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Because The Bible Tells Me So?

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"Bible invoked by both sides at forum on death penalty"
Headline: The Capital Times, Madison, WI

I am an American Atheist. I believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I do not believe in gods or in revealed texts. My belief in the tools of democracy is relevant on the public square. My disbelief in gods is not.

On November 7, the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, whose mission is to "forward Judeo-Christian principles and traditional values in Wisconsin," won a victory for their organization's interpretation of the Bible with the passing of the amendment to ban gay marriages and civil unions.

According to a September 23rd Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, the FRI claimed that the amendment had the support of 5,000 churches and 2 million congregants. While Fair Wisconsin, the group leading the fight against the amendment claimed that resolutions opposing the amendment had been passed by organizations representing 500,000 congregants.

On Oct 19, a forum was held in Madison to debate the state's Nov. 7 advisory referendum on establishing the death penalty for first-degree murder cases backed by DNA evidence. The Rev. Mike Mayhak of Faith Baptist Church quoted Genesis and Romans in support of the death penalty. Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison relied on the Pope's interpretation of the Bible to oppose the death penalty.

While acknowledging that there were people of different faiths on either side of these issues, I can only assume there was a preponderance of Christians. So to them I ask, are you guys reading the same Bible? And if you are, where is its ultimate authority if such diametrically opposed opinions can be buttressed by the same text?

This is not a rational debate. It is a Bible-quoting arms race; each side cherry-picking its way through a religious document that was arbitrarily cobbled together over several centuries from many different writers and diverse cultural milieus. Whoever ends up with the most fruit expects to win the day. The trouble is many of the cherries in the Bible are just plain rotten.

In the early 19th century, Abolitionists held the moral high ground by any objective, rational, non-biblical backward glance. However southern slaves owners and their representatives in Congress won the theological argument hands down. As Rev. Richard Fuller said in1845, "What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin."

Slavery, as we now know, was a sin and a national disgrace, even if the Bible didn't tell us so.

But have we learned anything in the intervening 160 years about scripture and policy? Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey once said, "The Bible is very clear on this [homosexuality] . . . I abide by the instructions that are given to me in the Bible."

One can only speculate if Armey's understanding of scripture was informed by the Rev. Ted Haggard's weekly-televised pulpit pontifications.

Will it take our country another 160 years to know that discriminating against a group of people because of their sexual orientation is a sin and a national disgrace, regardless of what the Bible tells us?

My point is that the Bible, or any religious text, has no authority on the public square in a secular society whose guiding authority rests in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Our democracy is based on a rational defense of the civil rights, civil liberties and economic welfare of its citizens, not on the ambiguous and often contradicting approbations and proscriptions of religious texts. Democracy cannot serve two masters.

This is not to say that an individual's political stance cannot be informed by his or her religious belief. It would be absurd to claim otherwise. But as a political argument, religious belief should go no further than the church door or your own pocket. On the public square, "because the Bible tells me so" just doesn't cut it . . . or it shouldn't.

On a recent book signing tour in Milwaukee, Jim Wallis, author of "God Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," met with local clergy who advocate for the poor. Wallis maintained that his goal of eliminating poverty is based on some 2,000 Bible verses stressing the importance of ministering the poor.

But should anyone need to consult the Bible to be assured of a moral or ethical imperative to help those who are mired in poverty? Isn't there enough evidence available to anyone whose gaze is unblinkered by ideology or religious belief?

Keep in mind, Jesus did say that the poor would always be among us (Mark 14:7). Wasn't he telling us to chill on the poverty thing?
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Biography: Robert Weitzel is a contributing editor to Media With a Conscience (www.mwcnews.net). His essays regularly appear in The Capital Times in Madison, WI.

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