Separation of Church and Debate

by Susan Ackerman | 10/2/07 3:33am

I'm a life-long Democrat, so I was thrilled to be one of the lucky few who won the lottery and got a ticket to last Wednesday night's debate. Getting to see so many of my party's luminaries assembled all in one place was an incredible experience.

However, I'm not only a life-long Democrat; I'm also a religion professor, and a Bible specialist to boot. Imagine my pain, then, when I had to listen to the Democrats' political heroes of 2007 mangle their way through the debate's penultimate question, "What is your favorite Bible verse?"

"The Sermon on the Mount," answered Barack Obama, who responded first, utterly neglecting the fact that the Sermon on the Mount spans three chapters in the Bible, or about 111 verses -- more than a little supererogatory. Then, to add insult to injury, Obama went on to describe the basic principle of the Sermon on the Mount as "empathy towards each other," and while that may aptly summarize some of the Sermon's teachings -- "Blessed are the peacemakers," for example -- it doesn't seem to quite get at, say, the Sermon's prohibitions against divorce. Is it really empathetic to expect a victim of abuse to stay with the abusive partner?

Others in the field were not much better. Bill Richardson echoed Obama's preference for the 'Sermon on the Mount" -- and therefore Obama's seeming ignorance about the nature of a biblical verse, versus a three-chapter-long passage. Chris Dodd also missed the mark when it came to offering a single verse, by answering that his Bible favorite was the Parable of the Good Samaritan -- although at least he came closer than Obama or Richardson, since the parable of the Good Samaritan is only nine verses.

And at least Dodd, Obama and Richardson managed to cite some text from the Bible; Dennis Kucinich, conversely, quoted a prayer from St. Francis, a notable figure of Christian history, to be sure, but one who postdates the biblical period by some 1,200 years. Mike Gravel also seemed shaky on biblical specifics when he opined that "the most important thing in life is love," but I forgave him because, according to the program book distributed at the debates, he's a Unitarian, and having myself been raised in that tradition, I know the Bible barely gets cracked in favor of readings from the Bhagavad Gita and the Lotus Sutra. I assume Gavel could have mopped the floor with the other seven if Tim Russert's question had asked for each candidate's favorite koan.

I could go on -- Joe Biden's siding with certain New Testament texts in their rant against the Pharisees, while seemingly oblivious to the fact that, since "Pharisees" in the polemical passages he was alluding to is a synonym for "Jews," he had just managed to alienate the entire Jewish vote. Way to go, Joe! But in a positive vein, it's important to note that John Edwards came very close to answering Russert's question appropriately and Hillary Clinton nailed it. Edwards replied to Russert by saying, "What you do unto the least of those, you do unto me," a verse that he told us "appears many times in the Bible." Well, actually, just once, in Matt 25:40 -- but otherwise a superb effort. Too bad for Edwards, though, that several of the debate's transcripts -- including the one posted by the venerable New York Times -- rendered his words as "What you do onto the least of those, you do onto me," thereby casting unnecessary aspersions on the senator's expertise in the use of Shakespearean prepositions.

And our winner, Hillary Clinton? She cited the "golden rule," which shows up in Matt 7:12 and is then repeated in Luke 6:31. Is it any coincidence, moreover, I have since found myself asking, that Clinton was an undergraduate at Wellesley College, which until relatively recently required that all its students take a year-long course in Bible? Is this why she was so adept at sorting out those pesky difference between chapter and verse, between St. Francis and St. Paul?

The pundits seem undecided about who won the debate. But Hillary's "correct" answer to Tim Russert's question, this Bible professor likes to believe, marks a victory for the study of the Bible as a part of any liberal-arts education.

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