After a couple of hours of watching the recent impeachment debate in Congress, I wondered if I was watching Christian television instead of C-SPAN.
In a day of speeches, House members pontificated on the Bible nearly as much as they addressed the Constitution.
Not surprisingly, congressional Bible-quoting fell along strictly partisan lines. Republicans most often cited Old Testament moral prohibitions—especially the 10 Commandments. Democrats favored the New Testament. They frequently quoted Jesus: "Judge not, lest you be judged" and "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
This biblical partisanship reflects deep divisions in our nation’s theological consciousness. Republicans, whose public theology is largely shaped by conservative Christianity, tend to depict God as a wrathful deity. Democrats, whose civic piety is determined by religious liberalism, preach a God of love.
When looking to scripture to support public religious pronouncements, Republicans turn toward the stern God of the Old Testament. Democrats find the forgiving Jesus of the New Testament more appealing. One side warns of judgment, the other proclaims mercy.
Accordingly, God either wants Bill Clinton condemned or welcomed home like the Prodigal Son. Since the Republicans hold the majority, God-as-Judge won in the House of Representatives.
This is, however, problematic. Public theology is about as textured as a piece of typing paper. Bible-spouting aside, most congressional representatives proved themselves lousy theologians in this argument.
During the debate, Congress fell for the oldest trick in the book: dividing God into neat categories of justice and mercy. In the second century, a church leader named Marcion argued much the same thing—that the New Testament taught a Gospel of Love over and against the Old Testament’s wrathful God.
Other Christians rejected this view, insisting instead on a fundamental unity between the two testaments. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New are, in spite of the theological disagreements between Jews and Christians, the same God.
Although this position became orthodoxy, Christian tradition continued to struggle with the tension between God’s justice and love. For most of its history, the church has tended to emphasize God’s justice over God’s mercy. Very few Christians understand the orthodox position: God is both just and merciful at the same time.
In the 16th Century, the problem of justice and mercy tormented the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Convinced he would be rightly damned for his sins, Luther could not conceive of a loving God. Indeed, Luther said he hated God because of God's unrelenting justice.
After years of prayer and study Luther realized that God is, indeed, just. But God’s justice is not distant and condemning judgementalism that sends sinners to hell. Rather, God justifies humankind through grace. Luther became convinced that God’s justice is God’s grace that justifies—"makes right"—humanity. God does not condemn. God makes us holy—no matter how bad or sinful we have been.
Luther’s theological realization, referred to as the Lutheran paradox, is the heartbeat of biblical faith. The Old Testament God is not a wrathful judge. Rather, throughout scripture God is a wooing lover calling creation into union with the divine presence Justice melts into mercy; and vengeance belongs only to God’s mysterious providence. God’s justice is God’s love; God’s love is God’s justice.
What has all this to do with Bill Clinton and Congress? Plenty. God’s justice is that God loves Bill Clinton, Ken Starr—all those desperate Democrats and those mean Republicans alike. And God’s love is that none of them know—or begin to understand—the counsels of God. Whatever they do is ultimately nothing. It is, as the Old Testament teaches, "The flower that fades, the grass that withers." Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
However relevant this paradox may be, public theology can never embrace it. By its nature, civic piety demands clarity. So Bible-quoting politicians proclaim they know the mind of God. Condemn with glee. Forgive and forget. Paradox cannot exist in this clear-cut, vote-counting world.
Diana Butler Bass is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. Her latest book is "Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in 19th Century America."