Bible Thumpin’ in American Politics

February 29, 2016

The Biblical imagery in the US primaries collides with key principles in Norwegian politics


At the Society for Biblical Literature annual meeting in Chicago four years ago, the use of the Bible in the presidential campaign was analyzed in a session called ‘Bible and Popular Culture’. The inclusion of the presidential campaign in this session was telling for the way scholars perceived the elections, as something resembling a rock concert and entertainment show. After listening to Jeffrey S. Siker’s fascinating presentation of the Republican use of the Bible in the primaries, I introduced myself as Norwegian and subsequently shared my enthusiasm for a phenomenon I considered very intriguing from a Scandinavian point of view.

Siker presented a number of examples of how Republican candidates would argue for particular political views with Bible quotations. Rick Perry called for a biblical financial policy which required ‘not asking Pharaoh to give everything to everybody’, supposedly referring to the story of Genesis 41, in order not to become ‘slaves of government’. Another fascinating way of arguing against a big government with the Bible was seen in the rhetoric of Herman Cain when the candidate declared that Jesus himself had ‘helped the poor without one government program. He healed the sick without a government health-care system’. Furthermore,  it was intriguing to hear that Michelle Bachmann, had chosen her career as a jurist based on the Bible and its rule that women should obey their husbands. Bachmann explained her choice by saying that this biblical principle was the real reason why she went to law school: It was because her husband told her to!

Of course, this sense of the exotic US political world is provoked by the dramaturgy and the orchestration of the candidate’s mass meetings, which comes so much closer to a rock show in terms of the atmosphere being created and the visual expression that result from it. Moreover, another obvious contrast to the Norwegian context is the fact that political advertising on TV is legal in the US. The carefully arranged TV ads where the candidates profess their religious belief with melodious tones from a synthesizer in the background are unavailable to Norwegian politicians, due to the ban on political TV ads in the Norwegian Broadcasting Act.

With the Bible in their hand

Perhaps because of the absence of religious advertisements in Norway, the American PR messages of the presidential candidates strike me as somewhat strange. For instance,  when the Republican candidate Marco Rubio declares that “I approved this message because it’s time for a president who will put their left hand on the Bible and their right hand in the air and keep their promise to uphold the constitution”. Norway has no equivalent political ceremony where the Bible is brought into the national ritual as a physical object. Accordingly, there is no way for a Christian Norwegian politician to physically ‘put their left hand on the Bible’. Perhaps the absence of such a ritual contributes to my perception of Rubio’s appearance as pompous or strange.

Moreover, it does seem strikingly unconvincing to my Norwegian mind when Rubio claims in the ad that it long ago that the United States had a president who put his hand on the Bible: “It’s been eight years since we’ve had a president do that—I will.” Did not US voters elect Barack Obama as president after this politician had his national breakthrough at the Democrats National convention in 2004 with a speech relying heavily on Biblical material? Moreover, Obama referred to various biblical passages throughout his presidency, from invoking Jesus’ Sermon of the Mount as an argument for his fiscal policy to quoting verses in their entirety from the book of Psalms at occasions of national mourning. The Democratic president had even labelled his own generation of American as the Joshua generation, that were to rebuild the promised land after the generation of the civil rights movement consisting of ‘Moseses’ had arrived there. How could Rubio possibly be more ‘biblical’ than this?

As Jacques Berlinerblau and others have argued, successful Democrats and Republicans alike appear to use ‘the Book of the books’ in a similar way, rhetorically as well as symbolically. After all, Obama confirmed the unique symbolic place of the Bible in US politics in his political rhetoric when he also, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, put his hand on the Bible during his two inauguration ceremonies. Obama was surely no ‘godless’ secularist. He had indeed held his hand on the Bible.

This would not indicate discontinuity, or even conflict, as Rubio attempts to display with his video campaigning, between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ candidates. We may take this continuity of the status of the Bible as a political icon across the political and ideological borders, set up by Republicans and Democrats, as a confirmation of Yvonne Sherwood’s thesis of the Bible at work in US politics as primarily being a ‘Liberal Bible’. It is precisely as an imagined depository of ideas that resonate with modern liberal ones, that the Bible can work, with its vague references and presumed source of political unity. US politicians carefully weave biblical references organically into their speeches, as if not to overload them with religion but to inject them with appropriate doses of civil religion. The Bible functions primarily as providing politicians with credibility and legitimacy through the effect that this liberal Bible is able to provide as a sense of unity and self-evident principles.

The Natural Bible

I have tried to find examples of Norwegian politicians who, in a similar manner to Barack Obama’s historical breakthrough, could mobilize and launch herself or himself as a charismatic politician ready to build a new power base hitherto not perceived by the political establishment, using Biblical material in some way or form. I have found no such example in recent history. Besides, there does not appear to be a single Norwegian parliamentarian that in recent years has invoked the Bible to sustain liberal or neoliberal policies in a similar manner to the Republicans referred to above.

I wonder whether the Bible in spite of its striking absence in public political discourses in Norway may in some particular instances have the ability to divide public opinion and polarize the discussion. This, however, would not be the miracle performed by the Liberal Bible, as this Bible works (at least in US politics) to create a sense of unity, to strengthen the image of a united nation, with the Bible as its foundation.

It would be unthinkable for a successful and widely popular Norwegian politician to declare that biblical belief is what makes Norway work, in spite of some politicians’ declarations of their religious faith. One of them is the Labour Party’s newly elected leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who made headlines when he declared that Christian faith was part of his identity. However, upon accepting the nomination as the Labour Party’s leader Jonas Gahr Støre, until recently Norway’s most popular candidate for the position as prime minister, told the press that he had been in doubt about the nomination. Nonetheless, he accepted it during Easter on the top of a mountain familiar to many Norwegians: Hallingskarvet. Gahr Støre told the media that “Alone, overlooking a fifth of Norway, I said aloud to myself: The answer is yes.” [«Alene, med utsikt over en femtedel av Norge, sa jeg høyt til meg selv: Svaret er ja.»]

Perhaps this is the closest we get an analogy to the iconical status of the Bible in US politics: While presidential candidates in the US put their hand on the Bible, Norwegian politicians with high ambitions contemplate our natural surroundings, which we tend to imagine is so unique to our country. While North Americans are inspired by the Holy Liberal Scripture, Norwegians claim to be inspired by the wonders of nature. We are not so much on our way to the Promised Land. We are in possession of our unique nature, where oil pops up and peace lays over our beautiful mountains. There are many contrasts to explore between us. No wonder the North American sociologist Phil Zuckerman asks with notable curiosity: Why are the Scandinavians so irreligious? And I would like to add, compared to North Americans.