The Ballot and the Bible by Kaitlyn Schiess

The Ballot and the Bible cover imageSummary: The bible has been widely misused. It takes intention to use it well, but it is worth the effort.

I do not know when I became aware of Kaitlyn Schiess. I am pretty sure it was during her time at Liberty University. I believe I came into contact with her via social media through Karen Swallow Prior and probably the Christ and Pop Culture Facebook group. I do not want to exaggerate our contact. I seriously doubt she knows who I am. However, I started to pay attention to her writing before her first book. I will embrace the creepy factor and say that I have watched her grow as a thinker and communicator over the past seven or so years with great expectations. She has continued to develop and illustrate wisdom and conscientious scholarship that takes her Christian faith seriously.

So I looked forward to The Ballot and the Bible and held off a little while on reading it because I wanted to get the audiobook that she narrated. But there were some delays, and when it became clear that the audiobook wasn’t coming out soon, I picked up the Kindle and read it quickly. Like my thoughts on her first book, there is more going on than you might assume in a relatively short book. The Ballot and the Bible is about how to read and understand scripture (commonly called hermeneutics), how to listen to history and culture to see if you are imputing cultural values on the biblical message (cultural anthropology), a brief historical overview of ways that the Bible has been misused (through case studies) and a book on the role of discipleship and public life. If you read my reviews regularly, you may be aware that I have recently read several other books on the Bible, Christianity and culture, and politics, and those impact how I read The Ballot and the Bible.

Most directly, The Ballot and the Bible is worth reading paired with Mark Noll’s America’s Book, a history of the public use of the Bible from 1794 to 1911. I think Noll’s book was published too recently to be included in The Ballot and the Bible, although several of Noll’s other books are cited. The two books are very different in scope and purpose. Noll’s book is an over 800-page history, while Schiess’ book is an under 200-page book that is primarily theological. But the combination of them is useful. Noll gives more examples of the use and misuse of the Bible than Schiess could give in a book of her size. But her book also theologically evaluates the history of the use of the Bible in ways that Noll does not do as a historian.

The center point of what Schiess is trying to do is to get the reader to step back and evaluate politics not as a consumer of imagery but as a Christian thinker. The Bible is often used directly or indirectly as a prop to signal that “the Bible is on my side” of a particular issue. Most examples are not as blatant as Trump simply holding up a bible outside of St John’s Episcopal Church without opening it, reading from it, or giving any purpose to its presence except as a prop. Many other examples throughout the book are more likely to be honest but unexplored use of the Bible to support the user’s prior positions.

When Trump was asked if that was his bible that he was holding, he said, “It’s a bible.”

“This book is motivated by the conviction that, for Christians, the answer to the question “Is that your Bible?” is an emphatic yes. The Bible is not a free-floating book of ageless wisdom, an interesting historical document, or a weapon that can be put in the service of any political goal. The Bible is a gift from God to the church, given for a particular purpose: to shape that community into the kind of people who can fulfill their commission to make disciples of all nations and steward God’s good creation, anticipating its final redemption. As such, the Bible should be read as the book of the church, in the church. Our reading of Scripture should be informed both by the global historic church (receiving the theology handed down to us, learning from Christians throughout history and around the world) and by the church in a particular time and place.” (p4)

That quote can seem a bit pietist. But The Ballot and the Bible is not pietist; it calls the reader to sit back and do some work to first self-evaluate and then to use that understanding to look at other’s use of the Bible. Much of American history of the political use of the Bible is “reverse engineering the covenant process, putting humans in God’s role” (p17). When my daughter was barely 3, she wanted to reverse engineer the tooth fairy. She wanted the tooth fairy to pull her teeth so that she could be older. We have an adorable video of her explaining how she put money under her pillow to attract the tooth fairy and get the tooth fairy to pull out her tooth. (She was barely potty trained then, so she stops in the middle and runs to the bathroom.)

My barely 3-year-old daughter was using her intellect to address her problem. And that is alright. But as we age, we are more responsible for using our skills wisely. Schiess walks through tools and examples of how we can, in community and with historical, cultural, and political awareness, think about how to read and correctly use scripture for the current cultural context. As with her first book, the main point isn’t to use the Bible less or do politics less overtly as a Christian. The main point is to be a Christian but to do our Biblical usage better to counter the bad biblical usage.

I like the structure of The Ballot and the Bible. Chapter 1 lays out the introduction of the ideas—Chapter 2 processes various Christian understandings of Romans 13. Chapter 3 explores the Civil War as a case study in the use of the Bible. Chapters 4 and 5 explore the social gospel and the civil rights movement as additional case studies. Chapter 6 looks at the idea of small government as a theological position. Chapter 7 is about eschatology, especially The Late Great Planet Earth and other end-times books. Chapter 8 compares George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s eight speeches at the National Prayer Breakfast to examine how they both publicly used their faith and the Bible. Chapter 9 is about the idea (and misuse) of Give unto Ceasar, which is really about Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr., and her memory of political use of the Bible. Then, chapter 10 concludes with a defense of the proper use of Jeremiah 29 and the concept of exile as part of what it means to be a Christian in a political world.

I was on board with her approach and conclusions in almost every case. I am not a historian, political scientist, or theologian, but a well-read layperson. There were so many areas where I wanted her to expand her thoughts because all of this could be expanded. The Ballot and the Bible is not intended to be academic theology, history, or political science but to disciple lay Christians. I wanted more from her footnotes. I read almost all of them and read quite a bit of the source material she was drawing on. In addition to wishing she had interacted with Noll’s America’s Book, a lot more history and theology could have been drawn on. She could have cited two or three times the number of sources in many places.

Kaitlyn Schiess is still young; she wrote this book during the classwork for her Ph.D. She is not yet 30 and has years of academic work and writing in front of her. This was a beneficial book and one well-worth reading. But it could have been developed a bit more, the range of citations supplemented while keeping its tone and approach. But I am talking about the Ballot and the Bible as a 4.5-star book instead of a 5-star book in my criticism. I pay for the Holy Post for Kaitlyn’s “Getting Schooled” videos. She is the person I am most interested in hearing from on the podcast. And I am very excited to see where she continues to go over the next forty years of academic life (should I still be alive).

The Ballot and the Bible by Kaitlyn Schiess Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook (coming soon)

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