Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Bogus Biblicism Of the Religious Right - Rev. Dr. Jack Good

Recent events have given additional evidence of a fact most of us wish we did not have to acknowledge: Religious fundamentalism is one of the most destructive forces on the planet. The dangers increase when fundamentalism is rooted in blind obedience to, and misuse of, a holy book.The religious right demonstrates that the danger is no less real in Christianity than in any other faith. Violence, for these people who claim to be followers of Jesus, lies near the surface, as evidenced by a spokesperson who recently counseled the government to “take out” the elected head of a South American nation. My concern here is for another of fundamentalism’s destructive tendencies. For more than a generation, this reactionary group has pushed an agenda that, if enacted, would limit the rights and freedoms of significant portions of the population. Their announced rationale is that their positions are rooted in the Bible. Their claim does not square with reality. The truth is that the Bible does not support their stands on abortion, homosexuality, or “family values.” Leaders of the religious right have seized the Judeo-Christian scripture—“stolen” is not too strong a word—to immeasurably strengthen the arguments for their radical concerns. This has been a shrewd move. Even in our increasingly secular society the Bible carries considerable weight. Shifting that weight from one side of the social debate to the other gives reactionary arguments an inappropriate, and, as shall be shown, a quite unsupportable, advantage.

The so-called “biblical conservatives” do not attempt to adjust themselves to biblical themes; that would be disastrous for their cause. Instead, they attempt to align the scripture with their ideas. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have been particularly ingenious in this task. Robertson and Falwell make their biblical claims by taking snippets of scripture and rearranging them to suit their goals. Or, they simply claim a biblical foundation for their ideas without any biblical citations at all. A good example of this is Falwell’s response to criticism by an organization of homosexuals:"We were targeted solely because we advocate biblical ideals, namely traditional marriage and sexual purity before marriage - moral principles that counter those of the homosexual-rights movement."The Christian Coalition", formerly led by Pat Robertson, has been equally eager to attach itself to the aura of scripture. “God’s Plan for Salvation,” which this group offers on its website, offers numerous short quotes taken from various parts of the Bible, but gives the reader no opportunity to explore the Bible in depth.

This shallow and scattered approach has been the modus operandi throughout the life of his Christian Coalition. Few people seem to have noted how vulnerable the religious right has become through this process. Since their spokespersons have designated the Bible – “God’s Word” as they like to call it – as the primary support for their social positions, recognizing the false nature of that support could cause the collapse of their primary arguments.It is time to challenge the religious right at this point of vulnerability. Toward that end, it is helpful to expose the distance between what the religious right claims and what the Bible actually says about concrete items on their social agenda. Exposing the bogus use that the religious right makes of scripture can also reclaim the Bible for its more traditional, liberating role.AbortionOn the subject of abortion, the religious right takes a strongly pro-life, anti-choice, position. Unfortunately for them, biblical warrant for their stance is non-existent. Absolutely. The morality of abortion is not a biblical topic.

No other subject illustrates so clearly the dishonest way in which the religious right exploits the Bible. Here is a quote from one of Pat Robertson’s writings: “Nature is clear. Abortions kill babies. And the revealed laws of God about such killings in both the Old and New Testaments are easily understood.” The reader may note that “the revealed laws of God about such killings” are not cited. They are not cited because they do not exist.The absence of biblical comment on abortion is a surprise. The sexual ethic of the early biblical writers was designed to create as many babies as possible. Israel was a small nation surrounded by potential enemies. To maximize births, polygamy was allowed. The spilling of semen in any way other than production of babies (via masturbation, male homosexuality, and even intercourse with one’s wife during her period of infertility) was declared an abomination. Incredibly, in view of the need for population growth, the deliberate termination of a pregnancy never made it to this “thou shalt not” list.In only one instance does a biblical writer describe anything like abortion. This case makes clear that the protection of a pure paternal line was of greater value than continuation of a particular pregnancy. The passage in question (the later verses of the fifth chapter of Numbers, a text so hostile to women that I have never heard it read in public) describes one method of aborting an unwanted pregnancy. If, according to this obscure passage, a husband was suspicious that the fetus his wife was carrying may not be related to him, he and the priest could conspire to feed the wife enough impurities to make her violently ill. If she aborted, this was taken as a sign that another man had fathered the fetus.

The woman, having just lost her expected child, would then be banished from the community. If woman and fetus survived, it was assumed the husband’s suspicions were wrong.This obscure passage shows that abortion was practiced in ancient Jewish culture. Abortion is not mentioned again in scripture, nor can any rules be found to regulate the practice.

Several biblical passages relate indirectly to abortion. The twenty-first chapter of Exodus describes punishments to be meted out in cases of personal injury or death. Striking a person a mortal blow was punishable by death. But if, in a brawl, a man bumped against a pregnant woman and caused a miscarriage, he was to pay her spouse an amount determined by that husband. This verse directly precedes the famous “eye for an eye” concept: “When harm is done, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (Exodus 21:22-24). Obviously, the fetus from the previous verse was not considered to be fully human, or the person who had caused its demise would have had to forfeit his own life. In the twenty-seventh chapter of Leviticus monetary value was assigned to men, women, and children—a determination necessary to settle civil suits. Females were valued at sixty percent the worth of males. Children were assigned even lower worth, a value that decreased with younger age. No value was mentioned for anyone less than a month old, and no additional worth was assigned to a pregnant woman.

In most debates over abortion, the command, “You shall not kill,” will be voiced. Actually, a correct translation of this commandment is, “You shall not murder.” The Jewish nation, along with other societies of the time, was busy killing. They killed in war. They killed by enforcing a long list of capital crimes. Abortion did not fall under this prohibition, since no biblical writer labeled a developing fetus a human being. Without that label, the fetus would not be subject to murder. One Biblical writer even gave mothers and fathers permission to kill their own children when those children were disobedient. (Exodus 21:15 and 17) Since children were considered the property of parents, the children could be either cared for or disposed of as the owner determined. The religious right is thus in the position of arguing from scripture that parents had the authority to stone a child to death for insubordination, but were forbidden to interrupt the pregnancy that produced that child. One thing is clear to any reader of scripture. Biblical writers were capable of putting together powerful, declaratory sentences. Clear prohibitions abound. Yet not a single writer felt motivated to state: “You shall not interrupt a pregnancy.” Neither this sentence nor anything remotely like it appears in scripture. The morality of abortion is not an issue in the pages of the Bible.

Rev. Dr. Jack Good