SCRIPTURE, FAITH AND PUBLIC POLICY: HOW DO RELIGIOUS TEXTS INFLUENCE FAITH AND PUBLIC POLICY DECISIONS IN THE U.S. July 8, 2019 by Brandi Hebert
In June of 2018, many U.S. journalists reported on a speech that former attorney general Jeff Sessions gave wherein he quoted the apostle Paul from Romans 13 as part of his defense of the White House administration’s shifting position on U.S. immigration policies. Mr. Sessions’ choice of Biblical scripture to cite his case for U.S. immigration policy provided insight into his thinking, however as insightful was how Mr. Session’s chose to engage the scripture of his personal faith tradition on the national stage in defense of public policy. Every professed Christians engages Biblical scripture differently and each through a myriad of interpretive lenses. However, when Christians engage their scriptures discussing ethical considerations like public policy, there are three main uses or methods: prescriptive, illuminative and formative. Mr. Sessions use of Biblical scripture is an excellent example of prescriptive use. By focusing on one select chapter within the Book of Romans in the Biblical cannon, Mr. Sessions applied the text in a legalistic manner to support his perspective on enforcement of current immigration law in the U.S. While prescriptive use of Biblical scripture highlights its authority for Christian believers in determining a moral stance, the downside of prescriptive use exclusively is that it is extremely selective. Prescriptive use doesn’t take into consideration the placement of the text contextually within the whole cannon of the Bible which typically results in deficient exploration of the text for its moral wisdom as revealed in the Christian tradition as a whole. This results in inadequate ‘proof-texting’ or ‘cherry-picking’ from Biblical scripture to support a pre-determined course of action. While this use of Biblical texts by Christians is common, others use scriptures illuminatively and/or formatively. The illuminative approach allows for the reader to discern common themes within the Bible that can highlight an ethical path forward in making decisions regarding present-day situations. The formative approach towards using Biblical scripture to shape ethical decisions approaches the text as a lived experience which informs the whole person living into Biblical understanding in community. All three approaches to ethical use of Biblical scripture possess strengths and weaknesses which is why theologian Christopher Marshall suggests that flexible use of all three methods best informs one’s understanding of Christian ethics. Why is this important? Understanding how persons in positions of power and leadership use the scriptures of their personal faith traditions is important because it offers insight into how that person’s religious beliefs inform not only their personal moral and ethical decision making but overall thinking towards any given issue. By understanding a person’s thinking, one can dialogue more effectively in public policy discussions highlighting the dialectics and discrepancies in thinking thus moving public policy debate towards the fruitful ‘middle’ and shaping compassionate public policy that embraces the fullness of all points of view. The perspective of restorative justice as defined in my first blog embraces both the victim and the victimizer holding these two entities together. By embracing both, restorative justice locates itself in the middle ground between the two acknowledging both the immediate pain resulting from the crime and seeking to address the root causes of the criminal act. It would behoove those engaging in public policy decisions to consider the restorative justice model in order to effectively shape efficient policies that are both restorative and just. Additionally, as the U.S. becomes increasingly demographically and religiously plural, it may be helpful to investigate how we collectively use our various world scriptures when we approach ethical public policy decisions. For certain, demographics within the United States are rapidly shifting and, as Pew Research notes, by 2055 not one single ethnic demographic will hold a majority within the country. As these demographic shifts continue to change the landscape of the U.S., so too will communities experience growing diversity within its religiosity and faith traditions. The number of Americans who profess Christian affiliation is dropping in the U.S. while the number of Americans who profess affiliation to other world religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism is on the rise along with those who profess to no religious affiliation whatsoever. How do our Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim neighbors use their sacred texts to inform their ethical decision-making? What points of contact exist between Christian uses of Biblical scripture and those of other religious traditions? As well, if a growing demographic in this country are those who profess to no religious tradition, what are the secular sources or benchmarks that serve as guideposts for ethical decision making for those leaders in forming public policy? Exploring this aspect of what informs one’s rational ethical decision making can be helpful in moving the national dialogue forward away from intractable binaries that promote gridlock and insufficient, potentially harmful, public policies that don’t reflect opportunities for justice through restoration and reconciliation.