One of the oldest methods of using biblical texts is ‘proof-texting’. This is when a specific text is used to legitimate or ‘prove’ a particular argument or position. The early Church fathers were fond of it and it can be frequently found in the writings of the Bible. It is therefore not surprising that most of the references to biblical texts today take this form. Particularly important texts are even referred to as ‘clobber texts’ (originally associated in relation to the homosexual debate) as they are known to deliver the knockout blow in a debate, thereby rendering the opposing side speechless. Follow any theological argument, whether that be abortion, sexual orientation, or female ministry (and countless others) and you will quickly begin to recognise each side’s favourite ‘clobber texts’.
As someone who makes a living from studying and lecturing on the Bible, I have to admit to finding proof-texting often rather irritating and unsatisfactory – whether that is Matthew’s use of them (although I do recognise they also have other functions), Justin Martyr’s or from a participant in the latest Facebook/Twitter argument. I do, however, accept that this practice has a long heritage and, like it or not, has a place within the community of faith. It is the trend towards clobber-texting that I find very concerning. Whereas proof-texting seeks to advance a scripture that neatly encapsulates a particular viewpoint (albeit in an often simplified shorthand form), clobber texts are often grabbed texts that are used to support an existing ideological view (in other words to argue that that viewpoint is ‘biblical’) and they are employed to shut down the debate. Anyone encountering an argument between two Christian positions will be familiar with this tactic.
‘Clobber-texting’ and Romans 13
The strategy of clobber-texting essentially weaponises the Bible. Viewing the Bible as a weapon of offence as well as defence will already be very familiar to some circles within the Church, as this language is used particularly by those Christian groups who foreground Paul’s metaphor in Ephesians 6:17 where he urges his readers to take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word [ῥῆμα – rēma] of God.” (Quite what Paul means by rēma is unclear, although, obviously, Paul would not have the New Testament in mind as much of it had not yet been written!) However, what is particularly concerning is the way this practice is increasingly being used, outside the faith community, to endorse and legitimate not theological positions but political ideologies and, in the Sessions-Romans 13 case, specific policies.
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority* does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.
Romans 13:1-7 (NRSV)
Jeff Sessions’ reference to Romans 13 (and then Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ attempt to endorse Sessions’ reading) exemplifies the way the State (rather than the Church) is adopting this tactic to attempt to shut down political dissent – at least from those groups to whom the Bible is seen as authoritative. This use of the Bible becomes even more powerful within a climate where religious language is employed by Christian groups who actively support a political party or regime. If it is being claimed by certain sections of the Church that the state has been appointed by God (see for example Paula White’s comments), arguing against Romans 13 becomes even harder, as history has shown us.
The problem is that clobber texts work most effectively against those very groups that claim to place the Bible most centrally within their faith. Attempts to rationalise the argument or appeal to a more considered use of scripture will generally fail to convince, as these tend to be dismissed as liberal compromise and/or secular anti-Christian propaganda.
Bible in mainstream UK politics
The use of the Bible in this way within the political arena by political parties and special interest groups is a worrying trend. The UK has experienced a rise in the use of biblical texts/imagery that once would have been unheard of. Margaret Thatcher’s use of the Good Samaritan (full transcript) to provide a Christian underpinning to her neo-liberal agenda (in promoting individual charity over national welfare), while falling far short of clobber-texting or even proof-texting, initiated a greater openness to the use of the Bible by mainstream politicians.
Thatcher’s example was quickly followed by Blair, then Cameron and now by both May and Corbyn. However the difference between the use of the Bible in US and UK arenas is that in the UK there has (so far) been an avoidance of proof/clobber-texting. This is primarily because within the British electorate there is not, as yet, a large enough sector of politically active/partisan evangelicalism (I appreciate that this is a rather clumsy and blunt shorthand for Christians who take a more literal view of the Bible as God’s word). Proof texts do not, as yet, have the same power in British political discourse as they do in the States – although changing church demographics could change this.
If this was simply an attempt by political parties to reach out to members of their electorate using language with which they are familiar… this development would be interesting, but not necessarily problematic.
There is also another major difference that needs to be recognised between Stateside and UK political discourses. With the exception of Theresa May’s attempt to use the Bible to promote, what James Crossley describes as a ‘soft ethno-nationalism’ in the years following her replacing Cameron and the 2017 election, rather than endorsing particular policies, Christianity and allusions to the Bible have been used by Conservative and Labour leaders (usually as broad themes or paraphrased motifs) to support vague liberal and inclusive ‘British’ values. Neither the issues or relevant biblical texts encourage the use of clobber-texting. Nevertheless, this has resulted in a process of normalising the use of the Bible in modern mainstream politics. Appeals to the electorate through the use of Christian language and biblical imagery to support (or view as, in some way, divinely sanctioned) particular attitudes and agendas is no longer seen as strange.
If this was simply an attempt by political parties to reach out to members of their electorate using language with which they are familiar (and, as far as I am aware, this is the principal reason) this development would be interesting, but not necessarily problematic. The ‘soft ethno-nationalism’ of May’s Easter 2017 message that aligns Christianity (as an amorphous and vague entity) with ‘British’ values and way of life (with its implicit othering) during a time of ethnocultural fracturing and tension creates a climate for extremist nationalistic groups who have already begun to upon the vocabulary of Christianity and the Bible.
Weaponising the Bible in the UK
In the immediate future it is highly unlikely that front bench politicians in the UK will employ proof/clobber texts in the way that Jeff Sessions used Romans 13. However, there are politically and ideologically motivated groups within the UK that are already beginning to effectively utilise this strategy for a very different audience. A similar process is also occurring in the US.
Countering negative charges (politically and socially) of racism, white nationalist groups such as (the now banned) Britain First have focused on the issue of religion and religious identity rather than overtly campaigning on racial grounds. Their highly effective use of social media sought to draw upon a narrative that has been common among some sections of the Church that Christianity was under attack and in doing so embedded notions of British identity with Christianity.
For the target audience who are predominantly disaffected whites who are outside the Church and generally lack knowledge of the Bible, proof-texting can be very effective and was used frequently. A much more martial depiction of Jesus (who epitomises British/English identity and heritage) can be presented.
Their activity on social media was run alongside a high profile campaign (recorded and uploaded to their Youtube channel) of forming ‘Christian patrols’ for ‘mosque invasions‘, where a ‘battalion’ (note the language) of Britain First supporters entered mosques to hand out literature and Bibles. The physicality of the Bible itself becomes a weapon.
Although now blocked from Facebook members of Britain First and allied groups (such as the Knights Templar-UK) are still active on social media. Here we can see a close alignment with Christ/ianity narrative and nationalism.
The language of the ‘spiritual warfare’ movement within some of the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches that saw a surge of interest in the 80s and 90s (together with its own set of proof texts) has been employed in a very different martial narrative. A narrative in which Jesus, ‘the mighty warrior’, fronts an army that the Church, at the moment, has little awareness of. One can see how these images might appeal to disaffected, and politically and economically disenfranchised white youths.
Most of my Christian friends have very little knowledge about that Christianity and the Bible is being used in this way. In fact, I have, in the past received memes from Britain First and British Freedom shared by Christians who are completely unaware of the underlying agenda but who ‘agree with the sentiments’ of the post. Christian students I work with are often horrified by this use of the Bible and the message it promotes and exhibit the same sense of outrage and betrayal as my Muslim students do when confronted with the use of the Qur’an and Hadith by Islamist groups. The uncritical elision of religious language and the Bible with ideological rhetoric provides fertile ground in which extremist readings can take root and grow. Politicians and opinion formers in the media using biblical texts to legitimise ideological or political policy make countering these extremist narratives much more difficult.
Caveat: Please note that the views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Newman University or its faculty