"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).
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