There’s something kind of pathetic about religion professors who, for the sake of political partisanship, prostitute their supposed scholarship. Stephen Prothero of Boston University, last seen here claiming that the Anders Breivik is a “Christian terrorist,” does just that in a column at CNN entitled “5 biblical passages for Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry.”
Jumping off from the question Byron York asked Bachmann at last week’s Republican presidential debate about wifely submission, Prothero offers these cringe-worthy observations about five Bible verses (conveniently ripped from context, mistranslated, or worse) he’d like evangelicals Perry and Bachmann to address:
1. “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands” (Colossians 3:18).
Nice head fake, Professor. Taking this from Colossians, rather than Ephesians 3:22-33, means that he can ignore the theological context (i.e., wives’ submission is set next to husbands’ love–a form of submission in itself–both of which are set in the context of Christ’s giving Himself for the church, which is not mentioned in Colossians). This by itself demonstrates that Prothero is engaged in “Bible gotcha!” rather than genuinely trying to discern what the candidates are about.
After offering up John Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech, in which he said he would stop being a Roman Catholic for the sake of winning election, Prothero goes on to inquire:
I would like to know whether Bachmann will say the same about her evangelical Protestantism. If her husband tells her to veto a bill, will she submit to him? Is there any separation for her, as there was for Kennedy, between her private religious doctrines (in this case, that wives should be submissive to their husbands) and her public responsibilities (to act as “the decider”)?
Prothero seems to be under the impression that evangelicals see Paul’s call for wifely submission as a requirement that husbands make every decision, even those that have nothing to do with him. No evangelical I know has ever said that if a wife has a career, the husband who is not part of the business has any say in decisions the wife makes in her job. For example, a wife who runs a tech company, and decides that her company will start making products to compete with iPhones, is under no obligation to consult with her husband, who is a high school gym teacher, about whether this is a good idea, and if he offers an opinion, is under no obligation to abide by it.
Similarly, if President Michelle Bachmann is confronted with the question of whether to sign a free trade agreement with Malaysia, Marcus can offer all the free advice he wants, and she can do as she pleases with the bill. That’s because Paul is talking about the marriage relationship, not job decisions. That would be obvious either to someone who understood Paul or bothered to read modern evangelical writing on the subject, but Prothero isn’t actually interested in the answer, but in making Bachmann look foolish.
2. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
When I watched Perry’s performance at “The Response,” this Bible quote came to mind. I would like to know what he thinks of it.
Should Christians make a show of praying in public? This passage at least would seem to say no. In fact, it seems to say that when you pray you should go into your room and shut the door before addressing God. But perhaps I am misreading it. Either way, I would like for Perry to tell me what he makes of this Bible passage. And Bachmann, too, while we are at it.
He isn’t “misreading it.” What he’s doing is taking a mindlessly literal (and again, context-free) interpretation of it, and suggesting that Perry and Bachmann are somehow obligated to correct him. Christians pray in public all the time, and Prothero knows that. This verse comes in the context of Jesus telling those who would follow Him that they are not to pray publicly for the sake of garnering people’s acclaim. Now, you can argue about whether Perry was doing that at The Response. If Prothero wants to make that argument, he should make it, and stop being coy. He should also ask whether President Obama agrees.
3. “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:12).
Part of the Ten Commandments, this passage has been used by many social conservatives to argue against Roe v. Wade and abortion rights. After all, if God said, “Thou shalt not kill” then why are we taking lives inside the womb? But if God said, “Thou shalt not kill” then why are we allowing capital punishment?
I would like to hear from both Perry and Bachmann about how they read this passage, and how it can simultaneously justify opposition to abortion rights and support for the death penalty. (During his term as Texas governor, Perry has overseen 234 executions. Bachmann’s position on the issue is unclear.)
Does Prothero know that Exodus 20:12 should actually be translated as “You shall not murder,” and that the same Torah from which this is taken authorizes Israel to carry out the death penalty for a number of transgressions? Of course he does. Again, he’s just playing “gotcha.” It’s actually easy to both oppose abortion (the private taking of life) and support capital punishment (the public, state-authorized taking of life) based on Exodus 20:12. I don’t know about Perry and Bachmann, but any evangelical relatively well-versed in biblical ethics could explain it to him.
4. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25).
This famous quotation, which appears in parallel form in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, arises when Jesus is asked a “gotcha” question about paying taxes to the Roman government. It has been read in various ways by various Christians.
Nonetheless, Jesus seems to be drawing a clear distinction here between religious and secular authority – a distinction that neither Perry nor Bachmann appears to see.
Admittedly, neither of these candidates agrees with the famous metaphor of Thomas Jefferson famous metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state” but does either see a line of demarcation of any sort – a picket fence, perhaps – between “what is Caesar’s” and “what is God’s”?
At this point Prothero is simply exhibiting his prejudices. What exactly has either candidate said that would lead anyone to think that they don’t see any distinction between religious and secular authority? This is simply a variation on the far left meme that evangelicals are all theocrat wannabes, driven by “Dominion Theology” to impose the death penalty on gays and appoint Jerry Falwell clones to the Supreme Court. (By the way, you’ll be hearing a lot about this in the next fifteen months if any conservative Christian is nominated for president–one of the foremost advocates of this nonsense, Michelle Goldberg, is a senior contributing editor for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. Her latest screed, issued the day after Perry declared, is here.)
5. “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). In Luke, he says, more simply, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
This Lukan passage is a key source in the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church for the so-called “preferential option for the poor”—the notion that Christian communities have a particular responsibility to take care of the poor in their midst.
How do Perry and Bachmann read this passage? Did Luke mess up by leaving out “in spirit”? Or did Jesus really say “Blessed are the poor”? And if he did say that, what did he mean by it? Do his words carry any meaning for us today, and to the way we craft our federal budget?
Standard religious left folderol. That those more blessed have obligations to the poor is beyond dispute, and I seriously doubt that either Bachmann or Perry would deny that. But this last “gotcha” has two problems: 1) Jesus never addressed the subject of state support for the poor–His bag was that His disciples should do everything they can, even while recognizing that “the poor you always have with you” (John 12:8–a verse that most religious liberals conveniently forget); and 2) there are multiple ways to help the poor, and the way of state support through welfare programs is hardly the only one, though Prothero do doubt can’t come up with any others. On the left, there seems to be this assumption that, if you take a verse such as Luke 6:20 seriously, you must come to liberal economic and political conclusions. That not only belies reality, but suggests a real lack of imagination on the part of those who think that this is a “gotcha” question.
This is all put in a very academic, “I’d like to hear what the candidates have to say on this” sort of way. But it doesn’t take much experience with the religious left to know that these are meant to cause these two particular Christians to expose themselves as hypocrites, morons, or potential tyrants. Hopefully neither one of them will play the game.