Myth: The Bible is conservative.

Fact: Using the Bible to support any political ideology is highly problematic.


The New Testament is a liberal's paradise; almost every principle espoused in it is one that liberals -- not conservatives -- espouse today. (The only exceptions are its pronouncements on divorce, sexuality and slavery.) The Old Testament, however, is a conservative haven, filled with pronouncements favoring war, slavery, theocracy, monarchy, wealth accumulation, capital punishment, extreme female submission and more. Interestingly, however, the Old Testament is sexually permissive. Attempting to use the Bible to justify their modern beliefs therefore poses significant challenges to Christian conservatives.


Does the Bible really espouse conservative philosophies?

Let us briefly run through the politics of the religious right, just so the comparison will be fresh in our memory. Christian conservatives believe firmly in God, country and family. Self-sufficiency and rugged individualism are highly esteemed qualities; people should pull themselves up their own bootstraps. Becoming rich is a keen goal and almost universally admired. Taxes are seen as a curse. Social programs for the poor are a waste of tax-payers' money, and the sort of people on those programs (mostly blacks) are lazy and given to crime. As for criminals, they should feel the full force of the law. And that goes for international criminals as well... a nation should deal with its enemies from a position of strength, and should never be afraid to let them feel the full force of its military might.

Were these the politics of Jesus? Let's take a look:

On defense: Jesus said "Love your enemies" and "Blessed are the peacemakers." "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:44; 5:9; 5:39.)

On social programs: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (Matthew 19:21.)

On rugged individualism and the pursuit of self-interest: "Love your neighbor as yourself." "So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you." (Matthew 22:39; 7:12.)

On financial success: "Truly, I say unto you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." "You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 19:23; 6:24.)

On the philosophy that "greed is good": "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15.)

On paying taxes: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matthew 22:22.)

On crime and punishment: "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (John 8:7; Matthew 7:1,2.)

On climbing the social ladder: "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Matthew 11:19.)

On money-hungry televangelists: "In the temple courts [Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and other sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables." (John 2:14,15.)

On the free lunch: "Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves… The number of those who ate was about five thousand men…" (Matthew 14:19,21.)

On the perks and privileges of power: "After that, [Jesus] poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him." (John 13:5.)

On moral absolutes: "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?" "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." (Matthew 12:11; Mark 2:27.)

On family: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple." Also: "'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' Pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers.'" (Luke 14:26; Matthew 12:48,49.)

On race relations: In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus praised the morality of a hated foreigner over his own countrymen. (Luke 10:30-37.)

On the superiority of one's native country: "These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: 'Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.'" (Matthew 10:5,6.)

On letting others pull themselves up by their own bootstraps: "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:13,14.)

Modern Christian conservatives may be horrified, but there is no getting around the fact: Jesus was not just a liberal, but a radical liberal! In fact, except for one pronouncement on divorce, there is not one text in all four Gospels which even remotely supports or resembles the conservative's most cherished beliefs. It is a standing challenge to the religious right to find a list of Gospel texts, as I have provided here, which advocates the conservative's philosophies. Not one Christian can give a single example, because these texts do not exist.

And if anyone remains unconvinced about the deep liberal slant of Jesus and the early Christian Church, a review of their economic policies should remove all doubt forever. The early Christian Church actually serves as history's second example of pure communism! (The first was the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.) In Paul's Christian Church, the fruits of everyone's labor went into a collective pool, which was then divided evenly among everyone in the group. The following passages from Acts of the Apostles are remarkable in this description: The New Testament itself is filled with countless calls for a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. As for the rich, they are clearly portrayed as wicked; both Jesus and his apostles condemned them in the harshest terms possible: Giving to the poor was not just an act of kindness, it was a Christian duty, and Paul ended his letters with a reminder to send money to the poor in Jerusalem. It was this identification with the poor that led them to attack usury, or the loaning of money for interest, in the bitterest terms, for this was seen as exploitation of the poor. In the end, one cannot read the New Testament and escape the conclusion that the Early Christian Church condemned inequality of wealth as one of the greatest of human sins.

These observations are a disaster for conservatives who try to use the Bible as moral authority for their political opinions. I have had only a few Christians even try to defend them. I present you with the few counter-arguments I have received:

Jesus came across as radical because he was affecting radical change. True, but you can agree with this observation completely and still not lose sight of the fact that the changes Jesus called for are quite liberal by today's standards.

Jesus was simply representing the positive side of God's message, namely, his love, mercy and forgiveness; it was left to the apostles to describe God's judgment and wrath against sinners. But even in the later books of the New Testament, you cannot find support for such conservative beliefs as a strong national defense, the superiority of one's own people, tax-cuts for the rich, the pursuit of wealth, or the abolition of welfare programs for the poor. These ideas are still strongly condemned. But, to be truthful, there are two issues which the apostles later developed in the New Testament which could be construed as conservative. The first is a profound anti-sexual theme which was not common among Israel (the Jews were quite liberal about sex, as we shall see below); but this anti-sexual bias ran deep throughout the Greek world of Paul's time, where Christianity was to thrive. The second was the apostles' acceptance of slavery. I somehow doubt Christians will be eager to use this latter example.

Times were different in Jesus day; today we have a different economic and social system. With this argument, conservatives abandon their source of authority. To say that Jesus represented his own time is to say that his words do not matter any more. It means that conservatives cannot use the Bible as the moral authority for their modern viewpoints. They may admit that their political views are based on their own logic and reason, but they must stop there, and cease to claim that these views come from the New Testament, because they do not.

The Old Testament is filled with philosophies that conservatives agree with today. This is, in fact, the most common conservative defense. From the condemnation of homosexuals to the praise of wealth and national defense, the Old Testament is indeed a conservative's paradise. And Jesus himself said "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17.) But this argument fails on a single point. If the Old Testament were still valid, we would still be obeying it. That is, Christians would still be bringing doves into the temple for slaughter upon the altar. We would still be sinning for planting two different crops in the same field, or wearing two different fabrics at once. Even the least educated Christian knows that a profound difference occurred at the cross, and that a different set of rules came into play. Those rules can be found in the New Testament, and they are overwhelmingly liberal.

Even so, falling back on the Old Testament often backfires for Christian Conservatives. The problem is that the Old Testament goes too far to the right. The Old Testament was not only undemocratic, it featured a monarchy. (1 Samuel 8.) Social inequality not only existed, but was embodied in slavery. In fact, it was legal to beat slaves so severely that they could not get up for a day or two. (Exodus 21:21.) Children were not only expected to respect their parents; their parents could legally kill them if they didn't. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21.) Women not only had a submissive and inferior status to men, they were considered chattel. (Genesis 3:16, Exodus 21:7-11, Numbers 30.) God not only ordered Israel to initiate wars of aggression, but ordered Israel to kill all captive men and non-virgin women, and to bring the virgin women into sexual slavery. (Deuteronomy 7:1,2, Numbers 31.) God even ordered the suckling infants of the enemy to be massacred. (1 Samuel 15:3.)

Interestingly, there is one area of the Old Testament that runs diametrically opposed to the conservative's most cherished values: sexuality. Of course, many conservatives frequently cite the Old Testament laws against incest, homosexuality and bestiality (Leviticus 18:6,22,23). But in almost all other sexual matters, the Old Testament is really quite permissive. There were no laws prohibiting pre-marital and non-marital sex, and only a few stipulations to this liberty were explicitly stated. One was that if a man seduces a virgin, he must pay a bride-price and marry her. (Exodus 22:16.) However, the law says nothing about non-virgins, including divorced or widowed women. Also, a wife found guilty of adultery could be stoned to death along with her lover. (Deuteronomy 22:22.) However, no law prevented a married man from carrying on with as many affairs as he pleased, as long as they were not with other men's wives. For a man, divorce was both legal and easy to obtain, if for no other reason that she displeased him. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4.) Prostitution was illegal for Jewish women, but it was permitted for foreigners. (Deuteronomy 23:17.) However, many Jewish women became prostitutes as well. The practice was widely tolerated by the authorities, and considering how many scriptural warnings were voiced against harlots, it is clear they did a thriving business.

If Christian conservatives find all this alarming, it gets worse. Polygamy was not only allowed, but King Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines were recorded as a matter of national pride. (1 Kings 11:3.) Concubines served the role of secondary wives; they were often, but not necessarily, purchased servants. As for purchased female servants, male masters were allowed to have sex with them (Exodus 21:7-11), a practice which Christians defend by claiming that the rights of these slaves were "well-regulated." (!) If a male soldier found a female captive to be attractive, he could force marriage, and therefore sexual relations, on her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14.) In modern society, this is called rape.

Except for a distinct misogyny and homophobia, the ancient Jews were generally free of sexual repression. Like most cultures and religions of the world, they celebrated heterosexual pleasure as a gift from God. This positive view is reflected in Song of Songs, an erotic poem that even becomes sexually explicit: The sexual double entendre here is obvious, and has been the source of embarrassment and controversy to Christians for almost 2,000 years. The standard disclaimer is that the author was really describing God's relationship to his people, a view that even the ancient rabbinic scholars taught. But this is still an embarrassment to the sexually repressed philosophies of Christian conservatives, given the overtly sexual nature of the poem. What is more likely is that the author was engaging in the sort of double entendre that often occurred in ancient Jewish writings. Many of their stories and parables having second meanings, just as many of their character's names are actually puns in Hebrew. It seems that the author of the above poem was engaging in this tradition: writing erotica under the guise of religious metaphor.

Rabbinical scholars also taught that both men and women had a right to receive sexual pleasure in marriage.

Jesus did not seem bent on fundamentally reforming Jewish law and culture on sex and marriage. His only statement on the subject was that it was wrong for a man to divorce his wife for any reason, not just adultery. (Matthew 5:31,32, Luke 16:18). It is easy to see the Jewish context in which Jesus was arguing, and that he was only concerned about refining the existing law, not revolutionizing it. (However, Jesus also mentions in Mark 10:12 that a woman cannot divorce her husband and marry another man without committing adultery. Controversy surrounds the point of whether the woman in this case is the initiator of divorce, or merely has been divorced.)

So where did the sexual repression of the New Testament come from? It first surfaces in the writings of Paul, and worsens with the other apostles. That is because these writers generally come from the Greek world, where the anti-sexual philosophies of Greek Stoicism were dominant. Paul was born and raised in Tarsus, an important Greek trading port which was also the birthplace of two famous Stoic philosophers and the site of several excellent Greek schools. Christianity failed to take root in Israel, but it flourished in the Greco-Roman empire. As this new religion swept through that region, it absorbed the anti-sexual tenets of Greek philosophy and then spread them wherever the Christian empire spread, even to the shores of America. Those familiar with this history know that it is horrific; the Church Father Origen, for example, castrated himself in his fear that sexual temptation would deprive him of the kingdom of heaven. And women -- the purveyors of sexual evil -- were so vilified under Christian doctrine that the Inquisition tortured and murdered them for two centuries as "witches". For these reasons, European and American history is filled with a sexual repression and guilt that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

In summary, both the Old and New Testaments offer profound challenges to modern Christian conservatives who wish to quote the Bible as the basis of their political beliefs.

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