Democrats and moderates who care about winning elections should start reading their Bibles, if only to find out how little evangelical conservatives actually care about it.

Surrounding the scripture-saturated Republican primaries, evangelical commentators a few weeks ago were making much of Newt Gingrich’s similarity to King David. Just like David, so the narrative goes, Newt had an affair, he confessed, married the other woman, and was forgiven by God; that means Christian voters can forgive him too. It’s a convenient parallel, but it works only through selective reading of the biblical narrative. We must assume Newt is himself ignorant of the story, or he might be out front begging people to stop making the comparison.

To begin with, David – a polygamist and God’s anointed messiah of a small, West Asian nation circa 1000 BCE – was accused not of having an affair, but of raping and impregnating one of his subjects while her husband was at war and he, David, was at home peeping at naked women. (It must be noted that rape in this primitive time was legally an offense not against Bathsheba, as 21st-century folks might think of it, but rather against her male guardian – in this case her husband. Thus, it might not have been so bad for David if she hadn’t gotten pregnant.) After a failed, Three’s Company-worthy attempt to get her husband home to have sex with his wife, David subsequently has him killed in order to avoid the unseemly scandal of a cowardly king defiling the wife of a war hero. He takes Bathsheba as his own wife, and would have gotten away with it if not for God’s pesky prophet who showed him the error of his ways.

He sinned, he confessed, he was forgiven. Right? Not really.

As it turns out, the God of the Hebrew Bible is much less forgiving than 40% of the South Carolina Republican electorate. For starters, God kills the baby born of David’s rape of Bathsheba. But even after that, a curse of violence remains over David’s family. His son Amnon, following in his daddy’s footsteps, rapes his half-sister Tamar. Tamar’s brother Absalom then murders his half-brother Amnon; Absalom later conspires to overthrow David and is killed by David’s men. While David is on his deathbed (with a beautiful virgin to keep him warm), he declares that Bathsheba’s son Solomon will succeed him on the throne, but the intra-familial bloodshed continues into the next generation.

Even if the comparison is somewhat ill-chosen, it is not “wrong” for commentators to compare Newt to a religious figure. It would be foolish for anyone with historical consciousness to expect to keep religious rhetoric out of the American political scene. Politicians are people, voters are people, and people’s beliefs and practices – religious or otherwise – cannot be tidily separated from our personal associations, economic behaviors, or understandings of policy. But precisely because there is no way to keep religion completely out of the discussion, we would do well to analyze its use more closely, to be more critical in our readings of narrative and metaphor.

What we can learn from the recent deployment of the David story is that people who support political candidates with “the Bible” are not concerned with critical reading, thoughtful analysis, or even biblical literacy. Apart from disliking homosexuals and people who ask taxpayers to help support their children, they do not even really care about sexual purity or family values. Their primary interest is simply in seeing Newt win.

It might have worked, if not for that pesky Rick Santorum…

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