What's Tony Thinking

The Bible in America


Just about a year ago I mentioned that I would be moderating a panel on the topic of the Bible in America. It was to be jointly  sponsored by Folio: The Seattle Atheneum and Seattle Pacific University. Well, you know what happened to that.

Now we’re back, this time on Zoom. The event will be held at 7:00 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday evening, this week, February 9. It’s free, but you have to register. Here’s a link to the Folio site where you sign on. The official description is as follows:

“Anthony Robinson will be joined by Seattle Pacific University faculty members Sara Koenig, David Nienhuis and Rob Wall, to explore the role of the Bible in a “post-biblical age.”

“From Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr., American leaders have drawn on the Bible’s stories and images. Is that still possible? Is it appropriate? What role, if any, does the Bible play in American culture and society? Has it, too, fallen victim to the Culture Wars? How is the Bible read and used in various churches? Are some uses better than others? Who says?” Join us for a lively discussion of these open questions.”

That’s a lot of big questions. We won’t answer them all, but we will talk about them with three biblical scholars for whom I have the greatest respect.

About this time last year, when I first mentioned this event, I quoted from a Wall Street Journal article by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik on “What the Bible Taught Lincoln About America.” Soloveichik’s observations, now on the 212th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, are worth recalling. They set the stage a bit for our Tuesday conversation.

“When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he was certainly not thought of as a man given to religious fervor. But over the next 4½ years, as hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the Civil War, the 16th president evolved into a theologian of the American idea, using the language and concepts of the Bible to reflect on the war’s larger meaning. This year on Presidents Day, Americans will observe the 211th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. But in an age of declining biblical literacy, we are in danger of losing touch with a key source of his greatness.

“Why, for instance, did Lincoln begin the Gettysburg Address with the words ‘fourscore and seven years ago?’ It isn’t because he usually spoke that way, as many readers of the speech might now assume. Rather, he knew that his audience was deeply familiar with the King James Bible and would recognize the language of the Psalms: ‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years.’ As Adam Gopnik has written, Lincoln ‘had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in biblical terms.'”

Though we are in “an age of declining biblical literacy,” as Soloveichik comments, the Bible continues to be claimed, used and — if I may say so — mis-used as a powerful symbol.

On January 20th Joe Biden was sworn in with his hand on a rather massive “family Bible,” held by Dr. Jill Biden. Six months earlier President Trump held a Bible aloft while posing in front of a church near the White House. The surrounding area had just been cleared of Black Lives Matters protestors by soldiers using tear gas and clubs. The photo-op subsequently became a flash-point of controversy.

Annually,  on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, is recalled. In it he quoted directly from the Book of the Prophet Amos. “Let justice roll down as waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.”

Are some uses of the Bible in the American public square “good,” and others “bad?” On what basis do we judge? What is appropriate today in an increasingly secular, religiously pluralistic America? We will explore these questions, and others on Tuesday evening. Join in, via ZOOM, if you are interested. The panel will go for 40 minutes or so, followed by 20 minutes for questions and comments from the listening audience.


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