I am repeatedly shocked by how often the Wall Street Journal runs ill-conceived and plainly second-rate op-eds on their editorial pages. As long as your political philosophy aligns with the editorial board, they seem willing to run just about anything. So when I read this, I couldn’t keep myself away from the B-fun blog.
Tevi Troy’s assertion that many American Presidents have been influenced by the Bible (“The Presidential Bible Class”) was as inarguable as it was superficial. It left unasked two vital questions: Have presidential Bible consultations yielded universally positive results? and Should the Bible be relied upon as an unerring counsel for political leaders?
To answer the first question we need only travel back in time to 2003 to recall the account of former French President Jacques Chirac who claimed President Bush tried to convince him to join the invasion of Iraq because “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East.” Gog and Magog are not Mr. Magoo’s adorable nephews, but rather they are creatures prophesied in the Book of Revelation to bring destruction upon Israel. Given that a recent Gallup poll shows that 53% of Americans believe that invading Iraq was a mistake, we may have been better served if Bush had studied more about the tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and worried less about Gog and Magog.
A one-time US Senator and Secretary of War once said, “It (slavery) was established by decree of Almighty God and is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments from Genesis to Revelation.” The author of this quote was also a President of sorts: the Confederate States’ President Jefferson Davis.
Slavery is famously not outlawed in the Bible with passages like
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” —Ephesians 6:5
“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters.” —Titus 2:9
That could explain that despite being fully aware of the Bible, 10 of the first 10 US Presidents (who were not named Adams) owned slaves at some point in their lives. But that was a different time. No politician today would really think the Bible meant what it said about slavery, right? Well there is the case of state representative Loy Mauch of Arkansas who claimed in 2012,
“If slavery were so God-awful, why didn’t Jesus or Paul condemn it?”
So consulting the Bible has been no guarantor of inerrant advice for past politicians. But is there a place for the Bible as an aide in informing today’s weighty political issues?
In my own study of the Bible, I have endeavored to catalogue the most surprising and arcane passages of the Old and New Testaments, and I discovered that for every Bible verse used to support a given political opinion, it was not difficult to find a verse that would support just the opposite.
There are the more lighthearted contradictions:
“Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing.” —Proverbs 18:22
“It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” —1 Corinthians 7:1
Then there are the confusing directives:
“Even so let your light shine before men.” —Matthew 5:16
“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men.” —Matthew 6:1
Some are deeply theological:
“The Father is greater than I am.” —John 14:28
“I and my Father are one.” —John 10:30
And others have important public policy ramifications:
“Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” —Luke 18:22
“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” —John 12:8
When I combed through every single saying of Jesus in the gospels looking for those with either a hint of liberal or conservative sentiments, I was surprised to find that Jesus was not wholly one or the other, though by my count his liberal-leaning statements outnumbered his conservative ones by a ration of 2 to 1. Given this mixed message in the gospels, what does it mean to rely upon the Bible as a source of political inspiration. Rather than hearing one consistent message, it seems highly likely that one would be tempted to seek out those verses that conform to one’s preexisting ideology also known as confirmation bias. When is the last time you heard a politician say that even though it goes completely against their political leanings, the Bible made them change a deeply held belief.
I mention this as a cautionary tale. Being well-versed in the Bible does not necessarily equal unparalleled political decision-making. Even Abraham Lincoln understood his limited ability to discern the ideal course of action when he said,
“My concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
Michael Morris is the author of Bible Funmentionables: A Lighthearted Look at the Wildest Verses You’ve NEVER Been Told!, which features all of the shocking and hilarious verses that your minister, rabbi, or charismatic cult leader is afraid to preach.