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Reading the Bible with Obama

The presidential candidate crosses swords with Dr. Dobson over hermeneutics.

John McCain's victory in the Republican presidential primary may have signaled the declining influence of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who vowed not to vote for the Arizona senator. Then again, Dobson just made front-page news by commenting on a speech delivered two years ago.

Oddly enough, it is the Democratic candidate's willingness to talk theology that keeps Dobson relevant in this election. Speaking in 2006 before the Call to Renewal conference, Sen. Barack Obama explained with some depth his views on the relationship between faith and public policy. The speech drew widespread praise as a long-awaited Democratic affirmation of religion's contributions to American society.

"Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King — indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause," Obama said. "To say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Obama was not without his critics, however. A Christianity Today editorial, "God's Will in the Public Square," said Obama "gets it mostly right." The editorial expressed concern with one passage that Obama acknowledged "is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do." He said, "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

This approach is probably good politics. Indeed, one politician not commonly associated with Obama already practices this strategy. You won't hear from President George W. Bush direct appeals to United Methodist Church teachings to justify his opposition to same-sex marriage or abortion. Speaking in 2004 in support of a Federal Marriage Amendment, Bush said, "The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honoring — honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith. Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society."

Signing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, Bush likewise declined to cite chapter and verse. "By acting to prevent this practice, the elected branches of our government have affirmed a basic standard of humanity, the duty of the strong to protect the weak," Bush said. "The wide agreement amongst men and women on this issue, regardless of political party, shows that bitterness in political debate can be overcome by compassion and the power of conscience."

Maybe there's another reason why Bush did not cite chapter and verse. What passage would he have chosen? Like many others, Bush could have quoted Psalm 139:13: "For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb." But is that what King David had in mind when he composed this poetry? Maybe Bush could have exegeted Exodus 21:22-23: "When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life." It's possible that this verse proves that God regards children in the womb as fully human. Therefore, those who do them harm deserve the same penalty proscribed against murderers (Gen. 9:6). But if Bush had cited this verse, would that mean he supported the death penalty for abortionists? Speaking more broadly, would that mean he believed the American republic should conform to the law God handed down through Moses for Israel?

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.

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.

Related Elsewhere:

More about Barack Obama's faith is in our Campaign 2008 full-coverage section.

Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.

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