The Pew Research Center yesterday released a new poll about religion and politics. As usual, there’s a lot to chew on, but one finding really stood out: Americans are almost evenly split over whether the Bible should influence U.S. law.
Pew found that 23 percent of American adults said the Bible should influence the law “a great deal.” An additional 26 percent say it should influence the law “some.” By contrast, 50 percent told pollsters the Bible should have not much or no influence over American law.
Pew then asked a follow-up question of those people who backed Bible-based law: If the Bible and the will of the people conflict, which should prevail? Twenty-eight percent of all adults backed the Bible. Among white evangelicals, that number soared to 68 percent.
Christian nationalists are fond of tossing around the term “biblical law” as if there was an agreed-upon definition of what that means. But there’s not, and that’s one reason why American law is not based on the Bible (or any other religious book).
To be sure, some people do advocate for this. At the farthest fringes of the Religious Right sit a band of extremists known as Christian Reconstructionists. Openly theocratic, the Reconstructionists yearn to build a society based on the legal books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Many of the criminal penalties listed in these books are harsh. At different points, they call for the death penalty for adultery, blasphemy, worshipping false gods, propagating false religious doctrines, cursing your parents, incorrigible juvenile delinquency and witchcraft. Christian Reconstructionists assert that these offenses merit the death penalty because that’s what the Bible says. Some of them even argue – and they’re serious about this – that executions should take place by stoning.
Few Americans would agree with the Reconstructionists that this is an appropriate application of biblical law. So what is, exactly? Some conservative Christian nationalists point to passages in Leviticus to buttress their anti-LGBTQ views, while progressive Christians cite Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to justify social service programs. So which side is using the Bible properly to “influence” the law?
And there’s the problem. The Bible is sprawling work written over hundreds of years, and through cherry-picking and isolating passages, you can find support for many different positions; sometimes the text seems to say one thing, and other times it says the polar opposite. Also, we must remember that English-language versions of the Bible are translations, and scholars still quibble over questions of accuracy.
But the more important issue is that many people tend to project onto the Bible the political beliefs they already hold. Is Jesus a bootstrap capitalist or a quasi-socialist? He can be both, depending on which church you attend on Sunday.
That’s one reason we don’t base American law on the Bible – it’s not biblical law, it’s someone’s interpretation of biblical law.
Better to stick with what the founders gave us: a secular constitution, a secular government and an official policy of separation of church and state. That system has given us more freedom and rights than any officially “biblical” government ever could.