May 10th, 2012
11:41 AM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
Not so long ago and not so far away, the culture wars stuck to a simple script.
On questions such as abortion, the Republicans would denounce the Democrats for preaching a "secular agenda." The Democrats would denounce the GOP for injecting religion into politics. Then, because the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God, the Republicans would usually win.
Things today are more confusing, and more interesting.
After John Kerry’s defeat at the hands of George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, the Democrats got religion. Nowadays they too present their public policy positions in moral and often biblical terms, describing the question of taxes, for example, as a matter of “fairness” and in some cases quoting from the Gospel of Luke (“Blessed are the poor.”)
Nowhere is this shift more stark than on the gay marriage debate. In a week that saw North Carolinians inject a gay marriage ban into their Constitution, the nation’s most celebrated preacher and the nation's most celebrated politician weighed in—as Christians.
In full-page ads in North Carolina newspapers, Billy Graham said, “The Bible is clear—God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman." In an interview yesterday with ABC’s Robin Roberts, President Obama said that when he and the First Lady “think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
Both men ignored facts that did not support their cases. Graham did not mention the many cases of polygamy in the Christian Bible. And Obama ignored the many cases in which homosexuality (particularly male homosexuality) is denounced.
Two things are striking about this debate. The first is that both sides are now conducting it in religious terms. Whereas the GOP in prior culture wars was able to denounce the Democratic Party for pushing a “secular agenda,” now it is in the much more difficult position of claiming (as Rick Santorum did of Obama) that the left is preaching a “phony theology.”
Second, it is striking how closely this debate mirrors the slavery debate in antebellum America. Then, pro-slavery forces read key passages in the Bible in a "commonsense" manner and concluded that God was in favor of slavery. Meanwhile, anti-slavery activists, seeking after the "spirit" rather than the "letter" of the Biblical text, concluded that slavery flew in the face of both "love your neighbor" and the Golden Rule.
As Mark Noll argues in his book America’s God, the fact that the Bible seemed to most "commonsense" readers to support slavery brought on a crisis of authority that helped to produce what we now liberal Protestantism. Many American Christians at the time just knew slavery was wrong, so they learned to read the Bible in a different way.
We may be at a similar inflection point today. If you take a literal approach to the Biblical books and focus only at passages on sexuality, the Bible seems to support Graham. But if you focus on its broader message of love, it casts its vote for Obama.
As with slavery in the nineteenth century, public opinion in the twenty-first century is shifting rapidly on the gay marriage question, and not only among secular types. Billy Graham and other evangelicals who continue to insist that “the Bible is clear” in its opposition to gay marriage would do well to heed the lessons of America's most costly conflagration over race.
As they preach what they see as the "clear" meaning of scripture, they are not only swimming against the tide of history. They are putting their own religious tradition at risk.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.