The Bible’s (Mis)Use in Society

Below is the text of a brief talk I gave for my friend Doug Carpenter today. Doug approached me a while back and asked if I’d be willing to speak on the role of the Christian scriptures on society. My talk was balanced by Christian blogger Triggerman1976 and I hope to link to his talk as soon as I am able to.

Please be aware that if I’m but a mere amateur as it pertains to biblical exegesis, I’m a novice when it comes to history. While I spent some time in college as a history major and have a fairly substantial library of historical works (particularly United States history), I have no credentials in the subject and am often very uncomfortable when writing about it. Nevertheless, the subject of my talk demanded some discussion of how scripture has been used in the history of our country for better or for worse. So please forgive any errors; they are wholly my own.


I grew up in upstate New York, in a quiet little town twenty minutes from Lake Ontario. Despite the fact that no battles were fought there, my family was enamored with the Civil War, nineteenth century America’s pivotal conflict. During at least two summers I can recall we would climb into the caravan and make the trek to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of a three-day skirmish that was one of the bloodiest of the war. In other years, we would venture further south and visit battle fields like those at Antietam and Bull Run. History was important in our family and the Civil War with all its mythos ranked supreme. 

The root cause of the Civil War was, of course, the issue of slavery.[1]  When South Carolina seceded in 1860, the statement adopted by their convention lamented that the federal government, once formed to promote a union of all states – slave holding and non-slave holding – now “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.” Those slaves who remain “have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” Since the federal government would not protect the interests of slave holding states, it fell upon those states to secede, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.”[2] Slavery, in the view of the delegates at this convention, was not at all sinful. But why did they think that?

The antebellum South was overwhelmingly Christian and Protestant. From time to time in the pulpits of Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches one might hear some rousing defense of slaveholding and a strong condemnation of abolitionism. For example, in a Thanksgiving sermon delivered to his congregation in New Orleans in 1860, the Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer declared that God had entrusted slavery to the South and that with war looming in the distance the South’s duty was to “conserve and perpetuate the domestic institution of slavery as now existing.”[3] In Georgia, the Presbyterian Joseph Wilson cited the words of the Deutero-Pauline epistle of Ephesians in which the author writes in 6:1, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” Wilson’s sermon with its look at texts referring to slaves was intended to be 

a first and an important step in ascertaining the will of God with respect to an institution which short sighted men have indiscriminately and violently denounced and which wicked men have declared unworthy of the countenance of a Christianity whose peaceful and conservative spirit, as applied to society, they neither respect nor understand.[4]

Slavery, in the words of Wilson, was the means by which a “lower race” was delivered from the bondage of heathenism. It was for their own good that God had caused Africans to become slaves. 

Of course, it was not only slave holders and Southern ministers who employed biblical texts in support of their position. Abolitionists likewise used the Bible to support their anti-slavery view. Near the turn of the nineteenth century, the son of Jonathan Edwards (of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame) preached against slavery. Citing Exodus 21:16, Edwards observed that 

death is not the punishment declared by God to be due to fornication, theft or robbery in common cases. Therefore we have the divine authority to assert, that man-stealing is a greater crime than fornication, theft or robbery….[T]o hold [Africans] in slavery is man-stealing, which we have seen is, by God himself, declared to be a greater crime than fornication, theft or robbery.[5]

Historians have long observed that the rhetoric of Edwards and other abolitionists in the ante-Bellum era was one of the causes of the vigorous pro-slavery defense formulated by Southern Christians.[6] But it also highlights an issue that has plagued Western societies that look to the Bible for their moral bedrock for ages down even to the present: the Bible can be and has been used to defend any number of polar opposite views.[7]

The Bible and the Death Penalty

Take the issue of capital punishment. It is quite clear from various passages in the Hebrew scriptures that homicide was a capital crime: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human,” Yahweh tells Noah in Genesis 9:6, “by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”[8] The apostle Paul, too, argues that the government exists to deter wickedness “for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Passages like these have been invoked by many conservative Christians as biblical approval for the death penalty. In his book God and Caesar, attorney John Eidsmoe writes that as “distasteful though executions may be to some Christians, the Old Testament clearly authorizes capital punishment.”[9] The Reformer John Calvin, addressing the question as to how government authorities can enact capital punishment upon criminals and remain “pious,” wrote, 

But if we understand that the magistrate, in inflicting punishment, acts not of himself, but executes the very judgments of God, we shall be disencumbered of every doubt. The law of the Lord forbids to kill; but, that murder may not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts the sword into the hands of his ministers, that they may employ it against all murderers.[10]

But other Christians take a more restrained approach to the issue. Arthur Holmes in his book on ethics acknowledges that while capital punishment is perhaps “morally permissible” in “extreme” situations, 

it is not morally ideal….[I]n our present legal system with all its practical inequities for minorities and for the poor, for example, equal access to legal resources still eludes many. We must wonder therefore whether capital punishment today is just. Justice we must always seek, but a justice tempered by love.[11]

Other Christians believe that Christianity and the retributive punishment of the death penalty are morally incongruous. John Berkman, examining both theological literature and biblical texts, writes, 

The primary theological objection to the practice of the death penalty will not be that it is “cruel” or “unusual” or “barbaric” or even “incommensurate” punishment. The primary objection will be that in light of the Christian imperative of reconciliation, it is not punishment at all. For while punishment is rightly seen as part of God’s justice, it is a justice ordered to reconciliation, whose ultimate earthly manifestation is the practice of eucharistic reconciliation.[12]

We can thus see that Christians have promoted, defended, and attacked capital punishment using the same set of data: the Bible. 

The Place of the Bible in Society

None of this is to deny the value of the Bible both in its cultural and personal impact. It is hard to conceive of Western civilization generally or the United States particularly without the Bible. The influence of Holy Writ can be seen in the artwork of Michelangelo, in the poetry of Milton, and in the architecture of Europe. In the early American republic, society was so rooted in the soil of scripture that both the religious and irreligious alike were fluent in the ancient texts. For example, skeptic Thomas Paine, a man who once opined that “the age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system,”[13] refers time and again in many of his writings to biblical characters and events.[14]

Modern society, however, is not as well versed in the Bible as it was in the past. And arguably, this is because the sacred text of the American political system isn’t the Bible but the Constitution. The architects of the Constitution, on some level, sounded the death knell of religious America. While the Declaration of Independence made reference to a “Creator,” the Constitution lacks any reference to God.[15] And two important innovations embedded within it all but ensure the separation of church and state: the prohibition for religious tests of office in Article VI[16] and the First Amendment. By divorcing religion from politics, the Framers created a system whereby both were free from one another.[17] The effect of this can be seen clearly in how it has influenced society at large. With an ever-secularizing government came an ever-secularizing society. 

This is the key to understanding the Bible’s role in society. It cannot and should not serve as society’s moral guide for its government and social systems. Its interpretation can vary so significantly among religious sects that there would be no good way to adjudicate which interpretation is correct and therefore worthy of imposition on society. But given the Constitution’s allowances for religious groups to practice their faith, the Bible’s key role is on the personal level, in religious communities that can bind themselves to their interpretations of it should they see fit. 


[1] This fact should be uncontroversial but given the influence and proliferation of the so-called “Lost Cause” narrative, defenders of “Southern heritage” deny slavery’s central importance in favor of the nebulous issue of “states’ rights.” However, the Lost Cause narrative is rejected by American historians for a variety of reasons and has no place in discussions of American history other than how it was used by bigots to promote a view of American history that is incompatible with the facts. For more, see Edward H. Bonekemper III, The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won (Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2015).

[2] “Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” December 24, 1860. Available online at http://civilwarcauses.org/reasons.htm#SouthCarolina

[3] Benjamin Palmer, “Thanksgiving Sermon” (11.29.1860). Available online at https://civilwarcauses.org/palmer.htm. 

[4] Joseph R. Wilson, “Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible: A Discourse Preached in the First Presbyterian Church, Augusta Georgia, on Sabbath Morning, Jan 6, 1861,” https://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/wilson/wilson.html

[5] Jonathan Edwards, The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade, and of The Slavery of Africans: Illustrated in a Sermon (Boston: Wells and Lilly-Court Street, 1822), 30-31.

[6] John Patrick Daly, When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 57.

[7] For more on how the Bible was used in both pro-slavery and anti-slavery polemics, see Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 31-50. Noll observes, 

The evangelical Protestant churches had a problem because the mere fact of trusting implicitly in the Bible was no solving disagreements about what the Bible taught concerning slavery. The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant (p. 50).

[8] Cf. Lewis B. Smedes, Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 121. Smedes contends that 

Genesis 9:6 is too obscure, too broad, and too dubious to be a divinely issued mandate for all human societies to kill their killers. Perhaps it is a proverb like “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” If so, it is a shrewd observation of what usually happens to killers. 

[9] John Eidsmoe, God and Caesar: Biblical Faith and Political Action (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1997), 199. Though Eidsmoe contends that capital punishment is a valid and biblical form of punishment, he remains skeptical about its usage in the modern era, likening its application to a roulette-wheel (p. 201). 

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.10.

[11] Arthur F. Holmes, Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions, second edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 102-103; see also Smedes, Mere Morality, 124.

[12] John Berkman, “Being Reconciled: Penitence, Punishment, and Worship,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, editors (Chichester, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2011), 108. By “eucharistic reconciliation,” Berkman means the reconciliation by which God restores human spiritual health that had been affected by sin as well as restores persons to community (p. 99). 

[13] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Eric Foner, editor (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1995), 699. 

[14] For example, in “The Crisis Number VIII” Paine wrote to the people of England that their country’s actions against the colonies of America has alienated them from European governments and, evoking Exodus motifs, that their “excesses of passionate folly…have driven you on, like Pharaoh, to unpitied miseries….” (in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, 225).

[15] In the debate over the Constitution there was great fear that the end result would be too secular. Changes were suggested to its Preamble that made it clear that the United States affirmed its dependence upon God but were ultimately rejected. See Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House, 2007), 95-103.

[16] John Fea aptly notes that Article VI gave voters “the liberty to vote for candidates to federal office who were Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, or atheists” (Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011], 153).

[17] As Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore write, 

The framers were writing into America’s fundamental law the Lockean liberal ideal. They created a demystified state, stripped of all religious ambitions. It would not serve the glory of God; it would merely preside over the commercial republic, an individualistic and competitive America with private rights and personal autonomy (The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005], 86).

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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