When the Bible Gets Caught-Up in an Immigration Debate

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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.

The American Bible Society’s New Doctrinal Statement

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Yonat Shimron’s piece on the new doctrinal restrictions placed on employees at the American Bible Society.  There is nothing wrong with a religious organization like the American Bible Society making its employees sign a statement of faith.  Most Christian colleges do this as a matter of course.

But 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 not or comment.”  In other words, the Society did not interpret the Bible for its constituency or its employees.  As I said in Shimron’s piece, this new “Affirmation of Biblical Community” is the logical conclusion of the Society’s turn toward evangelicalism in the 1990s, a shift I chronicled in my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016) and also wrote about in this piece at Christianity Today.

Here is a taste of Shimron’s piece:

The affirmation is just the latest sign that the organization has shifted away from its ecumenical roots toward a more narrow evangelical identity. That shift began in the 1990s when the American Bible Society changed its constitution to make it a ministry that undertakes “Scripture engagement.” Previously it published Bibles “without note or comment.”

“This is a clear manifestation, or a logical conclusion, of the evangelical takeover in the 1990s,” said John Fea, a historian at Messiah College and author of the book “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.”

“In many ways they are creating boundaries here for the organization that are new, that have limited their scope beyond what has happened in the past,” Fea added.

Read the entire piece here.

What Happens to the American Bible Society When Everyone Has a Bible?

Bible Cause Cover

The American Bible Society began asking this question in the 1990s.  Their answer was to move away from a distribution model that defined success in terms of “tonnage” and toward a “scripture engagement” model that taught people how to use the Bible as a source of spiritual growth.  In the process, the organization became much more evangelical in orientation.  As many of you know, I have written a great deal about this transition.

Today the American Bible Society is the second largest religious non-profit organization in the world.  Ruth Graham introduces the American Bible Society to her Slate audience in a piece titled “The End is Nigh.”

A taste:

American Bible Society was founded in Manhattan, New York, in 1816 with the “sole object” of encouraging wider circulation of the Bible throughout the world. It was a project whose obstacles soon became clear, as John Jay, the founding father and first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who served as the society’s second president, put it in 1822. “The languages of the heathen nations in general being different from the Christian nations, neither their Bibles could be read, nor their missionaries be understood by the former,” he said. “To obviate and lessen these difficulties, numerous individuals have been induced to learn those languages; and the Bible has already been translated into many of them.”

Translating the Bible into every language has long been seen by many Christians as a divine command: In what is known as the “Great Commission,” Jesus ordered his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” It’s hard to make disciples if you don’t speak the nation’s language. As the 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe, who ruffled feathers by translating the book into common English, put it, “It helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence.” Today, many translation organizations refer to the state of not having access to a Bible in one’s own language as “Bible poverty.”

Read the rest here.

Yes, There are Evangelicals Who Believe the Jerusalem Embassy Is a Bad Idea

Jerusalem

Back in December, when Trump first announced that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, evangelical theologian Gary Burge (Wheaton College and now at Calvin Theological Seminary) wrote a piece at the Atlantic titled “You Can Be an Evangelical and Reject Trump’s Jerusalem Decision.”  The piece is worth revisiting today.

A taste:

The key to understanding this perspective is to recognize that these conservative evangelicals are building a bridge from ancient biblical Israel to the modern secular State of Israel. So, promises made almost 4,000 years ago to Abraham apply to the modern Israeli state. “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you,” God says in Genesis 17:8. For these evangelical interpreters, a verse like this one is not just something ancient; it provides a political mandate for Israel’s privileges today. And Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse,” originally intended as a word of protection for Abraham’s tribe, now can become a mandate for anyone living today. We are obligated, the argument runs, to bless modern Israel. In the U.S., blessing Israel means recognizing its sole ownership of Jerusalem.

These evangelicals’ perspectives stem partly from a high regard for the Bible and its story about the fate of the Israelites, which has led to an outsized fascination with Judaism. They believe that Israel has a unique place in history as God’s special people, so Israel deserves deferential treatment—and Jerusalem deserves the same. For some, Israel enjoys an exceptionalism that sets it apart from the entire world. There are even evangelicals who believe that promoting the importance of Jerusalem is one more building block in the fulfillment of prophecies that sets the stage for the Second Coming of Christ. The average conservative evangelical is filled with a tangle of commitments that are often tough to sort out. She just knows that if Israel wants something—in this case, Jerusalem—Israel deserves to have it.

Numerous evangelicals like me are less enamored of the recent romance between the church and Republican politics, and worry about moving the U.S. embassy. For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. We view the ethical teachings of the scriptures as primary, and recognize that when biblical Israelites failed in their moral pursuits, they were sorely criticized by the Hebrew prophets and became subject to ejection from the Holy Land. Amos 5:24 shows that even the use of the Jerusalem Temple can be problematic to God: “Take away from me [God] the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Many of us look at modern Israel today and see a country that Amos would barely recognize. How, we wonder, can anyone build a bridge from ancient Israel to modern Israel today? Amos would hardly recognize in Tel Aviv a city based on biblical ideals.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The BBC on the White House Bible Study

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Ralph Drollinger is #35

We have written about the Bible study in the White House here and here.  Now the BBC has a piece on it and its leader, former UCLA basketball player Ralph Drollinger.

Here is a taste:

Every Wednesday, some of the world’s most powerful people meet in a conference room in Washington DC to learn about God.

The location can’t be revealed – the Secret Service won’t allow it – but the members can.

Vice-President Mike Pence. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The list goes on.

In total, 10 cabinet members are “sponsors” of the group. Not everyone attends every meeting – they are busy people – but they go if they can.

Meetings last between 60 and 90 minutes, and members are free to contact the teacher after-hours. So who is the man leading the United States’ most-influential bible study?

Step forward Ralph Drollinger, a seven-foot tall basketball pro turned pastor. Or, as the 63-year-old describes himself: “Just a jock with some bad knees.”

Read the rest here.

This Explains a Lot

Great Commission

According to Barna, 51% of churchgoers have never heard of the Great Commission.

Here is a taste of Barna’s research:

In partnership with Seed Company, Barna conducted a study of the U.S. Church’s ideas about missions, social justice, Bible translation and other aspects of spreading the gospel around the world, available now in the new report Translating the Great Commission. When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%). Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. Six percent of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before.

The Does the American Bible Society Own the Bible?

Bible Cause CoverOf course they do not.

But they do own the .Bible domain name and appear to be drawing boundaries around who can use the domain and who cannot.  This has caused some controversy.  Yonat Shimron reports at Religion News Service.  (I contributed to Shimron’s piece).

A group of Bible scholars is concerned about free expression on the internet.

Specifically, they object to the way the American Bible Society is running its recently acquired .bible domain name, which they say strictly limits a wide range of faiths and essentially excludes any group with a scholarly or secular orientation.

“The internet is public space,” said John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible, with about 8,500 members, mostly scholars. “It’s our understanding that .bible was registered to be public space and not have the kind of restrictions that you would expect of a domain that was proprietary or brand-oriented.”

The question became urgent after the American Bible Society acquired the .bible top-level domain name — an identification string like “.com” or “.org” — and then applied restrictive policies on who can use it.

Those policies, critics say, strictly limit a wide range of faiths and essentially exclude any group with a scholarly or secular orientation. Further, they are inconsistent with the open-ended nature of the web, which is intended to be more democratic and to allow for free inquiry.

Read the entire piece here.  My quotes in this piece are supported by my research in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Bible Passage of the Day

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
    and him only shall you serve.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

Alan Jacobs on Jerry Falwell Jr.

jerry-falwell-696x362

The Baylor University evangelical intellectual weighs in at his blog.  Get some context here.

A taste:

Point the first: Jerry Falwell, Jr., though not a pastor and holding no advanced degrees in Bible or theology, graduated from two institutions founded by his pastor father for the express purpose of offering seriously Christian education: Liberty Christian Academy and then Liberty University. (JF Jr.’s college major was Religious Studies.)

Point the second: As is evident from the statements that French discusses in his post, Jerry Falwell, Jr. shows no evidence of having even the most elementary understanding of what the Bible says and what the Christian Gospel is.

The problem, as discerning readers will already have noted, is how to reconcile these two points. How could someone raised as Jerry Falwell, Jr. was raised, educated as he was educated, living as he now lives, say that Jesus “did not forgive the establishment elites”? Could he really not know that Jesus said of those establishment elites who killed him, “Father, forgive them”? And this is not an isolated incident. Quite often in recent months JF Jr. (like a number of other evangelical leaders) has made statements that clearly contradict some of the best-known passages in the Bible.

Read the rest here.

Robert Jeffress’s Half-Baked 2 Kingdom Theology and Christian Nationalism

Trump Jeffress

Court evangelical Robert Jeffress recently tweeted:

Court evangelical Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, has recently made the following claims about Donald Trump:

  1. Trump is correct, from a Biblical point of view, in making a preemptive strike on North Korea
  2. Trump is correct in deciding to ban immigrants  based on race.
  3. Trump and the government he leads does not need to conform to any standards of Christian character because according to the Bible the only purpose of government is to protect its citizens so that they can live and worship freely.

This “two-kingdom” view of politics is not new.  Jeffress’s view of government looks something like Martin Luther’s view of government.  Jeffress believes that Christians should never hold the government accountable to moral or Christian standards.  I don’t know any Lutheran who believes this.  So I am hard-pressed to say Jeffress’s view is Lutheran.  Most Lutherans I know believe that there are always times when Christians must criticize the government and political figures when they go astray.  Lutherans don’t believe that government can be redeemed, but they certainly believe that speaking boldly in defense of truth, justice, and love is a biblical mandate when falsehood, injustice, and hate raises their ugly heads.  I will need some Lutheran ethicists, theologians, and historians to help me here (and maybe some New Testament scholars), but I seem to remember German Lutherans learning this lesson in the 1930s and 1940s.

The piece to which Jeffress links in the tweet above celebrates this half-baked two-kingdom view.  If I have time I will try to engage with the piece in another post.  In the meantime, here are two tweets to get us started:

Darryl Hart, am I right about this?

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society