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)