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Three Passages

By July 5, 2014 5 Comments


I see that Wheaton College, the “Harvard of the evangelicals,” has been first out of the gate in riding this week’s Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court further down the track. Seems that the Wheaties won’t even have to try to pursue the workaround that the Obama administration has offered non-profit religious organizations who claim sincerely-held ethical qualms about certain sorts of birth control covered under the Affordable Care Act. They can simply tell the government to shove it.

Noble courage, and on the burning issue of our times to be sure. Such a helpful precedent for other evangelical shops to let their light shine for Jesus. Just think about issues where the oh-so-highly-revered standard of biblical authority actually has something to say. (Unlike, say, the moral standing of an IUD or the claim that a fertilized egg, any fertilized egg, has the status of a person.) One such matter of crystalline clarity is the curse of Ham. Well, a curse pronounced upon Canaan in fact, but for his father Ham’s transgression. And we know for sure that Canaan/Ham stood for all black people under God’s sun, and that therefore the charming chunk of Genesis in question (9:20-27), far from only legitimating Hebrew conquest of the land they took as promised, also warranted Negro slavery in the Americas. The best of Southern (and no few Northern) Protestant exegetes said so again and again in the mid-nineteenth century, and what they said held great sway. There were no more popular pro-slavery arguments than those based on religion.

They lasted long after slavery itself was legally abolished; well into the 1970s, the most Bible-believing Bob Jones University prohibited interracial dating on the basis of this sort of thinking. BJU, your hour is come! The Supremes have opened the way for you to reclaim your blessed heritage! Simply say that racial hierarchy is your sincerely held religious conviction, and the edict those federal meanies laid down on you in the ascendancy of liberalism long decades ago will be lifted off your longsuffering neck. What’s the mantra? God is good, all the time.

The words of the Supremes (well, five of them anyway) are just one of three passages that have been on my mind this week, and the last to arrive on the scene. Second in line was part of the Pew Research Center’s report on its survey of American politics. ( In it, 86 percent of “Steadfast Conservatives” aver that the lives of the poor are too easy, not least owing to government assistance. That’s even more than the 76 percent of “Business Conservatives” who share that opinion. The two clusters pretty much agree (around 60 percent) as well that the poor have only themselves to blame for their plight. Now we can guess that a mainstay of that Steadfast group is our band of godly white evangelicals who have thus shown again how much they love the zygote they have not seen, yet somehow pass over a good share of those zygotes who make it out of the womb and can be seen live and in color (and color’s part of the deal here) for those who have a thought to look their way. The Steadfasts also have tracked pretty regularly in opposing the extension of federally-paid Medicaid benefits to the poor, in replacing progressive income taxes with regressive sales taxes, in cheering on race- and class-based prison-sentencing regimes, in . . . well, you supply your own et cetera. There are enough of them.

The first cluster of words? That would be the Old Testament reading at our church last Sunday morning. A substantial chunk, pretty explicit, and typical of many more scriptural passages on the same topic. Many more passages, in fact, than those about zygotes and gay people and other such big bothers of our Steadfast ones. This passage was from Amos, chapter 5. 

There are those who turn justice into bitterness
    and cast righteousness to the ground.

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
    who turns midnight into dawn
    and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out over the face of the land—
    the Lord is his name.
With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold
    and brings the fortified city to ruin.

10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
    and detest the one who tells the truth.

11 You levy a straw tax on the poor
    and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
    and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
    for the times are evil.

The passage goes on to say, “Seek good, not evil, that you may live” and more such injunctions. But words such as I have written here have been sounded time and again over the past thirty years, and to what effect?

I left church last Sunday chewing on that earlier line of Amos: “Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” Is the prophet commending the prudent here, or chastising them for not being prophetic as he is? I’m not sure. I’m still trying to sort through all the words without giving in to those of Mark Twain. My destination in eternity? the canny one answered the street evangelist. “Why, I’ll take heaven for the climate and hell for the company.”

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Some Grace Please? says:

    Having never met you and based solely on what and how you write on here, James, you seem like an angry man. What you say is often great, but how you say it is another thing. Less anger and more straightforwardness would be welcome.

  • Dan says:

    Thank you for this post. Reminds me why I loved your class.

  • LaVerne Rens says:

    Some really profound things are happening in our country. None of the things happening in the Supreme Court these days remind me of what I learned about Constitutional Law when I was in Law School several decades ago. I believe it was Justice Louis B. Brandeis who said, " The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." Recent events and trends in this country remind me of a quote attributed to Marquis de Lafayette who wrote , "If the liberties of the American people are ever destroyed, they will fall by the hands of the clergy>"

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Jim, having gotten a buzz on jenever while watching the Dutch squeak by lowly Costa Rica just now, I'm not liable for my knee-jerk reaction to your analysis of the Wheaties and the Supremes. I can only hope that you, too, sought courage from a similar source before you put pen to paper, so to speak. Your bias suffers form insufficient opacity, and, hence, runs the risk of failing to convince.

  • Holly says:

    In response to the responses and your closing consternation…

    "If you are not angry you're either a stone or too sick to be angry. You should be angry….Now mind you. There's a difference. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it."

    ~Maya Angelou speaking to David Chappelle about racism.

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