Attorney General Jeff Sessions ignited a firestorm of outrage June 14th by reading from the Bible to justify enforcing the policy of separating the children of illegal aliens from their families. The administration was blasted by many pundits for their use of Romans 13 including failed 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She alluded to Matthew 19:14, arguing “Jesus said, suffer the little children unto me. He did not say, let the children suffer.”
Sessions’ invocation of Scripture to support his politics and the subsequent use of the Bible by his critics to castigate him are the latest examples of politicians hijacking the Bible to lend authority to their arguments. This is far from a new phenomenon. The story of 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes offers a parallel example of figures using the Bible out of convenience rather than necessity.
Hobbes is generally thought of as the father of social contract theory and was an outspoken supporter of strong government with power centralized in the hands of a “Leviathan.” In his book, “Leviathan,” he states “The only way [for people] to erect […] a Common Power […] to secure them in such sort, as that by their owne industrie [sic], and by the fruites of the Earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is, to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men[.]” He went on to justify this support of authoritarianism by citing Biblical mandates about loyalty to authority.
Understanding Hobbes’ use of the Bible requires an explanation of the historical context in which he was writing. He published Leviathan in 1651, when England was ruled by the Oliver Cromwell dominated “Rump Parliament” that had recently beheaded the former King Charles I.
Cromwell was a militant Puritan who would lead his “New Model Army” into battle singing Christian hymns. Because of Cromwell’s willingness to decapitate political enemies, Hobbes needed to prove that his writings were not heretical by backing up his arguments with Christian theology.
Many have accused Hobbes of secretly being an atheist and using Scripture in his writings to cover his tracks. Philosopher Edwin Curley has pointed out that Hobbes’ cosmological arguments are obviously circular, as if he did not authentically believe them himself. Douglas Jesseph argued that “Hobbes was really a sly and ironic atheist who concealed his disbelief behind a screen of disingenuous theological verbiage while constructing a philosophical system that makes the concept of God inadmissible.” Even contemporary critics like Bishop John Bramhall accused Hobbes of views that, at the very least, would lead to atheism.
Hobbes certainly had unorthodox opinions. He believed that the members of the Trinity are Moses, Jesus, and the Apostles, that God is part of the world but not external to it, and that heaven is a delusion. In his Answer to Bishop Bramhall, written late in life, he expanded on his belief of God as being “corporeal” but nothing more. He also did not believe in the Christian doctrine of free-will, the immaterial soul, or the possibility of miracles. Most relevant to his political philosophy, he argued that the church’s authority is below that of the sovereign. According to philosopher Samuel Mintz, for Hobbes “religion is in fact so muddled with superstition as to be in many vital places indistinguishable from it, [and] that the Church, both in its government and its doctrine, must submit to the dictates of Leviathan, the supreme civil authority.”
So with all these suspiciously atheistic views on display, Hobbes inserted quotes from the Bible into his writings to add legitimacy to his arguments and shield him from the disdain of Cromwell’s Roundheads. Some of these citations seem random, like his explanation of “melancholy” where he cites how the Greeks and Romans viewed demons and then goes on a tangent to recount the times in the Bible where God possessed people. In Chapter 19, seemingly as an afterthought, he throws in about a dozen Scripture verses to justify his argument for the Leviathan including Colossians 3:20 which says, “Children obey your parents in all things.” He states “There is simple obedience in those that are subject to Paternall, or Despoticall Dominion” to link the Biblical admonitions for children to a support for an all-powerful authoritarian government.
This link is at best contrived and seems to indicate that Hobbes did not actually use the Bible to lead to his conclusions but, instead, threw it on at the end so that he could point to it later as proof of his orthodoxy.
This seventeenth century virtue signaling is reminiscent of how writers today add a spiritual authority to their otherwise political arguments by using Bible verses they clearly do not believe in. Politicians will quote passages like Matthew 25 about helping others and say that their legislation is motivated by compassion and kindness and thus in line with the Bible.
MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, a Muslim with a degree in religious studies, ran a segment on “What would Jesus do about illegal immigration.” Reading from the Bible , which his faith believes to be partially heretical and invalid, he quoted several verses (Matthew 19:14, Jeremiah 22:3, Matthew 25:40-43, and Isaiah 10:1-2) to illustrate how the Bible tells us that imprisoning immigrants is wrong. As his guest, Jesuit priest Father James Martin summarized “The overall spirit of the Bible is caring for the poor and being loving, and compassionate, and merciful.”
Leftists like to talk about this “overall spirit”, like when Clinton criticized Trump and Sessions saying, “Those who selectively use the Bible to justify this policy are ignoring a central tenet of Christianity.” Clinton has in turn repeatedly defended abortion as a “human right” and other practices that the Bible is clearly against such as homosexual marriage, and euthanasia. Plenty of leftist politicians and churches are willing to talk about adhering to the “spirit” of the Bible and then they pick and choose what parts they will follow when it is convenient for them.
It may be possible that the leftists who hollowly invoke the Bible to justify their radical policy sincerely believe in the Bible, but their selective theology is, at the least, headed in the wrong direction. Ignoring certain rules out of convenience discounts the authority of Christian morality and undermines the necessity to care about God’s rules at all.
Hobbes used Scripture verses to justify his arguments, but historians question the genuineness of his Christianity because he used Christian principles as further justifications of his beliefs rather than as foundational premises. He referred to the broad concepts of Christianity when they agreed with his arguments and ignored or misconstrued them when they disagreed.
It is easy to label politicians as liars and hypocrites and move on, but the inconsistent use of the Bible goes beyond insincerity. It is a fundamental undermining of the authority of God’s word. When a verse about honoring parents can be used to justify an authoritarian regime or a verse about helping those in need can be used to advocate an end to national borders, it is clear that the Bible is being used for its vague “spirit” rather than the specific mandates within it.
In reality, the correct answer for many laws is far more complex than the scope of the Bible. A politician weighing the costs and benefits of changing the speed limit in a residential area cannot open up to the New Testament to see what Jesus said on the topic. Far more often, statements claiming the spirit of the Bible to justify a policy serve primarily to appropriate the authority of Christianity for the speaker. Hobbes used the Bible to save his own neck and politicians use it to gain the moral high ground.
Anyone can cite the Bible to back up their arguments, but doing so does not necessarily prove one’s Christian credentials. Thomas Hobbes used extraneous references to scripture in his arguments, but he did so not out of logical necessity but out of political utility. There are many cases where the Bible can and should be used to inform political opinions, but the Bible should be a foundational premise rather than an additional endorsement thrown in for the sake of convenience. Abusing the Bible in this way is not only intellectually dishonest, but damaging to national political discourse.Google+