A New Book Caricatures the Bible’s Place in Colonial American Politics

April 7 2017

While finding much to learn from in Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783—the first volume of a projected trilogy—Glenn Moots argues that it is clouded by the author’s narrow view of how Scripture ought to be used:

In the Beginning Was the Word is Noll’s own implicit sermon against what he considers misappropriation of Scripture. But his sermon is flawed—most notably by his belief in Puritan exceptionalism, and by his imprecise dichotomy of the “Bible” opposed by “the Enlightenment.” His presumption of a stark change in New England and the middle colonies, wherein leaders “had self-consciously tried to shape politics and social life with explicit biblical precepts” but were later seduced by political opinions “sanctioned by biblical references and allusions,” is questionable. Noll calls this earlier self-conscious shaping “biblicism” or “Bible fixation.” Those touched by this “fixation” attempted to derive their social thinking entirely from the Bible. Noll categorizes the Protestant Reformers, the Puritans, and then the revivalists of the Great Awakening as exemplary biblicists. . . .

Noll’s ideal biblicist not only has to reason from the Bible, he has to do it exclusive of other arguments—especially secular arguments. No amount of citation, interpretation, or exegesis suffices if Noll judges its use insincere. Noll wants his biblicists to read the Bible (1) uncritically as Christian believers and (2) never simply as history, philosophy, or political theory and without proper commitment to its status as salvific revelation. Noll insists that a true biblicist must focus only on “the eternal consequences of sin, the wrath of God at human sinfulness, the power of God in redirecting the human will, the necessity of Christ as mediator.”

By insisting that social appropriation of the Bible must be rooted in some kind of Christian piety or orthodoxy, Noll implicitly rules out other promising avenues for understanding the Bible’s role in political thought (e.g., the political Hebraism advanced by Eric Nelson or Yoram Hazony). In developing such a simplistic caricature of biblical thinking about politics, Noll imagines a mode of biblical interpretation that actual American practice—colonial or otherwise—does not recognize.

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More about: American Religion, Bible, Christianity, Hebrew Bible, Religion & Holidays, Religion and politics

The U.S. Must Maintain the Kurdish Enclave in Eastern Syria

Aug. 16 2018

Presently only two rebel enclaves remain in Syria, and both are dependent on outside powers: one in the northwest, under Turkish control, and an area in the east controlled by the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Only by continuing its support for the latter can America prevent Iranian domination of Syria, writes Jonathan Spyer. Officials in Washington have made various statements suggesting that the White House has no intention of ceding the country to Iran, but haven’t clarified what this means in practice:

Actions . . . are a better guide than sentiments. And it appears that the SDF leaders remain skeptical regarding America’s long-term plans. Last week, the first direct negotiations took place between their representatives and those of the Assad regime, in Damascus.

It is not quite clear where things are heading. But Israel’s interest in this is clear. Maintenance of the east Syrian enclave and the [U.S.] base in Tanf means keeping a substantial physical obstacle to the Iranian hope for a contiguous corridor [connecting it to Lebanon via Syria and Iraq]. It would also prevent an overall Iranian triumph in the war and give the West a place at the table in any substantive political negotiation over Syria’s future. . . .

Specifically, efforts should be made to ensure a formal U.S. declaration of a no-fly zone for regime and regime-allied aircraft east of the Euphrates. This move, reminiscent of the no-fly zone declared over Iraqi Kurdistan after the Gulf War of 1991, would with one stroke ensure the continued viability of the SDF-controlled area. There should also be a formal recognition of the SDF zone, or the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” as it is formally known. This entity is not seeking independence from Damascus, so Western concerns regarding the formal breakup of Syria need not be raised by such a move.

As the strategic contest between Iran and its allies and the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East moves into high gear, it is essential that the West maintain its alliances and investments and behaves, and is seen to behave, as a credible and loyal patron and ally.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Kurds, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy