“God is One, So Are We”: A Theo-political Hermeneutic

Paul D. Hanson

The application of the Bible to contemporary politics has proven to be so controversial as to lead many thoughtful, peace- and justice-minded people to conclude that religion should be excluded categorically from the forum of public debate.

We shall cite examples of a political reading of the Bible by political leaders in recent decades that are reminiscent of Edward Gibbon’s picture of the religions of the Roman Empire that “were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”1 Then we shall seek to balance the scale by reminding ourselves of instances in which application of biblical themes and principles played a key role in social transformation and resistance to evil. Thus situating ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, we shall have no choice but to take a position and then offer criteria for justifying the use of biblically informed values and beliefs in public debate.

President Ronald Reagan maintained that the Bible contains “all the answers to all the problems that face us today.” He vividly illustrated his hermeneutic when in 1983 he instructed an Israeli lobbyist: “You know, I turn back to your Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if—if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of these prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through.”2

While Nancy Reagan was immersing herself in astrology, the president apparently was absorbed by Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth, a popularized version of Dispensationalism that Lindsay updated when the end of the world failed to occur in 1982 as he had previously predicted.3

If Reagan resorted to the Bible in dealing with the Cold War, George H. W. Bush found light in the Bible to guide his response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In the first two weeks of January 1991, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of favoring intervention at the same time that his Episcopal bishop, Edmond Browning, was publicly expressing his opposition to U.S. military action against Iraq.4 On the eve of the January 15 ultimatum that Bush issued to Saddam Hussein, Billy Graham was invited to be an overnight guest at the White House. A year later, in an address to the National Religious Broadcasters, the former president expressed his gratitude, “I want to thank you for helping America, as Christ ordained, to be a light unto the world.”5

Why is it that examples of the unabashed application of the Bible to contemporary events cluster disproportionately around Republican leaders? The blue/red typology no doubt has some validity in its association of liberal-secular tendencies with Democrats and conservative-religious traits with Republicans. At first blush, though, one could point to the evangelical Jimmy Carter as counterevidence, but closer scrutiny indicates that his biblical rhetoric has been more effective in his post–White House years than during his four years as president.

At any rate, most Democrats since 1981 have seemed reluctant to enlist Scripture, with one no- table exception: “I very much welcome the decision on the part of the Democrats to no longer cede this whole rich realm of conversation and debate to right-wing Republicans,” Harvard theologian Harvey Cox exulted after hearing Bill Clinton’s 1992 Democratic Convention speech.6 That was at the beginning of Clinton’s ascent to the White House. As first term led to second, however, the biblical theme of “covenant” and references to Scripture became less and less frequent, and finally an episode in the Oval Office (not entirely unbiblical in nature when one recalls the David/Bathsheba affair) placed on hold the reclaiming of the “rich realm” of biblical religion by the Democratic Party.

This is not to say that ventures into religious rhetoric ceased entirely among Democrats. Such ventures, however, tended to fall into one of two categories, stiff and awkward (e.g., John Kerry) or blundering and humorous (will the name of Howard Dean’s favorite New Testament book ever be forgotten?!).

Surprisingly, that paradigm was broken in the 2008 primary debates, where biblical themes resurfaced in both parties with fresh vitality. Mike Huckabee responded to a bating about his interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis with an answer that could have received a passing grade in an introductory Bible course at Yale or Harvard: The six days of God’s creation need not have been our twenty-four-hour days at all. Hillary Clinton’s appeals to the examples of Jesus and the Good Samaritan flowed naturally and sincerely from the lips of this former Methodist Sunday school teacher. Barack Obama declaimed about the moral complexity of issues such as race and poverty as one who has read with understanding both the Bible and the Niebuhrs.

So where does this mixed bag of examples leave us in response to those who argue that religion should be confined to the private sphere? It would be so simple if we could trump the contrarians by citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church’s resistance to Hitler, Martin Luther King’s biblical dream of brotherhood at home and peaceful relations among the nations of the world, and Oscar Romero’s payment with his life for daring to stand firm against the corrupt and oppressive leaders of El Salvador and their international sponsors. Don’t the cases in which the Bible served the cause of justice, peace, and equality outweigh instances of biblical hatemongering like Pat Robertson’s argument that the gays of New Orleans are to blame for Katrina?

Proof-text Temptations

Would that the “Battle for the Bible” could be resolved so easily! Unfortunately, the exegetical dilemma (placed in historical perspective by Willard M. Swartley, who documented the manner in which the Bible was enlisted with comparable force on both sides of the debates over slavery, Sabbath, war, and women) persists to our own time.7 The Bible does not offer unequivocal answers to every contemporary problem. So what is to be done with the Bible?

The traditional answer of Roman Catholicism resided within the teaching authority of the church. Though many conservative Catholics remain dedicated to that solution, the issue for many others has grown more complicated since the Second Vatican Council. Among Protestants stemming from the radical wing of the Reformation, the solution has been found in a return to the primitive meaning of the Bible (especially associated with Jesus and the early church). But with growing awareness of wide diversity even within the first generations of Jesus’ disciples, the problem has become more complex. Lutherans tend to resort to the principle of sola scriptura, especially in conjunction with St. Augustine’s rule of Scripture interpreting Scripture and Luther’s own declaration of a canon within the canon, but here too the inevitability of selectivity and the role of presuppositions in interpretation remains.

Lurking Subjectivity

Liberal interpreters should also be wary of their facile dismissal of the methods of proof-texting and typologizing used by fundamentalists in light of the fact that for over two millennia of scholarship in Judaism and Christianity those methods guided the application of Scripture to contemporary issues. Did not the author of Daniel 7–12 extend Jeremiah’s seventy years of bondage to his own point in history with the simple mathematical formula of 70 x 7? Was not Moses’ extraction of water from the rock in the wilderness a sign of Christian baptism for Paul? Did not Numbers 24:17 supply Rabbi Akiba with a warrant for declaring Bar Kosiba God’s messianic Deliverer from Rome? Was not the Antichrist of I John 1:18–25 the Roman pope for Martin Luther?

Light broke through the fog of pre-modern biblical interpretation in the form of a new scientific approach to establishing the meaning of scriptural writings. The tools for this approach were provided by Reason, touted as the apex of the human capacity to banish superstitions that hitherto had held humanity in bondage. The resulting achievements of biblical scholarship in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in unraveling the mysteries of the composition of the biblical writings and locating them in historical context are of lasting significance. But the moment of triumph was soon shaken by attacks on positivistic confidence on two fronts—the epistemology of Immanuel Kant and the hermeneutics of Friedrich Schleiermacher. The ensuing century and a half of philosophical and theological hermeneutics added another monumental chapter to biblical research. But lurking was a sinister possibility: a field of inquiry could be overwhelmed by the disintegrating effects of human subjectivity.

That historic challenge was met by Hans-Georg Gadamer, who masterfully synthesized the importance of tradition with the undeniable reality of prior understanding in his depiction of a complex phenomenon he called “the fusing of horizons.” Even while Gadamer’s hermeneutic continues to offer a credible framework for the complex task of relating the alien world of antiquity to contemporary realities, the close scrutiny of hidden assumptions and aggrandizing ideologies both in ancient sources and contemporary interpreters by Jürgen Habermas, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and R. S. Sugirtharajah have destabilized the entire guild of biblical interpretation.

The challenge presented by a wide spectrum of hermeneutical strategies on the one hand and modern cultures riven by differences in gender, class, race, and religion on the other is daunting. In relation to the role of the Bible in the political sphere, the resulting challenge must be addressed on two levels of inquiry: (1) What method should one apply for discerning the significance of biblical texts for contemporary issues (biblical hermeneutics)? (2) How can it be introduced appropriately into public discourse (theo-political hermeneutics)?

Finding a Middle Way

Strategies of biblical interpretation today range from “reader response,” in which the creator of meaning is the modern reader, to a higher criticism that continues to seek to reconstruct original settings and meanings in the positivist mode as if Schleiermacher and Collingwood had never put pen to paper. In the book on Bible and politics that I am currently writing, I adopt a middle position in the attempt to recover as accurately as possible the world of the ancient texts and the long history of interpretation and reapplication that students of the Bible continue to attend. But I seek to balance a reasonable confidence that we can learn how beliefs intersected with political processes, with awareness that my own perspective (with its many layers of personal investment) will influence conclusions, despite serious effort to hear the testimony of the past in its own idiom and context.

In this article there is room to mention only two conclusions of my study:

1. There is not a single biblical model for relating the realms of religion and politics, but six distinct models: theocratic, monarchic, prophetic, apocalyptic, sapiential, and accommodationist.

2. Although the Bible testifies to the flexibility with which ancestral faith communities applied their beliefs to the realm of politics, it also gives clear evidence of certain meta-principles. Foremost is the categorical distinction between divine rule (ultimate) and all human institutions (penultimate). This cardinal principle governs the relation of the faith community to human regimes: In relation to divine rule, all human governments are relativized. Other implications follow: Human governments are legitimate only to the extent that they conform to the qualities of rule that are inherent in divine governance. The allegiance that the faithful can give to a human regime is also penultimate and contingent on the moral qualities of that regime.

How then does the student of Scripture introduce his or her biblical insights into public debate in a diverse, pluralistic society? A further question arises: How can a theo-political hermeneutic incorporate what appear to be irreconcilable conceptions—namely, that the religious dimension in the moral reasoning of people of faith is not something that a society can proscribe, and that fruitful public discourse requires a mode of communication in which all participants can be heard and the rights of none are violated?

The theo-political hermeneutic that I have developed seeks to resolve the problem by: (1) preserving the tension in a multi-stage hermeneutical process, and (2) preferring Jeffery Stout’s more discoursive-pragmatic notion of democracy and tradition8 over John Rawls’s more theoretical-separatist notion of a “free standing” political liberalism.9

Worship as a Political Act

The theo-political hermeneutic I have in mind consists of five stages.

Stage one is worship, the most important political act in which believers engage, since it is the source of their essential identity and the polestar by which they calibrate their moral compasses.10

Stage two is inner-community dialogue, or, in the context of my own parish, the congregational forum that occurs at 10 a.m. between the morning services. Here believers gather to debate and study issues of “word and world,” such as human sexuality, the Iraq war, urban poverty, the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter housed in our church basement, and the lections of the liturgical year. Here, believers produce and refine a discourse, a vocabulary for articulating political positions based on their religious convictions. Here, a communitarian like Stanley Hauerwas would feel at home: through the explicit traditions of biblical faith, and in language unapologetically Christian, the urgent issues faced by those striving to represent the way of Christ in the world are debated. The heat of debate is often intense, but the atmosphere of shared faith and trust is never lost.

Stage three marks the effort to move the theo-political hermeneutic into the public realm. The question is this: How can the moral passion, patience, and courage that Christians derive from their beliefs enrich the contribution they make to the public good without violating the principles of the First Amendment?

Remembering the World’s Well-being

Stage three signals a divergence of my position from that of the communitarians in integrating insights from John Rawls and in drawing on the works of theologians and ethicists working within the liberal democratic tradition like Ron Thiemann, Arthur Dyck, and Max Stackhouse. It expresses an attitude toward civil structures that differs from that of descendants of the radical Reformation and is instead at home within the Reformed, Catholic, and Lutheran churches. The person of faith is burdened with responsibilities not only to the “peace- able kingdom” of God’s eschatological reign, but also to the broader world and its imperfect forms of governance. It is too narrow an understanding of vocation to maintain that our moral responsibility is fulfilled by preserving explicitly Christian virtues as resident aliens within a hostile world. This is not to deny that Hauerwas’s call to Christians to give witness as a pilgrim people to Christ’s way preserves an important biblical theme. Nor is it to detract from the force of his allegation that requiring people of faith to hide the religious foundations of their moral principles impoverishes public discourse. It is simply to define in different terms the relationship of Christians to fellow citizens of different faiths or no faith. Biblical tradition contains much that can be restated in terms comprehensible and even convincing to secular ears. Moreover, I believe that loving concern for all of God’s family and for the health of diverse political institutions is part of the vocation of children of a heavenly Father who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).

Thus stage three can be pictured as a prism through which the political lessons of a faith tradition pass so as to render them coherent to nonadherents without diminishing their poignancy and power.

I have found that Jeffrey Stout’s model of democratic pragmatism provides that prism. In his debate with Hauerwas,11 he has insisted that religious communities bear a responsibility not only for their own purity, but for the welfare of a society as a whole. At the same time Stout differs with Rawls at a crucial point: Moral arguments, deriving from the entire spectrum of the religious and humanist communities, are as welcome as all other types of argument, if they are presented in a civil manner respectful of all other points of view and if they remain focused on the shared goals as defined by the larger society.

Stage three, thus understood, allows the religious individual or group to move from its communitarian practices of worship and study to open political discussion without being forced to diminish into something less than a moral agent enriched by its first love and ultimate commitment.

In stage four, the individual or group enters into the actual give-and-take of political process. This they do with civility, intellectual integrity, and rhetorical persuasiveness, all the while benefiting from the illumination and passion welling up from their religious traditions and faith communities. This dialectic is essential to the health of religious communities and political institutions alike. Commitment to the source of one’s identity and purpose does not exclude mindfulness of the limits of one’s understanding or the enrichment that awaits when one enters into debate with those who come from other religious and philosophical perspectives.

Enriched, chastened, and reminded of the inadequacies of one’s own understanding, stage four sends the conscientious believer/citizen back to worship and study, eager to share the new insights and questions from the public debate within the safety of the communitarian setting. The health of the republic is reinvigorated by this dynamic hermeneutical circle much as the human body is replenished through the circulation of the cardiovascular system.

Stage five, finally, provides the vision of universal reconciliation and shalom that is life’s final goal. This stage serves as a constant reminder of the one ultimate priority by which all other endeavors find their meaning and against which they are will be judged. This telos, or eschatological vision, fosters humility, patience, steadfastness, and an eagerness to cooperate with all fair-minded fellow sojourners in integrating the justice, compassion, and peace of God’s reign into the structures of human society. It is also the antidote for burnout and despair when the best of human plans and efforts come to naught, for the faithful have submitted their lives to a goal transcending the limits of their imagination.12

Bumper stickers can be hermeneutical lessons on wheels. Unitarian Universalists offer a very open hermeneutic: “Where the Question Is the Answer.” Fundamentalists eschew equivocation: “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But neither option satisfies the conditions we have set out for an acceptable political reading of the Bible. In the former case the devil is in the ?, in the latter in the It.

Bible as the Path to Shared Prosperity

So do our choices narrow down to “?” vs. “It”? After much theoretical discussion, are we not in the dilemma of the lost traveler in a remote area of northern Maine who stops to ask a native for directions? The native finally concludes with a gruff, “You can’t get there from here.” Can we get from the Bible to contemporary political issues?

With two concluding points, I hope to convince the reader that we are not lost and that we can get from there to here, but not without precautions. The first point is inspired by the Unitarian question mark and is iconoclastic in nature: The Bible cannot be handled as we would Betty Crocker’s recipe book when setting out to bake a cake. The kind of proof-texting that we illustrated earlier simply forces the Bible into the role of a lackey subservient to whatever policy or agenda we seek to defend. It is a potentially lethal exercise, and people of faith must oppose it.

Such crude use of the Bible is an enemy of authentic biblical faith. How vast are the numbers of educated citizens who dismiss any notion of the Bible contributing to contemporary realities on the basis of the only exposure they have had to a political reading of the Bible, a reading that insults their intelligence and shocks their moral sensitivities.

Properly understood, the Bible is a classic that perhaps more than any other can guide people along a path leading to shared prosperity, universal health, even-handed justice, and conditions leading to international understanding and peace. But to realize its potential, diligence is required on two levels:

1. A biblical hermeneutic must be applied that enables readers to understand both the specific setting and meaning of its parts and the overarching significance of the whole. The former places restraints on the range of possible readings of biblical passages. The latter provides the context within which the abiding truths and values of the Bible can be grasped.

2. A theo-political hermeneutic must be followed that enables believers both to exercise their civil duties with the full benefit of their spiritual resources and to honor the constitutional rights of fellow citizens, regardless of their beliefs or non-beliefs. The proper use of the Bible places on the individual or group the same level of diligence as does any other important area of life.

The Example of Human Rights

The delicate ground between the “?” and the “It” can be illustrated succinctly. Consider the international debate over human rights.13

Let us recall two comprehensive biblical themes: (1) The Bible unequivocally establishes a categorical distinction between the one universal divine government and every human government. From the perspective of biblical faith, no nation can claim a privileged status. (2) With equal force the Bible, both in narratives and in statutes, defends the dignity of every human and inveighs against those who would justify exploitation of the weak and vulnerable by claiming special privilege.

Guided by the principles of a divine government that relativizes every human regime and a concept of human dignity that refutes every justification of inequality, the individual or group moving from a foundation in worship and biblical study to the public debate over human rights will join the ranks of those advocating for a positive definition. This position will be defined by the specific biblical themes of compassion for the alien and the oppressed and di- vine justice and equality uncompromised by considerations of rank and power. But at the same time it will be expressed in terms familiar to all participants in the international debate and with reasonableness of argument that eschews special pleading and is respectful of the contributions of other traditions.

Though we have compressed our illustration into a brevity bordering on incomprehension, it is still too long for a bumper sticker. Or maybe we could compress it one step further: God Is One, So Are We. But to this suitably brief declaration, I suspect we should have to add a dozen footnotes, lest we be misunderstood. Reading the Bible politically remains a task amenable to no simple solution.


1. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1 (New York: Modern Library Edition, 1932), 25-26.

2. The Jerusalem Post, November 4, 1983, p xx; John Herbers, “Religious Leaders Tell of Worry on Armageddon View Ascribed to Reagan,” New York Times, October 21,1984, p. 32; “Armageddon View Prompts a Debate,” John Herbers, New York Times, October 24, 1984, p. A1.

3. Lindsay at least has been shrewd enough to avoid a fellow Dispensationalist’s blunder of advertising his date for the end of the world in a book’s title (Herbert K. W. Armstrong, 1975 in Prophecy, 1956).

4. Bush: Life of a Lone Star Yankee, p. 476.

5. Andrew Rosenthal, “In a Speech, President Returns 
to Religious themes,” New York Times, January 28, 
1992, A17.

6. Renee Loth, “Democrats Use Old-Time Religion,” 
Boston Globe, July 26, 1992, National/Foreign 
Section, p 1.

7. Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in biblical Interpretation (Scottdale,PA: Herald Press, 

8. Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton 
University Press, 2004).

9. I believe the approach I adopt also addresses 
concerns that Michael Sandel raises in relation to liberal democracy’s tilt toward proceduralism. See Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

10. See my Religion and Politics: (Mis)interpreting the Bible (Manilla, Philippines: CBAP, 2005). In nuce point is this: For a person of faith to make her unique contribution to public debate on any issue, she must be clear as to her essential identity, a clarification that occurs in worship. For the Christian, worship revolves around word and sacraments, but this stage in the theo-political hermeneutic applies to all religious communities through the practices in which they experience communion with their transcendent Reality.

11. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, pp. 147-161.

12. Cf. Rom. 8:18–39.

13. The debate revolves around the contrast between 
negative and positive definitions of human rights. Defined negatively, a human right is anything
that does not infringe upon the rights of others. Defined positively, human rights mandate all that is necessary for humans to attain to their full potential, which would include adequate nutrition, education, health care, personal safety, and so forth.

Paul Hanson (B.D., Yale Divinity School, 1965), is Lamont Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 1971. His many books include The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (Westminster John Knox, new edition 2002).