The Bible Says it…Right? American Politicians, Scripture, and the Legacy of the Slavery Debate

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

This week, the dignified monkey cage and lobotomy experiment laboratory known as the House of Representatives, which, thanks to gerrymandering during the 2010 midterm elections, is dominated by the Republican Party, voted to slash $39 billion in food stamps from the Federal budget. While such a move is not unknown for a party that may, or may not, get thrills from shooting kittens and orphans out of skeet launchers, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) justified the vote using what he, and a good many other Americans consider to be, the ultimate authority on everything from policy decisions to haircuts: the bible. Quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 from the English Standard Bible, Cramer stated that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Cramer’s use of the Thessalonians passage to justify not feeding the poor was prompted by one of his constituents posting a biblical passage on the Congressman’s Facebook page that would seem to advocate helping those in need. Citing Matthew  25:36-43, the constituent highlighted the following verses:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

So who’s right on this one? Depending on your politics, the answer might seem simple, but in terms of the historical use of the bible in U.S. politics, the answer isn’t so clear-cut. Cramer was following a grand American tradition in which elected politicos use the bible to justify policy — only to have different bible verses launched right back at them from political foes. The use of the bible is not a trivial thing in U.S. politics: it played a major role in the most important social, political, and economic debate in American history, the debate over slavery.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as the sectional debate over slavery drove the country further and further towards Civil War, religious abolitionists invoked the bible to condemn what they believed to be heretical uses of scripture by southern pro-slavery politicians and religious leaders. In the 1830s, new anti-slavery movements emerged out of the flames of religious revivals that swept the American northeast, creating a reform-minded evangelical culture in the North that began attacking slavery as un-biblical. Christian abolitionists argued that slavery encouraged sin among both master and slave. Slavery corrupted masters because it drove them to amass overwhelming power, which promoted pride, lust (not limited to slaves) and violence that was antithetical to Christian life. Slavery also corrupted those in bondage by consigning them to the mercy of corrupt masters and leaving them ignorant of God. Abolitionists claimed that slavery was contrary to biblical notions of love, peace, and respect for your neighbors as articulated in the Sermon on the Mount and other like passages.

Abolitionists, however, tended to invoke the bible in more general terms rather than citing individual passages, and when they did discuss specific passages, they argued over issues of interpretation. Consider the introduction from Christian abolitionist George Bourne’s 1845 book A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument, which you can read in full online at Documenting the American South:

THE belief was long nearly universal, and is yet very general throughout the Christian world, that the Scriptures do, to some extent, justify human slavery, as practised in this country. The object of the following chapters is to controvert this belief, and to prove that it is false and heretical, as well as dangerous and destructive to human happiness; that this belief is founded entirely on perversions of the true meaning of certain passages in the Scriptures, and is entirely contrary to the spirit of the divine volume, the letter of which condemns the practice with as much severity as it did that of any other crime. The following argument is presented for the calm and prayerful consideration of all Christians, both in the North and in the South.

Bourne’s claims that scriptures do not, in fact, sanction slavery, and that southerners who claimed otherwise used “perversions of the true meaning of certain passages in the Scriptures” could be easily mocked by southern pro-slavery apologists. As Rachel Held Evans notes in a blog post dealing with biblical pro-slavery defences:

[T]he fact of the matter is, the pro-slavery side had more going for it in the way of proof texts. Slavery apologists could cite passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 to support their case. They pointed out that slavery was practiced by the people of Israel and regulated by God, and that Jesus never said a word against slaveholding. Even the apostle Paul instructs an escaped slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, they observed.

Held Evans references the work of historians who have long pointed out that pro-slavery Christians kind of had a point. Scholars like Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, for example, note in their massive book The Mind of the Master Class that southern, Christian, pro-slavery apologists like the Rev. Thornton Stringfellow frankly had more biblical cannon fodder in their rhetorical war against Christian abolitionists. It was easier for pro-slavery Christians to invoke specific scriptural passages to defend slavery than it was for abolitionists to use the bible to condemn slavery.

Thortnon Stringfellow, Virginia Reverend and author of biblical pro-slavery tracts.

Thornton Stringfellow, Virginia Reverend and author of biblical pro-slavery tracts.

So what does this have to do with modern politicians using the bible to defend political actions today? Well, you can use the bible to justify just about anything. This often comes as somewhat uncomfortable news to the general public, but as biblical historians like New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman have long observed, the bible is wrought with contradictions; the results of centuries of human writers trying to alter and shape the finished bible to support varying — often contradictory — agendas. This means that if you look hard enough, you can find biblical support for slavery and slashing food stamp-funding.

If the bible can be used to justify slavery, an institution long consigned to the dustbin of moral abominations, then perhaps American politicians should think twice, or, at least exercise some nuance, when trotting out the good book to sanctify their pet legislations. You may or may not agree with Kevin Cramer that the bible justifies cutting food stamps, but wherever you stand on that — or on any other issue — at least be aware that someone else is already pointing to a bible passage that will supposedly prove you’re wrong. And you probably ARE wrong. The problem is, they’re probably wrong too: the bible says so.

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