Almost every day I run across some version of this Twitter interaction:
Original Tweet: Bible/Jesus/God says [insert conservative political or theological talking point]
Comment: Haven’t you read [insert Bible verse]? Christians who purport to love the Bible never seem to read it!
Examples of this phenomenon abound. If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably seen them too.
At predictable intervals, these callouts of White evangelical Christian hypocrisy are often followed by links to op-eds by, or stories featuring, “reasonable” Christian writers who urge their co-religionists to follow Jesus, the Bible, or some broader notion of love or compassion rather than give in to the virulent misogyny, racism, bigotry, and nationalism that has come to define the American Christian Right.
Sometimes these calls rely on anti-Jewish tropes, wherein Christians are called to give up legalistic morality and return to the true teachings of Jesus. Others might make recourse to some proverb or parable of Jesus that centers on the outcast or the downtrodden, with the implicit claim that this is what the Bible really says. Others cast right wing theology or ideology as a parasitic new development on an otherwise benevolent Christianity; the implicit argument being that people have added something foreign and problematic to Christianity.
The ubiquity and predictability of these social media fights and their aftermath are worth dwelling on because by doing so we can learn some interesting things about how the battles in American Protestantism are being fought over misconceptions of America’s many bibles.
Let’s start with the position of the commenter above. How does calling out White evangelical hypocrisy work? This charge of hypocrisy is premised on an assumption about what White evangelical Christians (and those in their wider orbit) think the Bible is.
Most White evangelicals say they believe in some configuration of the Protestant Reformation rallying cry of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and the olde time religion claim to the “plain sense of scripture.”
On this model of biblical authority, White evangelicals claim to use scripture alone to determine their beliefs and practices and that scripture is self-evident in what it means; i.e., The Bible speaks plainly and we do what the Bible says.
Operating under this assumption about the White evangelical bible, our liberal commentator can very easily charge the original poster with hypocrisy, even claim that they’re not properly Christian.
If, for example, the White evangelical defends rapacious capitalism as biblical, then you counter with something from the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible decrying wealth or a saying of Jesus about the poor. The hypocrisy? You aren’t guided by scripture alone if you’re adding something (support for capitalism) that isn’t in, or is contradicted by, the Bible.
If the White evangelical quotes 1 Timothy 2 on how women shouldn’t have authority over men, then you counter with Galatians 3:28 (“there is no longer male and female…in Christ Jesus”) or a jpeg of Jael killing Sisera (Judges 4-5). The hypocrisy? If you really knew the Bible you’d know it has other things to say about what women can and can’t do.
If the White evangelical demonizes immigrants, then you counter with passages from the Bible requiring that rights and sanctuary be offered to foreigners (Exodus 21:21-15). The hypocrisy? Do you even know what’s in the Bible? The playbook for how to call out the White evangelical writes itself.
This brave hermeneutical fight, at least on the surface, is meant to convince the White evangelical that they aren’t doing what they say they’re doing, perhaps leading to repentance and conversion. If the White evangelical is to be guided by scripture alone, and said scripture plainly states that God requires sanctuary and care for immigrants, then certainly they’ll change their political stance to match. Once they see that the Bible says the opposite of what they’re saying, they’ll change, right?
Anyone who’s ever followed this playbook has probably noticed that it doesn’t work.
The fundamental error at the heart of the playbook is assuming that invocations of biblical authority and self-evidence mean what they say. Letting the Bible speak for itself isn’t a passive position to which the White evangelical submits, but a complicated hermeneutic, a series of interpretive decisions that produce a meaning that seems self-evident to White evangelical readers.
Following the plain sense of scripture isn’t a guide to interpreting the Bible but the name for a particular way of interpreting it. If the Bible really carried a “plain sense,” after all, we’d all agree on what it says. For White evangelicals, biblical texts offer a language they can use to work out theological and political issues. Take, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ misquotation of Ephesians 6:11 in a speech in June of 2021, in which he urged, “You got to put on the full armor of God. You got to take a stand—take a stand against the left’s schemes.” The actual verse in Ephesians reads: “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (NRSV).
DeSantis changed the biblical text in his allusion, equating the US Left with the devil. Few evangelicals bothered to critique DeSantis for his misquotation because he’d simply made the Bible say what they already knew it to say; namely, that political opponents of White evangelicals are in league with the devil and must be stopped. DeSantis both changed the words of scripture and let it speak for itself. When White evangelicals read the Bible’s plain sense, they make it say what they need it to say.
One can make an argument that the Bible supports capitalism by citing or alluding to biblical passages, like Paul’s claim that if one does not work, one ought not eat (2 Thess 3:10). So long as the claim fits within the theological and political expectations of the audience, the Bible has been able to speak for itself.
Within this paradigm, scripture is always able to retain its self-evident meaning even in the face of what appears to be, to others at least, contradictory scriptural evidence. Those social justice passages from the Prophets meant to challenge capitalism? They’re encouragements to churches to help the poor sometimes, not prescriptions for social policy.
“[T]here is no longer male and female…in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)? That just means that men and women can both be saved, not that men and women are equal. In other words, you can throw scripture at the White evangelical all day long and they can always re-contextualize it as what the Bible says for itself.
Deep down, we probably all realize this. We get that the attempt to call out evangelical hypocrisy is doomed to failure, but we keep doing it. We do it because it feels good. Letting off steam against a faceless digital avatar is really the lifeblood of social media after all. It also feels good to get the adulation that comes with a social media pile on. We feel good knowing that other people saw us challenging an enemy in public. But despite the momentary good feels, not much changes.
What this social media trope should teach us is that calling out White evangelical hypocrisy around the Bible is futile. It’s futile because neither side agrees on what the Bible they’re arguing about even is. The liberal commenter misunderstands how the White evangelical Bible works: Certainly I should assume that the White evangelical means what they say when they speak about the Bible!
But the White evangelical Bible isn’t simply a biblical text that speaks to its readers, it’s a complicated assemblage of social, political, and theological assumptions that determine in advance how that text speaks. The White evangelical Bible speaks for itself only after the reader makes arguments out of biblical allusions and citations that reinforce what the White evangelical already knows to be true.
If we want to argue with a White evangelical about the Bible, we need to make sure that we’re arguing about the same thing. If we want to change people’s minds, then we need to confront the whole of what the White evangelical Bible is, how it works, what its assumptions are, how it makes its adherents feel, and what it authorizes them to do. We need to confront the Bible they actually deploy, and to do so we can’t rely on what White evangelicals say they do.
And we also have to confront the fact that liberals—Christian or otherwise—have their own assumptions about the Bible that need interrogating. But that’s for another time.