A Feature Review of
The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture Has Been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go From Here
Reviewed by Rachel Lonas
In 2004, I found out that the Young Republicans club at my small Christian college (a Young Democrats club would have had no members there at that time) could pay students good money to go to Pinellas County, Florida, to campaign for President Bush’s reelection. Dozens of us spent several days riding around in vans and knocking on doors, really pushing hard on all conservative talking points to those who would listen. We were all either raised on or heavily influenced by them, so it didn’t feel like a conflict to “live out our faith” through canvassing. Only in hindsight could I see the systems, cultural influences, and naïveté that led me to so quickly say “yes” to that campaign opportunity.
That trip feels like a lifetime ago. When I consider the almost 20 years that have passed—how the political landscape has changed, the rise of social media in politics, and my own personal and spiritual growth—I hardly recognize that woman who was barely old enough to vote and wasn’t asking deeper questions, like those Kaitlyn Schiess asks in her new book The Ballot and The Bible,“Who is sacrificing for others rather than protecting themselves? Who has been shaped by suffering rather than comfort? Who keeps Jesus at the center of their political theology and who sidelines him for their own glory?” (86)
These questions about the intersection of politics and theology are at the heart of The Ballot and the Bible. Writing this review as I watch new indictments of our former president coming out daily, the chaos in my own state capital day after day, and the next election season already creeping in, I’m left thinking that this book could not have come at a better time. Many American Christians are weary of the neverending and often strange enmeshment of faith and politics. The pervasive use of misapplied, decontextualized Bible verses to score political points make keeping up with the news, attending church with Christians of differing political views, and believing in your community increasingly difficult.
In an age characterized by both soundbites and impassioned speeches, Schiess asks Christians what is the cost of using Scripture in superficial ways to ensure that “our side” listens? How can we tell if someone is merely signaling to Christian voters by using the language of God without it impacting their actual character? Schiess tries to get at these questions by taking her readers on a sweeping tour of history from Winthrop’s “a city on a hill” sermon through the American Revolution, Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, Reaganomics, the Trump presidency, and more, demonstrating how passages like Romans 13, Jeremiah 29, and others have been thrust into the spotlight to bolster various arguments or interpretations of American life.
Schiess makes particularly astute observations looking back at the George W. Bush and Barack Obama eras about the ways these two men used Scripture in their campaigns and presidencies. She is not afraid to point out that some of the main reasons white Christian voters viewed these presidents’ faith differently is because Bush’s individual conversion story made sense to them whereas Obama’s entry into Christianity, more rooted in the social action and community of the black church tradition, was unfamiliar. Racial and partisan biases played in as well, with the faith of a black Democrat with left-wing policy positions seen as suspect.
Many will resonate with her critique that some leaders refuse to address biblical issues from the pulpit (especially around social justice) by saying, “They put politics in their preaching, while we stick to the Bible”. Having grown up in Christian spaces, I have heard this message many times in implicit and explicit ways followed by leaders proclaiming they are proud to have a “healthy” Christian church or school. Schiess reminds her readers that none of us, church leadership or church attendees, “come to the biblical text as a clean slate” (33). We are a mixed bag of motivations and life experiences. She exhorts us to check in with those biases instead of leading with assertions and assumptions that lead to bad scriptural interpretation.
Schiess’s chapter about the Civil Rights Movement, aptly named “A Stick of Dynamite”, captures well the fact that the Movement cannot be decoupled from the Black church, Scripture, and a perseverance rooted in faith. Schiess says the activists were opposing the glass-half-full view that the social gospel promoted. “They expected opposition, and many of them sacrificed greatly because of the steady hope that God would eventually honor their efforts—whether on earth or eternity” (85). Meanwhile, she contends that white congregations who supported segregation had no theological ground to stand on saying,“there aren’t short, simple verses to appeal to that clearly condone racial segregation” (75) so they cherry-picked and misapplied verses and stories like the curse of Ham, the Tower of Babel, Philip and the eunuch, and others which they believed supported their views of white supremacy.
Scheiss explores a harsh reality from that time that parallels today’s church struggles: even if pastors felt that segregation was wrong, dealing with their congregants who held opposite views (however loudly or subtly) was another matter. It was (and, unfortunately, still is) much safer for pastors to claim that both ends of the political spectrum are wrong, allowing harmful, anti-biblical beliefs to stay safe in the pews on Sunday morning. In Schiess’s words, citing MLK’s condemnation of “white moderates” in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, churches allow their “ethics [to be] more formed by white-middle class sensibilities than Scripture” (76). To speak out against these things comes at a high cost for pastors when their family’s livelihood is on the line for doing so. So while I don’t say that lightly, it begs the question: The American church system may be broken for many pastors, but aren’t our brothers and sisters who are being oppressed worth speaking about and suffering with? Seeing the church’s responsibility to the hermeneutic of “stepping into Scripture” instead of trying to objectively distance oneself from it (a la Enlightenment principles) was a helpful diagnostic to see where we’ve gone off course (84).
Schiess doesn’t just offer a critique, but has suggestions of “where we go from here”. She proposes that we can start simply, like investigating the sources that form our choices at the ballot box. We don’t need to fall off either cliff—being so suspicious of Scripture used in politics that we trust no one, or falling for anyone who speaks in vague Christian-ese. We don’t have to stop holding Christian beliefs or voting our consciences because others have handled it poorly or harmfully in the past. These guidelines are starting points for reflection without feeling formulaic or overly prescriptive. They could also be great conversation starters in small groups, with family members or friends, but in the right safe environment so that our uncomfortable feelings can be present. We can all use practice not talking past one another and asking good questions together in Christian charity.
Overall, Schiess chose very ambitious categories and themes to tackle in one book. Her clear, concise writing and deep scholarship shows how passionate she is about guiding readers through a hard-to-navigate topic, in order to find a better theological and interpretive lens. She pulls from wide-ranging sources and does the Biblical spadework to make her points. It struck me that in a book that talks about how little hermeneutical digging through the Scriptures happens in political life, Schiess has actually done what most politicians have refused to do— to look at the context of passages, wrestling with the historical significance of the text, considering the culture, etc. Her belief that we may miss the mark in our interpretations, but that God will not fail us, is an encouragement for pastors and church members who are exhausted by the weight of the American ballot these days. One can only hope that those who most need to hear these words of political and theological wisdom will reflect on her question. “Do we care more about Christian identity than Christian action?” (122)
Rachel Lonas is a writer and educator specializing in literature and composition. Several of her pieces can be found at Fathom Magazine. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband,
Justin, and their four daughters. She enjoys all things creative—watercoloring, nature journaling, landscaping, and being inspired by botanical gardens.
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