HOUSE OF ROCK

Loyal readers may have noticed my latest way of compensating for my neglect of this blog is to search out hooks to link back to things I wrote in the days of not neglecting this blog. In that vein, check out the part of Obama’s speech today where Obama cites the Sermon on the Mount:

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

This strikes me as a good example of an appeal to a religious text on the basis of insight, rather than authority. About a million years ago I blogged about a debate between Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Americans United’s Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author’s inherent authority rather than to the author’s particular insight. In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don’t oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery). I thought at the time, and I still do, that Lynn was making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument. In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.