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The Bible and Public Policy

by Jeffrey S. Siker

Mr. Siker is a Presbyterian minister in Dayton, New Jersey and working on a doctorate in New Testament studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 19, 1986, p. 171. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Several months ago a friend visited Nicaragua under the auspices of the "Witness for Peace" program. His first sermon upon returning challenged the congregation to write to the president and congressional representatives in protest of the U.S. effort to overthrow the Nicaraguan government and the U.S. support for the oppressive government in El Salvador. The text for his sermon was the story of Naboth’s vineyard in I Kings 21. He drew analogies between Ahab and the U.S. on the one hand, and Naboth and Nicaragua on the other. As one would expect, his sermon drew a lot of criticism from members of the congregation, most of whom are probably staunch Republicans. But the sermon also bothered me -- a liberal Democrat. After church I told him I had problems with his use of the Bible. "Do you mean to imply that there’s a foreign policy for the U.S. in the Bible?" I asked. "Yes!" he answered. And the debate began.

Ever since that conversation I have been increasingly wary of any appeal to the Bible as an authority for constructing public policy, foreign or domestic. To explore further the relationship between the Bible and public policy, I intend to describe how the Bible has been used in recent public-policy statements, provide a critique of that use, and finally offer some remarks about the appropriate relationship between the Bible and discussions of public policy.

The speeches of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan provide an instructive contrast regarding the relationship between the Bible and public policy, especially since both presidents have been closely associated with Christian groups. For all the hoopla about President Carter’s "born-again" Christianity and his regular attendance at Sunday school (where he taught the Bible) , he rarely referred to the Bible in public. Perhaps his most celebrated use of Scripture was at the signing of the Camp David accords, where in reference to Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt he cited the famous beatitude from Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." In his other speeches, he almost never referred to the Bible, even in emphasizing human rights. Thus, though Carter was as well versed in the Bible as any president in history, Scripture had very little public role in his administration.

An indication of why the Bible played so little a part in Carter’s public discussion may be detected in the text he chose to have the Bible opened to for his swearing-in ceremony. The passage was Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" This passage reflects Carter’s way of relating his personal faith to his role as president. It seems to point especially to the private arena of his faith. No doubt he felt guided by that faith as president, but it was not something that he sought to inject into the realm of policy debates.

This approach contrasts sharply with President Reagan’s use of the Bible. To what passage was the Bible opened for the swearing-in ceremony at his inaugurals? It was II Chronicles 7:14: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." This passage suggests a public, not a private, vision. It makes a public charge to the nation as God’s people, "my people who are called by my name.

In 1984 President Reagan again spoke at the National Association of Religious Broadcasters convention, where he stated: "1983 was the year more of us read the Good Book. Can we make a resolution here today: that 1984 will be the year we put its great truths into action?" Again he affirmed: "Within the covers of that single Book are all the answers to all the problems that face us today -- if only we’d read and believe" (Christianity Today, March 2, 1984, p. 38). What does it mean to put the Bible’s "great truths" into action? What are the problems for which it provides answers? Reagan went on to assert his opposition to abortion and his support of school prayer (tuition tax credits were also mentioned in his 1983 speech) He ended by quoting John 3:16, after which he received a standing ovation. In this context, then, he used the Bible to secure the support of conservative evangelicals and to link the Bible to their social-policy goals.

President Reagan has also appealed to the Bible to support fiscal and military policy. In 1985, before a group of business and trade representatives, and then before the NARB annual convention (which he hasn’t missed in three years) , he used Jesus’ parable about counting the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:31-32) to support his proposed increases in the military budget. He introduced the biblical passage by saying, "The Scriptures are on our side on this." Thus, for President Reagan, the Bible can serve as an appropriate authority for a specific policy.

The president is by no means alone in appealing to the Bible as an authority for public policy. Indeed, opponents of Reagan’s policies also appeal to Scripture. This is especially the case in liberal Christian circles, where the Bible is appealed to in support of the sanctuary movement and nuclear arms reduction, and in attacking the role of the U.S. in Central America. President Reagan’s appeals are made publicly, whereas liberal Christian appeals are usually made within the church, especially in the mainline Protestant denominations. But conservative and liberal Christians alike use the Bible in support of specific policy positions.

The overarching problem with the use of the Bible in public-policy debates is the implicit assumption by both conservative and liberal Christians that the Bible somehow addresses the U.S. as a nation. But to assume so is to misconstrue the nature of the Bible, the character of the people of God and the proper basis for public-policy discussion in a democratic society.

To use the Bible in public-policy discussion is to take for granted that somehow it is the nation’s book, that it has a legitimate claim in the public arena. While this may be an accurate account of the relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient Israel, it is not true of the relationship between the Christian Bible and the United States. When my friend preached his sermon equating Ahab with the U.S. and Naboth with Nicaragua, his critique implied that the U.S. is like ancient Israel in its covenant responsibilities to God. In doing so, he was in principle no different from Jerry Falwell, who seeks to "turn America back to God." Though his conclusions about what the U.S. should do differ from those Falwell reaches, both assume that the Bible does address U.S. policy.

And so the question must be raised: Whom does the Scripture address? Who is the intended audience? It must be stated clearly that the Bible does not address the public at large, let alone public-policy issues. Rather, it speaks to the people of God, the community of faith. It is the church’s book, the synagogue’s book, which bears witness to God’s redemptive activity in the past, present and future. As a witness to God’s activity and presence, it issues a call to faith, a call to repentance, a call to commitment and a call to be in the world but not of it.

This does not mean that the Bible provides no guidance to Christians as individuals or as a community regarding how to live in the world. It does mean that attempts to legislate public policy on the basis of Christian ethics found in the Bible are illegitimate. Attempts to do so approach idolatry by turning Christian ethics into that which it simply cannot be -- of the world. For the internal life of Christian community the Bible indeed may play a constructive role for social ethics -- bearing witness to the variety of shapes and expressions of faith among the earliest Christians. But to press the Bible beyond the bounds of Christian community is to forget that the world is not the same as the community of faith.

Those who use the Bible in public-policy discussion must implicitly assume in some way that a particular society can or should be identified with the covenant community of God. Clearly this is President Reagan’s assumption, or perhaps his hope, regarding America. This assumption clearly runs counter to the Christian understanding, expressed in the New Testament, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female -- and, we should add, neither black nor white, Republican nor Democrat, Russian nor American -- for all believers are one in Christ. Christian community transcends the national and social barriers we have erected. By so doing it anticipates and points to the Kingdom of God, though it does not presume to establish that kingdom in God’s stead.

Again, it must be stressed that conservative Christians are not alone in claiming that the Bible addresses public policy. Liberal Christians make the same mistake. The only difference between conservative and liberal Christian use of the Bible in public-policy discussion is the social policies they advocate and the biblical proof texts they manipulate. In neither case is the Bible used solely to encourage, challenge and edify the community of faith as it struggles to discern what it means to be the eschatological people of God who are in but not of the world.

Furthermore, to use the Bible in public-policy discussion violates the proper basis of discussion in a democratic society. Those who appeal to the "founding fathers" to justify such use need to look more carefully at those figures. Scholar Mark Noll, who has carefully examined the place of the Bible in American history and culture, concludes that "the political figures who read the Bible in private rarely, if ever, betrayed that acquaintance in public" ("The Bible in Revolutionary America," The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Political Rhetoric, edited by I. T. Johnson [Fortress, 1985], p. 43) Certainly there were devout Christians among the founding fathers and mothers of our nation, but there were probably more who would be considered "secular humanists" by the contemporary Christian right. Indeed, the individual most responsible for guaranteeing religious freedom in the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, was an avowed deist. In a 1779 preamble to a bill on religious freedom introduced in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson wrote:

Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics and geometry; therefore the proscribing of any citizen as unworthy of the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to office of public trust . . . unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which he has a natural right.

Christianity may be the tacit religion of the U.S., but it is not the "official" religion of the country. Those who would use Scriptures in public-policy discussion forget this, and improperly assume that the Bible can be used legitimately to address the nation. They forget that the Bible is neither the preamble to the U.S. Constitution nor an amendment to it.

When individuals do use the Bible to provide proof texts for public policy, they must be declared out of bounds by those who uphold the Constitution and by the church. Indeed, the church should stand aghast at any co-opting of its Scriptures in the realm of public-policy debate, for that is not the realm in which Scripture functions authoritatively. As Richard John Neuhaus appropriately commented regarding President Reagan’s use of Luke 14: "I think the President would be well-advised to make the argument for his military budget and strategies on the basis of public reasoning rather than invoking dubious biblical authority" (New York Times, February 6, 1985, section 4, p. 14). Public reasoning should always be the basis for public policy -- reasoning which does not find its ground in Christian or biblical positions.

It might be objected that the approach I’ve outlined leans toward a sectarian understanding of the church. To an extent this is true. The Bible could be seen as something that separates the church from society at large rather than as that which impels the church to be engaged in public-policy discussion. However, the Bible may still impel the church to be engaged in fighting for justice in the world without being appealed to in debates on public policy. Why? Because seeking justice is not an exclusively Christian position. Being a Christian does not mean that one cannot argue for justice on the basis of public reasoning.

A second objection, related to the first, is that the position advocated here might seem to bifurcate the individual into a public secular half and a private Christian half, each operating independently of the other. This is not what I am suggesting. Rather, I am proposing that it is possible for a Christian to claim the lordship of Christ over the whole of her or his life and at the same time respect another who does not make that claim. Furthermore, I suggest that one way to demonstrate this respect is by agreeing to discuss public policy on common grounds.

As Christians, we are in the world, and must act responsibly. As American Christians, we are privileged to participate in a government of, by and for the people. We must not abuse this privilege by either ignoring our responsibility or by thinking we can and should use it as an opportunity to establish God’s kingdom here and now. Rather, as Christians we too must appeal to public reason when debating public policy.

The Bible neither has nor makes any claims over public reason. It is the book of the eschatological people of God, the community of faith. In the church it plays a crucial role as a testimony to God’s presence and actions and to the human struggle to live faithfully in Christian community. But in the realm of public-policy discussion, the Bible has no place.


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