Saturday, 24 September 2016

Politics According to the Bible, by Wayne Grudem

Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture, 2010 Zondervan

It is tempting to re-title this book 'The Gospel according to the Republican Party.' Evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem attempts to provide here a collection of insights into how the Bible can speak to modern politics. It turns out the Bible teaches all the things that Republicans agree with. The Bible approves of a flat rate of tax, school vouchers, waterboarding, gun ownership and holds that illegal immigration is one of the greatest evils of our age. I don't think its unfair to say that at times Grudem forgets his purpose in providing a general Biblical perspective on politics and at times just argues for his own opinions, based largely on his own interpretation of contemporary politics, offering only a superficial engagement with the Biblical texts.

The biggest problem with the book is the social, cultural and economic distance between today's political issues and the world of the Bible. The Bible is written for societies whose concerns were not the same as those of the contemporary USA. We cannot expect it to provide an answer as to whether school vouchers are a good idea or not. Nor do the principles it teaches easily translate between two very different socio-economic contexts. Grudem uses Biblical law to argue for private property as a fundamental principle. However, it seems arguable that the notion of private property held by the Israelites was not identifical to the individualistic understanding of property held by Grudem. He completely ignores the restrictions on property transfers in the law of Leviticus.

Grudem's attempt to use Scripture to proof text political positions is often very weak. For instance, he uses the tithes of the Old Testament to prove that there should be a flat rate of tax. Firstly, it is doubtful that the tithes were a tax, as opposed to a contribution to the religious cult of Israel. Secondly, we may ask how it is legitimate to argue for the single rate of the tithe as absolute, while holding the specific rate (10%) to be relative. Grudem uses 1 Samuel 8:10-18 to condemn 'big government' spending:

10 And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king.

11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

I have used this text to make the same point in the past. Is this really a legitimate use of it? Some of the government spending in this text would seem to be military expenditure, which Grudem would heartily approve of. The rest of it seems to be about personal enrichment of the king, in the manner of some of the self-serving dictators who blighted Africa. People on any side of the political spectrum should object to that sort of thing. There is nothing in this text about spending on health, education or social security.

Thankfully, Grudem does not advocate abolishment of the welfare state as some American conservatives do. He seems to accept the need for some minimal social security. He does not, however, spend any time engaging with the huge problem of poverty and homelessness in American society. On economic questions, there is a little inconsistency. On the subject of recessions and the question of whether a Keynesian fiscal stimulus might be needed, he argues that the best stimulus would be tax cuts. However, he had already argued that too few Americans pay any tax at all. Therefore it seems doubtful given that premise that tax cuts would do very much to stimulate the economy in a recession.

Grudem offers strong arguments for the capital punishment. I would personally like to be able to say I was opposed to capital punishment, but I have never yet read a completely convincing case against the death penalty, particularly one written from a Biblical perspective. I don't feel at all comfortable with capital punishment and I cannot bear the thought of a woman being executed. I am just glad we no longer have capital punishment in the UK.

Our author rejects concerns about the environment, arguing for climate change scepticism. He quotes the work of the Danish environmental moderate, Bjorn Lomborg. I like Lomborg and I think he has a a lot of important things to say. However, I don't think he takes such a strongly climate change sceptic position as Grudem.

I very much agree with Grudem's support for a hawkish neocon foreign policy and his defense of the Iraq War. I also particularly liked the absence of the harsh Islamophobic rhetoric that has become alarmingly mainstream among Evangelicals. He talks instead about building alliances with Muslims to combat Jihadism. In this he seems much more at home in the Bush era than in the hysterical conservatism of today. Sadly, however, he has recently endorsed Donald Trump for president.

I think Wayne Grudem has some good things to say in this book, but the title unfortunately gives it an authority that it does not deserve.

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