Obama the Bible Scholar

Like a lot of people, I watched Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech last night. I don’t have the time or inclination to go over the whole thing and say what I liked and what I didn’t, but I will tell you what stuck out to me the most: his use of scripture at the end.

What he said was this, according to a transcript of his speech at ABC News:

Instead, it is that American spirit – that American promise – that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

A couple of paragraphs later, he said:

America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done. Not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for. Not with an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save. Not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise – that American promise – and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.

What he is quoting here appears to be 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, and Hebrews 10:23. Here they are, in context (NRSV and ESV):

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

In the first Bible quotation, the thing that is “unseen” is eternal glory, not the “better place around the bend” that Mr. Obama refers to (though it should be said that he didn’t refer to the Bible explicitly. This could perhaps be excused as simply a verbal allusion). In the second quotation, the hope we confess is the hope that we can appear without guilt before God through the intervention of our high priest, Jesus. I’m not sure what hope Mr. Obama was talking about. Presumably, it was not that.

Lest you think that I’m just being hard on Mr. Obama, I am not. I think that it is unfortunate whenever any political figures take the Bible out of context and use it for their own ends. This has a very long history, but in recent memory, the national political figures who have earned the most notoriety for doing this have been Republicans. Here is a quote from a speech given by President Bush in 2002:

“And the light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.”

This is a quote (sort of) from John 1:5 (NIV): “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” In context, the “light” is the light that Jesus provides. In President Bush’s use, the light appears to be the United States, the darkness appears to be the enemies of the United States, and overcoming appears to refer to the triumph of the United States over its enemies.

Ronald Reagan is also well known for his references to the United States as a “city upon a hill,” which was a reference to Matthew 5:14, in which Jesus says to his followers (NIV): “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” When he referred to this in his speeches, though, he made clear that he got it not straight from the Bible, but from Puritan John Winthrop. It was Winthrop’s idea to apply this scripture to his group of Puritan immigrants to America; Reagan went further and applied it to the United States as a whole.

Mr. Obama is also continuing a tradition of quoting the Bible in the service of American political ideas, and I wish that he had decided not to. This is troubling to me as a Christian and an American because it does two things: 1) it quotes the Bible out of context and contributes to popular misunderstandings about what the Bible says. It takes words like “hope,” which have definite meanings in biblical context, and uses them to signify something else, often something more vague. 2) It tends to identify the Bible, the church, and Christianity with one particular party, platform or nation.

One of the many detrimental effects of this idolatrous civil religion is the perception of the United States abroad. If our leaders quote the Bible in public, and justify our actions as a nation using biblical passages, then people abroad will tend to think of us as Christians and will tend to associate Christianity with everything about American culture, including those things that Christianity condemns about American culture. The gospel is already scandalous to the world. I don’t want to put more stumbling blocks than necessary in the way of people accepting it.

In the end I think, with Abraham Lincoln (whose biblical allusions were in general more measured and helpful than many of his successors), that we should be concerned not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side. When we quote the Bible out of context, applying the language of God’s people to the United States, we pay lip service to God while refusing to come face-to-face with him. It seems to me there is a verse I could quote about that, and I hope I don’t quote it out of context:

The Lord says:
These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me. —Isaiah 29:13 (NIV)


6 thoughts on “Obama the Bible Scholar

  1. a pompous not patricularly informative commentary. if it is good that you know scripture. the candidates do not literally use scripture to teach the lessons ot those words because the politcal world is not the world of religion. you seem stuck on that uninteresting point.

    politicains do not teach scripture becasue politiics separates church and state…as does our consittution. political candidtes are never doing exegesis. the references to scripture were allusion to values informed by more than rational thought. period. to go any furether is to pander to christians and to alineate the literallly millions of non fundamental christians . the second reference comes after alludung to martin luther king. he chose not to say we have a dream. he gave a more subtle and more risky tribute by invoking scripture as the final words of a momentous speech. followed by god bless you and god bless america. as writing it was a perfect and subtle way to show that he stands in the tradition of hope informed by a dream and is black and mindful of MLK but without crossing the line into being literally religious. the guy is a genius as a speechwriter. it is all well and good to remind us of the bible basics but the world today requires more than bible basics. putin does not care about the bile, nor do the chinese, nor terrorists. the man is trying to get electted to deal with those threats to chide him for slightly altering this passage, or that nuance, is to mostly miss the point.

    ps if asked to literally describe the texts and thier literal meaning he surely could. he is a very smart fellow. he for example knows the work of reinhold neibuhr very well. [ a christian theologian].

    you yourself may wish to read niehbuhr. google him and check him our. not strictly or only a fundamentalist christian but very conservtive and mainline. you might find niehbuhr amazing. … he teaches hope and tough mindedness as the biblical message. that we are imperfect and flawed…. hence the need for each of us to be saved.

  2. Hi paul, thanks for stopping by.

    First of all, your calling what I wrote “pompous” is uncivil and uncalled-for. I can’t blame you for not knowing, since I have not posted comment guidelines, but just so you know: people who comment here are free to disagree with me and with anyone else who comments, but must do so in a civil manner.

    Now on to the substance of your disagreement: I am well aware that the world of politics is not the world of religion. I am not interested in getting politicians to become religious teachers, nor am I interested in disregarding the separation of church and state. If politicians quote the Bible, however, they ought to do so responsibly and in context. Failing to do so leads to the distortion of the Bible and to the generic civil religion that I criticized above. If doing so would make it seem like they were pandering to Christians, then they should not quote the Bible.

    I know that Obama is smart. I also think that he is a very good speechwriter. But that is not at issue, and that is not what stuck out to me the most about his speech. What stuck out to me most was how he used scripture. And I maintain that, for all his smarts, he used it irresponsibly. As I mentioned, his first allusion is tolerable because it was not an explicit quotation. After all, no matter what a person’s attitude toward the Bible is, it has influenced the English language tremendously. His second quotation cannot be excused in a similar way. He took language that, biblically, applies to the church, and applied it to America. This is inexcusable, no matter how smart you are.

    Finally, just an issue of clarification: if you were to read my blog a little more closely, you might realize that I have read Reinhold Niebuhr, and have written two posts about him. You would also realize that I do not call myself, nor do I regard myself, a fundamentalist.

  3. Lincoln’s speeches are littered with Biblical allusions; think of the “House Divided” speech, or the Second Inaugural. In your view, was Lincoln wrong to do so?

    For that matter, was John Winthrop wrong to appropriate the “City on a Hill” to the Puritan purpose?

    It seems to me that Obama’s meaning is clear: the “hope” we “confess” as Americans is the hope of “a more perfect union” where government works, by the “consent of the governed,” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The speaker asks us to hold to that hope with a secular faith that what we can’t see may be just around the bend. So the request he makes is analogous to St. Paul’s, though not identical to it.

    Yes, the Bible is a religious document. But it is also part of our common cultural heritage, as Homer was the common cultural heritage of Classical Greece. It seems to me that Winthrop, Lincoln, and Obama were all justified in drawing on that heritage for purposes not purely Christian, just as I would feel free to quote Homer’s references to the Olympians for purposes not purely pagan.

  4. Mark,

    Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been regarding what exactly I found offensive.

    No, I don’t think John Winthrop’s appropriation of “City on a Hill” is necessarily bad, because he applied it to a Christian community. Ronald Reagan was wrong to apply this language to the United States as a whole. Jesus said “You are a city on a hill” to his followers, not to a nation with many different religious beliefs.

    No, I don’t think that presidents (or presidential candidates) are wrong to quote from the Bible or to use biblical allusions. As you mentioned, and as I mentioned as well, the Bible has influenced the English language. Saying the United States is a “house divided,” or saying that “pride goes before a fall,” or using any kind of language that has come into English because of the Bible is not necessarily bad.

    But there is some usage of the Bible that can be bad, and here is the difference between an author like Homer and the Bible. Nobody believes that the Greek gods divinely inspired Homer to write what he wrote in the Odyssey. Nobody believes that Zeus can speak to people today through Homer’s words. In other words, as you perceptively point out, the Bible is both a religious document and part of our common cultural heritage. It is OK when politicians use the Bible as our common cultural heritage, when they use phrases that have come into our language from the Bible. But it is not OK when they use it as a religious document, to apply language meant for Jesus or the church to the United States.

    How do I know that Obama was using the Bible as a religious document, rather than as just some great old book? At least in part it is because he used the phrase, “in the words of Scripture.” Not all Americans regard the Bible as Scripture. When Obama uses that phrase, he is not just saying that the Bible is a great old book that’s part of our cultural backdrop. He is indicating that what he is about to say is religiously significant.

    I am saying that he used language meant to apply to the church, twisted it, and applied it to the entire United States. It was a misinterpretation of a religiously significant document, and he didn’t do it by accident. He did the same thing that George W. Bush has been doing for years, and it is no less idolatrous this time around. I love the United States, but when politicians begin to take biblical language about Jesus or the church and apply it to the United States, I must demur.

    By the way, I’m not the only one who is bothered by this. Philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith wrote about it on his blog here:


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