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What the Bible Says Depends on Where You're From

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As Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum fight it out for the G.O.P. nomination, preachers on both sides of the aisle are opining on "what the Bible says" on a range of issues, from Occupy Wall Street to contraception coverage, from Mormonism to welfare programs.

Don't take them too seriously.

Truth is, the Bible can "say" anything depending on which verses are emphasized and how they are spun.

Do you support capitalism? Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council insists the key passage on finances is the parable of talents in Luke 19, where money is given to a number of investors and Jesus praises the one who achieves the biggest returns.

Do you support socialism? Liberal activist Shane Claiborne wants you to know that Jesus spent his time with the poor and that the Sermon on the Mount, with its blessing of the poor, is the centerpiece of the gospel.

Do you support gay marriage? Well, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and God insists in Genesis that "it's not good for the human to be alone."

And if you oppose gay marriage, God created Adam and Eve (not Adam and Steve) and the Apostle Paul condemns sodomy in Romans 1, calling it "unnatural" and "shameful."

We could run through the list of controversial issues -- abortion, war, pre-marital sex, slavery -- and find that on both sides each debate, a host of passages can be marshaled both for and against each position, creating mutually contradictory portraits of "what the Bible really says."

It's tempting to conclude that one side of these debates is simply biased while the other side (usually our side) is not.

But it's also wrong.

Literary theorists, psychologists and theologians have long recognized that how humans interpret texts inescapably reflects their prior beliefs. As Yale biblical scholar Dale Martin notes, "We read certain ways because we are socialized to do so."

Looking at the history of biblical interpretations makes this apparent.

Take the seemingly straightforward command in Genesis 1:28, for example, to "subdue the Earth" and "have dominion over the beasts."

As a result of our current environmental woes, today's progressive evangelicals often read this as a command to exercise "stewardship" over the natural world, to refrain from excessive manipulation of nature and shield it from exploitation.

But early Christians thinkers such as Saint Augustine saw it very differently. Guided by his culture's preference for allegorical readings and stress on self-denial, Augustine understood "the beasts" to be sinful impulses that "could serve reason when they are restrained." "Having dominion," in his culture, meant exercising self-control.

Medieval theologians, by contrast, were interested in creating encyclopedic bodies of knowledge. The command to "have dominion," in this context, became a command to accumulate facts about the natural world. As Oxford historian Peter Harrison notes, "knowledge of the creatures was thus another way of restoring ... the original dominion that the human race had once enjoyed."

And early modern thinkers interpreted the command to "have dominion" differently yet again. In a cultural context where burgeoning technologies were increasingly used to manipulate the natural world, "having dominion" came to mean intervening in nature to make it more useful for humans. As John Locke put it, "God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life."

The command "have dominion" has thus been interpreted as a command to refrain from intervening in nature, to exercise self-control, to accumulate knowledge, and to intervene in nature. And if two words can be interpreted is such different ways, how much more entire biblical passages or complex themes?

The idea that we can derive our beliefs from an unbiased reading of the Bible is as pervasive in American discourse as it is untenable. And that fact has significant implications for how we think about the Bible's role in politics.

When a community claims they can't help but oppose homosexuality because the Bible requires them to do so, or that Jesus would support a liberal economic system, or that if you really read the Bible carefully you should end up supporting Party X, they're showing naivete. What the Bible "requires" depends on the beliefs one brings to it.

So as the election season heats up, let's stop pretending our ideology comes straight from what the Bible says. The reality is, "what the Bible says" comes straight from our ideology.