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?