed to stimulate the movement across denominations and provide literature for Sunday Schools operating around the country.  (See Anne Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of An American Institution, 1790-1880).

The American Bible Society and the Sunday School Movement shared many of the same activist convictions.  In 1827 the ABS authorized the publication of a “small testament” for Bible Cause CoverSunday Schools with the goal of meeting the spiritual needs of the “thousands of poor children…in our large towns.”  From this point forward, the Society supplied Bibles to any Sunday School organization in need.  For example, in 1831, the ABS provided the American Sunday School Union with 20,000 copies of the New Testament in support of a massive effort to establish schools in the Mississippi Valley.  In the 1830s the ABS distributed over 14,300 Bibles and over 57,700 Testaments around the country, with most of them going to the American Sunday School Union and the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In the 1850s these numbers rose to 27,729 (Bibles) and 134,237 (Testaments).  Rev. Charles McIlvane of Brooklyn, in a message to the annual meeting of the ABS, compared the Society’s education outreach to Cambridge University in England.  The only difference was that “our University is in the business of benevolence.”

Through much of the antebellum period ABS headquarters in New York received constant reports from Sunday Schools in need of Bibles and moving letters from agents about their rapid growth.  One of the more sentimental requests came in 1847, when the ABS received a small tin savings bank filled with $2.17 in change.  It was sent by a small girl requesting three dozen Bibles for her Sunday school class.  The money enclosed in the bank did not cover the cost of the Bibles, but the ABS sent them anyway.  In 1854, H.W. Pierson, the ABS agent in Southern Kentucky ,visited all seven of the “Coloured Sabbath Schools” in Louisville.  He was impressed with slaves and free blacks of all ages attending these schools and noted that a great majority of the teachers were black, but he lamented the general lack of teachers and Bibles.

A couple of images:

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The day book. (Chicago, Ill.), 25 Dec. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

Suffer 4

New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 07 Sept. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

You Are Never Going to Believe Which Verse Was Most Quoted in American Newspapers Between 1840 and 1920. (And It Wasn’t Romans 13)

luke-18-16

With all this talk of Romans 13, it is worth noting that the most cited verse in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16:

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

This verse, which seems to have some relevance to our current immigration mess, was:

  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1840
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1850s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1860s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1870s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1880s
  • The second most quoted Bible verse in the 1890s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1900s
  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1910s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1920s

Thanks to Lincoln Mullen for creating the tool that enabled me to write this post and make this point.

Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

romans-13-government-and-citizenship-3-638

In case you missed it, here is a taste of CNN’s piece on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s use of Romans 13 to defend the separation of immigrant families at the border:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible on Thursday in defending the Trump administration’s immigration policies — especially those that result in the separation of families — directing his remarks in particular to “church friends.”

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.”

Read the rest here.

I will let the theologians debate whether Sessions is using this verse correctly in this context.

I can, however, offer some historical context.  Here is what I wrote about Romans 13 in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction:

Romans 13 states clearly that one who resists such authority will receive “damnation.”  These passages require Christians to pay their taxes (“tribute”).  When taken at face value, they seem to be teaching complete submission to government authorities with no exceptions or caveats.

This is exactly the way in which many Loyalists, mostly Anglican ministers, interpreted the meaning of these passages of Scripture.  Jonathan Boucher no doubt had Romans 13 in mind when he wrote, “To resist and to rebel against a lawful government, is to oppose the ordinance of Godand to injure or destroy institutions most essential to human happiness….

For a longer and more thorough treatment of Romans 13 in the revolutionary-age I recommend Daniel Driesbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

In a great post on the use of Romans 13 in American history, Chris Gehrz found a spike in the use of Romans 13 in public discourse during the 1840s and 1850s.

Gehrz’s post is supported by historian Mark Noll in his magisterial America’s God.  Noll calls our attention to Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister in Richmond, Virginia.  In 1860, Stringfellow alluded to Romans 13 (among other Bible verses) to justify slavery. He wrote “I have shown that Jesus ordained, that the legislative authority, which created this relation in that empire, should be obeyed and honored as an ordinance of God, as all government is declared to be.”

In light of this history, I will end this post with a few take-aways:

  1. Sessions’s use of the Bible to justify public policy has a long history in the United States, but I can’t  think of an example in which a federal government official used Romans 13 in this manner.  If you know of a case, please let me know.
  2. Sessions’s use of Romans 13 today places him on the side the opponents of the American Revolution and the defenders of slave-based Southern way of life.

The American Bible Society and the Search for a Usable Past

699d4-abs2bmoonDarryl Hart has criticized my recent comments about the American Bible Society.  If you have not read my recent comments you can get up to speed here.

First, let me say that I don’t “object” to the ABS statement.  As I said in this post, I was asked to comment as a historian of the organization.  It is hard to ignore the fact that the mission of the ABS has changed over time, particularly in the last quarter century.

As Hart points out, there is some continuity between the organization’s new “Affirmation of Biblical Community” and the religious sensibilities of ABS founders. Elias Boudinot and most of the other founders of ABS were evangelical Christian nationalists. But they also defended the belief that the Bible should be published and distributed “without note or comment.”  This would make the affirmation of a specific brand of Christian faith unacceptable.  The ABS’s “Affirmation of Biblical Community” is clearly an attempt to interpret the Bible.  The American Bible Society has never been a confessional institution–until now.

Boudinot, of course, lived in a more homogeneous evangelical culture than we do today.  Perhaps the founders of the organization believed in 1816 that a commitment to publishing and distributing Bibles “without note or comment” would never move ABS away from the kind of Christian orthodoxy evident in the Affirmation of Biblical Community.  But that is not how things played out.  Boudinot and the founders’ commitment to the principle of “without note or comment” led to a very ecumenical organization.  It opened the door for “modernists,” non-evangelicals, non-Christians, and even skeptics to work for the organization.  The current administration of the ABS claims, like Darryl Hart, that it has the evangelical history of the organization on its side.  But it is more complicated than that.  In many ways, the lack of doctrinal clarity among the founding generation (Boudinot, John Jay, etc.) has actually worked against the current administration’s attempt to create an organization committed to Christian orthodoxy.

I will assert again that a significant change has taken place in the ABS over the last 25 years.  This is how I framed my argument in the final chapters of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016).  I encourage you to read it.  What happened at the ABS in the last quarter century is something similar to the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence in the 1980s. It was an organized and planned move.  Those who led this move and those who opposed it have admitted to this and I record their words in my book.

If you want to get a sense of these changes, consider the words of Peter Wosh, the director of the ABS library and archives during the 1980s and early 1990s.   Wosh is the author of the excellent Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell, 1994).  After he left the ABS in the 1990s, he directed the Archives and Public History Program at NYU.  Here is what Wosh recently wrote on his FB page:

Sorry to see my old employer go this route. When I worked there in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a very diverse organization. We had employees who were gay, straight, single, married, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and skeptical of organized religion. But the mission and core values were broad enough to make all feel welcome, and there was considerable ethnic and gender diversity among the senior leadership. People worked hard to support the goal of circulating the Scriptures “without note or comment” and staff remained mindful to avoid doctrinal controversies. Sadly, the political and religious mission has narrowed considerably in the past quarter century, significantly diminishing both the organization and the scope of its work, as John Fea points out in this analysis. I valued my time there, but apparently it is quite a different atmosphere today.

Indeed, the ABS has changed. “Hijack” may be too strong a word, but one cannot ignore that a premeditated shift in the direction of the organization took place in the 1990s.  The “Affirmation of Biblical Community” is the logical result of that shift.

Was the American Bible Society’s Move Toward Evangelicalism a “Mission Hijacking?”

Bible Cause CoverThat’s what Ruth McCambridge, the Editor in Chief of Nonprofit Quarterly, is calling it.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Nonprofit missions can certainly change over time, and sometimes for the better. But rarely do we see such an about-face as what some have noted at the American Bible Society, and even more rarely is that about-face so carefully documented that we are able to note what went into the hijacking of a mission. Here are the facts in short form, but I recommend the original articles we have drawn from for more depth.

John Fea writes an interesting account in The Conversation of changes at the American Bible Society that led to a demand from the nonprofit that all employees sign a statement of faith and lifestyle expectations. In this “Affirmation of Biblical Community,” one must, among other things, affirm that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. Such statements are not all that unusual in religious organizations, but in the case of the 200-year-old ABS, it represents a significant break with the organization’s deep-rooted traditions that, Fea says, culminates a “roughly 20-year transformation of the Society from a diverse Christian organization to a ministry with strong ties to American evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

I have now commented publicly on the American Bible Society’s new statement of faith in three different places:

I also wrote a book titled The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).

I should add that all of three of these pieces were solicited by others and I was asked to speak as a historian.  While I would probably not use the term “hijack” to describe what Eugene Habecker and Lamar Vest pulled-off in the 1990s at the ABS, there was clearly a change in direction under their leadership.  And I think it is fair to say that Habecker and Vest would acknowledge that they tried to orchestrate this change.  (I conducted interviews with both of them).  I am not sure what Habecker and Vest would think about this new “Affirmation of Biblical Community,” but I think it is fair to say that what they accomplished in 2001 clearly set the stage for this change in policy at the ABS.  And yes, the new statement, like it or not, is indeed a “narrowing” of the ABS mission when examined in historical context.