The American Values Network: A Case Study in Biblical Interpretation
In everything we do, we crave the approval of God, and politicians crave the approval of His followers. In the last couple decades, Democrats have noticed that a majority of Bible-believing, conservative voters align with the Republicans on most everything- abortion, immigration, gay marriage, defense, and others. Democrat candidates have a vested interest in courting this immense group of like-minded voters, and have given them a great deal of attention in the last few elections.
Let me be careful to add here that I am not so cynical as to believe that a majority of politicians view Christian morality as just a collection of phrases to attract voters. I think that most of our representatives are sincere in their efforts to reconcile their beliefs with their policies.
But when I read websites like the American Values Network, I am disheartened by the cynicism with which they approach the Bible. This paragraph on their ‘About Us’ page comes dangerously close to characterizing the Bible as a collection of talking points that are especially useful for duping religious voters:
“Several years ago, progressive members of Congress desired a guide to scripture that they could use as they entered the budget debate which immediately followed a floor debate about the marriage amendment. The result was this reference guide that could be used by progressive policy makers to explore what the Bible has to say about “the least of these,” how we should set spending priorities, and the role of society and government in caring for our neighbor. Since then, the guide has been updated to include a number of situational scripture references (and the context for those quotes) that elected officials may find useful as they seek to engage the faith community. The introductions to the quotes also provide basic talking points that can be used in values discussions. This guide is intended to act as a quick reference on Biblical principles and to help progressives expand our Biblical vocabulary.”
This paragraph makes the purpose of the website clear. It is not trying to exegete and study the Bible and determine what it says about problems we face today, it is trying to come up with Bible verses that can be used to defend ‘Progressive’ policies. As we will see, they don’t stray from liberal orthodoxy in any of the issues they address, despite the addition of Biblical language.
Allow me to step aside again and make something else clear: I’m not implying that correct theology requires a departure from liberal orthodoxy. I am saying that when you read the Bible through a political lens, not a single change will result from your study. An honest study of the Bible requires us to be open to what the Word is telling us; we remove this possibility when we know what we’re going to find before we crack it open.
The AVN website covers a lot of ground, so in my analysis I’m going to focus on their ‘Scripture and Policy’ page that has summaries of all their policy stances, and Bible verses and talking points that support them.
First, they get some things right. They seem genuinely interested in helping the poor. They agree that the Bible sets high standards for public life as well as private life. They point out that we should not have different moral standards on different issues (“If people are going to insist on applying scripture to the bedroom, they should apply it to the boardroom as well.”)
But in the rest, I found a lot of hypocrisy, bad theology, and a loose grasp on reality.
They wield verses like shovelfuls of dirt, wildly casting them everywhere they seem to have a peripheral connection to the topic at hand, not examining much context or asking themselves if the Bible doesn’t cut both ways on some issues. For example, they quote the Matthew 19:21, which is Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler who wants to inherit the Kingdom of God.
“‘Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me”’ (Matthew 19:20—note Jesus says this is what the man must do before he can follow Christ). The Bible’s call is for direct action. [italics theirs]”
Now, my footnotes don’t say that Jesus is calling for the young man to give other people’s possessions to the poor, by using his power to call for punitive taxes on the wealthy and throwing that money at bloated government ministries. But it’s possible they’re using a study Bible I’m not aware of.
They repeatedly take verses out of context and act as if Jesus was speaking directly to the U.S. government. In the most glaring example, they write a paragraph about how social services are necessary to help the poor, since tax refunds are just reinvested as capital, and they don’t necessarily help the poor. This is a perfectly legitimate argument to be made, and it’s reasonable to have a discussion about how best to help the poor. But then they write: “Cutting social services is the policy option railed against by all the prophets, and it is thoroughly unbiblical.” [emphasis theirs]
The prophets were speaking to Israel, which clearly was a theocracy under the old covenant. The state and the church were not separate entities, and the Law had specific directions concerning social justice and the treatment of the poor if Israel wanted God’s blessings to continue. Under the new covenant, God commands the Church to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all social services should be shut down and turned over to the Church; the government is a tool that can and should be utilized by people of faith to help achieve justice for the poor. As we try to apply our theology to politics, we need to be aware of the context of Biblical commandments, and who is being called on to act. The prophets also railed against idol worship and sexual immorality- what policy should we enact to reflect this?
Loose grasp on reality-
The American Values Network also makes leaps in logic that allow them to set up conservative straw dogs. For example:
“One would think that those who supposedly care so much for the moral and spiritual well-being of their fellow Americans would not be so eager to pass legislation with the sole purpose of enabling their friends to store up treasures in earthly places, where moth and rust destroy (Matthew 6:19). After all, was it not Christ who suggested that we give all we have to the poor so that we can have treasures in heavenly places where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:20)?
If members of the religious right are so eager to legislate morality, perhaps they should start by doing all they can NOT to appeal to our base desire to increase our own wealth, because Jesus told us that we “cannot love both God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24), and as Paul said, “the love of money is the root of many kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).”
First, most of this is based on the meme that Republicans are all wealthy, pro-business corruptocrats who care only for lining the pockets of Halliburton and Blackwater executives. There is corruption and hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle, and I will gladly show the AVN writers a list of lobbyists in the current administration, along with campaign contribution records from the last election.
Second, before writing such words, they should look at the statistics regarding which Americans seem to be storing up more of their treasures here on earth. In his 2006 book “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism,” Arthur Brooks wrote that conservatives (defined broadly as those who strongly oppose government redistribution of wealth to correct income imbalances) gave four times as much money to charity than those who strongly support government intervention. In case you’re saying, “Well, of course those fat cat Republicans give more money- they can afford it,” the average liberal household earns 6% more money annually. The imbalance of charity is largely because Conservatives tend to be more religious than their Liberal counterparts, and religion is the strongest indicator of whether or not you’re generous with your money. It also says something about ideology, though- the folks at AVN are religious, but they are encouraging supplanting personal charity with government social programs. Of course, when you’re using other people’s money, it’s less painful to give.
Third, this ignores basic facts about wealth creation. Our desires were created good but are susceptible to corruption- our desire for sex, food, and money. “The love of money is the root of many kinds of evil” is not a commandment against earning money. On the contrary, I would argue that a person who uses his or her talents to make a ton of money, and acts as a good steward with that money, providing jobs for those who can work and providing for the widow and the orphan does far more to love her neighbor and serve God than the person who treats his tax dollars as a tithe. The government does many good things, but it does not create innovation and wealth, the things that make America the #1 destination for the poor and downtrodden all across the world. In my time here in Rwanda, I have been asked by a majority of my co-workers about how they (or their children) can get to the US- to work, not to receive welfare.
Finally, this ignores basic facts about taxes and government programs. The current economic crisis is teaching much of Europe that there is a limit to the endless social services they have tried to provide for their citizens. A May 17 Wall Street Journal article shows that “Increases in federal tax rates, particularly if targeted at the higher brackets, produce no additional revenue.” This is because additional taxes dis-incentivize business growth while incentivizing the use of various loopholes. As a result, there is a cap in the amount of tax revenue to be expected. This cap is at 19% of GDP. Adding to America’s already bloated social services programs, including the huge new healthcare entitlement, is unsustainable and will lead to economic disaster if significant changes aren’t made. Are we, as a country, being good stewards of our money if we go bankrupt? Are the increases in social spending recommended by AVN sustainable considering government revenue? Will the poor be better off if we go bankrupt?
“‘Whitewashed tombs’ is a nice little indictment to weave into a critique of the right’s piety that can be done without citation and would be recognized in most evangelical communities.”
Their scorn for “the right’s piety” demonstrates this website’s real intent. They seem unable to understand that people are actually guided by their beliefs, and don’t just use them when it’s convenient. For many progressives, the Bible has very inconvenient things to say about abortion and homosexuality, and for many conservatives, the Bible has uncomfortable things to say about stewardship of the environment and care for the less fortunate. No political group has a monopoly on the contemptuous use of Scripture.
We should pray for our leaders, that they would be guided by Godly wisdom in their decisions, and that they would be wary of using Biblical speech and the name ‘Christian’ carelessly. We should send a message that we don’t want to be patronized, we want leaders who fear God and seek to do His will.