A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Quoting the Bible in Intelligence Briefings

A recent article in GQ revealed that when Secretary Rumsfeld presented daily intelligence briefings to President Bush in the early days of Iraq war, he presented them with cover sheets emblazoned with biblical quotes.

Click here to see some of those images on the GQ site.

Although most press has been given to the quotes from Isaiah, also in the mix are citations from Ephesians, Psalms, Daniel, Proverbs, Joshua,1 Peter, and 1 Chronicles.

In his blog on beliefnet.com, Steven Waldman asks why Bush didn’t distance himself from such overt displays of religiosity and wonders if Rumsfeld and others thought their plans would be more credible if the President thought they were sanctioned by the Bible.

On MSNBC’s Ed Show, panelists debate whether Christian quotes belong in the public sphere and ponder how Americans would have reacted if the quotes had come from the Quran instead.  The issue is cast as one of pluralism and the separation of church and state.  Interestingly, panelists also engage in a brief discussion about “what Isaiah really says,” noting that many passages in Isaiah call for a time of peace and the cessation of war.

The choice of quotes for these documents isn’t surprising.  They appeal to a sense of mission to do the right thing (“here I am, send me”).  They promise victory to the faithful (“commit to the LORD and your plans will succeed”).  They clearly identify the good guys and the bad guys (“It is by God’s will that by doing good you shall silence the ignorant talk of foolish men”).   They publicly attribute success to the hand of God (“the king is not saved by a mighty army”).

That is, they use the Bible to make a case for something the preparers already believed.

As someone who listens to how the Bible is used in church and in culture, I find the “cherry-picking” of quotes (the language used on MSNBC) to be nothing new.  People trying to advance very different perspectives turn to the Bible to defend their positions.  I have heard the Bible invoked as proof for anti-gay legislation and for marriage equality for LGBT people; for and against the ordination of women; for eco-friendly lifestyles and for believing that Jesus’ impending return leaves us no time to fix global warming.  “Cherry-picking” is nothing new.  Many of us call it “proof-texting.”

That’s why I find that simply quoting biblical passages is unhelpful in resolving debates.  There are always other passages to quote.  And, more importantly, the significance of words (their meaning) is never self-evident.  Even verses as apparently straightforward as the Ten Commandments have to be interpreted to apply to contemporary settings.  After all, literally, the text says that God spoke those words to Moses to tell to the Israelites.  Using them as universal rules for all people isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but it is the result of dozens of assumptions about the connection between ancient Israel and the world at large.  My claim isn’t that those assumptions are necessarily wrong, but that they do need to be acknowledged, discussed, and debated.

As an educator and as a citizen, I long for people to take ownership of their own views.  Rather than shutting down conversation by quoting the Bible, can we talk about what matters most to us and why?   Too often, “that’s what the  Bible says” really means “shut up.”

Of course, many people’s views derive from their reading of the Bible.  The Bible has changed people’s minds and led them to particular conclusions.  So let’s talk about that.  Let’s discuss how you understand what you read, listen to what other people make out of the same verses, and consider why all of us may read the way we do.

4 Responses to Quoting the Bible in Intelligence Briefings

  • ugh… the more i read about that administration… bleh. putting bible verses on briefings is like leading a donkey with a carrot. craziness.

  • Well said. I recently wrote a letter to our local paper with some of the same ideas, in response to an argument that’s been playing out in our newspaper about – believe it or not – interracial marriage. When people quote scripture to argue against it they are distorting the bible’s message by using only “sound-bite quality” samples. So often this is the problem, and people fail to see how the bible is in conversation with itself – something I learned from you, Julia!

  • One of my favorites lines from a movie is in Dead Man Walking, when someone quotes the Bible about “an eye for an eye,” and sister Prejean responds with a more appropriate quotation–her interlocuter gives up and says, “I ain’t gettin into no Bible Quotin’ with no religious nun.”

  • Mark,
    I wonder if the guy would have debated with a non-religious nun!

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