Since the dawn of the new millennium there has been a noticeable surge of works surveying the Bible’s influence on the development of Western societies. Paul Hanson’s A Political History of the Bible in America joins the works of James P. Byrd, Daniel Dreisbach, John Fea, Vishal Mangalwadi, Mark Noll, Stephen Prothero, Eran Shalev and others that in recent years have examined how the Bible has shaped politics and government in the West. More specifically, this is a monumental attempt by a senior Old Testament scholar at the Harvard Divinity School not only to provide the final word on how the Bible has shaped American politics, but also to identify what the Bible teaches about politics. Hanson therefore ultimately seeks to provide Christians with a definitive, biblically-based guide for how to formulate political opinions and to function in the political sphere. While Hanson’s effort is to be commended, and his massive volume of nearly 700 pages acknowledged as a valuable resource, it must regrettably be stated that he fails to accomplish his primary objectives.
After correctly observing in the Prologue that religion and politics have been intertwined in America since the establishment of the Jamestown colony, Hanson quickly chronicles American history in Part 1 of his book, showing how religion has shaped American politics for good and bad from colonial times to the advent of the 21st century. Unfortunately, Hanson’s historical overview is marred by outright errors, partisan (liberal) rhetoric, and simplistic assertions regarding complicated and disputed developments in American history. Examples of the former include Hanson’s assertions that Jim Crow legislation eviscerated the Sixteenth Amendment (which empowered Congress to impose income taxes) (p. 10), that there was a realistic prospect of clergy being given the authority to interpret the Constitution (p. 55), and that America helped to make Diem the leader of the South Vietnam government merely because he was Catholic (p. 99). Hanson’s partisanship is on display in his assertion that the Occupy Wall Street movement epitomized constructive, peaceful protest (p. 11), while the Tea Party is characterized by its “shrillness” and “radical ideology” (p. 114). Likewise, according to Hanson, the most theologically sophisticated occupants of the White House in recent decades have been Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Finally, some examples of Hanson’s unfamiliarity with American historiography are found in his assertion that virtually all theologically conservative Protestants believed America to be the New Israel (p. 59), that the Constitution was the product of “the English Enlightenment and its theological offspring, Deism” (p. 55), that the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century “clung … to an increasingly ossified set of dogmas, often devoid of … the spirit of love” (p. 84), and that “skillful diplomacy may have defused the crisis” between America and Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor (p. 95).
Hanson is much more adept when he turns his attention to the Bible in Part 2, which constitutes about three-fifths of the entire book. Here Hanson methodically surveys the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to identify what it says about government and political philosophy. Overall, this section of the book is well-written and enlightening. Those who find fault with it will likely do so based on Hanson’s analysis and conclusions. After reviewing all that the Bible says about politics and government, Hanson concludes there is no such thing as a “political philosophy of the Bible” (p. 634). Or, as he put it in his preface: “no single authoritative biblical model of government can be found” in the Scriptures (p. xi). At best, the Bible provides stories of how God’s people have formulated and advocated different forms of government over time. On one hand, this leads Hanson to assert that the Scriptures should not be viewed as containing “timeless, inerrant laws” (p. 632). But on the other hand, he concludes that the only principle found in the biblical stories of God’s people striving to created godly governments is the truth that God is sovereign and the only true ruler of the universe. This leads Hanson to assert that “since all human institutions are subject to the ultimate authority of the sovereign of all nations, it is the responsibility … of all nations to implement the normative standards of divine governance within the particularities of their time and setting” (p. 634).
Unfortunately, Hanson does not identify or explain the normative standards of divine governance. Instead, he concludes the book with a frustratingly vague, brief, and untenable five-step program for attaining “the ultimate goal: healing the world” (p. 640). The gist of this program is pluralism, as Hanson argues that the biblical approach to politics is for all groups in society to have a place at the table—for no one group to think its ideas are any better than those of other groups. If this is correct, then Hanson is essentially arguing that the Christian approach to politics is not to look inside the Bible for guidance, but rather outside of it, to groups of people. It is ultimately through the collective wisdom of all people, Hanson asserts, that the “universal reign of peace and justice” will, if ever, be achieved.