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Book presents history of how political interests have used and misused the Bible
Book review: ‘The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture Has Been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here’ by Kaitlyn Schiess, ★★★★★
When President Donald Trump held up a Bible during a photo op after forcefully clearing out demonstrators from his path on June 21, 2020, it wasn’t the first time that an American politician had used the Bible as a political prop. And it undoubtedly won’t be the last.
But the Bible, whose authority is recognized in varying ways by nearly every branch of Christianity, has also had a long history of serious use in American politics — for better and worse. More than any other book, it has shaped political discourse and even been used to define the nature of America. It has been quoted and alluded to by American presidents from George Washington to Joe Bidenand has played a role in public debate over issues as varied as the Civil War, abortion, immigration and student loan forgiveness.
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With none of those issues have Bible believers taken a unified position. This lack of consensus over what the Bible says about politics naturally raises the question for believers: How should those who believe in the Bible apply the words written 1,900 or more years ago to modern-day governments and politics? Kaitlyn Schiess, a theologian and doctoral student in political theology at Duke Divinity School, tackles that issue in her second book, The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture Has Been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here, published in August by Brazos Press.
If you’re looking for a meme-able answer to the question, you’ll be disappointed with Schiess’s work; as The Ballot and The Bible deftly walks the line between accessibility and scholarship, it doesn’t provide answers so much as it shows how others in history have answered the question as a way of suggesting approaches that readers might take to answering the question for themselves. And that answer is the opposite of the eisegesis or prooftexting that has become the staple of religion-oriented debate about politics in today’s social media.
Schiess’s main audience is that broad swath of American Christians who see the Bible similarly to the way of Christianity Today-style evangelicalism as well as more liberal believers who agree with the premise of her introduction, that the Bible is a gift from God to the church that was given to shape the Christian community.
Although The Ballot and The Bible is written directly to Christians, it has enough secular history that it should appeal as well to those who are interested in the Biblical influences on American political life.
A critique of selective interpretation
One of Schiess’s theses is that Christians of all political stripes tend to interpret the Bible consistently with their own political views, often with an interest to augmenting their power or influence. Among her case studies is the time before the U.S. Civil War: Advocates of slavery seeking Biblical support of the practices tended to use verses that emphasize authority, while the abolitionist movement tended to use verses that emphasized freedom. And the black churches of the time, rather than emphasizing isolated passages, tended to look at the broad narrative of the Bible, such as by identifying with the Israelites who left the oppression of Egypt during the Exodus.
Although her approach is emphatically nonpartisan in a way designed to help readers develop their own answers, and she refrains from direct attacks on today’s syncretistic Christian nationalism, Schiess’s disagreement those who use the Bible in ways that are designed to enhance their own authority still shows. Her example of a Biblical hero is the Old Testament prophet Hildah, who receives God’s word and is unafraid to tell authorities of God’s coming judgment. And it’s not by chance that what Schiess sees as faithful application of the Scriptures has come often from the Black church.
The Bible, Schiess notes, is often written from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized, and Christians who are faithful to the Bible will be willing to accept its teaching even when it isn’t in their selfish interests to do so. Schiess is offering a viewpoint far different than what we hear from some of the most prominent Christian political activists today, making her book a must-read for all who hope to use the Bible in politics in a way that is faithful to its purposes.
Although Bible quoting is often associated more with Republicans than Democrats, Barack Obama may have been the president in recent decades who referred to the Bible the most often in his public appearances.