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How reading the Bible turned me into a Liberal

10 December 2015

Someone posted a link to an article about a study that showed that reading the Bible is likely to make people support liberal political policies. I can testify to that from my own experience.

Warning: Actual Bible Reading Likely To Turn You Into A Liberal, Study Shows :

Christian researchers have discovered the existence of a book that is so dangerous to conservative ideology, Republicans may soon decide to ban it altogether. Strangely enough, that book is the Christian Bible.

According to a study published in Christianity Today, people who say they read the Christian Bible frequently are far more likely to support liberal policies, when compared to those who read the Bible less often.

I grew up in a home where we had a Bible that no one read. We never went to church, and my parents were atheist/agnostic. At the age of 10 I knew more about Islam than about Christianity; an aunt had given me a  book for Christmas, King of the Wind, the story an Arabian stallion who became the ancestor of English racehorses. From reading it I knew about the fast of Ramadan, but I’d never heard of Lent. When we went back to school after the Christmas holidays I excitedly told a friend that the best book in the world was King of the Wind, and he rather prissily retorted “The best book in the world is the Bible.” I responded “This book is also holy,” because it made quite a lot of mention of Islamic practices, and that was about as far as my concept of holiness went then.

holy-bibleThe following year I went to a Methodist school (St Stithians College) and so we were issued with a “Children’s Bible”, an abbreviated version, with all the boring and salacious bits omitted. The maths teacher taught the “Scripture” class, and his method was simply to get us to read aloud in turn from the children’s Bible we had been issued with, while he got on with marking our maths and physics homework or setting exam papers. I was quite taken with the story, and started reading ahead. I decided I didn’t want the abbreviated version and wanted the whole thing, and surprised my parents by asking for a Bible for my birthday, which I read over the next year. By then I had discovered that that too had been bowdlerised, and wanted one that included the so-called Apocrypha. So I read that too.

So much for the Bible, what about being liberal?

At the time that I began reading the Bible, the Liberal Party of South Africa was formed. One day, riding a horse through the Johannesburg suburb of Sydenham, I saw a house with a banner outside, Liberal Party of South Africa, it read. When I got home I asked my parents what “liberal” meant, and they explained that it meant “loving freedom”. I thought that was a good thing, though I did not, at that time, connect it with the Bible.

Over the next few years in South Africa the defining characteristic of liberalism came to be universal suffrage, defined as “one man, one vote”. Liberals believed in one man, one vote, non-liberals didn’t. It was as simple as that.

Then I got diverted by reading a novel by Nevil Shute called In the wet. In it he described a political system of multiple voting. It was a system of universal suffrage, in that it gave everyone a say in the government, but some people got more say than others on the basis of education, entrepreneurship and the like. It answered a common criticism of democracy — that it’s no use counting heads if you take no account of what’s in them. It proposed a form of meritocracy instead.

In the general election of 1958 I urged my mother to vote for the Liberal Party candidate. I don’t know if she did, but anyway he lost. In 1959 the Progressive Party was formed, advocating a qualified franchise, with people being allowed to vote on the basis of education or wealth. In 1960 the last black voters in South Africa lost the right to vote. I was persuaded by a friend to join the Progressive Party, and became active in the Houghton branch of the Young Progressives, working for the re-election of Helen Suzman, one of the founding members, and the only one to retain her seat in the 1961 white election, where no blacks voted (when blacks had been allowed to vote, they voted mainly for liberals and communists).

In 1960 I was also a youth delegate to the Progressive Party congress, where they debated their franchise policy. The Molteno Commission proposed a minimum educational level of Standard 5 (Grade 7), or a minimum annual income of R600 (about R60000 in today’s money). I stood up and quixotically urged the multiple voting system, saying that everyone should have some say in the running of the country. My elders and betters looked at me like something that had crawled out of the cheese, no doubt thinking to themselves “Who is this scruffy beatnik, with his weird ideas?” The other Young Progressive delegate next to me, pink and plump and smooth, and wearing a three-piece suit, stood up to propose an even higher qualification, than that proposed by the Molteno Commission, saying that only responsible people should be allowed to vote. The elders and betters nodded sagely and murmured “What a nice responsible young man. He will go far.” And it began to dawn on me that the Progressive Party was a bourgeois party, and that if it only gave votes to the rich and educated, it would mainly be supported by the rich and educated. It had good people in it, like Helen Suzman, but the people who made the policy were those who had the good fortune to be wealthy and educated. And back in 1960 those were mostly white.

I went to university and majored in Biblical Studies, and so had to read the Bible with more attention than previously. The stories of Jael and Sisera, and Judith and Holofernes — brave women who toppled oppressive rulers — had not been lost on me. But the more I read the Bible, and the more deeply I studied it, the more I came to realise why oppressive rulers needed to be toppled. And I realised that wherever Nevil Shute’s idea of multiple voting came from, it did not come from the Bible.

The Bible told me that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And that did not apply just to Jews and Greeks. It applied equally to the poor and the rich, the black and the white. No one was intrinsically better qualified to rule than anyone else, whether by race, wealth or education.

G.K. Chesterton put it rather well:

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves — the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

So as a result of reading the Bible I came to believe that “one man, one vote” was the only biblically tenable system of voting, and in the South Africa of those days, believing in “one man, one vote” was the distinguishing mark of a liberal. So I became a liberal. I also became a Liberal, and joined the Liberal Party. And I went around to political meetings preaching speaking on biblical texts like Proverbs 29:2 When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.

And if the people have the right to vote, then they have the means of tossing out the wicked rulers, for A rich man is wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has understanding will find him out (Proverbs 28:11). And if the poor man has the vote, not only can he find him out, he can vote him out. And it was to preclude that very thing that South Africa’s ruling class excoriated one man, one vote as the worst of all possible evils. They didn’t even see the need to explain what was wrong with it, it was self-evident to them and their supporters.

So the Bible made me a liberal, and I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. mome permalink
    14 December 2015 3:01 am

    A problem with the article you linked to is how it is provocative in its American context. The liberal-conservative divide in America doesn’t really have anything to do with suffrage. Being a “liberal” in America generally means supporting a handful of social positions that most Christian groups do not support (abortion, marriage issues and identity politics being a couple of particular sticking points). Because of these positions many US Christians tend to be more conservative, and that’s where this article is provocative, suggesting that all those conservative Christians simply don’t read their bibles enough (at least that’s the suggestion of many people referencing this article on Facebook). I suspect that if there were a way to be a liberal and vote for liberals in the United States without at the same time effectively offering support for the particular sticking points, A large majority of American Christians would do so.

    • 14 December 2015 3:43 am

      To take just one current issue. The Bible tells us that Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Who are more likely to advocate showing mercy to refugees, liberals or non-liberals?

      • mome permalink
        14 December 2015 11:35 am

        Indeed, I know what you are getting at with your question about refugees, and certainly it is the liberal politicians who, generally, speak more mercifully about refugees (although, and I can only speak for what I see in America, there do seem to be more than a few liberals who are taking fairly cautious attitudes about refugees right now). But your question points to the situation I alluded to, which is that American Christians often find themselves torn when a vote that would be more merciful to refugees also happens to be a vote that will contribute to, say, the expansion and solidification of abortion rights, or the reduction of religious liberty when it comes to matters relating to gay marriage and opinions about that. Or, if it seems like the above-mentioned issues are too overblown, it could simply be argued that liberalism in America often takes a hostile and derisive view toward the concerns of Christians that don’t happen to align with itself (mercy toward refugees being one example). American liberalism is certainly friendly to Christian rhetoric of mercy, but it is not friendly to the whole gamut of authentically Christian rhetoric (such as Jesus being the Way, the Truth and the Life). This means liberals are very friendly toward Christians who play by the liberal rule book, but once a Christian deviates from the party platform on any of the most sacrosanct issues, that Christian is now open to all kinds of smears and ridicule on liberal websites and Twitter feeds. In the conservative-liberal rhetorical battles that take place in this country, there are precious few options that are palatable to bible-reading and -following Christians. They are forced to make value judgments over which issues outweigh other issues. Different Christians make different choices about which issues get more weight, but it seems unfair to chalk up the decision some Christians make to align more conservatively as just a failure to read their bibles. As I see it, the truly Christian stance in this day and age, in my country at least, is to profess absolutely no loyalty to conservatism or liberalism (or any of the other prominent political philosophies that hold sway these days), while not forsaking political involvement and responsibilities. It would be nice to see both liberal and conservative parties trying to adjust their platforms to be palatable to a critical Christian constituancy that can’t be counted on to simply follow one of the other wherever it may go. But I know I’m a dreamer in this regard.


  1. The death of liberalism in the West | Khanya

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