The Southern Baptist Convention controversy of the 1980s and 1990s was supposed to be over inerrancy–the view that the Bible in its original form (called the “autographs”)–is literally true. But a University of Chicago professor says in a recent article the Christian Right isn’t defined by any specific theology but instead a selective use of proof-texting to support a predetermined point of view.
The article, by Margaret M. Mitchell, a professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature, is titled “How Biblical is the Christian Right?” It appears on the Religion and Culture Web Forum from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Based on her study of several conservative Christian Web sites, Mitchell concludes “what makes the Christian Right biblical is not a literalistic hermeneutic so much as a mode of argumentation by reference to a deliberately selective set of biblical passages, annexed to the predetermined cause through a variety of exegetical moves, which are usually unexplained because they depend upon prior agreement of the ends of interpretation.”
Words like “inerrancy” or “fundamentalist” are rarely used, she said, and it usually takes two or three clicks to find a page that references the Bible at all. Instead of Bible authority, she said, “one finds a new, user-friendly and unifying lexicon: ‘family values,’ ‘traditional values,’ ‘family-friendly,’ ‘Judeo-Christian heritage,’ and a newfangled product called ‘the Christian world-view,'” which she defines as “a code-phrase for ‘Christianity in our likeness.'”
Among examples, she breaks down Richard Land’s Southern Baptist Convention Web site, “For Faith & Family,” with its link to something called the “Ethics Scripture Index,” an alphabetical listing of Scripture references for ethical issues from abortion to women.
There is no explanation of what topics are chosen or why. The method “presumes that the whole column speaks with one voice about the issue, which means that there is already a pre-determined decision about the ‘biblical view’ on the given issue. No hermeneutical rule of thumb or guidance is given on such issues as the relationship between the Old and New Testament in Christian law or regulation, nor about how different biblical genres relate to divine teaching and biblical truth (law, narrative, parable, and proverb are all treated the same).”
“Hunger,” for instance, lists only 15 citations and no comments–“obviously not an important issue,” Mitchell observed. In contrast, the category “War”–there is none for peace–has 66 citations and 14 comments.
“While it is easy to think of this as a literalistic proof-texting, it is not just that, but a highly creative rearrangement of selective pieces of the biblical record to justify a previously reached conclusion (in this case, apparently, the invasion of Iraq),” she wrote.
Under “Birth Control,” Land lists Gen. 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply,” commenting it “made sense at this time in history.” Mitchell wonders whey he doesn’t do the same under “Homemaking/Domestication.”
Most surprising, she says, is how little overt biblical interpretation goes on at Land’s Web site. Defending the SBC’s doctrine of wifely submission to husbands, Land switches Bible translations in midstream, apparently choosing the text that best proves his point.
Mitchell said the Christian Right favors citations from the Old Testament, with special attention to Judges, First and Second Chronicles, Genesis and Leviticus, and in the New Testament to Revelation and the letters of Paul. What’s missing is the prophets of Israel and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.
“The key to this selectivity is the wholesale adoption by the Christian Right of one strand of biblical thinking, apocalyptic.” Indisputably in Bible books like Daniel and Revelation, but not in all of the Bible, apocalyptic literature features a strong dualism between good and evil, Satan and God, heaven and hell and appeals to avoid worldly contamination. It is the genre behind Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ blockbuster “Left Behind” series.
Seen in that light, Mitchell says, the most significant event in biblical interpretation among the Christian Right is not any new discoveries or technologies, but the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“It was then that the communist sympathizers at home in America had to be enlarged to all liberals (with the still-bitter legacy of the 1960s paving the way) to fill the entire curriculum of adversarial roles,” she says.
“September 11th was a possible pivotal point, for the attack on American soil created a potential opportunity for shifting the enemy role to radical Islam, but on the whole that has not happened, apparently because the Christian Right (for all its disdain for political correctness) has accepted at least publicly the need for inter-religious tolerance.
“Still, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, Undersecretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld, did appear in uniform in a church in Oregon to express the sentiment that the 9/11 attacks happened ‘because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian. … And the enemy is a guy named Satan.'”
“By self-definition, the ‘Christian Right’ is a movement that seeks to remake the political order in America in the biblical image,” Mitchell concludes. “It seems fair to ask both those who honor it and those who repudiate it to examine, with a critical eye, whether or not it is really a biblically literalist movement.”
“Biblical? Yes and no. Biblical in the sense of seeking biblical support for an agenda? Yes. Biblical in the sense of reading the whole Bible? No. Biblical in the sense of reading the Bible literally? No, not consistently. Biblical in reading parts for the whole, and in using the Bible as a source of weapons to define themselves against their enemies? Yes. Wrestling with the possible plural meanings and complex legacies of Bible itself? Not in public, at any rate.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.