The Bible's role in developing democratic thought

By Tammy Hardiman

The Bible tends to be seen as primarily a spiritual text, and not as a guide to political ideology. While religious beliefs certainly contribute to political life, the Bible is often perceived to be distant - historically and conceptually - from our Western-style democracies. But this perception is being challenged by the work of Dr. Kim Parker in Memorial's Department of Religious Studies. He has spent several years researching how the Bible was used to establish the political order of liberal democracy, especially in North America.

Dr. Parker is interested in the writings of the political philosopher John Locke, and in particular the importance of biblical issues in his work. In the 17th century, a split developed between philosophers - those who were more interested in biblical thought exclusive of politics, versus those who were more interested in political thought exclusive of the Bible - Dr. Parker explained.

"I am trying to determine what issues were involved, and what Locke's influence was in the founding of liberal democracy," he said. "The cornerstones of liberal democratic thought were freedom and equality, and these are still with us today. This makes the Bible relevant in today's world as you see your heritage being influenced by the Bible in a very direct way."

The philosopher Locke argued against those who used the Bible to support the idea that people are born in servitude and that people have a natural right to rule over others, and his ideas about freedom and equality follow from his argument. Most of the scriptural debate concerned the first four books of Genesis. Some philosophers, for example, argued that Adam had a private grant from God and became the ruler of the world, while Locke saw it as a grant for everyone.

"He viewed the creation story in a liberal democratic way," observed Dr. Parker. "Throughout the Bible, there are challenges to the absolute order of kings as represented by the prophets, for example. They are held in check by the moral order of God."

In some sense, the Bible has always been a political document. Throughout history different organizations have used it to support their ideologies. Some groups have read the Bible in a certain framework that would lend support to behaviors such as suppression of women, homophobia, the slave trade, and racism.

"According to Locke, the Bible has to be investigated rationally as a whole, not in isolated passages, and reason has to be tempered by what is the best Christian or biblical thing to do," explained Dr. Parker. He added that if it can be shown that the ideas of freedom and equality can derive from a biblical view of the world, the Bible will have a new prominence and position in the modern world.