Friday, November 30, 2007

"Do You Believe Every Word of This Book?"

"Do you believe every word of this book?" the questioner asked, holding up a Bible. There are few venues appropriate for such a question, in my mind. As far as religious questions go, it is both divisive and misleading. Divisive, in that the question is used most often not as an honest appeal for information, but rather as a loaded test of one's orthodoxy. Misleading, because what exactly constitutes believing every word (and, in which translation/edition) is left undefined.

I do not recall ever having been asked this question, though I've served in churches who might not have minded asking me it if they had any idea the answer I would offer would be anything but an unqualified "yes." I don't know how I would answer it. The most honest answer would be a simple "Of course not, and neither do you." But such an answer might not sufficiently challenge any assumptions that underlie the question.

But, as unhelpful as that question is in most of the contexts I could place it, it is infinitely less helpful in the place where I actually heard it.

I didn't watch the GOP presidential debate the other night. I didn't watch it for at least two reasons:

1. I'm not a Republican, and so my opinion on any candidate attempting to win the Republican nomination for president of the United States couldn't matter less. They won't let me vote in the primary.

2. American political "debates" aren't really debates at all, and that makes me mad. Debates involve persons interacting with ideas, answering questions, challenging others and responding to challenges. But these made-for-TV events are more successions of stump speeches offered in response to generally staged questions.

The recent GOP on CNN debate, however, is, like the Democratic debate before it, evidently part of a new trend. Questions came from a variety of sources, from political cartoonists (have they ever been invited to the table before?!?) to the general public. And it is from that broad category "general public" that the question at the top of this post came. I first saw the video of it here.

"Do you believe every word of this book?" I don't know how all of the candidates responded to this question. The CNN clip that I linked to had only part of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's answer. I imagine that, if the question were asked sincerely, it was probably aimed at candidates like Romney, a Mormon, and presumptive frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, whose religious credentials have been called into question.

That this question was asked bothers me. But what bothers me more is my conviction - and I should state again that I don't know how the candidates answered, nor how their answers were taken - that the answers to it matter to many as much as any other issue. Of course in a democratic society in which religious people vote - and, given the prevalence of religion, that is every democratic society - there will always be some mixing of religion and politics. As a religious person whose politics are shaped in large part by my religious convictions and commitments, I don't think this is an entirely bad thing, either. But I still have serious problems with question like "Do you believe every word in the Bible?" shaping political discourse in this or any country.

One of those problems stem from the very nature of our democracy. The First Amendment to our Constitution is clear: there is to be no establishment of religion, nor any inhibiting the free exercise of religion. Part of this means that there is, in our nation, no religious test for office. To tie one's ability to hold office to one's religious faith would, it seems clear, violate both the Establishment clause (by favoring a particular religious expression over others, or by favoring being religious over being irreligious) and the Free Exercise clause (by placing such an incentive to be religious or to be religious in a particular way that one's liberty of conscience is placed at odds with one's political ambition).

This question, of course is not being asked by some powerful political agency, and so fails to rise to the level of a First Amendment violation. But in a culture in which one might be effectively disqualified by a sizable chunk of the electorate on the basis of one's answer to such a question on national television, this isn't exactly the case of a private citizen asking an honest religious question in private, either.

While many of our nation's presidents have had religious beliefs at odds with the majority opinion of their day, America has never had a self-proclaimed atheist as president. America has never had a Muslim, nor a Jew, nor a Hindu, nor a Buddhist, nor a Sikh, nor a Shinto, nor (as is becoming timely) a Mormon president, either. By and large, whatever their private religious beliefs, America's presidents have matched the nation's public Protestantism. This is not accidental. Religion in American politics matters. But the strong correlation between religiosity and political power calls into question our commitment to the First Amendment. It also, I would argue, calls into question the wisdom of the concerns that many religious people bring to political candidates.

The second concern that I have with asking GOP presidential candidates, on national television, whether or not they believe every word of the Bible, is a religious one. It does not stem from my conviction that in fact no one currently living, Christian, Jew, or otherwise, really believes every word in the Bible. It also does not, as far as I am aware, stem from the fact that my own views on Biblical authority are anything but orthodox. Rather, it stems from my concern that such questions promote a false religiosity, an uncritical religiosity, and a religiosity more interested in articulating agreement with propositional statements than in a commitment to the kinds of social change that I see as the essence of the Kingdom/Reign of God, one of the dominant metaphors of Jesus' ministry.

Our current president would be right at home answering the question in question. He would no doubt offer an unqualified "YES!" before giving testimony to the power of scripture and the God represented in it in his own life. He is at his rhetorical best telling of how the God of scripture saved him, rescuing him from the meaninglessness and sinfulness of his youth. The language of faith is second nature for him.

But under the veneer of public faith, as we have all, I suspect, learned, lurks something sinisterly anti-Christian, if the witness of Jesus has anything to do with Christianity. The prevalence of such wonderful bumper stickers as "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" and "Who Would Jesus Torture?" speak to the innate contradiction between the reckless militarism of this administration and the witness of the one our president claims is his Christ. Beyond that, I wonder how the apostle Paul [correction: the anonymous author of I John], who coined the wonderful phrase "perfect love drives out fear," would think of one who claims to be Christian while leading a reign of terror, cultivating a sense of perpetual fear in the American population.

The Biblical witness is infinitely more concerned with social and economic justice than with the trappings of religion, and yet our current president seems always more concerned with "faith-based initiatives" than with the plight of the poor and the vulnerable, those on the margins of our society. While he could no doubt articulate his belief in the Biblical text, there are quite a few Biblical texts he is not living by.

Asking candidates whether or not they believe every word in the Bible is not a very efficient way to discover their religious commitments. Further, while, like me, their religious commitments may shape their politics, and thus provide us with some useful information about them, being religious is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a good president. To place even an informal religious test on the office of the president serves neither America (who has a great many devout but decidedly bad presidents) nor religion (which has been misused by far too many ambitious persons).


OneSmallStep said...

**I wonder how the apostle Paul, who coined the wonderful phrase "perfect love drives out fear," would think of one who claims to be Christian while leading a reign of terror, cultivating a sense of perpetual fear in the American population.**

Wait. Isn't the verse from I John 4:18? Or does Paul say something like it as well?

Regardless, I really like your take on this. It seems obvious, and yet I don't think I've ever considered it before. Not only would the love drive out any fear that the individual would feel, but it would also prevent the individual from producing fear in others. You wouldn't want or need to incite someone else's fear to make sure they followed you.

You would instill a sense of caution in others, yes. But you'd never say, "Follow me or perish/if I'm not in charge, the terrorists will eat your children."

It really broadens the verse.

Sandalstraps said...


Thank you for your comment.

You're right, that line comes from I John, not Paul. My bad.

Thank you for seeing past the error in citation to the point itself.

Brian Beech said...

I find the argument ludicrous. That Bush incites fear in American's so they will follow him and he runs a 'reign of terror'. Am I the only one who remembers how we were attacked on Sept. 11th???? Now, there are those geniuses that think Bush did that as a master plan to get people to follow him, but if you're a realist, you know Bush is not manufacturing the video of hatred that many in the Islamic faith have towards us. I'm sure you've all seen the videos of the people cheering and burning American flags shortly after the Sept. 11th attacks. We can argue all day about why they hate us and whether we helped bring it on ourselves, but in the end I think it is fair to say that they (the terrorist sect from Islam) want to kill us and that is not refuted by the Jihadists (The fact that I can classify a number of people with that term justly and that that number would not be small should help you to realize something; I'll leave it to you to decide what).

As far as the verse goes, I think it is true and we should all strive for that, but just because we are not to fear doesn't mean we should lose all common sense. The Bible doesn't tell us to get out of the rain, but God did give us common sense. If someone is trying to kill you, you should try to avoid them/defend yourself; not stick our heads in the sand and act like there is no danger and we should welcome everyone - except religious fanatics for Jesus. It seems to me that the left, which I believe both of you belong, is so ready to criminalize Bush but so ready to tolerate terrorists. That's just what it seems like to me, I'm sure you'll have something to say about that, but that's what it appears to be. There is this awful hatred of Bush but only Bush – no one else is hated like he is; is it just? I hear about how he's an Imperialist and he pushed us into war for oil...etc. But, I'm not aware of any place in his term that we've put troops to establish economic and political control. And if these accusers are using Iraq for an example, it is a very very weak example. If it were imperialism, why start up an Iraqi security force – even pushing for that now, what would be the point. He would need to do away with them, keep US troops there, and change laws back home to extend his 'ruling power'. Which, I'm not sure, but I haven't seen any legislation pushed through for that. But, I'm sure he's just waiting until he can get the Army back here to take over states (that was sarcasm, I know its lost in inflection, but just imagine). War for oil...I guess he's stockpiling it in Texas so he can have financial gain after his term. I say if we went for oil – the troops should take it and lower our gas prices. But, I can tell you, that hasn't happened – I drive to Ft. Knox everyday and gas is hiiiiiiggghhh. I just don't see the 'reign of terror' and the 'inciting of fear'.

Sandalstraps said...


Of course you are not the only one who remembers 9-11. And of course I am not a wingnut (though you didn't use that term) who argues that the Bush administration manufactured 9-11 to build their base of power. That said, I do think that they used and continue to use it to fan the flames of irrational fear. I say irrational fear because, statistically speaking there are a great many more dangerous things than terrorism, some natural, some human-made.

Additionally, I don't think many of the police-state-style measures that have been passed in the wake of 9-11 have anything to do with our mission to curb global terrorism. Nor do I think there is any reasonable way to connect the invasion of Iraq with our declared "War on Terror," except to say that since we invaded Iraq it has become the kind of hot-bed for terrorist activity that it never was before our misguided invasion.

But more on that later, as I'm out the door to class.

Good to hear from you, and I look forward to whatever discussion our schedules will permit. There are a great many false dichotomies in your comment worth exploring.

Jason said...

I am curious as to your line of reasoning that concludes "no one believes every word of the Bible". I do not know much about you but it seems you write from a Christian perspective? I am especially interested then what would cause you to doubt some of the words in the Bible.


Brian said...

My problem with the question "Do you believe every word of this book?" is that I suspect that there have to be at least two propositions in there such that both can't be true at the same time. I'll let others who feel that they have more at stake in questions like that decide whether or not I'm right about that. If I am, though, then "believing every word of this book" would entail believing an inconsistent set of statements, which is something we shouldn't wish on anyone.

If this problem exists, then, it exists even if we are first and foremost interested in belief as propositional assent. Of course, Sandman, you argue eloquently that there's more to religious belief than just that. My point, though, is that the question is probably misguided even if it is just a question about which propositions we're asked to believe.

Brian said...

(The other) Brian: The Sandman will have to answer his own criticisms, but I can add my two cents' worth:

1) Speaking as a card-carrying leftist, I "hate" Dick Cheney much more than I do George W. Bush. To the extent that the Bush administration is a malign influence in the world, it's much more due to Cheney and his circle (Rumsfeld, David Addington, et al) than to Bush himself.

2) As the Sandman says, no one's forgotten 9-11. I would also add that the difference between the trajectories that the left and the right in America have taken since then hasn't been that one is afraid and the other isn't. The difference (to the extent that there is one) is over what SPECIFICALLY we should fear, exactly how much we should fear it, and exactly how that fear should be reflected in law and public policy.

I would disagree that the Bush administration somehow manufactured the fear we're talking about out of whole cloth starting on 9-12-2001. There was a deep well of fear in America long before that (of terrorism, yes, but also of global trade agreements/ globalization, immigration patterns, and others) that 9-11 merely focused, and that the Bush administration and the GOP have been pretty effective at harnessing in order to generate political will. Again, the fear isn't, I think, their fault; perhaps they don't deserve so much blame for harnessing the prevailing sentiment of their time in office. (Hey, life gives you lemons, make lemonade.) It is, however, not terribly prudent, given that policies driven out of reflexive fear tend not to be adopted with the long-range future in mind. Sooner or later, reality is just not going to justify the fear-- witness, for instance, today's NIE on Iran.

OneSmallStep said...

**It seems to me that the left, which I believe both of you belong, is so ready to criminalize Bush but so ready to tolerate terrorists. **

Given that this came after my comment, I'm assuming I'm one of the "both" that this is addressed to.

I fail to see how one could gather that I hate the President, or that I'm willing to tolerate terrorism based on agreeing with an interpretation of a Bible verse. In many ways, hatred of another. Terrorists both breed and thrive on fear, so it would be ridiculous for me to go that perfect love casts out fear and then tolerate the very people who produce fear the most.

I also do not hate the President. I disagree with many of his policies and positions, but for me to hate him would give him a personal power over me. It's also a waste of energy, and harmful to myself.

Chris said...

Great food for thought. Excellent post.

It would appear from your comments that service to God in adherence to the bible is at odds with service to the nation as President or some other position that would cause one to commit acts counter to the words found in the bible.

Perhaps I am reading you incorrectly.

But then we have the conundrum of paying unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is Gods. The nations do stand in their relative positions to God and are in effect ordained by God. Does a President faithfully execute his office by letting evil go unpunished (9/11, War on Terror)? Or are such actions condoned by God in the President's capacity as Caesar?

Perhaps I am making no sense. I will now go stand over there in the corner.

Sandalstraps said...

Wow, this has generated some discussion while I've been away. There is more to keep up with than I'm used to. I probably can't respond to everything worth responding to here, but I'll do my best:


I have in mind both what Brian (not Beech, but the other Brian, of Lost on Twin Earth) suggests - that there are contradictions in the Biblical text, and it is impossible for someone to truly believe contradictory propositions (though that requires the kind of faith in human rationality that I don't always exhibit), and something a bit more subtle.

The Bible is not, first and foremost a set of propositions with which one either agrees or disagrees. To read it as such is to misidentify the genre of a great many scriptural passages. Does a Psalm of lament, for instance, demand agreement or disagreement? No, it is the cry of an anguished soul. Does a Psalm of praise demand agreement or disagreement? No, it is the song of a joyful heart.

Does a story, such a a parable, which claims no basis in historical fact, demand agreement or disagreement? Of course not.

There are a great, great many other such examples of category errors in treating the Biblical text itself as a principally propositional document. And, while each of those texts may or may not point to certain propositions concerning God (the Psalms of lament and of praise equally rest on certain cultural assumptions concerning the nature of God; parables, while stories, also make points which could be rendered as propositions) the text itself - which is what the question in question directly refers to - is not propositional. Thus one cannot "believe every word" because it is not the case that each and every word demands belief, or is even subject to belief or disbelief.

Sandalstraps said...


First off, nice name!

Now, you write:

It would appear from your comments that service to God in adherence to the bible is at odds with service to the nation as President or some other position that would cause one to commit acts counter to the words found in the bible.

That's not exactly what I'm trying to say. What I'm trying to say is more like this:

In the political sphere, Christian faith (or any other kind of faith, for that matter) is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a good president.

Sufficient - that is, being religious is not the only trait required of a good president. It is not enough. Information concerning the faith of a presidential candidate doesn't tell me everything I need to know.

Necessary - that is, being religious is not a requirement for a good president. While it is the case that one can be both religious and a good president, one can also be irreligious and a good president.

These two, taken together, have me less interested in a presidential candidate's religion, and more interested in just about anything else. That doesn't mean that I think religion should be entirely divorced from politics, as I am both religious and political. It just means that one need not be religious, or religious in a particular way, to be qualified to hold to office of president, and to perform well the duties of that office.

In the religious sphere, I don't take articulating agreement with "every word" of the Bible to be either possible (for reasons stated above) or desirable. My reasons for this should be clear from the post.

Sandalstraps said...


I'd like to respond to your respective comments, but I went with the new commenters first, and have run out of time for you.

I guess that means I'm taking you for granted, huh?