22 January 2008

Huckabee II: Hebrew Boogaloo

A standard response around the libosphere to Huckabee's remarks last week (or any similar remarks by a right-wing political or religious leader) is to flout some of the more ridiculous or absurd (to modern ears) snippets of the Bible and ask if Huckabee intends to see those made into laws as well. Are you going to ban shellfish, or synthetic clothing, or perhaps shaving by married men?, they snicker. This is clever, but not terribly constructive, in my opinion. If you're going to hit him on his own turf, do it in a way that makes people who respect that authority feel more sympathetic toward your point of view.

With the Bible, that's certainly possible. I picked some of the more famous passages for that post below, but anyone could open the Bible to pretty much any point after the first third and come up with something similar.* It's not a surprise that Martin Luther King, Jr. could crib from it so heavily to buttress his message; one assumes that, unlike so many people who argue over the Bible, he actually bothered to read the damn thing. (See Sarah Vowell in yesterday's NYT.)

I've been around right-wing evangelicals enough in my life to know that they aren't--for the most part--ignorant of the existence of those parts of the Bible that don't reflect well on American capitalism or their political agenda. They have well-rehearsed apologies for why the Bible's fixations on helping the poor and redistributing wealth are strictly suggestions for individuals and not mandates for society at large, while abortion, gay marriage and defeating Evil Anti-American Terrorists are important God-ordained priorities for the state. But, as slacktivist and his commenters point out, this creates a logical dissonance with the claim that fundamentalists have the real "plain English" reading of the Bible, an unchallenged assumption that everyone from the mainstream press to the "new atheists" is only too happy to indulge.

"We don't 'interpret' the Bible, we just read what's written," is how the claim goes, which can be diffused with any modest examination, or by spending any amount of time with a conservative evangelical organization. Should you do the latter, your life will be immediately submerged into a church and a constituent "Bible study" group, who will make sure you only read the right parts and reach the same approved conclusion as the rest of the class. They tirelessly emphasize certain sections of the Bible--particularly the gospel of John and Paul's letters--at the expense of great chunks of the rest*, and treat it as if it were one long treatise written by the same author, both of which are unnatural assumptions that defy a "plain understanding" of the work.

Rest easy, my secular friends, I have no intention of agitating for a theocratic socialist revolution, only to show that such a thing could be possible, and might make someone a fine novel someday, perhaps something like Chris Bachelder's U.S.! but with a Zombie William Jennings Bryan instead. It's not really that new or secret, either. In many ways, our contemporary fundamentalists were spawned out of a backlash from the so-called "social gospel" which reached its peak with King in the mid-1960s. Nor do I mean to suggest that the Bible is entirely laudatory and ought to be conferred a special social authority. But I'd also like to combat the countervailing notion that the Bible is an entirely pernicious book, filled completely with malicious violence, spite, and intolerance. It's nearly impossible to read without prejudices or preconceptions, but it can be full of surprises nonetheless.

*Look at me, I'm going to make two footnotes in one! Regarding the first, that's pretty much what I've done in picking from the book of Amos, one of the Old Testament minor prophets. Who as a group are, coincidentally, almost completely ignored by evangelicals, thus fulfilling the second note. (And I'm not the only one quoting Amos these days)