When Should Bible Quotes Bother Us From Politicians?

In making the case for his recovery plan today, Barack Obama quoted the lesson of the Sermon on the Mount that a storm can destroy a house build on sand, but not a house built on a rock.  The way Obama used the quote reminded me of a debate a few years ago between Sojourners' Jim Wallis and Americans United's Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author's inherent authority rather than to the author's particular insight.  In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don't oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery).  I think Lynn is making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument.

In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians' arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority).  But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority.  "The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees" is an appeal to biblical authority.  "Let's not copy Moses' mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it" is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I'm not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery.  The plain meaning of Obama's speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc... His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it's urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction.  But I think it's a useful one.  Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we're dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way still make sense if the speaker's religion were different from the quotation's?

Tags: Barack Obama, Barry Lynn, Bible, christianity, democracy, faith, Jim Wallis, Language, Political Science, religion (all tags)

Comments

12 Comments

It's a tricky argument

should a Muslim politician be censured for saying "Allah willing"? Doesn't that infringe on his religious freedom as a citizen?

by Neef 2009-04-15 03:51AM | 0 recs
Re: It's a tricky argument

of course he shouldn't.  but that wouldn't stop some people with big microphones and lots of incentives to stir up trouble.

then again, i think there's nothing offensive about someone using a character or a story in the Koran for illustrative purposes.

by the mollusk 2009-04-15 08:28AM | 0 recs
that's not an appeal to authority.
and plenty of reasonably secular people have used that phrase!
On the other hand, open advocacy for multiple wives might get him in a heap of political trouble...
by RisingTide 2009-04-15 12:32PM | 0 recs
Good point

it was a bad example because it's not (as far as I know) a direct quote from the Bible/Koran.

The diarist's view is that a biblical quote is inherently an appeal to authority. By extension, no biblical quote is appropriate. My concern is that we are quite effectively persecuting religious belief with such a position.

Perhaps a better one is "let he who is without sin cast the first stone". A direct quote from the Bible (John 8:7), but essentially equivalent to "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones". Given the diarist's position the biblical phrase is an appeal to authority, and thus to be avoided.

However, the second phrase is also an appeal to authority, the authority being "anecdotal wisdom". In both cases, the insight is external to the person who says it, but only in the biblical case do we say it's inappropriate.

It's very difficult to see how this isn't targeting religious speech - even when it's equivalent to secular speech - specifically because it's religious.

by Neef 2009-04-15 01:42PM | 0 recs
The bible was written by men....

I quote it all the time...

LOVE of money is the root of all evil.

I'm STILL waiting for ONE fricking Republican hyper-religious bigot to start owning up to that one....

by WashStateBlue 2009-04-15 05:10AM | 0 recs
to answer your question...

always. no matter what religion or context.

by canadian gal 2009-04-15 07:46AM | 0 recs
As Shakespeare said

"Even the devil can quote the Bible for his own purposes".

That said, I don't see why it's different than quoting, say, William Shakespeare.  The Bible is an important piece of World Literature that contains explicit struggles of highly flawed people who are, collectively, trying to reach some sort of higher plain.  Sound familiar?

by the mollusk 2009-04-15 08:26AM | 0 recs
Re: When Should Bible Quotes Bother Us

In the context in which Obama used the reference, it does not bother me any more than a quote from any other ancient text. As an atheist, I am still happy to see a reference to religious literature used where it can help communicate an important point. There is a lot of wisdom in ancient writings, and I think it is important, culturally, for us to be both respectful and familiar with ancient writing that has formed our culture up to this point. I hope to see a time that quotes from Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, and other texts can be used more freely in political discourse. It would mean we were all better educated about different cultural traditions.

Obama is helping by using a biblical reference in a way that is not highly charged with religious judgment.

by Mark Wallace 2009-04-15 10:15AM | 0 recs
Re: When Should Bible Quotes Bother Us

I agree completely.  

Until the day we see he's using scripture to ignite culture wars, push specific [i]religious[/i] viewpoints or doctrine, or anything else along those lines, I won't be troubled by his (or anyone's) choice of quotes.

Nicely thoughtful diary.

by January 20 2009-04-15 01:29PM | 0 recs
Re: When Should Bible Quotes

also, I do tend to have minimal problems with presidential quotations of the Bible because it has transcended being a religious document and really is a popular cultural text. of course, anything Bush said usually made me cringe, Biblical quotations included.

by Todd Beeton 2009-04-15 03:39PM | 0 recs
You're not alone

Jesus and the Apostles would probably have cringed at hearing Bush quote the Bible...or misquote or make up words and sort of quote it.

by WashStateBlue 2009-04-15 03:56PM | 0 recs
No I don't have any problem, unless somebody

makes it a particular habit all the time to only recite quotations from Bible only..

by louisprandtl 2009-04-15 04:18PM | 0 recs

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