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Reading the Whole Bible

Ken Nesmith

Are we a religious nation? Certainly our politics would suggest so. Candidates must be considered religious to be viable. Moral values are the big post-election story (for little to no good reason, since fewer people voted on them then in 2000 or 1996).

Our focus on the form and not the substance of religion is curious. John Kerry adopted a common stance by declaring that life begins at conception, but concurrently supporting abortion rights because he shouldn’t force his views on the whole nation. The position is untenable: if life begins at conception, then preventing the taking of that life is a matter of preventing murder. Should he not wish to force his views on the rest of the nation, he would also presumably decline to force his view that, say, murder and theft among adults should be illegal. Such is the danger of selective religiosity.

Whole hog religiosity isn’t better. Bush and his team take great inspiration from the literal word of the Bible. That’s how we, know, for instance, that homosexuality is an abomination - Leviticus says so. But interpreting the Bible literally causes lots of trouble. “I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?” asks a forwarded email ostensibly addressed to Mr. Bush, looking for clarification on other Bible passages. “Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?” No homosexuality, no Sunday work, no hair cuts. With what are we left?

“My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them (Lev. 24:10-16)? Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws (Lev. 20:14)?”

While this was more entertaining than the usual spam, and while it’s easy to poke fun at the Old Testament, it’s not very constructive, and doesn’t address the reality that so many people in America - smart people, powerful people, regular people - take fundamentalist Christianity very seriously

The “Left Behind” series, about the events in the Book of Revelation actually happening, comprise the best selling books in the nation. The authors, Tim Laheye and Jerry Jenkins, are very rich. But even though the Bible asks them to give away all of their belongings to gain entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 12:33, Luke 14:33, Matthew 6:19-21, etc.), they haven’t. In fact, a great many evangelical Christians control vast sums of wealth. Their heeding of Biblical law is intensely selective.

That selectivity is a common feature of global faith. Zealots in Israel justify clearing (of people) and settlement of lands they don’t own by Biblical command, but ignore passages asking them to share with their neighbors. Muslims pick and choose passages from the Koran to follow, often (but not always) ignoring ones that directly order physical domination or destruction of non-Muslims. The Catholic Church manages to forget about Jesus’ endless admonitions to love one’s neighbor, turn the other cheek, and renounce violence with its extensively developed “Just War” theory, which doesn’t pass the common sense test. Can you imagine Jesus loading up his machine gun and gunning down soldiers on a battlefield? Recall the full horrors of war, even Just wars, and imagine Jesus undertaking each of them. That would have to be a viable scenario under just-war theory.

Most selectivity and religious theory exist simply because they are able to exist. Those practices and beliefs that are not able to exist, do not. This is tautological, but informative and revealing in examining the contemporary state of religion. Some religious sects put restrictions on procreation so stringent that they soon fell out of existence - hence, those stringent restrictions are not widespread. If Biblical passages advocating the complete abandonment of property and life were followed at their word, practitioners of those ways would not thrive and spread their beliefs effectively. If Jesus’ teachings were followed to their word, war would never be an option. But the ongoing existence of Christianity on earth depended on violence (sometimes in self-defense, sometimes in conquest). A practice more fully consistent with Biblical texts would have the faithful dying peacefully, in accordance with the Word, and accepting eternal life in Heaven rather than invoking the full of misery of war to preserve their earthly lives and power.

Of course, those that have done so are no longer around to readily tell us about it. The ones who survive to bear ongoing witness on earth are those who selectively interpret and bend the rules to meet the needs of ongoing earthly existence. They become competitive, power-seeking agents. When faced with the dire threats of communism and Nazism, the Catholic Church itself made some unfortunate moral compromises during World War II regarding the Holocaust.

Be it the accurate teachings of Jesus or not, what remains today is a dominant element of American culture, for better or worse. There are times when intense national religiosity can be frustrating. But maybe it’s not as bad as it can look. Alexis de Tocqueville thought national religious character a necessary part of democracy -- maybe this intense religiosity gives shape and a form of coherence to a nation of... heterogeneous thinkers. Maybe.

That question (and my amateur theologizing) aside, in the face of occasional national stupidity such as not teaching about evolution, it’s important to remember that things probably aren’t much different than they used to be: the Church isn’t the government, as it was way back in the day, or is now in much of the Muslim world. Reaching more recently back in history, we don’t burn witches at stake, so we’re making progress there. Generally, the worst irrationalism we see today was certainly as or more common in days gone by. It’s nothing new.

The moral character of a nation is in constant flux. If we condemn ourselves to legislating religion in the Constitution and sanctioning it in the courts, that’s sincerely, truly unfortunate. Indications are that the younger generations, future stewards of the nation, are less prone to tolerate such things; this is a rare encouraging bit of data.