Preaching the Bible with Todd Akin

Let's leave aside on this fine Sunday morning whether Rep. Todd Akin's comment about liberalism being a "hatred of God" was offensive, bigoted, boorish, and at odds with basic decency and an open society. It was, but we're not going to speak to that in this morning's sermon. The question his quote has made me wonder about is whether Akin (R-Mo.), and the many conservatives who share his beliefs on this, has ever actually read the Bible.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you can't be a conservative and a Christian. There are many good people who are, some of my own family and friends among them. The Judeo-Christian Bible is a complex and multifaceted book, with a rich philosophical debate in its pages about the nature of God and society and human relations, and you can find plenty of passages in there that you can interpret to support all kinds of beliefs, including even conservatism. The Letters of Paul have some conservative thinking on a variety of subjects in them in different places; the Book of Joshua is all about God ordering the Israelites to go to war and wipe out their opponents; there are plenty of mentions of various sexual sins (including the four verses about homosexuality that sometimes seem to be the only verses in the Bible conservatives actually remember). So there is some good, old-time conservative passages that those on the right can comfort themselves with when they want to convince themselves that they are correct in their conservatism.

The problem with Akin's thinking is that to believe that liberalism is a hatred of God requires you to have not read the vast majority of the Bible, which by and large, is a pretty liberal set of literature. You have to, for example, ignore one Old Testament prophet after another, who railed against Israelite society mistreating the poor. The prophet Isaiah, who in his very first chapter told the Jewish people of his time: "Your princes are rebels, accomplices of thieves. All are greedy for profit and chase after bribes. They show no justice to the orphan, the cause of the widow is never heard." In chapter 10, he wrote: "Woe to the legislators of infamous laws, to those who issue tyrannical decrees, who refuse justice to the unfortunate and cheat the poor of their rights." The prophet Amos decried the wealthy "lying on their ivory beds and sprawling on their divans, they dine on lambs from the flock...I detest their pride, I hate their palaces...Listen to this, you people who trample on the needy and try to suppress the poor people of the country." You'd have to skip over pretty much every Old Testament prophet to avoid this kind of language. And you'd have to skip over the book of Psalms as well, with so many of its verses like the one in Psalm 82: "Let the weak and the orphan have justice, be fair to the wretched and destitute; rescue the weak and needy, save them from the clutches of the wicked." You'd have to skip over one of the very first stories in Genesis, where God condemned Cain for not being his brother's keeper.

And then there's the New Testament, which will really give you some heartburn. The Book of James, for example: "It was those who are poor according to the world that God chose... In spite of this, you have no respect for anybody who is poor. Isn't it always the rich who are against you...there will be judgment without mercy for those who have not been merciful themselves; but the merciful need have no fear of judgment." A little later, James begins sounding like a labor leader, saying "Now an answer for the rich. Start crying, weep for the miseries coming to you... Laborers plowed your fields and you cheated them: listen to the wages you kept back, they are calling out: realize the cries of the workers have reached the ears of the Lord." And in the book of Acts, the early Christians sound like out and out Communists: "The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common: they sold their goods and possessions and shared the proceeds among themselves according to what each needed."

But what you really have to just completely ignore to say something as wrong as what Akin said is pretty much the entirety of the four books of the Gospels, the books where Akin's alleged savior told of his beliefs. Before Jesus was even born, his mother Mary said he would "pull down princes from their thrones and exalt the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away." And in Jesus' very first sermon in the Gospel of Luke, he said that God "has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and to the blind sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord's year of favor" (which was a reference to a year in which everyone in debt would have their debts forgiven). But I can't quote you all of the passages where Jesus sounds like a liberal, because that would be most of Matthew, Luke and Mark. Overall, Jesus talks about mercy to those weaker and needier than oneself 24 times, tells people not to judge others 34 times, tells people to love and forgive even their enemies 53 times, tells people to love their neighbors as themselves and treat others like you would want to be treated 19 times, and tells people to help the poor and/or spurn riches and the wealthy 128 times. Anyone who said those things today would be identified as a liberal from their first sentence.

Now I know what you are saying, Congressman Akin: well, OK, but what about all the times Jesus sounded like a conservative. Sorry, I couldn't find any. You want to know the number of times he condemned abortion and homosexuality? Zero and zero. You want to know the number of times he demanded that the Romans lower their taxes? None. You want to know the number of times the wealthy should be left alone to do as they will so that they could "create jobs" for the people? Nada. No mentions of free enterprise or the virtues of selfishness either.

The people I know who are both political conservatives and Christian can find passages in various parts of the Bible to support some of their beliefs, and they can make excuses about some of these verses I just quoted, arguing that Jesus was only focused on individual charity, or that references to things like good news to the poor were 100 percent spiritual in nature. I don't think those arguments are very strong, but I don't begrudge those making them, and don't disrespect their right to call themselves Christian. But the preponderance of evidence is on my side of this argument. And here's the main point: there is absolutely no way that you can look at hundreds and hundreds of these kinds of quotes in every part of the Bible and not understand how someone like me raised on them would become a liberal. It would mean that people who argue what Akin argues either have never read the Bible, or have just completely ignored everything that doesn't fit into their own extreme conservative worldview.

Let me close by telling you about the man who taught me more about the Bible than anyone else, the minister at my church, Ebb Munden. Ebb was the son of a wealthy businessman in the Deep South, and as a young man assumed he would follow in his father's footsteps. But in the horror of fighting in World War II, he had a powerful religious experience, and came back home determined to be a minister. He was a great preacher, but when the civil rights movement came to the south, Ebb's faith demanded that he stand with that movement. He was the only white parent that took his young son to the newly integrated public school, walking his child through an angry mob to the school because his faith demanded it. After that, he couldn't get a job in a Southern church, and came up north to be the minister at my church. His entire career, he preached the Bible as he understood it, and was active in every liberal cause there was: the anti-war movement in the Vietnam years, the community organizing movement championed by Saul Alinsky, speaking out for the hungry and homeless and prisoners' rights just like Jesus taught in Matthew 25:31-46. Ebb Munden lived his faith with every fiber of his being (and still does in retirement), lived the passionate faith of the social Gospel of Jesus. For conservatives like Todd Akin, who clearly don't know the Bible at all, or don't take it seriously, to insult a man like Ebb Munden's beliefs is just about the most sacrilegious thing I can think of.

Conservatives can rant and rave all they want about Godless liberalism, but all that ranting is just a cover for advocating the wealthiest and most powerful people in America. They believe far more passionately in Ayn Rand and her belief that selfishness is a virtue than they do in the Bible. They can talk all they want about how great free enterprise is, but their philosophy at the end of the day boils down almost entirely to helping millionaires and billionaires while hurting the middle class and poor. And that is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught.