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Averse to politics


'You must defend those who are helpless and have no hope. Be fair and give justice to the poor and homeless'. A quotation from the book of Proverbs, as any Third Way reader would be quick to point out. But in a recent poll on biblical literacy in the US, more people believed that the words came from Barack Obama than the Old Testament.

To be fair, US voters are used to hearing quasi-biblical language issue forth like a flood from their politicians. Any legislator wanting to be all things to all people would do well to remember that many are called but few are chosen. George Bush, for example, was keen on combatting men of evil designs, and Ronald Regan famously said of Soviet leaders that they 'reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime'.

Of course, these phrases often owe more to the 17th century than actual scripture, the authorative echoes mattering more than the content. Recently, however, Senators have been competing to take ownership not of the apocalyptic good in the war against evil but of the Bible's moral imperatives towards poverty.

Professor Timothy Beal, author of Biblical Literacy: The essential Bible stories everyone needs to know, has monitored the changing use of the Bible in different political eras. 'In the current healthcare debate', he says, 'both sides claim to be caring for "the least of these." The debate is over who they are. Is it the elderly? Is it children? Is it the uninsured children? The uninsured? The immigrants?' Meanwhile the President argues that opponents of his proposals are 'bearing false witness' against his ideas.
Elsewhere, the recession has invoked Amos, Isaiah and Micah in condemning predatory lenders who might take advantage of the vulnerable.

Beal even knows of a project aimed at helping people avoid predatory loans that has been named after prophet Nehemiah. 'I think you can't be culturally literate without being biblically literate,' he says. 'These stories are all over our culture, from Michelangelo to the Simpsons. When we don't know them, when we don't hear these resonances, and we're not familiar, we're really missing half the conversation.'

A shame, then, that over at Ohio's Ashland University, Professor David Aune has graded the nation's overall biblical literacy as low and feels Bible reading has declined over the past decade. A problem of creeping secularism and strident atheism? Apparently not. Aune blames the drop on a megachurch trend toward prepackaged PowerPoint sermons instead of Bible-based preaching.