Friday, August 15, 2008

The Bible and the law

In his column of June 26 Bill Press took James Dobson to task for his criticisms of Barack Obama’s theology. He wrote

James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, recently blasted Obama for his now famous “Call to Renewal” speech of 2006, in which he pointed out that there’s an inherent difficulty in attempts by evangelicals to establish the Bible as the road map for public policy. “Would we go with James Dobson’s interpretation (of the Bible),” Obama asked his audience, “or Al Sharpton’s?” For Dobson, even raising that question is pure heresy. “I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology,” Dobson told his national radio audience. He even accused Obama of having a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.” But unlike previous Democratic candidates, Obama didn’t back down. He questioned what Dobson meant by the “traditional understanding” of the Bible. “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?” Obama asked. “Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount?”

When it comes to public policy the government’s chief concern is maintaining order and protecting the helpless. Issues like the commandment against eating shellfish are not a government concern. But the government must have some principles to back up law enforcement. For example, polygamy was outlawed in the 19th century. How was that decision justified if not on Biblical grounds? To take another example, Muslim Sharia law prescribes penalties that would be considered cruel and unusual punishment by the 8th amendment to our Constitution. The New Testament provides the basis for excluding cruel and unusual punishment: the worth and dignity of each individual. The example from Deuteronomy 21:18-21 makes it clear that the New Testament as well as the old has something to say about the administration of justice. Jews don’t stone their children for being rebellious, but presumably must say, “we just don’t do that anymore” in justification. Christians can point to any number of passages in the New Testament to justify a firm but loving approach to raising children. He continues

Again, Obama tackled head-on what Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell have been saying for years: that we are a Christian nation; that public policy must be based on the Bible; and that every word of the Bible must be taken literally.

Of course the founders of our country were not literalists. They were products of the enlightenment and had a more sophisticated understanding of the Bible than Dobson and Falwell. Nevertheless, they believed that the Bible should serve as a guide to the writing of laws and the administration of justice. John Adams said,

"We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.'"

“Religion” in the thinking of the founding fathers meant, specifically, Christianity. He continues

In our pluralistic society, it’s not that simple. Because not all Americans are Christians, or even believers, you can’t find common ground for legislation based on the Bible.

No, it’s not that simple. But laws must have a basis and must be enforced, even on people who don’t agree with the basis. The alternative is anarchy and chaos. A good many immigrants come here because they know that the rule of law is respected here. Denying the religious basis for law just undermines it. Finally he writes

Even though most Americans are Christians, we are not a Christian nation: never have been, never will be. Therefore, in making the laws that govern our nation, we don’t turn to the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the Koran. We turn to the only sacred text that all Americans worship: the U.S. Constitution.

Please let’s not call the Constitution a “sacred text that all Americans worship”. It is the best founding document for a republic ever written, and ought to be deeply respected by every American, but not considered sacred or worshiped. Sacredness and worship are reserved for God, who gave us many of the principles written in our Constitution.

No comments: