Review and Reflection on “The Ballot and the Bible” by Kaitlyn Schiess

If there are two subjects I care deeply about it is politics and religion.  I have seen politics and religion be used and abused.  I have seen them be used properly as well.  This book addresses how politics has used the Bible for its own purposes.  But before you go and feel bad for religion, understand that when Scripture is misused, it is often from a willing party.  

Schiess gets right to the point with three key statements in the introduction:

  1. “For all our familiarity with the Bible, we are woefully ignorant about how or why we are using the Bible in politics.” (Pg. 2)
  2. “We jump into the juicy fright of the moment, whip out our favorite Bible verses, and completely forget to ask if we even agree on the nature of human government or the relationship between the church and earthly governments.” (Pg. 3)
  3. “If we want to understand Scripture better and apply it more faithfully…We will need to know our Bible and our history.” (Pg. 3)

This is a timely book in so many ways especially as we approach yet another ongoing, and in many ways, unending campaign season.  Is the Bible just another tool (or weapon) to be used in the never-ending battle between ideologies?  Or is it a foundation piece that forces us to deal with unpleasant realities coupled with Good News – something that goes beyond whatever we are fighting about or whatever campaign is going on?  

Schiess starts by tackling what is referred to as “one of the most familiar lines in the liturgy of American civic religion” – A city on a hill. (Pg. 8).  Reagan used it to his advantage throughout his campaign and presidency, but the phrase has a longer history, going back to Puritan roots and John Winthrop in 1630.  The phrase was used by Winthrop to talk about caring for the poor in society.  Reagan transformed the city on the hill into something else – “it’s the history of how America seized a metaphor and shaped it into a story to tell about ourselves.” (Pg. 9)

“We misapply promises because we misunderstand who is being addressed.  We are often narcissistic and nationalistic readers, seeing our own nation as the subject of every promise or command.  This problem might be the besetting sin of American political theology.” (Pg. 9).  The core of Schiess’ argument is this – America confuses itself with ancient Israel as having a special place in history.  We also twist the idea of being specially blessed in thinking that it is solely for our own benefit as summarize with the phrase “America First” which contradicts the original intent of “a city on a hill.” (Pg. 11).  But this isn’t anything new really.  

Schiess goes from this core foundation to the next big abuse of Scripture – passages like Romans 13.  “We tend to invoke passages like Romans 13 selectively, depending on the issue or politician.” (Pg. 22).  I wrote on this topic in a previous blog post because it is so prevalent and hypocritical.  You can find my post here –  So much of the argument around submission to government is misunderstood.  It’s not a blank check for governments to do whatever they want.  This ultimately comes down to the role and function of government – promoting the common good.  Schiess reminds the reader – “Paul was not writing a treatise on politics…Romans 13:1-7 deals with a specific example of the kinds of obligations that a Christian has both within the church and outside it – obligations that prioritize the common good of others above individual rights…Paul thus denies Rome’s central justifying claims – that its law is redemptive, that its rule produces peace, that its authority comes from the gods…The gospel leaves no room for nationalism or blanket approval of whoever wields the most power.” (Pg. 30-31)

And that’s the key.  When Scripture is being used to promote power, it is being misapplied and misunderstood.  The Good News frees people, not subjects them.  God’s kingdom crosses human made borders.  God has always been in the business of moving creation towards Shalom – peace, wholeness, completeness.  Empires are the antithesis of this.  

Schiess then turns to a historical example of Scripture being used for political purposes – slavery in America.  She does an incredible job of presenting the arguments from the pro-slavery and anti-slavery sides and their uses of Scripture.  There are two references to the book that I want to point out for this section that relate to the overall picture.

“We should note that the most marginalized and oppressed people were the most able to grasp the meaning of the Bible – a text written by marginalized and oppressed people…one significant lesson from the Bible – is that the powerful are often deceived about their own sin and the powerless are prioritized by God.” (Pg. 48-49).  

Schiess moves forward in history to the social gospel period when reformers had a period of success in shaping public policy.  It is interesting to note that “Evangelicals have a long history of social reform that includes…national efforts towards prohibition and prison reform, and support of public education and welfare programs.” (Pg. 53).  

In this section Schiess also talks about the rise of fundamentalism and modernism, liberal and conservative theological lenses.  She reminds the reader that conservatives “often read texts as having purely or primarily individual or spiritual meanings; liberals read them as having purely or primarily social and political meanings.” (Pg. 63).  Her point – each has a part, but not the whole.  

Schiess moves forward again to the Civil Rights era and how Scripture was used by segregationists and those advocating for civil rights.  So much of this chapter is about Martin Luther King, Jr, and his efforts as well as those who opposed him.  It showcases how Scripture was used to maintain a status quo and how Scripture was also used as the foundation for change.  

Schiess then moves us to the 1980’s and the arguments over the size of government and economics.  Here, Schiess makes a few overarching points that again apply across history:

  1. “First, the Bible is concerned with the spiritual and the material.” (Pg. 97)
  2. “Second, the Bible is directed to both individuals and communities.” (Pg. 98)
  3. “Third, the Bible does not give us a blueprint for government, but it does leave us with some direction.” (Pg. 99)
  4. “Fourth, the Bible is not the only source of truth, but it should shape how we interpret other sources.” (Pg. 101)
  5. “Fifth, the Bible does not fit in predetermined political boxes.” (Pg. 103)
  6. “Sixth, the clearest teaching of the Bible regarding politics is that we treat our opponents fairly.” (Pg. 103)

These are all great and worthwhile points that it would be wise for us to follow.  But the challenge with that is giving up our ideological attachments as our primary identities.  In our culture, our politics seems to have primacy over our theology.  Too many see their politics, policies, ideology, political party, and chosen politicians as the means of salvation, rather than Jesus.  

Schiess moves us ever closer to the present time – taking us through the Cold War, popular Rapture theologies and art, and End Times predictions.  “Some historians have argued that apocalypticism – the warning of sudden approaching end times – defines American religion.” (Pg. 106).  Indeed.  Eschatology can provide comfort as well as fear – powerful emotions that will cause people to act.  And in America, we’ve had a series of people who have taken advantage of that.  

Schiess moves us to George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s use of Scripture.  The key question that is raised is this – “Do we care more about Christian identity than Christian action?” (Pg. 122).  Both of these presidents had their own answer to that key question and their use of Scripture backed up those beliefs.  Why is this important?  “One scholar calls American presidents the ‘high priests of American civil religion.’” (Pg. 122).  “Bush’s public Christianity was mostly commitment to a social and religious identity; Obama’s was more about speaking the language of the Christian faith.” (Pg. 133).  My own observation is that this tracks also with more conservative and liberal faith perspectives – conservatives are often more concerned with “correct” beliefs and statements.  Liberals tend to be more concerned with “correct” action.  

Schiess then moves us to the Trump presidency.  Right at the beginning of the chapter she tackles the awkward photo op of Trump holding the Bible upside down in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Schiess goes in depth on looking at how Evangelicals have lined up behind Trump in spite of his lack of Christian ethics.  So much of this relates to the previous chapters – it’s about authority and power, getting policies that you want, and over-looking inconveniences, but grounding it all in a view of Scripture.  Schiess concludes this chapter by saying: “We should be concerned with understanding what Jesus actually meant, not merely picking up useful language for our predetermined political projects.” (Pg. 153).  Amen.

In the last chapter, Schiess examines our present situation through the lens of Augustine and Calvin, two key figures in Christianity’s past who have enormous influence that is still felt today.  She makes the argument that we should look at the power of exile and how it can form us and shape us in how we approach politics.  Both theologians had their ideas about this.  “[Augustine] encouraged the church to neither despair nor place ultimate hopes in the empire.” (pg. 160).  “For Calvin, the state is divinely commissioned, given authority by God to maintain earthly peace by protecting the vulnerable and punishing the wicked.” (Pg. 166).  And that right there is a defining difference in how we approach the use of the Bible and politics that still influences us today.  

Overall, this book is well worth reading.  It’s approachable, offers a good history related to the points being made, and gives a sense of how connected events of history are to the overarching themes that still impact us today.  

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