What really bugged me about James Dobson's recent attack on Senator Barack Obama was not so much that he completely misrepresented Obama’s views on religion and public life (which he did), nor that he assumed Christians can only apply their values to one or two conservative political positions (which he often does), or even that he used inflammatory language and name-calling to make his point (for which he should know better.) What really got under my skin was that Dobson played the “you don’t take the Bible as seriously as I do” card on a guy who, in my opinion, takes it more seriously than most folks on the religious right.
Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s senior vice president for government and public policy told CNN that Obama won’t get the evangelical vote because “evangelicals are people who take Bible interpretation very seriously, and the sort of speech [Obama] gave shows that he is worlds away in the views of evangelicals.”
Well, not this evangelical.
I read Obama’s speech in its entirety, and found that I wholeheartedly agreed with what he said about the Bible. Obama respects the Bible enough to acknowledge that:
1) multiple interpretations of the Bible exist
2) there are many ways to apply the teachings of the Bible to public life
3) no one denomination or spokesperson has a monopoly on how to accurately interpret the Bible and apply it to public life
4) because we live in a pluralistic society, we must learn to raise the level of public discourse so that we not only appeal to our specific religious tradition, but to a common sense of morality and justice
In his speech, Obama asks, “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our Bibles. Folks haven't been reading their Bibles.”
The difference between Barack Obama and James Dobson is that Barack Obama talks about the Bible with both respect and realism. The Bible is not a manual for how to run a country. The Bible is a beautifully diverse collection of stories, poetry, history, and letters. It is full of both timeless truths and cultural assumptions. Applying its teaching to public life isn’t easy, and anyone who pretends that it is easy isn’t being honest with himself.
Dobson accused Obama of “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology.” What does Dobson mean by “the traditional understanding of the Bible”? He means “the James Dobson understanding of the Bible” in which the Levitical code no longer applies (except to homosexuals) and in which Jesus did not intend for us to literally apply “love your enemies” to foreign policy.
Dobson has every right to his interpretation, but I think he is wrong to claim that only those who interpret the Bible in this way take it seriously. People who take the Bible seriously use it to start conversations, not end them. People who take the Bible seriously use it to edify, not tear down. People who take the Bible seriously know that no one (neither Obama nor Dobson nor any republican or democrat) can rightfully claim it as his own.
I love the Bible. My hope is that the next president of the United States will treat it with the respect it deserves.
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