On the Political Uses (and Misuses) of Scripture

 American political figures love the Bible. Some no doubt love the Scriptures because they sincerely believe the Bible is God’s written words for humanity. Others seem to love the Bible because it serves as a useful prop that resonates with particular voting blocs. Still others probably just have a nostalgic love for the Good Book and its symbolic value in American culture and/or their own upbringing. Many politicians, including some in all the aforementioned groups, especially love the Scriptures because it is a never-ending source of inspiring quotes—even if those quotes are often lifted out of their context.


What is true of politicians is also true of American believers in general. That the Bible is of central importance to Christians is not in doubt. But how believers have used the Bible for political purposes has varied widely. Sometimes we nod with approval. Other times we cringe or roll our eyes. And sometimes, but likely not nearly often enough, we lament. As Kaitlyn Schiess notes, “For all our familiarity with the Bible, we are woefully ignorant about how or why we are using the Bible in politics” (p. 2).


Schiess wants American believers to have a healthy understanding of how to think about the intersection of faith and the public square. Her first book, The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor (IVP, 2020), explored the relationship between spiritual formation and political engagement. Her most recent book is in many ways a historical prequel to The Liturgy of Politics. The subtitle hints at the direction Schiess wants to take her readers: The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture has been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here (Brazos, 2023).


The Ballot and the Bible is a historical survey of how various Americans, many of them devout believers, have engaged with Scripture for political purposes. This is not an academic monograph but rather is a well-researched yet accessible dive into the topic. Schiess highlights various figures and movements, using them as case studies in the political use of Scripture. The result is a helpful book that is always informative, sometimes provocative, and—at least for this reader—occasionally convicting.


Some of Schiess’s case studies are noteworthy biblical passages or concepts. How various believers have engaged with Romans 13 has in part depended upon their place in society. We may identify the idea that America is, in some sense, a city on a hill with the Puritans, but there is a massive disconnect between their careful exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount and the sunny optimism of recent politicians who appropriate this language. Rendering to Caesar what belongs to him has been a means for some evangelicals to disconnect the personal ethics of Donald Trump from his exalted place in their political imagination.


Other case studies focus on figures or movements. Both slave masters and the enslaved appealed to Scripture—and read the Bible in different ways—to either justify enslavement or advocate for freedom. Both the Union and the Confederacy appealed to Scripture to justify their actions, with President Lincoln famously confounding them both in his Second Inaugural Address. Many African American advocates for Civil Rights in the mid-20th century were deeply saturated in the Scriptures while simultaneously being accused of being sympathetic to, or at least duped by, atheistic communists who wanted to undermine American culture. The social gospel, which appealed to ostensibly biblical concepts of economic and social justice, also influenced the biblical imagination of many believing Civil Rights activists.


Some case studies reflect very recent history. Popular forms of dispensational eschatology probably influenced how Ronald Reagan framed the Cold War and definitely influenced millions of evangelicals who voted for Reagan. George W. Bush was a darling of evangelicals but rarely appealed to Scripture when articulating public policy, while Barack Obama was not the preferred choice of most evangelicals even though he regularly quoted Scripture in political contexts.


In her closing chapter, Schiess makes a different move, looking at how Augustine and Calvin interpreted Jeremiah 29. She then commends its emphasis on flourishing-in-exile as a more fruitful way for contemporary believers to think about politics. Interestingly, Schiess appeals to pacifists and postliberals such as John Howard Yoder, Walter Brueggemann, and Stanley Hauerwas as exemplars of this approach. However, one could just as easily point to the influence of Tim Keller and The Gospel Coalition, who also appeal to this motif, but from a position that affirms classical evangelical beliefs about Scripture, salvation, and mission. Perhaps there is more than one way to recognize the exilic nature of the people of God.


The Ballot and the Bible is, in one sense, the type of book that could only be written in an era wherein Donald Trump exercises outsized influence among American evangelicals. A not-so-subtle subtext that runs throughout the book is that evangelicals really took the Bible seriously, they would probably not be political conservatives—or at least not the type of conservatives who vote for Trump. Schiess is also overly simplistic in her dichotomy between Bush and Obama, neglecting the very real policy differences that informed how evangelicals thought of each man, regardless of how often those men quoted Scripture or where they attended church.


However, biases and missteps aside, there is another sense in which The Ballot and the Bible is evergreen. The Bible is our supreme authority for faith and practice, meaning it necessarily ought to inform how believers think about politics. And there is much to learn from how previous generations of believers engaged with Scripture to advance their political causes, whether we resonate with them today or not. History often functions like a “moral mirror.” And like all mirrors, sometimes we may not be thrilled by what we see. At the very least, the context of history might provide some nuance in our contemporary debates. Admittedly, nuance will never carry the day on social media, which is a wasteland of simplistic soundbites, algorithmically curated battles between the woke and the based, and confirmation bias. But it might just make us all better political disciples.


Nathan Finn serves as Professor of Faith and Culture at North Greenville University, where he also directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership. He writes and speaks widely on topics related to Baptist history and thought, leadership, spiritual formation, and Christian higher education. He is a senior fellow for the Land Center for Cultural Engagement and a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Finn also serves as Teaching Pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, SC.