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

What is the Great Commission?

Great Commission

Yesterday I did a post on John Allen Chau, the missionary killed at the hands of an indigenous tribe on the island of New Sentinel off the coast of India.  You can read it here.

It is hard to gauge exactly how the post was received based on “likes,” retweets, and Facebook comments, but I think its fair to say that about half of the readers (or at least those who responded in some way) liked the piece and half of the readers hated it.  Most of my academic historian friends disagreed (some stronger than others).  Most of my evangelical friends seemed to like it.  This doesn’t surprise me.

I have received comments on almost every point in the post, but I was particularly struck by the criticism of something I wrote under point #1:

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more….

Here is one tweet that is representative of the criticism I received:

Several folks like Mr. Bailey have suggested that I don’t believe in social justice.  Not true.  Anyone who has read this blog or read Believe Me would know that this is not the case.  Here was my response to Mr. Bailey:

So I ask the question again?  What does the Great Commission mean to Christians?  Not just evangelical Christians, but Christians of all stripes?  Here is the passage from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

As I noted above in the excerpt from my Chau post, I am specifically curious to hear how Christians interpret the phrases “make disciples” and “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Is the Great Commission just about caring for the sick and feeding the poor?  Or is it something more? What does “baptize” mean here?  And if it does not mean literal water baptism (or baptism with the Holy Spirit?), then how do we distinguish what is a literal exhortation in the Gospels from a symbolic or metaphorical passage? It seems that progressive Christians take the words and message of Jesus very literally when it comes to his comments about the poor, the rich, or the stranger.  I take them literally too.  But is there something I should know about biblical scholarship on Matthew 28 that would lead me to conclude that I should not take literally Jesus’s words about “making disciples” and “baptizing” them in the name of the Trinity?

And if the Great Commission is just related to acts of social justice, then how is Christianity any different than a non-religious group that does these things?

I am not necessarily interested in hearing from conservative evangelicals.  I already know how you are going to answer this question.  I want to hear from progressive Christians (evangelical or mainline Protestant) or Catholics or even Mormons.  What does the Great Commission mean in your understanding of Christian faith?  How do your churches interpret it?

Maybe I need to go to the library and take out a few biblical commentaries.

I apologize in advance to readers who are not interested in this conversation.  Thanks for indulging me as I work out some of these questions in such a public forum.

The Bible and Refugees

Migrant-caravan-travels-towards-U.S

Roman Catholic theologian and College of the Holy Cross professor Mathew Schmalz reflects on what the Bible says about immigration and refugees.  The Conversation published this piece in January, but it has more relevance than ever right now.

A taste:

Of course, in Christianity the strong admonitions toward treating the stranger with dignity have coexisted with actions that would seem to indicate an opposite attitude: pogroms against Jews, slavery, imperialism and colonialism have been sanctioned by Christians who nonetheless would have affirmed biblical principles regarding caring for those who seem “other” or “alien.”

Indeed, when it comes to the specific questions concerning building a wall on America’s border with Mexico or welcoming immigrants and refugees, some Christians would argue that doing so does not violate any biblical precepts concerning hospitality to the stranger, since the issue is one of legality and, of course, a good number of Christians did indeed support Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.

Other Christians have taken a diametrically different position, and have called for cities and educational institutions to be set apart as “safe zones” for undocumented immigrants.

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.

However, in my reading of the Bible, the principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.

Read the entire piece here.

Who Signed the Bible Evangelicals Presented to Trump?

Perkins Court

The evangelical leaders who attended a White House dinner on Monday presented Donald Trump with a Bible.  We wrote about it here and wondered about the reference to “greatness” in the inscription.

We don’t know much about this Bible apart from the inscription.  For example, who signed it?

Over at Get Religion, a website that covers religious journalism, Bobby Ross Jr. is also curious about the signers.  He writes:

But at least one prominent evangelical at the dinner — Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear — stressed that he didn’tsign the Bible, as noted by Birmingham News religion writer Greg Garrison….

Given Greear’s denial, a GetReligion reader who contacted me about my earlier post suggests that Godbeat pros may want to ask a few more questions:

Shouldn’t some enterprising religion reporter try to find out more about the Bible? In addition to who signed it — since J.D. Greear has publicly noted he was not asked and did not sign the Bible (and I know another person present at the event who was not asked to sign it) — I think it would be interesting to know what kind of Bible was it — what translation, was it a study Bible, what publisher, etc.? It may be notable that it was Paula White who presented the Bible, which may (or may not) indicate the kind of Bible it may be.

No doubt religion writers have a few other things going at the moment. But I’d love to know the answers to the questions the reader raises.

Read Ross’s entire post here.

The Court Evangelicals Give Donald Trump a Bible

paulawhitefranklingraham_hdv

Court evangelicals Franklin Graham and Paula White at last night’s White House dinner for evangelicals

Donald Trump apparently has more Bibles than he knows what to do with.  He keeps them “at a certain place. A very nice place.”

Last night he added to his collection.

100 evangelical leaders who were gathered at the White House for a dinner presented a Bible to the president.  They all signed it.  The presentation was made by court evangelical and prosperity preacher Paula White.  Here is a transcript:

Bible court evangelicals

The inscription reads:

“First Lady and President, you are in our prayers always.  Thank you for your courageous and bold stand for religious liberty, and for your timeless service to all Americans.  We appreciate the price that you have paid to walk in the high calling.  History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.”

Following the reading of the inscription, the audience was asked to say “Amen!”

The standards the Bible sets for greatness are very different, and in most cases diametrically opposed, to the kind of “greatness” that the court evangelicals celebrate in their flattery of Trump.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:43-45).  The Gospel of Matthew records a moment in the life of Jesus when his disciples came to him asking “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Jesus called a child to come in their midst and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” (Mt 18:1-5).

The fact that 100 evangelical leaders affirmed the message about greatness inscribed in the Bible presented to Trump, and then gave that inscription a hearty “Amen,” speaks volumes about the current state of American evangelicalism.

Is the Government Banning the Bible in California?

We have seen this before.  It is yet another example of what happens when fear drives evangelical approaches to public life.

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote about the response of some New England congregationalists after the election of Thomas Jefferson.  Because Jefferson did not believe in certain aspects of orthodox Christian belief–the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of the Bible–many of the region’s evangelicals were afraid of what he might do once he assumed the presidency.  Some thought that Jefferson or his henchman were going to come into their towns on a mission to confiscate Bibles and close churches.

I thought about this story when I read Peter Lawrence Kane’s piece in San Francisco Weekly.  The title says it all: “Evangelicals Convince Themselves California is About to Ban the Bible.”    Here is a taste:

As we’ve documented many times, several strains of conservatism insist — against all evidence to the contrary — that California is an abject failure. It’s usually that we’re teetering on the brink, we’re hopelessly “ungovernable,” or we must be destroyed in order to be saved. Unquestionably, the state faces existential crises that pertain to the cost of living and to the future of the Sierra snowpack that keeps the world’s most productive agricultural region afloat and lets 40 million people flush their toilets. But we never stop hearing the end of the lies and distortions: high environmental standards caused the Mendocino fire complex, it’s a sanctuary state bleeding the federal coffers dry, we’re a corrupting force on Real America, they’re never coming back here and they really really mean it, et cetera, et cetera.

This is largely because of three undeniable facts: California is diverse, California rejects Republicanism and (almost) all that it stands for, and California recovered from the Great Recession to find itself well-prepared to face the next fiscal cliff. Although the Golden State retains the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage and then take it away, it’s since become a strong protector of LGBTQ rights — and this week’s top right-wing lie wormed out of the news that California is about to join a dozen other states in banning ex-gay torture — sometimes known as “gay conversion therapy” — for adults. (The state has banned it for minors since 2012.)

In light of the state Senate passing AB 2943, many evangelicals have convinced themselves that California just banned the Bible.

Read the entire piece here.

The Bible and Anti-Immigration

jeff-sessions

Robert Tsai, a Professor of Law at American University and the author of America’s Forgotten Constitution, discusses the use of the Bible in American immigration debates.  Here is a taste of his piece at Boston Review:

In general, there have been two strategies to combat the use of the anti-immigration Bible. The first is that “church and state” should be separated, not children from parents. That is a catchy slogan, but it is misguided as a strategy.

First, while religious practices in the United States are decentralized, three-quarters of its citizens identify with a Christian faith. Biblical arguments carry great weight.

Second, by asking citizens to bracket religious arguments as we debate the direction of immigration policy, we sap the national conversation of the moral power it needs. Concepts such as dignity, equality, fairness, and family integrity have sacred as well as secular sources.

Laying down one’s weapons unilaterally or complicating things by demanding that opponents disarm is counterproductive. Even if some people backed off religious argumentation (a dubious proposition) we would just be replacing a strict rule-of-law discourse with an equally empty invocation of legal rights without moral content—as if order itself was synonymous with justice.

We can’t really get at the heart of what is at stake unless we are willing to talk openly, and sometimes religiously, about pressing national policies.

The second strategy undertaken by some activists is more promising: engaging directly with strict, nationalistic interpretations of the Bible, as well as those that would put cultural purity or formalism above duties to treat others with respect and kindness regardless of their status in society.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Trump’s Immigration Policy at the Border is Little More Than an Application of His Favorite Bible Verse (and it’s not Romans 13)

immigrants

Am I reading this correctly?

Below is yesterday’s White House Press Release on the administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border.  It seems like Trump is justifying separating families at the border because some crimes by illegal immigrants led to the “permanent” separation of families through murders.

I am starting to see why “eye for an eye” is Trump’s favorite Bible verse.  This seems like what one pastor friend recently described to me in an e-mail as “misguided revenge.”

CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS’ FAMILY SEPARATION POLICY: Too many American families have been permanently separated from loved ones lost to illegal alien crime.

  • Open border laws and policies are responsible for the permanent separation of too many American families whose loved ones have been lost to illegal alien crime.
  • President Trump has met with family members whose loved ones have fallen victim to illegal alien crime.
    • Juan Pina was permanently separated from his daughter after she was strangled, raped, and murdered by an illegal alien.
    • Laura Wilkerson was permanently separated from her son, who was brutally murdered by an illegal alien classmate.
    • Jamiel Shaw, Sr. was permanently separated from his son, who was tragically murdered by an illegal alien gang member.
  • Congressional Democrats have repeatedly voted against common sense immigration legislation that would help make our communities safer.
    • In 2017, 174 House Democrats voted against legislation that would have helped ensure aliens associated with a gang are not admitted into the United States and would have empowered officials to more effectively remove those already here.
    • In 2017, 166 House Democrats voted against Kate’s Law, named after Kate Steinle who was killed by a previously deported illegal alien with a lengthy criminal history.
    • In February 2018, Senate Democrats blocked legislation that would have cracked down on dangerous sanctuary cities.

OPEN BORDER POLICIES: American communities have suffered from illegal alien crime and illegal drugs flooding our country due to open border policies and immigration enforcement loopholes. 

  • Drugs have flooded across our porous borders, poisoning our communities, and costing American lives.
    • The Southwest border is a major source of illegal drugs entering the United States.
    • Most heroin entering the United States is produced in Mexico, and production levels there continue to rise.
  • A total of 57,820 known or suspected aliens were in Department of Justice custody at the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2018, 60 percent of whom were aliens with orders of removal.
  • A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found nearly 3 million criminal arrest offenses tied to incarcerated criminal aliens, including 25,000 homicide offenses.
  • Transnational gangs, such as MS-13, take advantage of our open borders and the loopholes in our immigration system.
    • MS-13 and other gangs have bolstered their ranks by exploiting the influx of Unaccompanied Alien Children entering the United States.

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?

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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. 

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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

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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.

*Christianity Today* on the American Bible Society’s New “Affirmation of Biblical Community”

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The old American Bible Society offices near Columbus Circle in NYC

I was happy to help Kate Shellnut with her excellent piece.  Here is a taste:

Plenty of Christian organizations require employees to sign a statement of faith. For over 200 years, the American Bible Society (ABS) wasn’t one of them.

But now the Philadelphia-based ministry plans to implement an “affirmation of biblical community” next year, requiring all employees to uphold basic Christian beliefs and the authority of Scripture, as well as committing to activities such as church involvement and refraining from sex outside of traditional marriage.

“This is a newsworthy story because the society, since its founding in 1816, has never had a doctrinal statement for employees. In fact, the American Bible Society was built on the idea that the Bible should be distributed ‘without note or comment,’” wrote historian John Fea.

The new affirmation doesn’t signal a brand-new direction for ABS, but reflects a decades-long shift from ecumenical to evangelical, which dates back to changes in the ’90s, chronicled in Fea’s book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

“The organization now feels comfortable enough in its evangelical identity to make such a formal statement of its beliefs,” which includes some evangelical parlance but would easily be embraced by orthodox Christians across traditions, Fea told CT. “The gay employees and the more ecumenical Christians who worked for the ABS should have seen this coming.”

Read the entire piece here.