Published by Eerdmans on January 14, 2020
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How to read the Bible on matters of public policy
Christians affirm the Bible as our standard of faith and practice. We turn to it to hear God’s voice. But what relevance does the Bible have for the contentious public policy issues we face today? Although the Bible does not always speak explicitly to modern issues, it does give us guiding principles as we think about how we might vote or act as political figures ourselves.
The Bible and the Ballot demonstrates the proper use of Scripture in contemporary political discussions. Christians regularly invoke the Bible to support their positions on many controversial political topics—gay marriage, poverty, war, religious liberty, immigration, the environment, taxes, etc.—and this book will help facilitate those conversations. Tremper Longman provides a hermeneutical approach to using the Bible in this manner, then proceeds topic by topic, citing important Scriptures to be taken into consideration in each case and offering an evangelical interpretation.
Longman is careful to suggest levels of confidence in interpretation and acknowledges that often there are a range of possible applications. Each chapter includes questions to provoke further thought in individuals’ minds or for group discussion.
The Bible and the Ballotis a ready guide to understanding the Bible on issues that American Christians face today as we live within a pluralistic society.
Religion and politics are two subjects you’re not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. Over the past few years, how those two subjects intersect and overlap has been pushed center-stage into the forum of public and private debate, showing just how right that old adage might be. But, while maybe not appropriate for dinnertime, this subject—the rule of religious life and the rule of secular life and how they intertwine—is a vitally important issue.
The Bible and the Ballot: Using Scripture in Political Decisions is a provocatively titled evangelical treatise of how we can use Scripture to help us determine how we structure and run our governments and public policy. The author is Tremper Longman III, an Old Testament scholar and Hebrew expert from Westmont College whose theological work I’ve always found to be thorough, robust, and challenging.
Developing an Interpretive Structure
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is about the Bible and public policy and develops a system for applying Scripture within modern contexts. Longman uses a setup similar to the Interpretive Journey to teach this, showing how readers must read Scripture in light of the ancient context, find the core truth, and determine modern application. This enables modern readers to apply the “heart” of OT law without trying to implement 14th century BC ancient Near East covenant law to modern modes of governing.
This part is the book’s strength, particularly the discussion of the ethical-redemptive trajectory in the movement from the OT to the NT, as well as the very preliminary discussion of how the church and the culture should interact. This important step sets the foundation of any conversation to follow, whether one agrees with Longman’s exegetical and applicational work in the second part or not.
Ten “Hot Button” Issues
The second part is where, having built the foundation, Longman dives into ten areas of public policy that have been cultural hot button issues in recent times:
- Nationalism, Patriotism, and Globalization
- Religious Liberty
- Criminal Justice and Capital Punishment
- Same-Sex Marriage
- The Environment
Unfortunately, this dive is into the shallow end and has pretty predictable results: paralysis. While Longman does a good job of setting up the issue and providing Scriptural resources, there isn’t ever a robust discussion of any practical policies. Everything stays in the realm of generalization. This is a purposeful move by Longman, who specifically states that the book was not meant to recommend specific public policy strategies, but the end result is that every chapter just sort of trails off into nothingness. Longman still could have done the work to wrestle with the exegetical and applicational issues. Instead there’s a lot of hemming and hawing and hedging.
A prime example of this would be in his chapter on war. Christians have always been divided on the use of any sort of violence, whether individual or corporate. The early church leaned very much toward nonviolence and only after the church began to gain political power did the concept of a just-war take prominence. Instead of taking the issue of nonviolence vs just-war head on, or even discuss the historical development of either doctrine, Longman instead focuses on God’s role in warfare in the OT—interesting, but not that helpful in determining public policy. Longman admits that “more needs to be said that is beyond the scope of a chapter this short” (p 133). So…do that. I get that each of these ten issues deserve an entire volume (or shelves of volumes) unto themselves, but there’s a difference between being introductory and superficial, and The Bible and the Ballot just lacks in substance.
Another example comes in his chapter on same-sex marriage. Longman does not engage with any interpretations of Scripture that allow for monogamous homosexual practice; instead, he maintains that “the Bible is so clear about it” (p 215), “[OT law] clearly prohibits same-sex relationships” (p 224), and “there was no disagreement about this conclusion until about thirty years ago” (p 224). This argument might be true (or not), but it’s an ad antiquitatem that fails to create a substantial conversation around how we deal with the matter as a part of public policy.
It’s not until the final page of the chapter that Longman turns to a public policy interpretation, writing that “the church should not try to impose its sexual ethic on the state” (p 231). This is a fine conclusion, but then shouldn’t that have been the main thrust of the chapter? If this is a book about determining public policy through a biblical lens—even if not developing specific policies—why spend all this time on the development of the moral argument?
A third point of note comes in Longman’s discussion of racism. Here, Longman actually does get a little more specific in his biblical discussion, tackling texts that have been misused to support racist ideology. In terms of application, he discusses the corporate and generational nature of sin and that Scripture would seem to leave room to allow for policies of reparation and affirmative action. This was actually one of my favorite parts of the book, as he uses proclamations from Daniel (chapter 9) and Ezra (chapter 9) to show how they take personal responsibility for the sin of their nation.
The book ends with a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates on the idea of reparations that is powerful and eloquent—and marred by the regrettable fact that Longman consistently misspells Ta-Nehisi’s last name as “Coats.” It’s a bit of unfortunate optics that one of the few (or maybe only) person of color Longman quotes is on a chapter regarding racism where his name is consistently misspelled.
Conclusion | The Bible and the Ballot
In the end, The Bible and the Ballot is too generalized to be of any specific good. Even though some of this was by design in the area of developing specific public policy, Longman doesn’t even engage with various interpretations of Scripture in any robust manner. There’s a lot of information given, but there’s little discussion or evaluation done to either the text or its given interpretation. And when Longman does stray from typical evangelical thinking (no real Adam and Eve, a fetus may be considered as less than human, there’s a case for reparations), he doesn’t really do anything to back up claims that are going to need major backing to make any movement in evangelical thinking.
With a provocative title like The Bible and the Ballot, I was personally expecting a much more detailed and specific look at how Scripture can and should impact public policy. Once that hope was dashed, I wanted at least a robust discussion of how we differentiate between secular public policy and religious private policy. None of that happened. I really respect Longman as a theologian, his academic work in textual studies and theology is unparalleled, but this work of practical theology just didn’t seem at all the same. Maybe I had expectations that were too high, or I wanted something from this it didn’t intend to give, but I was disappointed in the general banality of this book.
Since the ten issues that Tremper Longman III brings up are important issues, I wanted to end this critique by providing some sources I would recommend for Christian public policy development in some of those areas.
- Nationalism, Patriotism, and Globalization – The Myth of the American Dream by DL Mayfield
- War – If Jesus is Lord by Ronald Sider
- Criminal Justice and Capital Punishment – Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- Immigration – Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R.
- Same-Sex Marriage – Changing Our Mind by David Gushee (affirming); People to Be Loved by Preston Sprinkle (non-affirming)
- Poverty – Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider
- Racism – How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi; I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown