Gimme That Old-Time Conservatism: Taking the 'Liberal' Out of the Bible?

Over the past few months, articles and blog posts have been popping up here & there, discussing a grassroots effort to remove liberalism from the Bible. The Conservative Bible Project at Conservapedia is spearheaded by the web-site’s founder, Andy Schlafly, son of conservative activist & author Phyllis Schlafly. As Associated Press reporter Tom Breen summarizes the impetus behind the effort, “The project’s authors argue that contemporary scholars have inserted liberal views and ahistorical passages into the Bible, turning Jesus into little more than a well-meaning social worker with a store of watered-down platitudes.” In fact, Schlafly blames academia, because university professors are overwhelmingly liberal, and “it’s professors who are doing the popular modern translations of the Bible.” So, Schlafly & co. want to take out the “liberal” stuff and put “conservative” stuff (back) in.

Black Bible on white background
But, are we talking about political conservatism or theological conservatism? Well, mostly the former, though perhaps “socio-political conservatism” would be more accurate. That is, after all, why the Conservapedia.com web-site was founded. But, there is a bit of a mix. As the wiki-based site’s own entry for “conservatism” begins, “A conservative adheres to principles of limited government, personal responsibility and moral values, agreeing with George Washington’s Farewell Address that ‘religion and morality are indispensable supports’ to political prosperity.” I’ll second that (though I might add a couple things). However, while Schlafly points out that, “The phrase ‘theological conservative’ does not mean that someone is politically conservative,” the references to “conservative” and “liberal” terms on the site still seem to be somewhat ambiguous.

Since I am both politically and theologically conservative, you might assume that I support the Conservative Bible Project. On the one hand, based on the guidelines laid out on the Project’s homepage, I do share a couple of their concerns — e.g., Not dumbing down the Bible, and Accepting the Logic of Hell. Also, it’s not like they are actually re-writing major parts of the text to change the message. In fact, their overall concern is to restore the original message which, in their view, has been subtly altered by changing certain wording and phraseology in translations over the years. At the end of the Project, the Gospel message should still be fully in tact.

But, I think they are seeing a great deal more evidence of mischief and propaganda by “liberals”, feminists, & socialists than is actually present. I tend to agree with Timothy Paul Jones, a theologically conservative professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who says that they are reading contemporary politics back into the text. “Ironically, there’s a long tradition of the liberal twisting of scripture,” Jones said. “Scholars have rightly deemed those translations illegitimate, and this conservative Bible is every bit as illegitimate.”

Blogger Ed Morrissey of HotAir.com (who is “conservative” in both senses of the word) points out that, “[I]f one believes the Bible to be the Word of God written for His purposes, which I do, then the idea of recalibrating the language to suit partisan political purposes in this age is pretty offensive — just as offensive as they see the ‘liberal bias’ in existing translations.” Or, as Professor Jones puts it, “This is not making scripture understandable to people today, it’s reworking scripture to support a particular political or social agenda…. There are so many factors to consider when looking at [passages that are absent from some of the ancient texts, for example], but here it gets boiled down to ‘liberals put it in’.”

In addition to the above, my overall concerns are fivefold:

1) The translation project is being undertaken by amateurs, rather than Biblical scholars. Though it is possible that well-educated non-professionals could do a decent job, there are times when rigorous and professionally-recognized scholarship is much preferred. As Professor Jones suggests, “You’ve got people who are doing this who have probably never looked at an actual ancient manuscript.” Whatever they come up with, this translation will never be considered “serious”.

2) I question the methodology being used, beginning with their use of the King James Version (KJV) as a starting point, primarily because it’s in the public domain and online. If they are really concerned with producing a more accurate, word-for-word, “formal” translation (followed by a thought-for-thought, “functional” translation), why not start with one of the best of the modern translations? Based on Conservapedia’s entries (and from what I’ve read elsewhere), these would probably be the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), and perhaps the new Holman Christian Standard Bible (CSB). From a practical point of view, this would require a lot less tweaking and editing and save a lot of time getting a final product out.

Furthermore, many of the reasons given for various changes range from vague/weak to perplexing to inaccurate, and often with a fairly obvious (and some might say “fundamentalist”) agenda behind them. For example, in Matthew 1:2 the CBP contributors replace the word “begat” in 3 places with “was the father of”, explaining that the passive phrase more appropriately “emphasizes the ancestry.” What?! Can someone explain this to me? I actually have no problem with the phrase, which is used in other good translations (e.g., NASB). But, even a newbie reading the KJV can figure out it’s referring to a successive male lineage, and I don’t see how the replacement phrase “emphasizes” anything. Perhaps a better explanation would have been “Clarifies ancestry with more modern, but accurate, phrasing”.

In most places where the KJV uses the word “profane”, the CBP uses “atheist”. The broader term “worldly” (NASB) or even “godless” (NIV) is a better translation, since the atheism typical of many “liberals” today (which the Project obviously has in mind) was not what Paul was writing about. The CBP translation of I Timothy 6:20 goes even further. The KJV says, “…avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called, “which the CBP changes to “avoid the vain babbling of atheists, and the false affirmations of junk science”. Their “Analysis” is that “‘pseudo-science’, a conservative word, is here very suitable / Junk science is even better”. Let’s put aside the issue of whether or not it is linguistically appropriate to use such a term as “junk science” or “pseudo-science”, here. (And why is the latter “conservative”?) The real issue is that the verse isn’t even talking about “science”, as we use the term; rather, it is more accurately translated “knowledge”. That which is “falsely called knowledge” (as in the NASB & NIV) is a reference to an early version of the heresy known as Gnosticism, which claimed (among other things) that Jesus was not fully human and that salvation comes through secret knowledge. “Junk science” — by which they likely mean anything not in line with Young-Earth Creationist teaching — probably hadn’t even crossed Paul’s mind when he was writing to Timothy.

A related concern I have with the Project’s presumptions is summarized nicely here by blogger Tim West at Gawain’s Ghosts: “[I]t further constricts the biblical text by asserting that the English language is ultimately superior in conveying truth about God — but only when conservative principles are applied to it (see especially points 1, 2, 4, 7). Footnote 2 asserts that ‘Christianity introduced powerful new concepts that even the Greek and Hebrew were inadequate to express, but modern conservative language can express well.’ So… conservative concepts expressed through modern English are the ultimate expression of Christian truth?” To which I would add, “What does this say about God’s ability to express Himself clearly and accurately through the languages of the original, inspired manuscripts?” Very troubling, indeed.

3) Schlafly et al. seem a bit oversensitive regarding some terms (e.g., they think the seriousness of the addiction of gambling is being softened by using the (ironically) more literal “casting lots”) and something called “liberal wordiness”, as if using “Lord God” or “Jehovah” instead of just “Lord” is going to cause undue obfuscation (sorry) of whom the text is referring to. Regarding the emasculating effect of “gender inclusive” language, I agree that there is some reason for concern, but some of the examples this crowd typically uses do not really undermine anything. (Maybe I’ll blog on the gender-inclusivism issue sometime….)

4) They blame some things on “liberals” that were not necessarily done with such ideological motives and they define certain words as “liberal” (e.g., “shrewdly”, because at least one definition of it connotes dishonesty; and “laborer”, because it is commonly used in socialist/communist parlance) vs. “conservative” (e.g., “resourceful” and “volunteer”). In addition, while I agree that some wording may be misconstrued by readers who don’t fully understand the linguistic and/or cultural context in which certain terms were used (which may be clarified in a footnote), it makes no sense to assume some sort of liberal conspiracy behind every such passage. This kind of thinking & approach seems to be, again, hypersensitive — at best unhelpful, and at worst misleading.

5) I’m afraid this effort will be seen as one more excuse to equate political conservatives with a fundamentalist “Religious Right” and, therefore, an excuse to dismiss politically conservative concerns and ideas as merely religious attempts to force-feed morality on a secular culture. Worse, they will be seen as manipulating Scripture for their own politically and/or theologically conservative ends (as on The Rachel Maddow Show). The worst part is that, for some, there is a grain of truth to this.

As Morrissey explains, “The challenge of Christian believers is to adhere to the Word of God, not to bend the Word of God to our preferred ideology. Doing the former requires discipline and a clear understanding of the Bible. Doing the latter makes God subservient to an ideology, rather than the other way around.”

Conclusion: The Conservative Bible Project is a well-meaning effort, but ill-advised and unnecessary. My advice? Leave it to the professionals.

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3 Responses to "Gimme That Old-Time Conservatism: Taking the 'Liberal' Out of the Bible?"

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