Ask any number of people if religion and politics have grown too close for comfort these days, and it’s safe to say that a majority of them would answer with a resounding “Yes.” And they’d probably insist that it has only grown worse in the last few decades. Folks on the left might point to Donald Trump’s widespread support among American evangelicals, while those on the right might point to the social justice movement.
But with her new book, The Ballot and the Bible (Brazos Press), Kaitlyn Schiess makes the case that religion and politics have been inextricably intertwined since America’s founding, and even before that. Looking back through various stages and aspects of American history—from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, from the Cold War to Reaganomics—Schiess reveals the numerous and diverse ways in which the Bible has been used by countless individuals to inspire, support, and defend their preferred politics.
(On a personal note, I got a nostalgic kick out of her chapter on Cold War eschatology. Growing up in the church during the ‘80s and ‘90s, I spent plenty of time pondering the prophetic significance of various passages and images from Revelation, and how they related to what I saw in the headlines. It was an exercise that was both distressing and strangely comforting.)
Before going any further, it might be helpful to define what The Ballot and the Bible is not. Schiess’s book is not written to tell anyone how to vote; nor is it an apologetic for a particular political party or movement. And though The Ballot and the Bible does delve into various biblical interpretations, it doesn’t contain a list of “correct” interpretations. As she writes in the preface:
To be clear, this book will not give you a list of interpretation methods or rules; nor will it give the definitive interpretations of the passages that are typically referenced in political conversations. Instead, it poses the question “Is that your Bible?” to the complication and contentious history of American politics.
So what is the goal of The Ballot and the Bible? I believe it can be summed up in a single word: humility. Schiess’s book is filled with examples of people—from all points along the political spectrum—who were absolutely convinced that they were applying Scripture to their politics in an objective manner, that their exegesis and interpretation weren’t merely correct but obviously so. And conversely, their political opponents were obviously wrong.
Schiess—who has written for Christ and Pop Culture in the past—does explore how some interpretations were, in fact, incorrect (e.g., the South’s “biblical” defense of chattel slavery) or overly simplistic (e.g., certain conservatives’ use of Jesus’s “render unto Caesar” speech). But she also considers how there’s plenty of room for nuance, and how nuance is absolutely necessary due in part to our own limited and sinful nature, which will always “warp our moral intuition and biblical interpretation.”
There’s no doubt that we live in a politically divisive era, and sadly, much of that division is driven by biblical interpretation. Schiess doesn’t argue that people can’t have different interpretations; we’re all born into a unique social, historical, and cultural context that influences how we see everything, including the Bible, and to deny that is pointless. But that doesn’t mean that every possible interpretation and application is equally valid. Instead, we need the input of other believers—both those living alongside us as well as those who’ve come before us—to inform us and reveal our own blindspots.
“[H]istory should remind us that while we cannot free ourselves from biases and context, we can rely on the diverse witness of the church throughout time and around the world to help us understand Scripture more clearly,” Schiess writes. “We actually do need more than a Bible and our own minds. We need each other.”