Literal interpretation

By Charles Hammer

Originally published on Advocate.com July 11 2005 11:00 PM ET

Reprinted from The Tulsa World, Sunday, April 10, 2005.

Where do conservatives get the moral values that won George W. Bush his second term, except from the Holy Bible?

Yet, strangely, in political argument they seldom name the good book as the fountainhead of their ethics. Nor do they quote Genesis in their struggle to introduce creationism to science classrooms of my home state, Kansas. They rarely cite scripture in their condemnation of homosexuals. And no wonder it’s hard for them, since obedience to Biblical commands would bring agonizing death—not just to homosexuals—but to a good 90% of the adult U.S. population.

This derives from what conservative Christians call their “inerrant” Holy Bible, which they say they interpret literally. They offer the appealing certainties of a moral guide dictated word for word by God. This is the major attraction that wins new members and political power. By contrast, conservatives argue, Christian mainstream faiths pick and choose among scriptures and offer an interpreted Bible full of moral relativism.

“That’s how conservatives won the battle,” explains David O. Moore, an ordained Southern Baptist minister in Liberty, Mo., who suffered during the 20-year siege that conservative Christians call the Battle of the Bible. “The average Joe working in the shop, the housewife washing the dishes, they have no formal training in the Bible. They believe the Bible, and so do I. But when a preacher mentions that there are errors—geographical, numerical—it really upsets the people in the pews. They want to trust the Bible.”

This battle has imposed profound change at the ballot box, in the U.S. Supreme Court, in Congress, and state legislatures and public schools. It fuels the president’s push for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage and his opposition to fetal stem-cell research. The nation is fortunate that despite their political power, conservatives are—yes—too compassionate actually to obey their inerrant Bible. Hating the sin of homosexuality but loving the sinner, they ignore the action clause of Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

Concerning heterosexuals, conservatives read Mark 10:11, which states that “whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another commiteth adultery against her.” But they are too humane to obey Leviticus 20:10: “And the man that commiteth adultery with another man’s wife...the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” If Christians obeyed, zealots would slaughter—based on this verse alone—half the adult U.S. population, all of the remarried and their spouses.

Conservative Christians also struggle against God’s order, passed down through Moses in Leviticus 20:9, which reads: “For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: He has cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him.” These conservatives are too kind to kill such children, nor would they—unlike the witch-burners of Salem, Mass., in 1692, obey Leviticus 20:27: “A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones.”

Conservatives ignore Deuteronomy 22:21, which dictates the fate of the bride whose parents cannot bring forth the cloth that would serve as a token of her virginity: “Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die...so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.”

The Bible also condemns to death many different classes of sinners, including “he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord” (Leviticus 24: 10–16) and “whosoever doeth work” on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2).

Today’s conservatives disregard Leviticus 25, which commands that we buy bondmen and bondmaids of the heathen around us and of strangers that sojourn in our land.

“And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen forever.”

Moore, 84 and a retired professor of religion at William Jewell College in Liberty, nearly lost his job in 1979 because he would not argue for a personal devil. How does he deal with such harsh Biblical commands?

“I say to you, I can’t be a worshipper of that God,” he replied. “The Bible is a history of the unfolding understanding of the Jews in Israel. It’s a secular social history which displays their growing understanding of God’s will. They did those things and wrote those things as if God commanded them to do it. But the whole Bible is God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners.”

This view of scripture is widespread among mainstream Christians. They focus more on Jesus’ teaching: that the first and great commandment is to love God, and the second to love our neighbors. That only he who is without sin should cast the first stone. That God loves the poor, and it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Mainstream Christians argue that the Genesis creation story is a metaphor expressing an ancient people’s best understanding of their world. Here there’s an odd convergence, because some conservatives also have decided the world’s creation in six days is hard to swallow. They abandon Genesis for a mere “intelligent design” theory, battling to get it taught as science in public schools.

Conservatives do not explain why—defying Biblical commands—they refuse to stone wizards, homosexuals, and nonvirgin brides. Instead, they justify today’s more humane ethics by speaking of the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant,” the supposed harsh Biblical law before Jesus and the gentler era after. As if the enduring, eternal God had reinvented himself and his laws between the Old Testament and the New. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, however, the Bible contains no article specifying how it can be amended. With conservatives it also comes down to the same picking and choosing among scriptures, the same dreaded interpretation they decry in mainstream Christianity. They choose to absolve Sabbath-breakers, blasphemers, remarried “adulterers,” and nonvirgin brides—but not homosexuals, who are condemned if not to death at least to damnation.

And even the New Covenant makes problems for conservatives. Nowadays they must deal gingerly with dictates of the New Testament’s First Timothy, in which the Apostle Paul says he will “suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” That is because, Paul adds, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, was in the transgression.”

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul advocates submission to slave masters. In his Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 1, he condemns many offenders, including homosexuals, “whisperers, back-biters, haters of good, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents...covenant-breakers.” Compassionate conservatives ignore verse 32, which speaks of “the judgement of God that they which commit such things are worthy of death.”

This is the inerrant Bible from which conservatives pick and choose the moral values that won the 2004 election. Not that they tricked the electorate—most conservatives are sincere. They just instinctively sense how to win: Imply that your values come from the Bible, but don’t point readers in that direction.

Because if voters actually studied the good book, they might discover their own quite different set of values.