The naked public square has been hung with paraments, and those who preferred it unadorned have not quite known what to make of it. Even before controversy erupted over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s jeremiads, 2008’s presidential candidates had kicked up the level of God-talk notches previously unknown. For the most part, secular commentators in the press and academy have shown themselves to be well out of their depth even when addressing their own religious traditions, and the political naivete displayed by religious commentators has only reinforced Burke’s famous dictum that “politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement.”
An atheist, it seems, will save us. Jacques Berlinerblau’s Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Presidential Politics offers a thoughtful, biblically informed, and wickedly funny analysis of how Scripture has been incorporated both effectively and ineffectively in contemporary political discourse.
Berlinerblau is the director of the Jewish Studies program at Georgetown University and cuts the unusual profile of a scholar of both sociology and the Hebrew Bible¯and a professed atheist to boot. (Georgetown, let us remember, is an institution “in the Jesuit tradition.”) Thoroughly alienated from the mainstream of American society in so many ways, Berlinerblau observes with charity and good humor the strange doings of his fideistic fellow citizens. It is no small thing for an academic to produce a book that is laugh-out-loud funny as well as astute.
Surveying the past several election cycles, Berlinerblau finds that personal piety need not correlate to effective leveraging of biblical texts. Examining the successful use of Scripture on the part of Bill Clinton and George Bush, and the unsuccessful use by Joe Lieberman and John Kerry¯not to mention Howard Dean’s absurd excursion into the New Testament book of Job¯Berlinerblau demonstrates that biblical citations are most effective in American political rhetoric when they are (1) sparse, (2) positive, (3) vague, (4) shallow, and (5) veiled.
Americans, Berlinerblau argues, appreciate the occasional nod in the direction of the Bible, especially when the references are obvious and well-known. Beyond this, those Americans who know their Bibles will be gratified by further unannounced citations, even a few covert hymn fragments, especially when they are smuggled in with a wink to those with ears to hear. But we are in the business of electing politicians, not theologians, and those of the former who attempt the latter inevitably prove themselves to be simply the former. When this happens, Berlinerblau notes, they usually manage to annoy those with strong faith commitments. Constructing a public theology is simply a too demanding and complex task for a politician speaking in sound bites, and discretion is very much the better part of valor for the harried speechwriter. The exegete’s fine artistry must give way to the fluid lines of the cartoonist.
If Berlinerblau’s thesis is correct, then it stands not only as a perceptive analysis of presidential speechifying but as a damning indictment of those Americans who claim to hold the Bible as sacred, as authoritative, as vital to their very existence. If the same people who claim these commitments are also swayed by presidential candidates who offer only the most tangential, glancing, elliptical, and facile engagements with the texts they themselves claim to hold dear, then the emperor and his public square are, if not naked, then leaving little to the imagination.
By analyzing the use of biblical citations in the four most recent election cycles, Berlinerblau manages an historical analysis that is fresh enough to be present in most readers’ minds yet has a sufficient track record to provide useful data. Remarkably, he then manages to bring this analysis to contemporary presidential politics¯and by “contemporary” I do mean “2008.”
The extreme currency of Berlinerblau’s material means that, as contemporary commentary, it has a shelf life. Some will find themselves skimming impatiently through Berlinerblau’s portrayal of Rudy Giuliani as a typical “secularly religious” American and his exposure of the impossible tensions underlying Mitt Romney’s failed efforts to cast himself as an “evangelical Mormon.” As of press time, it is still unclear whether his accurate elucidation of Hillary Clinton’s uncharacteristic “spiritual humility” in speaking of her own faith will be relevant in the 2008 or 2012 race. But the migration of these sections from current events to history in the few months since Thumpin’ It ‘s publication does not make Berlinerblau’s insights any less valuable.
Thumpin’ It does contain two serious weaknesses that do not doom it to failure but may well keep it from being take seriously by the evangelicals and orthodox Christians who would most benefit from Berlinerblau’s critique.
First, Berlinerblau distinguishes evangelical from liberal hermeneutics by claiming that the latter read Scripture ” in context ” (original emphasis). True, the emphasis on “literalism” by fundamentalists has caused others to recoil from naive interpretive practices. But evangelicals are included in the “others”; no less than liberals they seek to understand Scripture according to the particular historical contexts in which biblical texts were written¯with the one difference being that they consider themselves bound to receive what they conclude the text to say as authoritative rather than open to improvement. The heroes of modern-day evangelicalism, from scholars like N.T. Wright to pastors like Rob Bell, are passionately and unapologetically contextual textualists, working diligently with a host of ancient literary and archaeological sources to make sense of biblical texts as they would have been understood in their day.
Second, Berlinerblau commits the not insignificant error of referring to dispensational premillennialism as “premillennial dispensationalism.” Dispensationalism is inherently premillennial; there are classic, progressive and hyper- varieties of dispensationalists, but you can no more have nonpremillennial dispensationalism than you can have liturgical Quakers. According to every variety of dispensationalism, there will be a coming millennial period, or dispensation, ushered in by Christ’s return. The phenomenon that originated with John Nelson Darby is known as dispensational premillenialism to distinguish it from the historic premillennialist position held since Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, through to contemporary theologians like George Eldon Ladd and Wayne Grudem.
It’s an easy slip and unlikely to bother the vast majority of readers. Yet those who care about these terms care about them a lot, and a major theological press like Westminster John Knox should catch this sort of thing. Berlinerblau’s imprecision with respect to these evangelical shibboleths might well lead an evangelical reader to treat lightly a critique that demands serious attention from those who claim as their authority the Bible and the Bible alone.
Rev. Jason Poling is the pastor of New Hope Community Church in Baltimore.
Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Presidential Politics by Jacques Berlinerblau