Heather MacDonald has been brilliantly raising some serious questions about "religious Truth" on National Review's website. See her latest remarks here.
I've long pondered these questions -- questions about the moral claims of religion, whether the Bible is compatible with the ideas of liberal democracy, how the Bible scores on the big moral issues of the modern era like slavery and genocide.
One of the most apt observations MacDonald made is that "The Bible is as open-ended a text as any other." I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Bible can be read to support any position. But I will assert that the Bible, read "literally," can support a whole slew of contradictory positions and outcomes. That indeed, many passages seem to contradict one another. And a "literal interpretation" is a theory which invariably focuses on certain parts of the good book and conveniently explains away or ignores other passages.
You can compare the Bible to the Constitution by way of an analogy. The "legal realist" argues that judges invariably will make policy judgments, that indeed, everyone is a legal realist whether they admit it or not. Likewise, it could be argued that everyone is a cafeteria or liberal Christian, whether they admit it or not. The biggest difference between constitutional and Biblical interpretation is that the Constitution is a much briefer document, and thus easier lends itself to one "correct" interpretation, with one "right" set of outcomes.
Let us raise a half dozen vital moral and political issues and see how they fair according to the Bible. First slavery and genocide. I've heard it argued that the Bible supports anti-slavery and anti-genocide positions because the notion of human equality and dignity is rooted in the fact that we are all born in God's image. Now, indeed, that can be plausibly gleaned from certain parts of the Bible. Yet, as Ed Brayton recently noted, in parts of the Bible, God explicitly orders the genocide, complete with the slaughter of innocent women and children, of certain "tribes" of people. And the Bible is replete with references that seem to endorse the institution of slavery. So in order to get an "anti-slavery" position out of the Bible, what do we do? Glean a theory from it which holds that all human beings derive inherent dignity rights by being created in God's image. Impose that abstraction as the dominant view of the Bible. And then ignore or explain away all of those other passages that seem to contradict such theory.
Such explanations often invoke "context." But while historical context can explain away human error -- for instance, for thousands of years slavery went unchallenged as an institution; because the notion of human rights just hadn't yet been "formulated" or "discovered," people weren't aware that slavery was wrong; thus I can accept that we don't treat famous historical figures who held slaves with the same moral outrage that we would direct against a present person who holds slaves -- historical context cannot, however, explain away the error of an omnipotent God, or the words of a book, eternally true, today as yesterday.
See this thread on worldmag's blog where I wrote: "If you can explain away 'the [Biblical passages which seem to call for genocide and slavery] by historical context, then why can't we likewise explain away God's prohibitions on homosexual sex in Leviticus by 'historical context?'"
To which a commentator replied:
When God demanded what you call genocide, it was in a particular moment in time and for particular moral reasons at that time--and applied to a particular people. It was not an open-ended timeless call to kill certain people.
When God prohibited homosexual sex, he was not couching that prohibition in a particular setting nor did He intend for the historical context to mitigate His point. The intended application of the passages that prohibit homosexuality are clearly more open-ended.
The commentator did exactly what I described above: Use certain passages in the Bible to support a particular position -- in this case anti-genocide, anti-slavery -- and otherwise minimize or explain away the importance of contradictory passages. And I would argue that a clever interpreter of the Bible, for instance, John Boswell, likewise could abstract a pro-homosexual message from the Bible, impose that as the "open ended and timeless Biblical norm" and use "context" to argue that the anti-homosexual passages are only applicable to "a particular moment in time and for particular moral reasons at that time."
Likewise with religious liberty rights. Many parts of the Bible explicitly forbid the worship of any God but the Biblical God (and, I might add, impose the death penalty for the open worship of false gods in the OT) and for thousands of years, "Biblical Governments" literally interpreted such passages to justify civil governments punishing non-believers simply for their non-belief. Eventually, because of the problems resulting from persecution of minority sects, Christians had to "rethink" their way through those passages to come forth with an interpretation which supports religious liberty rights.
Likewise with the right to rebellion. Many passages in the Bible unquestionably tell believers to obey magistrates. And such passages were used by Biblical literalists to support the notion of Divine Right of Kings and quell the notion of a right to revolt. I got some criticism on my last post for suggesting that anti-Revolution is the only "proper" literal interpretation of the Bible. And I will concede that using the same technique of "interpretation" that yields outcomes which differ on such things as slavery, genocide, and religious liberty, you probably can derive a "Biblical" position that supports a right to revolt.
Finally, even on the claim made by Michael Novak and many other orthodox believers of "a loving God." As far as I know, there are passages in the Bible which suggest this and outright say that God is a "God of Love." Yet, there are other passages which clearly use the word "hate" to describe God. Christians have claimed that such a God "loves the sinner but hates the sin." But that notion is simply a theory abstracted from certain parts of the Bible, which ignores or explains away other passages. Parts of the Bible explicitly state that God doesn't just hate sin, but hates people. Indeed, as much of a lunatic Fred Phelps & co. appear to be, every single assertion they make is grounded in some passage of the Bible.
See this debate between Fred Phelps and a "kinder, gentler" fundamentalist, our old friend the Reverend John Rankin, where both use Biblical passages to support their positions; in Phelps's case it's that God doesn't just hate sin, but hates sinners as well; Rankin argues the old Chestnut that God loves the sinner but hates the sin. While I don't care for the positions of either, and find Phelps's position far more abohorrent than Rankin's, on Biblical grounds, I'd say their positions are evenly matched.