Online Conversation | Scripture and the Public Square: The Use and Misuse of the Bible in American History with Kaitlyn Schiess

The language of the Bible has often been invoked in American political discourse through the centuries. Scripture has been quoted by suffragists and secessionists, invoked in arguments for (and against) American independence, the Civil War, and each succeeding conflict, and cited by virtually every President across parties. So how should we discern a faithful application of scripture in public life from instrumentalizing the Bible for political purposes? What can we learn from America’s history of using the Bible in politics?

Kaitlyn Schiess, theologian, speaker, and author of the new book, The Ballot and The Bible: How Scripture Has Been Used and Abused In American Politics and Where We Go From Here, joined us on Friday, September 15 to help us examine America’s history of using (and misusing) biblical language in politics, and explore what we can learn from the times Scripture has been wisely applied as well as egregiously misused. With a wide-ranging discussion covering history, hermeneutics, and political theology, she helped us consider the proper use of the Bible in political discourse.

Thank you to our event co-host Brazos Press!  

Online Conversation | Kaitlyn Schiess | September 15, 2023

Cherie Harder: Let me add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Kaitlyn Schiess on “Scripture and the Public Square: The Use and Misuse of the Bible in American History.” I’d like to thank our friends at Brazos Press for their partnership in co-hosting today’s event. We so appreciate your support. And it’s always a real delight to get to collaborate with you.


And I also want to welcome our nearly 1,400 registrants who are joining us today. We so appreciate the honor of your time and attention and send a special welcome to the 150 or so first-time registrants who’ve signed up, as well as the well over 100 international registrants from at least 33 different countries that we know of, ranging from Bosnia and Brazil to Lebanon and Liberia, Fuji and Finland, and many countries in between. So if you haven’t already done so, drop us a note in the chat feature. Let us know where you’re watching from. It’s always quite fun to see people tuning in from all over the globe. 


And if you are one of those first-time attendees or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so in hopes of better connecting all of us to the Author of the answers. And we hope this conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.


The topic we’re tackling today—Scripture and the public square: the use and misuse of the Bible in American history—is obviously fraught with controversy as well as confusion. By any measure, the Bible has played a powerful role in American political discourse from long before the Revolutionary War. Both the causes and arguments in which it has been invoked have been varied and at times at odds with each other. Scripture has been quoted in campaigns for suffrage and secession, slavery and civil rights, invoked in arguments for and against American independence, the Civil War, and each succeeding conflict, and cited by virtually every president and even presidential candidate across parties with opposed platforms. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that our collective interest in what the Bible has to say about our common life is often hard to separate from the interest of those who seek to use the Bible as a prop or moral ammunition to advance their campaign or cause. And even more confoundingly, it can at times be even harder to discern how our own biblical interpretations might be informed by our politics rather than vice versa. So how should we discern a faithful application of Scripture in public life aside from instrumentalizing the Bible for political purposes? What can we learn from America’s history of using the Bible in politics?


Our guest today encourages a reexamination of both history and hermeneutics as a starting point. And in her excellent new book, The Ballot and the Bible, she tackles these big questions around how Scripture should inform political beliefs and shape a faithful vision for the Great Commission and the common good. Kaitlyn Schiess is a scholar and a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, Sojourner, Relevant, and many other publications, even as she pursues her PhD in political theology at Duke Divinity School. She’s also the author of The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor and The Ballot and the Bible, which we’ve invited her here today to discuss.


Kaitlyn, welcome.


Kaitlyn Schiess: Thank you so much for having me.


Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So as we start out, I’d love to hear from you about some of the thinking that went into this work. The topic that you grapple with is obviously a very hot-button topic, and generally when it is raised, it is done so in the context where everyone wants to kind of jump on the latest political controversy. But you have sort of quite deliberately focused not on current controversies, but you’ve offered kind of a survey of the way the Bible has been used in American history. So why did you write this book? Why did you take this particular approach? And what is it that we can learn about our current moment by focusing on the past?


Kaitlyn Schiess: Thank you so much for asking that. It was a very deliberate choice and part of it was born out of the fact that, as you said, I wrote this book in 2020 about our political lives and spiritual formation. And so I’ve spent the last three years spending a lot of time with churches or campus ministries talking to believers about our political lives and what it looks like to live faithful lives in public. And if there were two, kind of top two, things that people asked me after those events or in conversations in churches, it would be, one, some Bible verse. They would come up afterwards and say, “Okay, what about Romans 13? What about ‘give unto Caesar?’ What is Caesar’s? What about Revelation?” And then number two, it would be people who were really distraught about their relationships in the church or in their family, and they would say, “How can I talk to my aunt at the Thanksgiving table? How can I talk to this person in my Bible study that we disagree so strongly and we keep getting in these arguments on Facebook and that feels so disconnected from our life together in church?”


And I really wanted to write something that could address both of those, because I have found in my own experience in ministry that the conversations we have in a Bible study context where we are saying, This is something that we all care about. We want to submit our lives to God’s authority. Let’s discern together what God is saying we should do here and now. We still have deep disagreements, but that’s been a unique space, I think, for us to have these conversations. And yet our interpretations are often quite divergent, and they become just kind of points for us to post on Facebook, back and forth, cherry-pick Bible verses, and it loses that ability to both give us a common ground, to have discussion, and I think the real power of Scripture to shape our lives and motivate faithful work in the world. And so I wanted to have a book that helped us talk well about the Bible and politics together.


And then, as you said, I thought, well, if I start out with “what is the hot-button political issue and let’s look at all the verses,” I really think people just come to those conversations with their walls up. They’re ready to fight. They already know what their opponent thinks and assume all of their positions. And I’ve seen that in churches. Even when we try and have a faithful conversation about politics, if it’s branded as “let’s all come and talk about politics,” it can get really messy really fast.


And so I thought, let’s go to history—both because I think we inherit certain habits of reading the Bible distinctly as Americans—within our various theological traditions, there are some things we actually share as Americans when it comes to reading the Bible. And then I thought maybe these historical examples could give us tangible things to think through. These are not abstract theological ideas. These are issues that we work out in the kind of gritty world as political problems present themselves. But hopefully examples distanced enough from us that maybe we could take a breath and maybe we could see them with a little bit more calm sensitivity. And so the first example that kind of sparked the idea of the book was looking at Romans 13 and the Revolutionary War, because I thought, No one’s fighting about the loyalists and the Patriots around their Thanksgiving table, but they are fighting about Romans 13 potentially. So how could we look at this historical example, hopefully for the purpose of helping us think theologically and biblically about this passage, but with this tangible example that isn’t the one that feels so hot right now that we can’t really see or think clearly.


Cherie Harder: I definitely want to hear from you on Romans 13, Revolutionary War. But before that, I’d like to go back even further. You start your book with the example of a speech from John Winthrop in 1630 about the “city on a hill.” And you mentioned that when he wrote the speech—it’s unclear, I suppose, whether he even gave it—he was talking largely about a call to repentance and the importance of character. And we now often think about “city on a hill” as being sort of the symbol of American exceptionalism. And I would love to hear from you kind of what happened there. How did our history shape, in a sense, our associations even with this Bible verse, and are there some applications for today?


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yeah, I was really surprised early in my research reading this John Winthrop speech/sermon—uncertain. You know, the kind of mythology of it is that it was a sermon he gave aboard the Arbella with his fellow colonists coming to America. We’re not sure if that really happened. But I read it and my association of this was both that the city on a hill was this image that he used to kind of puff up his fellow colonists: “We are God’s chosen people, we will be this righteous moral light to the nations.” And there is some of that. But the speech or sermon is called “A Model of Christian Charity”—charity in the proper Christian sense of love. And so he’s really trying to say—in kind of ways that might surprise people who use the phrase today—he’s exhorting his fellow colonists to say, actually, God will judge us if we don’t treat the poor at our door. Well, we actually have an obligation to do that.


And so it’s a mixed bag, this early speech. There’s moments like that that seem really positive. And even once he becomes the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, there are examples that seem really Christian and positive ways of— a merchant who is prosecuted for price-gouging because that’s not a Christian response to people in need. So we might look at that and go, okay, wow, you were really serious about applying biblical guidance about what a community should look like to your new community. And yet at the end of the speech, he goes to Deuteronomy 30 and kind of appropriates this command of possessing the land given to Israel and appropriates it to a land that God did not expressly give to him and his fellow colonists. So a mixed bag there.


But I also had this assumption that, okay, “city on a hill,” that’s always been an American image. It’s always been a biblical reference we’ve gone to. It was largely forgotten for most of American history, in part because biblical language was so prevalent in political work at that time that it wasn’t that exciting or interesting that he used it. It actually gets picked up much later. JFK is the first American president to go back and use this language of city on a hill, partially because he wants to draw this connection to Massachusetts, to the Puritans, to tell a particular story about the American founding, and finds this language really powerful—which biblical language usually is in public life. And then it’s Ronald Reagan that really takes it and runs with it, uses it a lot in his presidency and ends his presidency in his farewell address saying, you know, here’s my image of a shining city on a hill. It’s a prosperous, open country. And he relies on a lot of descriptions of America that were familiar to people then and now and yet are pretty distanced from the shining city on a hill that’s not actually shining in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, a Sermon on the Mount that just a few verses before this city on a hill talks about how the persecuted and the meek are blessed and so doesn’t really completely fit with some of our American associations of what shining moral righteousness or financial or military prosperity looks like.


But it’s such a good example, I think, not only of misinterpretation—you know, we can look back and kind of easily say, “Well, Jesus wasn’t talking about America.” That’s not a hard interpretive move to make. However, it is a good reminder to us of how powerful that language is, how easy it is to grab phrases and then have them really take on a completely new context. In 2016, Hillary Clinton referenced the shining city on a hill as Reagan’s. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. So this phrase that really comes from the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus said, has been so abstracted from that context and so replanted with our own associations of goodness and prosperity that now it’s Reagan’s phrase, it’s not Jesus’s. And that’s not the only instance in which that’s happened. It should be a real warning to us that we are also, just as these other politicians and preachers have been prone to taking these very powerful phrases and kind of planting them in a new context, appropriating them for our own political goals.


Cherie Harder: You know, you mentioned Romans 13 a little bit earlier, and this is perhaps one of the verses that’s most quoted, but also least abstract. It is very concrete and very relevant—you know, the verse about “let everyone be subject to governing authorities.” And you pointed out that it’s invoked a lot now; it was also invoked by loyalists in pre-Revolutionary America. And so I would love to hear from you a little bit about how would we think about such a verse properly? What’s the proper hermeneutic to use? In that, this is still relevant today. Americans have interpreted [it] in a variety of different ways. How should we think about it?


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yeah. I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to go to this period was because we do often use it kind of just dependent on the usefulness in our political circumstances. If I like what the government’s doing, Romans 13 is a great verse to throw out there. If I don’t, I might go to something like Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than human beings.” We’re kind of selective in our use of it. And so in the revolutionary era, it’s helpful to see both how easily divided these interpretations were. There was a lot of energy in the Patriot camp to say, “Let’s reinterpret this. Let’s look at some of the historical context. Let’s show how this doesn’t necessarily cohere, this interpretation doesn’t necessarily cohere with other passages. Let’s put it in its theological context.” And yet it was this really powerful, clear command. Or the command in 1 Peter, that in the King James version says, “Fear God; honor the king.” So there you go. That’s the answer. You know, obey what the king says.


I think a better approach to this is not just to do what people have done in the past, which is say, “Well, let’s look at the historical context. What was Paul really saying? What were Christians really experiencing?” Those can be really helpful tools. But to also say theologically what’s happening in Romans. Romans 13, as one of my seminary professors loved to say, Romans 13 comes after Romans 12. So you should look at Romans 12 and see the context. And Romans 12 is giving instructions to believers about how to interact with the wider world, a new kind of question for them as they’re not under a single nation or people anymore, but have to respond to the authority, the diverse authorities, that they’re under and have questions about how that relates to their ultimate allegiance and obligation to God. And the instructions there are not only to live peaceful lives, to seek good for their communities, but to not seek revenge, to leave revenge up to God. And so a diverse set of instructions.


I think we also forget that we say Romans 13 as kind of shorthand. We mean Romans 13:1-7. And the very end of that section is actually a much more concrete command than, you know, “obey the governing authorities.” It’s “pay your taxes,” which strangely, in America, that has not been the kind of focus of our interpretation of Romans 13. I think understood theologically, literarily, in its larger context, and understanding the unique demands of the early church that would have received this, it’s better to see that not only is this giving us a sense of a biblical theology of governing authorities that they do receive their authority from God, which in some sense elevates them, in another sense seriously demotes them. To tell the Roman Empire, “Actually, you don’t receive your authority from the Roman gods you worship, you receive it from Christ who you crucified.” But also then to say to the early church, “You do not just have an obligation to your internal community. It makes perfect sense that you would be tempted in this moment to either abstain from the sinful temptations of the world or, out of fear of persecution, to just remain internal, to focus on your own financial resources and well-being, taking care of your own.” And I think the instructions here are, “Actually, you still have obligations to your larger community. You contribute.”


Some biblical scholars even think the very strange language in this passage that’s hard to interpret, when Paul says, you know, “Do good and you will be rewarded”—which, he was doing lots of good, and he was not rewarded by the governing authorities—some scholars think that there’s technical language here that’s actually referring to kind of the larger system of benefaction, that wealthy people would kind of give public works with the wealth that they had. And so in general, thinking about it both historically, theologically, literarily, I think really the thrust that we should take from it is we are not just supposed to seek the good of our internal communities, of Christian communities. We’re supposed to seek the good of the larger community. What that looks like, we’ll have to discern in the times and places that we’re in, taking into account a wide range of biblical instructions and guidance. But a better response is not to kind of throw it as a cherry-picked verse for the policies we support, but to ask the more challenging question: if Paul is saying to this early community, “you seek the good of your larger community,” what does that demand of me in the community that I’m in with the resources I have available?


Cherie Harder: You know, of course, the example that’s probably the most stark, at least in American history, of a big political issue where Scripture was used on both sides was the Civil War. And Lincoln, of course, referenced in the Second Inaugural, you know, how is it that both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invoke his name against the other? And I thought your chapter on the Civil War was fascinating to look at the different Bible verses that each side invoked. And we can now, with the benefit of history, feel like we can see very clearly. But I was also fascinated by the fact that there was a dynamic of such that, in the South, not only was slavery seen as scripturally allowable, but that it actually became almost a litmus test of orthodoxy—you know, what Mark Noll talked about with the theological crisis that the Civil War presented. Talk to us a little bit about that tendency to kind of elevate our particular interpretation to the level of orthodoxy, or the litmus test of orthodoxy, and how that’s played out in our history.


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yes. It was so interesting doing this research, reading these sermons and writings from this period and feeling like, oh, the dynamics are exactly the same today. I mean, so many of the things that I read could have been posted on social media in the last year. Things like, “Well, our churches in the South are growing because we stick to biblical truth. And it’s the churches in the north that are declining because they’re swayed by politics and not the Bible.” You know, we say a lot of those things all the time. We talk about who’s taking the Bible literally or seriously. We use, as you said, particular especially social and political issues as a litmus test for how truly you believe Scripture.


One of the things I found most interesting in this period is a lot of biblical scholars who are writing today and looking back at it will say, oh, well, there was the literalists, the Southern literalists, who said, “Okay, you know, Paul says, ‘Slaves obey your masters.’ Abraham owned slaves. God said it, I believe it. That settles it.” And then there were the abolitionists who had to kind of learn from new European modes of biblical interpretation, new theology coming in. And they were more interested in kind of getting rid of the particularities of Scripture, all those historical particularities, and getting to the kernel of truth underneath. And the kernel of truth underneath was love, and so love demands that we end slavery.


And it was so interesting to me that so many of the biblical scholars and historians looking at this period acted like those were the only two relevant sides, the white slaveholding or pro-slavery folks and the white abolitionists, and didn’t really pay a lot of attention to enslaved and free Black interpreters that don’t really fit in either of those camps. You could truly say that they were literalists in a certain sense because they looked at many stories in Scripture, especially the Exodus, and said, “No, God literally liberates people and God will literally liberate us and we can both find comfort in that, and then that can motivate our work in the world.” They weren’t interested in getting rid of the historical particularities of the text. They were interested in seeing themselves in those particularities. And what’s so interesting to me about that is that it really describes, I think, one of the most challenging aspects of faithful interpretation for us today, because as you said, we can look back and go, “Well, we know who was right. We know who correctly understood the demand of Scripture in that time and place, who saw the word of the Lord clearly.”


For us, I think, the challenge is do we correctly see ourselves in the story? Are we turning to the right moments in Scripture that accurately describe what we’re experiencing and give us instruction and motivation for the work that we’re doing? I think enslaved and free Black interpreters in that period saw quite clearly, “We are in the position of enslaved Israel. We need to respond in these kinds of ways.” A lot of the failures on either side of the debate amongst white interpreters was a failure to correctly see the demand of the moment and what role we played in it. And that’s a much harder question to answer than just, “Okay, I have ten rules of biblical interpretation and then out pops the right answer.” Most of the interpreters in that period understood what the Exodus meant to some degree; what they missed was what that meant for them in that moment.


And I think that’s the challenge for us now, is to not look back and say, “Oh, how could you have missed it? It was so obvious.” But to say, “If they were shaped by their context, if they were motivated by financial interests, if there were all these other things pulling on their hearts and bringing them to these kinds of interpretations, must that not also be true of us?” And we’ll have to do pretty hard spiritual formation work, actually, to understand those motivations and biases in our self.


Cherie Harder: As you sifted through which hermeneutical tools to apply and the posture of our reading of Scripture—as you just sort of alluded to—a lot of the things that you suggest are fairly straightforward: the dangers of proof-texting and the like. But one of your suggestions I thought was of particular interest. And, you know, we at the Trinity Forum have some interest in this as well, in that we attend a lot to reading and the importance of reading. And you’ve talked about the importance of reading Scripture in community. And, you know, part of our American ethos is rugged individualism. You know, there’s a certain populism. The idea that we can and should read Scripture by ourselves—and certainly we should. But I’d be interested in hearing more from you on what’s the value, not just relationally, but even hermeneutically, of reading Scripture in community?


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yeah. You know, one of the things that I—I’m glad you asked this—because one of the things that got cut from the book that I’m sad about is I did a lot of research into early American Bible publishing and the kinds of Bibles that people had access to. And it’s interesting that there was so much emphasis in the early 18th century in Bibles that were self-interpreting. That you don’t need an authority to tell you what the Bible means. You don’t need a commentary written by a scholar. You definitely don’t need a church authority who can tell you the right interpretation. This Bible will interpret itself for you. And it was usually through sometimes elaborate systems of cross-references, concordances, like maps and charts. And that feels very American now, too, that like— we like data. We like the idea that, you know, I can stand over this thing and kind of manipulate it and see where all the pieces fit together.


And I think that kind of impulse does describe a lot of our interpretation throughout history. We want the Bible to be self-interpreting, mostly because we would like to do it by ourselves. We don’t want an authority intervening. We don’t even really want a community intervening. Like, “I myself can do this. I’m a unique, brilliant individual who can read well by myself.” And I think the history teaches us that not only is that just never actually true, the community that you are in does shape your interpretation. The communities in the Civil War that thought not only was it natural—the kind of plantation ethic that they saw in Scripture—but it was demanded by God, they got that from the particular culture in which they were born and they learned to understand the world in. And so it’s impossible, really, for our communities not to shape our interpretation.


But it also— we have theological reasons for really caring about community shaping our interpretation. God made us both relational creatures and finite. I don’t have the perspectives that I need necessarily to understand everything in Scripture. I haven’t done the research, I haven’t done the work, but also I don’t have the lived experience. So, for example, I’ve been in Bible study groups before where we’re having a conversation that could be an abstract theological conversation about widows and orphans in Scripture or about immigration or about wealth and poverty, and someone in that group says, “Well, actually this demand in Scripture that we’re talking about as if it was for a different people at a different time—” Or if it’s just sort of an abstract theological idea: “I actually face this need, I face this challenge.” Or even more kind of beautifully in some ways, someone saying, “I actually feel like this is telling me right now that I have a particular need in my community I need to meet.” 


And being in a community that can help you see things that you wouldn’t see through their experience, through their study, is not only really important for us to understand Scripture well, but for us to respond to Scripture well. If we want to do more than just have a lot of information about what the Bible says, but we want it to shape our lives, we won’t be able to do that well on our own. We won’t be able to see our biases and our prejudices without people who think differently than us. And in some ways, I think that sounds like kind of an easy answer to people, like, “Oh, just get in a community and read well” or, you know, “listen to diverse scholars and different voices on the Bible.” But it actually does require a lot of work and it requires a lot of self-examination to say you can read diverse perspectives and still be pretty hard-hearted to what they could teach us. Instead, we have to really rely not only on that community, but part of the reason that community is so important is the Holy Spirit works in that community, and making ourselves open to the work of the Holy Spirit is another kind of deeper spiritual issue that a list of hermeneutical principles won’t fix for us.


Cherie Harder: All of that is part of what you have described as a certain epistemological humility that is not— you know, the idea that obviously God’s truth is out there, but we as finite creatures who are also fallen, and our fallen nature extends at times to our interpretation as well as our will, that we don’t always see clearly. One challenge to that, I think, at times—and especially having worked in politics and policy before—is that when one is engaged in public argumentation and public rhetoric, by far the most effective or persuasive kind of communication is very self-assured, very confident. It’s marked more by probably confidence and clarity than obvious epistemological humility. And Martin Luther King Jr was, you know— probably people saw him as more sure and confident, even certain, rather than, “Oh, now there is an intellectually humble man,” per se. So I’d be curious how you wrestle with that tension, particularly for those who live lives or whose vocations involve a fairly public articulation of a political theology. How do you kind of navigate the need to be clear communicators and perhaps persuasive communicators with the idea of an epistemological humility grounded in or checked by reading and community, the knowledge that we often see things with less clarity than we’d like, and so on?


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yeah. Oh, I love that question because it is a challenge, and I love that you referenced MLK in that because that’s actually a really good example, too, of both kind of giving a public presence of conviction, of “no, this is what is needed in this time and place,” and I don’t want anyone to hear that that’s never an appropriate posture. There have been times when for particular people it is clear this is the demand of God for us in this moment. But one of the things I love and try to kind of communicate in the book is that prior to the civil rights movement, prior to King’s work, there was another Christian movement very interested in social reform, the social gospel—late 19th, early 20th century—and King actually had some criticisms of that movement. And one of those being that they didn’t adequately account for sin in themselves, that they may have seen sin structurally—they may have seen sin in, you know, the leaders of companies that were mistreating their workers, in the men that were mistreating their wives or not caring for their children. They saw sin structurally and in individuals, but they didn’t see it in themselves. And it actually caused them to be actually worse at what they were doing. They weren’t able to do as much good because they were overly optimistic about the human spirit, but also because they just assumed that their own good motivations would mean good results. And that wasn’t always true.


And so I love that example of King, who both had this clear sense of, “Well, we need to have some humility. We need to not only recognize that our perspective is limited,” but also, I think really importantly, having this kind of eschatological sense that sometimes the social gospel didn’t have. [According to the social gospel] we have to fix things all ourselves on this earth. One of the social gospelers that I talk about in the book, Washington Gladden, gave a speech where he said, “If only Jesus had had us back then, he could have accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish.” You know, just the hubris there that, like, Jesus couldn’t get it done. But us, prior to the civil rights movement and, you know, many other social reform efforts in that period, we have done it. We’ve created the kingdom of God on earth. So I think it’s important to say that you can have both deep humility and an eschatological sense that, for all of your good work towards justice, you will not ultimately create the kingdom of God on earth. You are awaiting the resurrection of the body and the redemption of all things with conviction that you have seen clearly through community.


I mean, King comes out of a church community that helped him understand how to interpret Scripture, how to work for social change—and was not himself in every instance accountable to that community. I mean, he was not a perfect person. But that’s a good image to us, I think, of being able to give convicted statements in public about “this is what’s needed, here and now.” But being surrounded by a community that you actually are accountable to, not only because you have a sense that you will have sin in yourself, brokenness that affects the work you’re trying to do, but also that you kind of lower your sense of how important you are to fix things in the world. 


This is where the church is so important, not only just a community of interpreters, but a gathered community of worship that meets together weekly to say, who are we worshiping? What do we believe is true about the world and what are we awaiting? Even just coming together to confess our sins and confess our waiting for Christ to return isn’t going to fix every problem, but I think does allow us to have both that conviction in public with that both inner relational community of accountability and a sense of “I’m doing my best to discern that this is what God has said here and now, but I’m under no illusions that I will be the one to make all things right.”


Cherie Harder: In just a second we’re going to go to questions from our viewers. But before we do, obviously, books change us. Books we read change us, and I assume that books one writes might change you even more. And so I’d be curious how writing this book changed your own perspective on using Scripture in terms of public rhetoric, and what guidance you would give to others who would ask you about that?


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yeah. Oh, I love that question too. You know, I think if I’m honest, I really came into the book project pretty pessimistic about possibilities of instances in history where Scripture was used well. And I learned that other people had that assumption, too. When I told people I was writing a book about Scripture in American history, people would say, “Oh, I can’t wait to read all the horrible things that you find,” you know, because the assumption is it’s just going to be bad. There are bad things. We’ve done bad things. I do think it really— it made me more hopeful than I anticipated because, yes, all of the kind of obvious examples are there. We have done horrible things with the Bible. We’ve used it like a weapon. We’ve used it to further our own political interest, to prop ourselves up, to justify our own injustice and abuse. We have. 


But when I look wider, when I look throughout history and when I look at other communities of Christians throughout even our own history and our own country, I see instances, especially, of people that are not the main focus of most of the Church history textbooks that I read in seminary who were faithful, who interpreted Scripture well, who acted well in history. And that’s been really surprisingly hopeful to me, even in just my life in the world now, where I go, okay, I want to expect that God is working in places that I wouldn’t expect. I want to know that even when I see failures in my own community, there’s great faithfulness in other places. I want to know that instead of keeping my focus so much on just my own tradition and my own church, when I need hope, I know now to go to other Christians in other times and places around the world too, and see instances of faithfulness.


And that’s really the encouragement I’ve tried to give, especially to, I think, younger Christians who are really disillusioned with the idea of Christianity in public life. They mostly have seen models that they felt like— you know, power-corrupted people. People [who] betrayed their greatest convictions for the sake of power or for getting some goal finished that actually just warped their soul. And my encouragement to them has always been there are great instances in our history that I don’t want us to throw out, and I want us to sit at the feet of those people, people who might not be alive any longer, but whose writings continue to inspire us. If there’s truly anything from the book I feel like I talk about the most, it’s encouraging people to go read Mariah Stewart, one of the abolitionists that I talk about in the Civil War chapter, someone who was faithful, who connected her spirituality and piety with public life and with seeking justice. These are the people that I want to sit at the feet of and learn from. And it’s been encouraging to me. I think it’s made me someone who expects to find those instances of faithfulness more often than I would have before I did the research.


Cherie Harder: Well, that’s actually a great segue-way to our first question, which comes from viewer Boaz Whitbeck. And Boaz asks, “Are there any positive examples of politicians using Scripture in the right context to speak to the truths of the Bible? And if so, can you share one or two?”


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, not a politician, but as I was just saying, some examples in the Civil War era that I think are really powerful. And I do think most of the examples that we go to when it comes to politicians are ones that are overly specific. I think that’s where a lot of the failures come in, when it’s “I have this verse and I’m really applying it to this specific instance.” The examples that I give at the end of the book that are more relevant, more recent to people: Joe Biden referencing Isaiah saying, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” in relationship to the U.S military or Pence referencing Hebrews: “We fix our eyes on Old Glory”—not Jesus. Those are instances where we’re really kind of appropriating those verses and kind of overly fitting them to our context.


But I think in other instances, there have been politicians throughout our history that have more tried to focus on both the sovereignty of God, the ultimate story of redemption, and said, “That shapes the kind of work that I do now.” One of the examples that I give in the book is comparing the prayer breakfast speeches of George W. Bush and Obama—not to say that either of them were the perfect model or that they were either of them failures, but to say that both of them had different kind of tendencies of using Scripture. And in that chapter I give examples for both of them that I think were good and that were bad that I hope then inspires us to both think more critically about how Scripture is used too—not just assume if a politician is using it, that’s a point for my team. Or to not assume if a politician is using it, that must be just like a craven desire for power, and they’re appropriating Scripture for their own uses. But to instead be thoughtful. 


One of the things that I have often said when people are like, “How do I know how to interpret these things when I hear them in public life?” is honestly just the act of hearing Scripture used in public life and then pulling out a Bible and looking it up, even if you think you know the reference and you know the context, reminds you of the fact that it does come in a very rich context and then allows you to kind of take a breath and a moment to go back to it—it takes a few minutes to flip through the pages—and think about it with clearer eyes and see if it could actually be a more faithful use than you think.


Cherie Harder: So a question from Richard Miles who asks, “What role do pastors have in educating their congregations how to think about the use of Scripture in civics and politics?”


Kaitlyn Schiess: That’s a great question. I first got interested in these things because [when] I was in my first semester of seminary, the 2016 election was happening, and I had a bunch of fellow students around me going, “What are we supposed to do when we get into churches? What is our role? It feels like there are some things that aren’t our role. I don’t want to be the pastor that gets up in a pulpit and says, ‘Here’s who you should vote for.’ But also, if I completely avoid these topics, it really feels like I’m ceding ground to people who want to form my people in very particular ways.”


But I do think, for pastors, one of the kind of practices to be in is to say, “I want to practice in front of my congregation that there will be instances in which Scripture consistently speaks to our public, our social, our political life. I won’t make an effort to always bring that resonance out, but I want us as a community to be formed in such a way that we expect that the Word of God will relate in some way to our social and political life together.” There’s wisdom that needs to be applied to how specific you get or in what instances you choose to speak that way. But I think what makes it so challenging quite often is that we either relegate the political conversation to once a year or once every four years, and we just have one night where we kind of hash it all out. Or the one time that a pastor feels like, “No, this is the moment to say something about our political or social life,” it’s the only time. And so people are surprised. They react really strongly to it, positively or negatively. But if we were in a more regular habit of saying we’re not afraid of any topic, and we expect that the Word of God will say something to all parts of our life, including our social and political life, we can kind of build up the muscle to know how to do it well, not only to disagree well with each other, but to just look for that in Scripture. A lot of what I’m concerned about is that we come to it expecting it to say those kinds of things to our life. And that’s the kind of thing I think a pastor can have a real role in, is to help people come with that kind of posture to the text.


Cherie Harder: That’s great. So Ryan Land asked, “What is the Christian responsibility to the ‘good’ of the larger community when the community does not agree on or even have a standard for what is good?”


Kaitlyn Schiess: That is an excellent question. You know, I think one of the—and we were talking about this earlier—but I think one of the challenges for us is to both find a way to offer the Christian resources, which include very preeminently the words of Scripture, in our public life, and yet not do it in a way that is coercive or treats that good Word, that revelation from God, as something that isn’t actually good. Either we treat it like it’s not good because we say, “Oh, we shouldn’t bring that in public life,” which I think betrays that we don’t actually think it’s very good news if we don’t want it to be involved in public conversations. Or when we treat it like a weapon or we want to coerce people into believing it. That also is often not treating it like it’s good news. We don’t think there’s actually anything very, you know, captivating about it. We don’t think it sounds like good news to people. So they have to be kind of coerced into believing it. I think offering the resources of the Christian tradition, especially the resources of Scripture, with the posture of a gift does not mean you will be received well all of the time. Those competing visions of what is good will make it really difficult sometimes for you to even articulate well what your perspective is in terms of what Scripture describes as a good life. But I think, first, checking ourselves in terms of our posture, do we believe this is truly good news? Do we want to offer it as a gift? And do we want to be hospitable to people who have that other vision of the good?


I’m in conversations a lot with people who think, “Let’s just not even bring any Christian convictions into public life.” And what I tend to think about is my actual next-door neighbors living next to me, a Muslim family, who everywhere they go, it’s very clearly true, physically, that they have religious convictions in public life. I want to know how to be hospitable to those diverse convictions, those different ideas about what a good life is, in a way that allows us to have good conversations across those differences. And I think part of that’s a posture issue. Part of that is not being afraid to bring them, even though we’ve seen bad examples of having Christian convictions bear on public life, and then figuring out how to actually understand common grace in such a way that we can see resonances of a Christian understanding of a good life in our neighbors who are not Christians. And having that kind of theology of it and then that kind of posture of it, I think helps us navigate the fact that we believe what we have is a good gift. But we also know that other people will have very different ideas about what a good life is.


Cherie Harder: That’s great. So our next question comes from Oswathanali Leposdi. And, Oswathanali, my apologies if I have mangled your name here. But she asks, “Are people misapplying Scripture intentionally or is it due to social contextual pressures that people are facing in their life? I’m thinking of apartheid here in South Africa. Fear and hopelessness can play such a role in our interpretation of Scripture.”


Kaitlyn Schiess: That is a great question. And I do think it is sometimes intentional. People can— I mean, there’s an example that I always laugh at. One of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters once left a note to his campaign staff that said, “He won’t understand all the Christian language in here. But he doesn’t have to. His audience will.” So sometimes we are just using it as a tool, especially when we’re thinking about different demographics, how to appeal to different groups of people.


But I do think very often there are other reasons why we are shaped and formed in such a way to interpret as we do. And I love that you pointed to the fear aspect. When I was doing the research for the book, I spent a whole chapter on interpretations of the end times during the Cold War period in America. And as someone who was not alive in that period and doesn’t feel viscerally the experience of living in that period, it was really helpful for me to have a little more sympathy for interpretations of Scripture I disagree with from that period when I put myself in the shoes of someone who— you know, I’m thinking about my parents who talk about doing nuclear bomb drills in their schools and getting under desks—like that was going to help them, you know. But the real fear involved in that. And I think that’s true of us today. The many misinterpretations of Scripture that happened in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I want us to understand how often that was motivated not only by fear of what was happening, but then the deep desire that we have for a certain sense of certainty and stability, and if we can use Scripture to create that for us in a way that feels more immediately satisfying, we’ll do that.


The good news is Scripture does actually have an answer to our fear and our anxiety about the world, but we’re prone to seek a version of it that gives us security here and now instead of continuing to wait for that eventual security. And so that’s something to watch for, for ourselves to both examine the emotions that we’re bringing to the text. That’s been huge in my own study, to ask really honest questions of myself. What am I looking for when I come to the Bible? Am I afraid and I’m looking for comfort? Am I angry at some people and I’m looking for the Bible to back me up in my anger of them? Am I sad and looking for comfort? Some of those are really good things. I should go to the Bible for comfort and security. But spending time examining those emotions and why we’re going when we’re going, especially when it comes to politics, is really important because I think that this questioner is right, that so much of it is shaped not only by the cultural and political context we’re in, but by the emotions that we’re feeling and the desires that we have to see those emotions met by some truth in Scripture.


Cherie Harder: Yes. So our next question comes from Forrest Feece. And Forrest asks, “Through your research, have you found that there was a certain political or societal movement in American history that impacted the way we interpret Scriptures today, or, like politics, has our interpretation always flip-flopped and varied from moment to moment?”


Kaitlyn Schiess: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I think if there is one really consistent thing, it’s what I said earlier about our kind of desire for a self-interpreting Bible. We really don’t want authority to come into it. And I think it’s an important lesson for us to learn to really think about [how], actually, Christians have always thought that we have a particular tradition we’re reading in. We have theological constraints we should bring to the text. But it’s been a pretty American posture to say, “No, no, no. No one tells me what to think. I will read the Bible on my own and understand it.”


But in another way, there has been a lot of diversity. We have flip-flopped what passages we think are most relevant. I mean, Romans 13 being a good example, of the Patriots being like, “Nope, that’s not applicable to our situation.” But then a generation or two after that, using it very often to justify the enslavement of other humans, to say, “Nope, obey the government. And this is what the government says.” So we’re selective and we often switch back and forth between what things we think are relevant based on the political needs of the moment.


And I think if anything, if you look at the history as a whole, probably the biggest change that has happened is not so much how much we use Scripture, but how obscure the references that we go to are. There are much more obscure references earlier in our history when there was much more kind of familiarity with biblical language. But it’s interesting that a lot of the habits, even though the references, the particular references, have changed, the habits have been mostly the same. We’ve done a lot of the same things when it comes to Scripture. We’ve assumed a lot of the same things of Scripture, which is why I think learning this history is really useful. You might uncomfortably see yourself in some people from 100 or 200 years ago, and it can help us. If it feels like the fruits of that posture or of that interpretation are clearly not good in history, it could help us ask some hard questions about ourselves.


Cherie Harder: So a question from an anonymous viewer who asked, “Do you know if America is unique in its dynamics around biblical interpretation or if other nations have used the Bible or other religious texts in a similar way?”


Kaitlyn Schiess: That is another really good question. It’s a little bit of both, I think. The period in which America was founded was a period in which there was great interest, especially in the Old Testament, shaping political life. And so we were far from alone in using many of the references we used, including the city on a hill. Winthrop was not alone in thinking that his group of people would be the city on a hill. Many other people in other nations used that kind of language. I think what’s different for America is not only that our founding happened in that period, so we attach special significance to that period, but also we are a strange nation that is both deeply religious and has not had a state church. And so what has mattered so much to us is biblical interpretation. If we’re not interested in religious authorities, we’re not interested in a church telling us what to do, but we are still very deeply religious, we’re going to attach a lot of significance to interpreting the Bible. And the early Bibles that were printed in America attest to this. There was a lot of them printed because everyone wanted to have one and be able to kind of check their pastor from the pew if this was a correct interpretation. And that’s, I think, a really important, as I said before, impulse for us to examine and to see it as a unique one. This isn’t just a fruit of the Reformation, though it’s related to that. It is a kind of American thing for us to both think about the Bible as important to our national culture and for us to be so insistent that no one tells us how to interpret it, is something that is not just naturally how things are, but comes out of our own historical context. And situating it, seeing it as contingent and open to change, could help us ask some harder questions about how we want to interpret Scripture for ourselves, even saying that for ourselves in our communities.


Cherie Harder: That’s right. So Henry McHenry asks, “How can we talk to people who are allergic to a religious frame? Even the term ‘Scripture’ can carry a turnoff.”


Kaitlyn Schiess: Yes. Oh, I’m glad that you asked that. You know, part of the reason I think the history is so important is because it does push us to ask what we really want our public life to look like. There are people who say that what they would like is no religious convictions in public life. I don’t think they want to check the civil rights movement out of American history, a movement that was full of biblical references and strong Christian faith, spiritual formation resources. And so I think sometimes the history can help to have that conversation, to say where is examples in American history where you think this went poorly and where it went well, to help us think about what do we really want? Because there are examples that help us say we don’t want that. But I don’t think the thing we don’t want is any religious conviction in public life.


The other thing I would say is that I would encourage that person that you’re having a conversation with to think what bounds they want our political conversations to have. Do they want it to only focus on kind of wonky policies or do they think there should be any room for bigger questions about what kind of creatures humans are, what kind of communities we live in? I think most of us think that those kinds of deeper questions, especially ethical questions, should be a part of our political conversations. We fall into talking that way even if we don’t mean to. And so once you’ve kind of poked a little bit and said, “Well, where’s the line? Where should it be drawn? What bounds do you want to have?” Then to say, “Well, if you want those bigger questions to be a part of the conversation, and I do too, that’s going to involve religious convictions from all of us.” We all have deeply held ideas about what kind of creatures humans are and what kind of communities we want to live in. And so if we want to have real openness to the different views we have on those things, I want it to involve my Muslim neighbors. I want it to involve the Jewish people in my community. I want it to involve the Christian people. And I think when you pose it that way, do we really want to exclude those big questions from our political lives? And when you pose it in terms of religious minorities and being hospitable to religious minorities in America, I think it pushes people a little bit to ask if they really want that vision that they have of a public life without those kind of religious commitments.


Cherie Harder: Yes. So a question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “Often people will say, like in the example of the late great planet Earth that you described earlier, ‘I’m not interpreting the Bible. I’m just following what it says without any interpretation.’ How should we think about this kind of argument?”


Kaitlyn Schiess: That is a thing that people say. Yes. And I understand the impulse. Like, the impulse is good to say, “I just want it to be Scripture. Scripture, tell me what to do.” If there’s anything that I learned from my years in seminary learning Greek and Hebrew, it wasn’t necessarily that I maintained a lot of the Greek and Hebrew, but what I really learned was I need help. Even just getting this text into the English language requires the work of people who understand the historical context, that understand the languages. The work of people to bring this ancient text that the Holy Spirit is still speaking through to me in an accessible format requires a lot of this work. So, you know, when I was in seminary and we had different arguments about theological questions, sometimes someone would say something like, “Well, it just says this.” And all of us being, you know, kind of smart and kind of nerdy and annoying would say, “Well, it doesn’t actually just say that. It says this in Greek or it says this in Hebrew.” And I don’t want anyone to feel like the translations they have are not good and accessible. But even that act of translation, I think, reminds us that we’re never just reading. We’re not only not just reading because someone had to translate it, but the fact that I even have a Bible in my hands is because generations of Christians before me passed it down and that I’m a recipient of that. I’m not kind of lording over this text. I’m receiving it as someone who is grateful for those generations that the Holy Spirit works through to give it to me. And that’s where I want to say, you don’t get it with a blank slate. You don’t get it without kind of all of the interpretive habits and practices that come from your community and that come through the generations of Christians before you. And you wouldn’t want that. They have real gifts there, and we should really look to them to learn how to read well.


Cherie Harder: Yeah. So we’ll conclude with a question from John Barrett, who asked, “You noted the theological blind spots Christians had during the Civil War. What blind spots do you think the church has today?”


Kaitlyn Schiess: Ooh, a very good and challenging question. I think some of the blind spots are similar, surprisingly, in that I think a lot of what was happening at the time was financial interest. People had a really deep financial and social interest in interpreting Scripture in such a way that it justified the enslavement and oppression of Black Americans. And I think today it is very often financial interest that keeps us from seeing clearly the Word of the Lord for us, whether that’s very challenging passages about how we are to care for the foreigner and the widow and the orphan, or whether it’s very challenging passages of condemnation of the wealthy. And figuring out what that means for us is challenging. It’s not necessarily clear-cut in Scripture. I don’t think that we should kind of take Jesus’s command to the rich young ruler of selling our possessions completely literally, though, the witness of Christians who took that very seriously I think is instructive for us. But I do think the variety— I mean, the great, consistent variety of passages about wealth and poverty in Scripture is something that we are always going to be challenged by, especially as American Christians that come to the text from a kind of social and financial position that Christians throughout history and around the world have much less often come to it from.


And so what that means in terms of what passages we misinterpret might depend on the community and the context you’re in. But I do think that’s a good first question to ask, is how have my financial interests, the comfort I desire to have, the kind of life I want to have, the kind of community I want to live in, and the life I want to give my children, how might that prevent me from hearing clearly the word of the Lord that might not be for my financial interest? It is ultimately for my great flourishing, but it might not be for the interests I have, as I understand them today. And again, that will require both really good hermeneutics, really good reading, and also really good spiritual formation.


Cherie Harder: Well, Kaitlyn, thank you for this. This has been fascinating. And in just a moment, I want to give Kaitlyn the last word. But before that, a few things to share with you. First, right after we conclude here, we will be sending around a survey. We really appreciate you taking the survey. It’s just a few questions. We read every one. We try to incorporate your suggestions to make this program ever more valuable and enriching to you. And as a special incentive or token of appreciation for taking the survey, we will send you a coupon or a code for a free Trinity Forum digital Reading download of your choice. There are several Readings that we would recommend to kind of go deeper into some of the issues that we’ve touched on today, including “City of God” by Augustine, “The Federalist Papers,” “Who Stands Fast?” by Bonhoeffer, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness” by Reinhold Niebuhr would all be ones that we would recommend and do hope that you will take that.


In addition, several people ask every time, we will indeed be making the video of this conversation available. By this time tomorrow, you will have received an email with a link to that video which will be posted both on our website at and our Trinity Forum YouTube page. And so we encourage you to share this conversation with your friends, loved ones, and start a conversation of your own on a very important and often quite provocative topic.


In addition, we wanted to invite each of you who are listening to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people which help make Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good possible. There are quite a few benefits of being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, some of which I just mentioned, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for joining the society, with joining or your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Kaitlyn’s book, The Ballot and the Bible. So hope that we will soon be able to welcome you into the Trinity Forum Society.


In addition, we wanted to make you aware of just a few programs upcoming this fall, including on September 29th, we’ll be hosting Curt Thompson on hope and suffering and his newest book, The Deepest Place. Next month, we’ll be hosting David Brooks. Later in the fall, we’ll be hosting Tish Harrison Warren and many others. So stay tuned for those invitations. And if you would like to sponsor an Online Conversation, we would very warmly welcome that. Just indicate that on the survey form that you receive.


Finally, as promised, Kaitlyn, the last word is yours.


Kaitlyn Schiess: Thank you. I end the book this way, and I think it’s a good way to end a conversation like this that could feel very discouraging when you look at the failures in our own country and our own interpretation of Scripture. One of the things that I say at the end of the book is that we have to listen to something that Bonhoeffer said in a famous speech to a youth gathering, you know, quite quickly before the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, where he said we need to read the Bible against ourselves, not just for ourselves, but against ourselves. But something else I really love in that speech is that he says at the beginning that a man recently came up to him and said, “The Church is dead.” And he was like, How do I respond to this claim? The Church is dead? And he said, you know, the faithless pious, the pious people who don’t really have faith, they respond to this claim with, “We’ll rise again. We’ll have better programs. We’ll get more people in the pews. We’ll work harder. We will become alive again by ourselves.” And then the faithless world says, “Well, great, the Church is dead. We’ll throw a party. We’ll have a parade. That’s amazing. We love that.” 


But, he said, the truly faithful response to the claim the Church is dead, a claim that I think many of us today hear and feel and fear, is actually, “Of course.” Because, of course, God works not through our efforts, but through resurrection. He says, “Of course the Church is dead, and the Church will be resurrected because that is what God does. He does the impossible against and through us.” And that’s a word that I want to shape my life today to respond to what feels exhausting and challenging and frustrating and heartbreaking about the Church with the belief that ultimately my hope is in the resurrection that God promises.


Cherie Harder: Thank you, Kaitlyn. That was great. It’s really great to talk with you.


Kaitlyn Schiess: Thank you.


Cherie Harder: And thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.