Deliver Us From Scripture-citers

Jeff Jacoby
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Posted: Mar 26, 2017 11:58 AM
Deliver Us From Scripture-citers

"THE DEVIL can cite Scripture for his purpose," says the wealthy Antonio to his young friend Bassanio in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

So can the politician, he might have added. And the party activist.

Full disclosure: I've never actually read "The Merchant of Venice." Though I'm familiar with the story, I have yet to actually study the text or even view a performance of the play. But that line about the devil citing Scripture suits the point I want to make, so I plucked it out of context to use in this column.

When the Trump administration released an outline recently of its forthcoming budget proposals, many on the left expressed dismay. The White House wants to reduce spending on the State Department, environmental programs, arts and broadcast subsidies, and housing initiatives, while significantly increasing outlays on defense, homeland security, and veterans' health care.

Cue the Scripture-citers.

Rachel Held Evans, a liberal Christian author, took to Twitter to decry proposed cuts to the Meals on Wheels program. "There are few things the Bible is unambiguously clear about," she tweeted, "but from Hebrew Scripture to Matt. 25, care for the poor & needy is one of them."

Nicholas Kristof used his New York Times column to craft a pastiche about Jesus and "Paul of Ryan," with the former speaking familiar lines from the New Testament — "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God," "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required" — while the latter disdainfully swats those teachings away. "Oh, come on, Jesus," the Ryan character sneers, "don't go socialist on me again."

On Monday, a story from the Religious News Service was headlined: "Trump's Budget Slashes Aid To The Poor. Would Jesus Have A Problem With That?" The piece recounted the "scriptural smackdown" pitting conservative blogger Erick Erickson against liberals condemning Trump's budget scheme as religiously "immoral" and downright "evil."

On a different tack, liberal activist Jay Michaelson weighed in with a bizarre biblical defense of the National Endowment for the Arts — God's appeal to the Israelites in Exodus 35 to donate precious metals, jewels, fabrics, and spices for the construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels. "Public art projects like the Tabernacle of the Israelites," writes Michaelson, demonstrate "what our civilization stands for" and why taxes should fund it.

Debating government spending is standard fare in Washington. Sanctimony is, too. But the posturing grows a little too pious when pundits and politicos, brandishing a line from the Bible, declare that Jesus would never reduce spending on X or that God must be in favor of budget hikes for Y — and imagine that that settles the debate.

Some of these Biblical invocations are just silly. The Tabernacle described in Exodus was not a "public art project," it was religious infrastructure used for priestly sacrifices and to house the Ark of the Covenant.

More importantly, the Bible is a sacred text, not a Cliffs Notes for federal budgeteers. No one can deny that Scripture is replete with exhortations to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and be compassionate to the downtrodden. But those injunctions are personal, not political. If they constitute a moral mandate, it is for the action of private individuals guided by conscience, not for government programs created by the state and collectively imposed through the pains and penalties of law.

Brandishing Scripture to promote a partisan political purpose ends up tarnishing the one without elevating the other.

I would never argue that American politics should be devoid of religious influence. This has always been a nation of Bible-readers and churchgoers. "In God We Trust" is the nation's motto. God appears four times in the Declaration of Independence. His blessing is entreated in every state constitution, and in countless presidential proclamations. It is altogether fitting and proper that religion has played so prominent a role in America's great social movements, from independence to abolition to equal rights.

But the nation's deep current of religious influence does not mean that public policy can be made by pointing to Bible verses. It is reasonable to read (for example) Jesus' words in Matthew 25 — "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me" — as a reminder that the ethical test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, and a call to each of us to extend a hand to those in need. It is not reasonable to claim that every faithful Christian must therefore endorse Meals on Wheels or defend public housing vouchers from budget cuts.

The temptation to quote the Bible for political purposes is bipartisan: Republicans and Democrats do it; conservatives and liberals do it. The impulse may be sincere. But flaunting a verse from Scripture to promote a political purpose ends up tarnishing the one without elevating the other.

By all means, study the Bible. Take its lessons to heart. Let those lessons guide how you live your life. Just don't confuse the word of God with a partisan political agenda.

Now I really ought to buckle down to read "The Merchant of Venice."