"If Christians Read Their Bible, They'd Vote for X": A Primer For the Non-Religious
Religion warning: By the time I post this article we will be past Easter, but it’s hard for me to just cruise through my religion’s most important holiday without getting at least a little theological on you. This article is mostly about a certain kind of political Twitter Argument as made by a particular brand of Twitter Jackass, but if you really can’t tolerate a bit of religion I give you full permission to skip - I’ll be back with something more secular next week.
I’m a Christian. For some not-insignificant percentage of you, simply knowing this is a sort of default-downgrade of your regard for me. In some cases, this isn’t a huge effect - for some people the loss of confidence is as small as any other time you find someone disagrees with you on something. But since the culture of Reddit leaks into the rest of the internet, at the extreme this is a much larger effect. An atheist of a certain kind might lose all their confidence in me and goodwill for me at once, negating any past or future effect I might have had on them.
The good news is that with the exception of the small contingent of hyper-hostile r/atheism types, I can offer something to the never-Christian Atheist/Agnostic set that I think is valuable - a viewpoint from inside a particular bubble that not all of us share. Christianity is a pretty big bubble, though; I can’t effectively explain everything relevant about it at once. Basically, I need a topic that a fictional journalist from a CBS prime-time drama would call bite-sized and relatable.
Ideally, I want to talk about something you’ve noticed a hundred times. I need something you know about, probably have an opinion on but that hasn’t been done to death by every other internet writer. Normally, finding something like this would be really hard. But in this case it’s a lot easier, because we have this:
You’ve seen this particular line of logic a thousand times - the left-person, usually someone who is hostile or indifferent to Christianity outside of this kind of tweet, claims that Christians are so dumb they’ve accidentally or purposefully misinterpreted their own holy books. Worse still, says the claim, they’ve done so in obvious and drastically incorrect ways. The arguer here claims that if Christians weren’t unintelligent hypocrites, they’d all vote Sanders; since they are, they tend towards the GOP. Let’s call this the “Stupid Christians Don’t Read Their Own Book” argument, or SCDRTOB for short.
Note: John Fugelsang from the example tweet above has a very customized religion most Christians wouldn’t recognize as Christianity. You can judge for yourself from his own description of it here.
If you trend towards believing that Christians are obviously dumb hypocrites or that the politics of the left are very clearly correct in ways you have to lie to yourself to ignore, you might already agree with John. But once I look past the small amount of unchangeably unconvincibles, I suspect most of the un-churched probably have at least a faint sense of doubt regarding claims of this sort. I think this kind of doubt is healthy - to the extent that someone is arguing that his enemies are some form of pure evil that should be ignored, it’s probably smart to maintain at least a token iota of doubt.
(Note: Don’t worry, left-voting Christians! I’m aware there’s a closely related version of this where a right-leaning Christian argues that any Christian who votes for the left is obviously wrong to do so based on the text of the Bible. It’s harder to find a relevant Twitter example of this for obvious political demographic reasons, but I promise I’m addressing that side of things too).
In either case, I think that even if you end up believing that Christians are wrong about their own faith that it’s beneficial for you to at least disagree from a vantage point informed by the actual beliefs of the actual group being criticized. To that end I’m going to try and build a picture of what a fairly “standard-issue” American Christian believes, how that relates to what the Bible actually says and how accurate internet-claims of how that should influence their voting are.
To do all that, first we need some ground rules:
I’m pre-empting a fair criticism that I will undoubtedly get here by stating that I know my personal understanding of theology doesn’t universally represent all Christians. For context, I’m a practicing and fairly typical non-liberal-area Protestant; as such my beliefs are obviously going to differ quite a lot from a non-practicing Bay Area Catholic, but also a surprising amount from a lot of other Christians that would look identical from anybody not steeped in general Christian culture.
I’m approaching this issue from a sort of Biblical textualist standpoint, essentially assuming that a non-tortured read of the Bible is the authority here. The premise of the type of argument I’m responding to nearly always includes some kind of “If Christians only read the Bible…” element, so there’s no legible way to respond to this that doesn’t assume the text of the Bible to have some claim of authority over what Christians should believe. If you don’t think it should have that authority, then this argument isn’t workable in the first place.
I’m not a theologian, but I’ve done my best to pull out what I think are the relevant sections of the Good Book. If you think there’s something I’ve missed, please drop it in the comments or send me an email - I’ll be glad to respond, or even amend the post if you convince me I’m wrong.
Bear in mind that I’m not trying to convince you the tenets of Christianity are correct or to convert you - this is a very narrow response to a narrow argument. If you still feel compelled to hit me up in the comments explaining how you think my religion is false in the first place that’s fine, but understand you will be arguing against a non-existent opponent in that case.
With these in mind, let’s move on to the metaphorical meat of the issue.
It’s common for both the un-churched to want to know if the Bible clearly favors one political side or the other. This isn’t a bad question to ask, but to give it anything like a meaningful answer I have to first point out a major mismatch between how we usually think about the question and how the Bible actually works, as a book. The Twitter-level arguments on this assume that the Bible cleanly pattern-matches to one party’s stance or another on questions like “How should we handle social safety nets?”. It doesn’t do this, usually, and even when it does the path to getting to anything like a clear answer is often incredibly complex.
For a particular example we can look at the John Fugelsang tweet from earlier - he claims there and elsewhere that Jesus is anti-death penalty, and clearly so:
If that’s all you read, it’s pretty cut-and-dried. But it gets a little more complex when you actually look at the few places Jesus talks about physical punishment. From the story of Jesus and the adulteress:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.”.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Jesus is here reacting to some people who are trying to trick him - they think that they can get some ammo to use against him whether he condones a mob killing a person without any kind of trial or if he asks a group of Jewish people to ignore the law. Either way they win, but he zig-zags and asks each individual whether or not they as individuals are sinless enough to condemn her. They find they don’t feel this way, and leave.
You can argue that in this story Jesus also implicitly declares the actions of governments who try and execute criminals to be illegitimate, but that argument is necessary. It’s no way explicit in the text that this is what he’s doing, and besides the cross this is the only time the Biblical account of Jesus touches on capital punishment at all.
I’m not saying that the argument that Jesus doesn’t like capital punishment is entirely illegitimate - it’s the kind of thing Christians actually argue about a lot. But it gets more complex than that, because Jesus’ words are far from the only things in the Bible. I’m sorry if all the Bible-quoting is boring you, but it’s necessary to illustrate the complexity of the thing:
Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
That’s from Romans, where Paul is speaking about governments; “the sword” in Biblical context is usually meant to mean “violence” - here, the Government is put in place by God to carry that violence out on people who do bad things. But don’t be fooled - this isn’t a cut-and-dried proof among us that capital punishment is fine, either. It’s another thing we argue about.
The point of showing you this isn’t to push the conclusion that capital punishment is acceptable or unacceptable but rather to show that it’s not a simple thing. Does God own all the capital punishment authority and just delegate it out to governments, but is otherwise OK with it? Does God hate capital punishment and want the government to never do it again? Both are arguments you can make, but the point is that the biblical references above are the kind of stuff Christians have to look at to make either of them.
To make it worse, many or most Christians hold that you must interpret the Bible with the Bible - i.e. that any particular part of the Bible can’t be properly understood outside the entire context of every other part. If you think the Bible is true and the authority which determines how you should live your life, you don’t get to ignore Paul OR the story of the forgiven adulteress.
This is important: The SCDRTOB argument never gets anywhere near this level of nuance. The pattern is always and forever someone who thinks the whole Bible is bullshit anyway using a couple verses out of context to support whatever they think is actually important. To use a more immediate example, here’s a tweet about Georgia voting laws:
The very Bible-y among us have already noted that this isn’t a quote from Jesus to the apostles - it’s Paul, quoting the book of Proverbs. And it’s only related in the barest sense - this is Paul telling people not cultivate a spirit of vengeance against their enemies, but to be nice to them. But to the SCDRTOB arguer, someone in the Bible being vaguely pro-feeding-people once means that any Christian who doesn’t take a blanket all-feeding-in-any-context-whatsoever-is-Biblically-mandated stance is a clear hypocrite.
Imagine you are pro-choice: Now imagine every pro-life argument you ever saw was “These lying democrats - they choose to be anti-death-penalty, but they still kill thousands of babies a week”. That’s not a perfect metaphor, but it probably gets pretty close to how it feels when someone takes a half-baked surface level glance at your actual beliefs, assumes the very worst of you as a person and then communicates to others that your views are inaccurate based on that stance.
For the average Christian who has been doing this a while, the no-complexity-or-nuance-allowed stuff is exhausting. It’s how I imagine physicists on the internet must feel the 90 millionth time a random commenter explains to them how wave-particle duality is clearly impossible after misreading the Wikipedia entry on two-slit experiments.
My complaint on this isn’t new, either: Here’s CS Lewis possessing the same gripe in Mere Christianity:
A child saying a child's prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not and the modern world usually is not -- if you want to go on and ask what is really happening -- then you must be prepared for something difficult. If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple.
Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made 'religion' simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time. Notice, too, their idea of God 'making religion simple'; as if 'religion' were something God invented, and not His statement to us of certain quite unalterable facts about His own nature.
The down-and-dirty version of all this is that while the people who make this argument can in good faith push a view that Christianity is stupid or wrong, they make a factually verifiable error in treating it as if it lacks complexity; it’s just not so. If you are concerned with the truth of this kind of claim, your first useful heuristic is to check to see the complexity of the argument - if it’s simple, the arguer is likely to be at best correct on accident.
If everything I’ve written so far seems novel, that’s bad; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that people in the Christian outgroup making strident-but-hastily-researched claims that happen to support their goals about the beliefs of Christians aren’t usually reliable sources. If you thought they would be, that says a lot about how you mentally assess the motivations of out-groups - none of it good.
But we have other questions that are worth addressing here. The big one is something like this:
Let’s assume you are right and that most issues aren’t as black-and-white in favor of one political tribe or the other as I’d been led to believe. What about things that despite this complexity ARE clear? What is a Christian obligated to do about those?
Fair question. Not easy to answer (dammit), but fair.
The first thing we have to look at is actually extra-Biblical; it’s the historical context in which the book itself was written. You don’t have to know a lot of history to know that voting wasn’t actually a thing for the common man in the time of Christ, just as it wasn’t for the vast majority recorded history. The New Testament reflects this by mostly assuming the government is something forced upon you as opposed to anything you had any choice in.
Consistent with this, most of the focus in the Bible has to do with your individual reaction *to* governments. You can see that in the Paul quote from Romans above, or this one from Titus:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
There’s a definite push towards something like “obey the authorities” throughout the text - it’s out of the scope of this article to get into why, but there’s predictably complex limits to that contextual obedience, as well. There’s nothing on voting or choosing leaders - there’s just no Biblical concept of it. Even if you drill down past the voting issue you mostly get stuff like this:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, or kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
In other words, to the extent you as a Christian are praying for your leaders, you are mostly praying that they leave you alone and give you room to be a nice, quiet Christian type. Jesus himself seems to back this up:
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
To paraphrase: Jesus is indicating at the least that what’s due a government and what’s due to God enjoy some level of separation - how much falls into the “Caesar’s” and the “God’s” bucket isn’t definite, but we know they at least don’t overlap 1-to-1. With that kind of radio silence on voting, it’s tempting to call it a day and move on, but then you have stuff like this:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
This is a consistent through-line throughout the Bible - that our lives aren’t our own, and that the actions we take are supposed to be aimed at mostly getting along with people to the extent we can and behaving in such a way as would reflect well on God. So we don’t get to just ignore the faith entirely in terms of the decisions we make.
There’s no “Democrats as they exist in 2021 will be bad” prophecies in the Bible, just as there aren’t any especially condemning Republicans. Christians are thus left with two parties that both fail to map especially well to Christian morality. What little we have about interacting with governments tells us to be generally obedient to at least the extent it doesn’t conflict with matters of faith and in terms of leader selection criteria only hints that we should maximize freedom of religion in terms of what we should want, while not exactly telling us to go out and get them, so to speak.
What that leaves a Christian with is a general direction of trying to choose what they think will do the most good, overall. This sounds easy enough, until you realize that’s what pretty much everyone is doing all the time - the part where we disagree about what’s best being why we have more than one party anyway. The “Christians would vote a certain way if the little cretins could only read” shortcut doesn’t work for that reason - they are in pretty much the same boat with everyone else.
I’m pretty sure about 90% of everybody is going to disagree with me on this, really - the left is going to argue that the right is a bunch of warmongering, xenophobic racists who want to starve the poor and make women sex slaves; the right is going to cast the left participating gleefully in an infant holocaust and caring only about morality to the extent they can use it as a cudgel to crush the skulls and freedom of anyone who doesn’t agree with them absolutely. Both sides are right inasmuch as they point out that the other party isn’t anywhere near perfect; both sides are wrong to the extent they claim with anything approaching even mild confidence that God would gleefully construct anything near their current plank.
The tactic where a given side just believes everyone who believes anything - spiritually, politically or otherwise - differently from them to be dumb enough in their own area of expertise for a random amateur to fool doesn’t work. Similarly, declaring the other side all evil hypocrites who must be shut up at all costs doesn’t work either, at least not until you manage full dictatorial control over their right to speak. And this is tough, because if you were fond of these tactics it means you have to do something difficult - you have a responsibility to convince the other side the conventional way, by actually demonstrating that your policies are good for the country and the people in it.