Is the Bible Really Compatible with American Democratic ideals?
Something that bothered me when I deconverted from Christianity two years ago, and still does today, is that the harder I think about certain aspects of the lessons in the Bible the less I find it compatible with many modern, Western ideals that we take for granted, such as democracy and freedom of thought. While in the Bible, God is the supreme, unelected dictator of the universe who must be mindlessly obeyed, here in the United States, we believe that people are free to choose their own ruler and express their own opinions.
The United States was founded when a group of people decided they had enough of a government they had no control over and decided that people should have the right to elect their own rulers. While, admittedly, our declaration of independence from England was in a sense founded in some belief in a god, it was not a theistic god, but a deistic one. When the U.S. Constitution was founded in 1789, God was nowhere to be found, and the First Amendment’s religion clause deemed that affairs of church and state remain separate. The First Amendment also granted people many freedoms of thought and expression, including the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. This was done because mixing church and state often led to oppression in the past. It led to the suppression of free thought in Europe, and even bitter conflicts between people who believed slightly different versions of the same religion. In colonial America, we saw similar repression as those who sought religious freedom ended up denying it to others. There can be no freedom if religion dictates the affairs of the state, or if the state dictates the affairs of religion.
As we can see, just going into what has encouraged us to find a nation based on democracy and free thought, we are already seeing some major tensions between religious governance and democratic governance. We are already seeing a difference between the oppression of religion, and the freedom granted to us by our constitution. But now, let us turn to the Bible itself so that we can really see the difference between the ideals our republic is founded upon and how it compares to what the Bible encourages.
We don’t need to go far into the Bible to see the difference. All we need to do is turn to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. If we look at Genesis 2:16-17, we will see that God commanded Adam: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now, before we go further, let us examine the name of the tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, why would God not want people to eat from such a tree? Why does God not want people to have knowledge of good and evil here? Turning to Genesis 3:4-5, we see the serpent testing Eve, pointing out that “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” As many of us who have sat through sermons on the subject know, the sin Adam and Eve committed here in disobeying God was the sin of wanting to be like God. Apotheosis has been diminished to wanting to think for oneself instead of being a nice obedient mind slave is apparently a bad thing, according to the Bible. In that ironic regard, this blasphemy reduces Yahweh to a lower level than the false idols of the Ancient era.
Now, compare this to how we do things in the United States. Turn on the television, or the radio, or go to any political website on the internet. Everyone, including fundamentalist Christians, are given the right to their own interpretation of what good and evil are, and these rights are often used by people from all walks of life. We do not encourage mindless obedience to congress or the president; we are allowed to criticize them and express our disapproval of them. As a matter of fact, we measure approval and disapproval of leaders in this country. We empower our people to become educated and determine for themselves what leaders they want governing them. We not only let them eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we also encourage it. To go a step further, a large variety of people can run for office and gain the support of the people, so that they may be chosen to lead them. That is about as close to “being like God” as any free people would be comfortable with.
Let us then move on to the old testament law itself, where there are more conflicts between the Bible and American principles. God opened up his law with the commandment of “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). He then went on to ban idols, and emphasized his jealousy toward the concept of worshipping other gods (Exodus 20:4-6). This is in contrast with the First Amendment of the Constitution, which grants a freedom of religion. Now, apologists may counter this by stating that this is prefaced with the idea that the Israelites owed God, because he brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 20:2), but in a free democratic society, this should not matter. To demonstrate this point, I will give the example of the beauty of democracy in action: the 1945 elections in Britain. As we know, Winston Churchill was a very popular war time leader who saved Britain from destruction by the Nazis. He was beloved, both during wartime, and in the history books. But shortly after World War II ended, the people of Great Britain voted Churchill out of office, because while he was seen as a good wartime leader, he likely would not have been as good of a peacetime leader. Just because a leader serves a country well in the time of war or crisis does not mean they would make a good peacetime leader, and the people reserve the right to vote them out of office. The same principle applies to the United States and its elections. It might not seem fair to the leader who did so much for their country, but once again, the voters have the ultimate authority on this matter, as they should. If they did not, the country would fall into tyranny. Likewise, if the Old Testament was a democracy, the people would reserve the right to not express exclusive dedication to Yahweh, because leaders are seen to serve the people, rather than the people having to serve the leaders and have undying dedication and support to them.
The book of Job also contains some rather dangerous ideas regarding submission to God that are incompatible with democracy as we know it in the United States and other first world countries. Here, God brought disasters upon Job in a bet made with Satan, in order to test him (Job 1:6-12). By the end of the book, Job is miserable, and when God finally decides to answer Job’s questions as to why he was afflicted with such disasters, God more or less responds by belittling Job and telling him that is so pathetically small and insignificant that it is foolish to even ask such questions (Job 37-41). Job responds by stating that he misspoke out of ignorance and is clueless to the mysteries of God (Job 42:1-6).
This is dangerous and incompatible with the ideals of free society for several reasons. First of all, our Constitution, through many amendments in the Bill of Rights, have established procedures by which people can have their rights taken away, and be punished. The peoples’ right to privacy in their own homes cannot be infringed via the Fourth Amendment without a warrant. In the Fifth Amendment, the people are given the right to a fair trial, the right to a legal defense, the right to know what crime people are accused of, and the right to not have our rights or freedoms taken away without due process of law. In the Eighth Amendment, there is a prohibition against punishment that is cruel and unusual. While God reserves the right to do whatever he wants to people on a whim, in the United States, leaders are limited in their abilities to infringe on the lives of human beings without due process of law.
The second issue with the story of Job is the idea that human beings are not only not owed an explanation for anything, but that they are too stupid to question God and should instead mindlessly stay loyal to him no matter what. This would be completely unacceptable in the United States, where leaders are under constant scrutiny, and people have the right to question any policy democratically elected leaders come up with. Not only that, but the right to question leaders and policies is given to everyone unconditionally, even to people who realistically have no business commenting on such issues. If the right to express one’s opinion and question things were only reserved to “intelligent” people and “intelligent” criticisms, then freedom would essentially be lost, because “unacceptable” ideas would be suppressed. That being said, the story of Job and its lessons regarding obedience to authority have no place in modern democracy. While it would be preferable that people take the effort to try to become informed about leaders and their policies rather than make uninformed criticisms, people have the right to whatever opinions they want.
Now, I already see protests to this article coming from theists regarding situations in which God actually did allow some level of questioning, so I figure it would be good to address these in advance. First of all, yes, I know that, for example, Abraham questioned God about the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18:16-33. I am also aware of Moses interacting with God and sometimes having dialogues with him, such as when he stopped God from destroying the Israelites in Exodus 32. As I have explained in a previous blog post, the Bible is not necessarily a book in unity with itself, but a collection of works in which there are inevitably contradictions. While in 1 Kings 18, God is put to the test in order to demonstrate that he is real while Baal is false, Deuteronomy 6:16 says God should not be put to the test. While most of the Bible says God should not be questioned, there are, inevitably, exceptions, given the length of the Bible and diversity of messages within. It seems to be that the more dominant theme for the Bible as a whole is the emphasis on faith and not questioning, and it therefore makes sense to criticize it. After all, even in situations where God did allow questioning, such a privilege was only given to a very few specific devoted followers, and the general understanding is likely that God did not owe them explanations either, but granted them in his generosity.
In conclusion, the perspective of God and obedience given in the Bible is fundamentally incompatible with modern democratic ideals and the Constitution of the United States. Whereas in the United States and other free societies around the world, people are free to elect leaders and express their own opinions about them, in the Bible, God is the supreme dictator of the universe who should be mindlessly obeyed. While there are obviously exceptions to this in a book as big as the Bible, they are not enough to break the much more dominant theme as expressed throughout the entirety of scripture. Quite frankly, a Biblical theocracy looks nothing like the United States or any other free society that exists.