So a little-known congressman, Paul Broun
, is making a big ruckus by introducing a resolution
calling on President Obama to designate a "National Year of the Bible" for America. Broun is a Republican (natch) from Georgia (of course) so none of this should be a surprise, right? Just another Christian fundamentalist, cynics might say, trying to turn us into a nation of Bible thumpers. The reaction has been equally predictable: Those irreligious Democrats have shunned Broun's proposal like swine flu. Jewish pols, in particular, are skeptical, and secularists see yet another plot to turn the United States into a theocracy.
The reality is that proclaiming a Year of the Bible wouldn't change America as much as one side hopes and the other side fears: that's because Americans read into the Bible exactly what they want to read into the Bible-they quote it when it supports their position, and they ignore it when it doesn't. Pushing Americans to revere the Bible, as Broun's resolution does, isn't the answer:
Polls show that the Bible remains the most popular book of all time, and almost all U.S. homes (93 percent) have at least one. Yet only half of U.S. adults can name a single Gospel, and most don't know that the first book of the Bible is Genesis. A 2000 survey showed that even 60 percent of those chapter-and-verse-quoting Evangelicals thought Jesus was born in Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem. Similarly, a 2004 survey of high school students found that 17 percent thought "the road to Damascus" was where Jesus was crucified and 22 percent thought Moses was either one of Jesus' 12 apostles or an Egyptian pharaoh or an angel. Half of high school seniors also thought Sodom and Gomorrah were married. (Can gay marriage really be far off?)
But before you pile on the slacker generation, consider that one in 10 of all Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, and 60 percent can't name five of the Ten Commandments. Capitol Hill is no beacon of biblical scholarship. Another Georgia Republican (and co-sponsor of Broun's bill), Lynn Westmoreland
, in 2006 pushed a bill to require the display of the Ten Commandments in the House and Senate, but then won the dubious immortality of video by going on the "Colbert Report"
without brushing up on his Decalogue. Which led to this memorable exchange:
Colbert: What are the Ten Commandments?
Westmoreland: What are all of them?
Westmoreland: You want me to name them all?
Westmoreland: Uhhh. Don't murder. Don't lie. Don't steal. Ummmmm. I can't name 'em all.
If Rep. Westmoreland could name them-or the rest of us could-the question is, would we still be pushing for a more biblically-savvy America? Perhaps not, when you realize what the Bible asks of us. Jesus spoke a lot, and not kindly, about the perils of money, and very little about the evils of sex. Not to mention all that forgiveness stuff, and treating your neighbor as yourself. Immigration reform, anyone? Or how about capital punishment? In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court threw out the death penalty sentence for a murderer because several jurors had consulted Bible verses such as "an eye for eye, tooth for tooth" to back up execution. Maybe if they had read on they might have gotten to "Thou shalt not kill," or one of Jesus' many teachings on turning the other cheek.
Similarly, Susan Pace Hamill, a tax lawyer and graduate of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., in 2003 sparked a near-revolution when she pushed Gov. Bob Riley, also an evangelical Christian, to pass a tax reform plan that she said would be more biblical because it would raise taxes on the wealthy and cut them for 90 percent of Alabamans, who are overwhelmingly Christian. But the Christian Coalition and others on the religious right railed against the measure and it was defeated 2-1.
The problem is, knowing the Bible is not simply a matter of reading it cover to cover, or memorizing lots of verses. Indeed, a GQ report
last month revealed that Donald Rumsfeld's intelligence briefers included cover sheets with Bible citations on classified Department of Defense daily intelligence updates for President Bush. The cherry-picked verses favored apparently bellicose statements from the Hebrew Bible, but all of them tended to be taken out of context and often directly contradict the meaning of the passage (as in the commandment in Ephesians 6:13 to don the "full armor of God.") Not that W needed much prodding. It recently emerged (in Jacques Chirac's memoirs)
that in 2003, while lobbying leaders to put together the Coalition of the Willing, Bush told the French president that today's Middle East foes were the enemies of Israel prophesied in the biblical books of Genesis and Ezekiel. "This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a New Age begins," Bush said.
Bush, as we know, was not alone in his literalist interpretation of the Bible. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that nearly one-third of Americans believe the Bible is literally true-Rep. Borun among them. "It's literal and it's God's direction to us," Broun told the Associated Baptist Press
. "I call it the manufacturer's handbook. It directs every aspect of life." While fewer than half can name Genesis as the first book of the Bible, six in 10 say creationism-a literal reading of the Genesis story
-is definitely or probably true.
Yet, literalism can be oddly selective, eschewing teachings on humility and forgiveness and economic justice-which Jesus said would be singularly important when it came time to book passage to the afterlife.
Marketing doesn't seem to have made a dent in our biblical illiteracy. There are feminist Bibles and contemporary English Bibles and Bible "zines" for easy reading for kids and even a glossy new fashion-mag version, "Bible Illuminated: The Book,"
which features photojournalism shots from around the world as well as celebs like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Princess Di to illustrate various New Testament stories. (The Old Testament arrives next year.) There is a Green Bible
with an eco-message and a camo Bible
(when things are slow on the deer stand, presumably). There's a James Bond study Bible
and just out is The American Patriot's Bible
, which retells the old story in a red, white, and blue cast. (Perhaps Rummy was reading that one.)
So rather than relying on free-market capitalism, perhaps biblical literacy needs a stimulus package. And maybe liberals ought to get on board. In fact here's a modest counterproposal: Don't just proclaim a "Year of the Bible," but a "Decade of the Bible." After all, it would take at least that long to get Americans-especially the self-proclaimed believers-up to a biblical literacy level that could get them out of my Sunday School.
On the hot-button social issues, from homosexuality to abortion, Scripture is invoked without any real understanding of the context or true meaning. Nor is there a recognition of the timber in our own eye even as we criticize the mote in our neighbor's.
Moreover, how do we expect to understand-or critique-Barack Obama, the most religiously literate chief executive in many a year? Obama can barely get through a policy speech without citing at least one Beatitude.
The bottom line is that if Americans really knew the Bible, and, God forbid, put its teachings into practice, both conservatives and liberals might be unsettled. Which is reason enough to start a federal Bible education program. Call it "No Believer Left Behind."