From Jack Kerwick, for About.com
President George W. Bush’s comments on ABC’s Nightline last Monday didn’t sit well with Chuck Baldwin.
Baldwin, who recently ran for president on the Constitution Party ticket, is a columnist, a weekly radio program host, and the pastor at Crossroads Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla. In his most recent column, Baldwin takes President Bush to task for telling Cynthia McFadden on Nightline that, with respect to his understanding of the Bible, he did not consider himself a “literalist.”
As far as Baldwin is concerned, Bush’s rejection of “literalism” vindicates his contention that the President is a faux Christian, just one more Republican politician using religion to pander to “the Religious Right.”
That Republicans are guilty of the charge leveled against them by Dr. Baldwin is something I wouldn’t think to deny. Nevertheless, Baldwin’s argument in his latest column is poorly reasoned.
First of all, what exactly does “literalism” mean? Having attended two colleges in the South with large “conservative” evangelical Christian populations, I have met many fine, committed Christians who have declared themselves “literalists.” Yet when push came to shove, and even long before then, not one was willing to interpret every Biblical passage literally. In fact, large chunks of Scripture were invariably granted immunity to literalizing interpretations by all self-proclaimed “literalists.”
The Gospels are replete with Jesus’ self-referential remarks that liken Him to all sorts of inanimate objects, from a “temple” to “bread” and “water,” from a “vine” to a “rock.” Yet, to my knowledge, there are no “literalists” who interpret these assertions “literally.” In fact, “conservative Christians”—i.e., Protestant fundamentalist evangelicals—are able to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation” precisely because they refuse to interpret literally Jesus’ identification of the bread and wine of the Last Supper with his Body and Blood.
In other words, there are no “literalists”: there only selective “literalists.”
Second, Baldwin assumes that a rejection of “literalism” is tantamount to a rejection of Scripture’s “infallibility,” or the belief that it is “God’s Word.”
But surely this is incorrect.
Christians, including Christian thinkers of such stature as Saint Augustine, have long recognized that the doctrine that the Bible is “God’s Word” is not only compatible with, but requires that there be non-literal as well as literal ways of reading the Bible. There are passages and whole books of Scripture that make no sense if interpreted literally.
So, when Bush said that he was no “literalist,” he wasn’t necessarily denying that the Bible was God’s “infallible Word” (this last is a problematic expression worthy of examination, and is a matter to which I will attend at a later time). It is unfair of Baldwin to imply that he was.
Finally, Baldwin alleges that Bush is responsible for egregious Constitutional abuses, and that these abuses give the lie to Bush’s claim to be a Christian. The Constitution, after all, like the Declaration of Independence, draws its life from the Christian “Natural Law” tradition. So in rejecting the Constitution, Bush rejects “Natural Law” and, in effect, Christianity.
The Constitution is the progeny of political genius, and while its emergence in the Christian West is a contingency of history, it is not an “accident” of history. Still, the Constitution is an unmistakably, thoroughly secular document. At no time or place does it come remotely close to mentioning “Christ.” Nor does it ever even allude to a so-called “Natural Law.”
Rather, the Constitution is the product of reflection, not on immutable “Laws of Nature,” but on the multifarious experiences of countless peoples at different times and places, including non-Christian peoples (pagan Greeks and Romans). And its many checks and balances are designed to insure that power is dispersed as widely as possible, for it is in the interstices of our Constitution, and there only, that our cherished freedom is to be found.
Theoretically, the staunchest of atheists could wildly endorse our Constitution while the most pious of Christians could reject it. It is neither uniquely or even distinctly Christian in any “Biblical” sense of the term.
The next time Dr. Baldwin admonishes politicians and clergymen for using their religion to advance their politics, perhaps he should do himself a favor to heed Jesus’s instruction to first remove the beam from his own eye before proceeding to remove the splinter from his neighbor’s.