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While it's tough to come back from a mob chanting about hanging you, Mike Pence reminded viewers at last Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate that he can still preach a good sermon. And one that, in a few short sentences, used some tried-and-true strategies to present his own viewpoint as the unassailable truth.
About half an hour into the debate, the topic turned to abortion and whether the assembled Republican candidates would support a federal ban, now that Roe v. Wade is no more. There was some hemming and hawing from Nikki Haley about the inarguable fact that Republicans are well short of the 60 votes required in the Senate to support a ban, and some bobbing and weaving from Ron DeSantis for unclear reasons. But when the question came to Pence, the former vice president turned solemn. He first reminded DeSantis, "I'm not new to this cause," and then pivoted to deeply religious conversion language.
"After I gave my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I opened up the Book," Pence began — you could hear the capitalization in the way he intoned these words — where he reported finding the foundational text for his staunch opposition to abortion. "And I read," he continued, "'Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and see, I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life.'" (Those last two words should probably be capitalized as well, lest viewers miss that they've seen this phrase on a bumper sticker.)
"And I knew this cause had to be my cause," Pence concluded. It was a nice anecdote, tightly packaged to explain to faithful Christians where his pro-life beliefs come from, and to foreclose any argument against this political position.
But to get to this point, the former veep had to make some extremely dubious leaps in interpretation — leaps that probably aren't obvious to most observers. This short paragraph of Pence's offered a master class in evangelical biblical interpretation, with all the sloppy readings and false claims to authority that this practice entails.
The first thing to note is that Pence takes two Bible verses, from different books, with many pages and likely several centuries between them, and stitches them together into one Frankenstein quotation. Pence's interpolated "and see" covers up a major snip, which he uses to connect Jeremiah 1:5 to Deuteronomy 30:19. The first passage is God telling Jeremiah that he will be a prophet to the people of Jerusalem, and letting him know all the plans that God has for his work. The second, occurring hundreds of years earlier, is from the final speech of Moses, as the people of Israel are about to enter into the promised land of Canaan. In this context, choosing life clearly means following all of God's commandments; death is equated with idolatry.
This isn't the first time Pence has quoted the verse from Jeremiah 1:5 to support his position on abortion; he also used it in the 2016 vice presidential debate with Tim Kaine. But with this mash-up, he's doing something different, creating a hybrid verse clearly designed to give the impression of being a single verse. That's the first sleight-of-hand Pence pulls in this response.
The second is related: ignoring the context of the two verses. In the study of hermeneutics, this is a technique known as proof texting: starting with a particular belief and working backward to find a biblical passage that seems to support this idea. When you don't have to concern yourself with context, it's pretty easy to find a biblical statement to support just about any position you like. When literary and historical context become a part of the discussion, however, these proof texts often don't seem as persuasive any more. That's certainly the case with Pence's employment of Jeremiah and Deuteronomy — once you dig a little deeper into the texts, it's clear that they have nothing to do with abortion. That doesn't mean that they can't inform an anti-choice worldview, as the Jeremiah passage clearly does for Pence. It simply means that they do not offer the slam-dunk case for a particular political agenda that they might at first seem.
But these two flaws don't exhaust the problems with Pence's biblical interpretation strategy. In refusing to offer a citation for the individual quotations, Pence leaves his listener with only a single source: "The Book." By attributing these quotations to "The Book," rather than to two specific and quite different books of the Bible, Pence is claiming the authority of the entirety of Scripture for his political worldview.
Still, the biggest act of prestidigitation is yet to come, and actually occurs after Pence provides his proof texts. After framing his composite biblical quotation within the language of conversion — as if reading these two passages was the first thing he did after his born-again experience — Pence employs two verbs. He introduces the quotation with "I read," and follows that up with "I knew." By using these two verbs, Pence is trying to erase the fact that any interpretation happened at all — it was a simple act of reading, followed by knowing. Pence seems to be channeling the bumper sticker "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." Except that's not how reading works.
The first thing any seminarian will learn in a class on biblical interpretation is that all reading is interpretation. We have to take what we read and make sense of it — and depending on the text involved, this can be a more or less difficult process. For something like the Bible, we're faced with a pretty high degree of difficulty. It's a book (or, more accurately, a collection of books) written several thousand years ago, in different languages and in an entirely different cultural context from ours. And, as most serious biblical scholars will agree, it was written by a diverse group people with varying religious, social and political agendas, all of which don't necessarily cohere with each other. There are so many layers of translation we have to wade through in order to even begin the process of interpretation.
In biblical interpretation as practiced by evangelical Christians, this process is frequently erased, hidden behind the scenes so the interpreter can pretend that he or she is giving us direct access to the truth, not something that has been mediated through a process of discovery. That's what Pence does when he jumps straight from "I read" to "I knew" — he's trying to hide the act of interpretation, hoping that we will be so transfixed by his invocation of "the Book" and his deeply sincere tone of voice that we don't recognize what he's doing.
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To be fair to the practice of hermeneutics, there is also a more charitable way to look at Pence's remarks. In the context of a debate, with eight candidates on stage warring for attention, any remark has to be concise, memorable and directly focused on the point the speaker is trying to make. And a national debate audience isn't interested in a deep lesson in biblical interpretation. They just want to understand that Pence's pro-life views are a sincere expression of his faith, and the story he told neatly conveyed that point.
But as I see it, that lets Pence — and other interpreters who use the same sort of misdirection when they're using the Bible for their own ends — off the hook too easily. By obscuring the interpretive work Pence is doing, by trying to erase the reality that what he is really offering us is not just reading and knowing but his own subjective understanding, Pence is claiming the authority of the Bible and God for his political agenda, and trying to bully his listener into accepting that his way is the only way to look at the world. It's almost a Keyser Soze move — the interpreter trying to make the world think that interpretation doesn't exist.
For many of us, it's easy to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as outdated or irrelevant. But for others, the kind of appeal Pence made last week is deeply affecting. One step toward reducing the power this kind of language can have is to make sure we supply the missing verb, and missing concept, of interpretation, and pushing back against what evangelical biblical interpretation tries to leave out: context, and the reality that political beliefs like Pence's are choices, born no doubt from deeply held worldviews, but not commandments required of us by a few cut-and-pasted biblical passages.
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