How to really make America great again? Stop quoting the Bible.
BY : JAY ELIAS
I watched the 2012 Vice Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan from a college dorm room. Growing up in a mostly conservative, rural Pennsylvania town, being surrounded by liberally-minded peers was a new experience for me. With these opposing forces at play within, I made a point to try and truly listen to both VP candidates, without imposing any outside biases on their words. It was the most open-minded I had ever been when it came to politics.
I sat glued to the TV throughout the entire debate, sometimes agreeing with a point on the left, sometimes with a point on the right. But the line that struck me the most came towards the end of the debate, right before their closing statements. The moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, asked Biden and Ryan the following question:
“We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.”
Paul Ryan responded first:
“I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.”
Nearly six years later, this line continues to stick out in my mind. I may not have known much about politics back then, but I was familiar with the idea of “separation of church and state,” and Paul Ryan seemed to be neglecting that concept entirely. To be fair (which was my whole thing), Biden responded similarly, stating, “My religion defines who I am.” But where Ryan used his Catholic principles to defend his anti-abortion stance, Biden made it a point to say that while his Catholic beliefs “inform [his own] social doctrine…[he] refuses to impose that on others.” This is a key distinction, and with our current administration, that distinction is an endangered species.
Time and time again, our current public officials quote the Bible out of context or in completely irrelevant instances. Marco Rubio, for example, tends to tweet out the occasional Bible quote as a sort of passive-aggressive response to the trending headline of the day. Slate pointed out a Rubio Bible tweet reacting to the gun control activism of Stoneman Douglas High School students. The misused quote allowed him to imply the students’ age undercuts their activism without having to say a word.
More recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 during a press conference defending the separation of families at the border. He read the passage aloud, stating that we are to, “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” a statement that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders then stood by when pressed for further comment.
Now, open practice of one’s religious beliefs is of course protected under the First Amendment, so Rubio, Sessions, and Huckabee Sanders are all more than welcome to be open about their Christian beliefs. But they, along with all other political officials, must recognize that right does not and cannot mean that one’s religious preferences be used in defense of policy decisions. The United States is not a Christian nation. This was explicitly stated in the 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, in the first line of Article 11: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Logic would dictate that these words, approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by John Adams, should bar us from religious motivation in the legal sector. So if America’s separation of church and state has been so clearly stated, why quote the Bible at all?
Quoting religious text is a powerful silencing tactic. When God is invoked, there can be no questioning without risking offense. The primary goal of Jeff Sessions citing Romans 13 to defend immigration policy or Paul Ryan rejecting medical science in favor of the Catholic church’s definition of life, is to shut down any opportunity for debate before that debate can even begin. We we can question each other, because man is a fallible being. But for those who believe in an omnipotent God, questioning God is not an option. Each time the Bible is quoted, we are being told to shut up and fall in line — the message is just being shrouded in a false righteousness. This is an authoritarian act, and it is an attack on our democracy.
To combat this dangerous trend, I would propose a restriction against citing religious texts of any kind as a means to defend policies or legislation. The original vision of America, as put forth by Thomas Jefferson, was a nation that recognized a set of non-denominational “natural rights of mankind,” indicating that it is possible for us all to agree on certain freedoms without ascribing religion to our principles. When it comes to political debate, we need to implement a different kind of smell test that relies solely on secular logic: if one cannot rationally defend their argument without pulling some sort of divinity card, then their argument carries no weight.
Government is not divine. In fact, it is the acknowledgement of our political leaders’ humanity that made America such a radical concept in the first place. When the leaders of our nation try to convince us that their word is on par with the word of God, they are attempting to unravel American democracy. But the true sign of an adaptable, forward-thinking nation is one that not only allows for, but welcomes healthy debate. We can’t afford to be silenced.