Understanding the Word of God is a difficult, dangerous endeavor, which is why politicians usually steer clear of citing chapter and verse in support of public policy. In light of James Dobson attacking Barack Obama’s “fruitcake interpretation” of the Bible, Christianity Today takes a look at the perils of political theologizing. The article and a bit of explanation after the jump:
Politicians understandably fear to tread where theologians rule, the field of hermeneutics. Here theologians debate how to interpret the Bible and apply it across time and culture. In his 2006 speech Obama made a hermeneutical point when he doubted that the U.S. Defense Department could survive application of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If we knew what was in there, Obama implied, we wouldn’t find it such a simple thing to say our politics were based on Scripture. “So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles,” Obama said. “Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles.”
If only it were as easy as reading our Bibles. Analysis takes more work. Fortunately, the church has already invested a lot of time into understanding the tensions Obama brought up.
Hermeneutics helps us understand that Jesus does not necessarily have the nation-state in mind when he tells his followers not to retaliate (Matt. 5:38-39). We cross-reference this passage with Romans 13:4. Obama notes that the Book of Leviticus prohibits eating shellfish (Lev. 11:9-12). Presumably, he aims to make a point about homosexuality, since some Christians cite Leviticus 20:13, which sanctions the death penalty for those who engage in homosexual acts. Many Christians, as Dobson pointed out, have long recognized that these specific laws applied for a time to Israel, not to the church inaugurated by Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17). Yet they find sufficient teaching on homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 to still oppose this practice.
Usually, politicians want no part in these theological debates. Otherwise, they would provoke Christian leaders such as Dobson to say, “He is deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology.” But Obama is no typical politician. That which makes him interesting makes him controversial.
Remember all the early campaign mentions of Reinhold Niebuhr? There is an obvious reason for the appeal to broad Christian values, which I’ve written about, sometimes lamenting, over and over and over and over, and Newsweek mentions in this issue: Evangelicals are really, really important—the magazine says “crucial”—to winning the presidency.