An Obscure Line: A response to President Obama’s quote about Romans

In his book The Audacity of Hope, the President wades into theological waters and gets caught in the weeds. This article is not a position piece on any side of an issue, but is a proper parsing and deconstruction of an attempt at theology that obfuscates instead of clarifies.

The quote is as follows: “I am not willing to have the state deny American citizens a civil union that confers equivalent rights on such basic matters as hospital visitation or health insurance coverage simply because the people they love are of the same sex—nor am I willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount.”

I will attempt to address only the second part of the sentence, leaving the first to politicians and social scientists. Obama creates a series of false dichotomies here in this second part of the sentence that indicates a passing familiarity with Scripture combined with an overconfident novice’s attempt to bend the Word of God to his understanding instead of the other way around.

The “obscure line in Romans” to which I believe the President refers is found in the first chapter. Understanding that printing the full text (not even the full chapter) will stop numbers from reading any further, I nevertheless present the full text for the sake of clarity:

Romans 1:18-28 (NKJV)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

While this may be rejected in content or studied more deeply in the original language, this is hardly obscure (incomprehensible, unclear, vague, etc.). Paul is saying that some who could have and should have known God refused to do so, a common scriptural theme. As a consequence for divine rejection, God “gave them up” to a number of things. Those include uncleanness, a worshipping of created things rather than the Creator, and yes, homosexuality. One may disagree with Paul here, but this is not obscure, and is clear and clearly presented (see I Corinthians 6:9-11 for those who think Romans has the only such reference to homosexual activities in the New Testament).

Yes, there is a context here that needs to be understood to properly understand Paul’s full perspective here. But this is no more obscure than any literary passage elsewhere. One may argue with the thought, but the thought is clearly expressed.

It is President Obama’s set of references that actually are more obscure, as the reader likely will walk away with a vague understanding. He refers to three chapters in the book of Matthew (5-7), which I will not reproduce here (you’re welcome). I am not being coy in saying that I don’t know which passages he is referring to. The entire sermon begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The sermon goes on to call Christ’s followers “the salt of the earth” and goes on to give more stringent interpretations to the sins of murder and adultery. Jesus continues to instruct his followers to love their enemies, how to pray (the famous “Lord’s Prayer”), the importance of eternity over the present, the dangers of serving money instead of serving God, God’s specific care for his children, the prohibition against judging, the importance of persistence in prayer, and the narrowness of the road to salvation.

There is no way to tell from this quote from the President’s book which part of the sermon he is thinking of. If he is referring to the judging in the beginning of Matthew 7, he is failing on the theological interpretation side, as this judging here that Jesus is against is not the making of a correct judgment between good and evil, right and wrong, but a condemnation by one human to another in ways that take the place of God and his judgment.

John 7:24 assumes that there is a proper judging allowed: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” I Corinthians has several references to judging in chapters 5 and 6, all of which refer to a proper use of judicial decision. To get to the heart of the matter, the Bible forbids judgment from a position of condemnation and from those who have been blinded by their own sinfulness*. Judgment itself, as in “a judgment call,” is not only not prohibited, but also assumed and encouraged in the right context. ( and _

If the President is making the assumption, commonly held by those who haven’t read the passage in a while, he might be making the broad-brush and incorrect interpretation that the Sermon on the Mount is about loving one’s neighbor as oneself, being nice, and adopting a live-and-let-live attitude. Even a quick look at the three chapters in question shows that the sermon is much more complex, deeper, and more powerful and fiery than that.

There are many powerful issues addressed in the Sermon. Being nice, etc. is not among those issues.

Finally, there is a false dichotomy created in the President’s passage no matter how one interprets these two references to the Bible. Those who believe that the Bible is God’s word don’t pit one scripture against another; they compare scriptures, trying to get a larger picture of what they might be studying. Obama is apparently making the assumption that one can’t “be nice” and “love” if one studies Romans 1 and comes away with a proper understanding of Paul’s clear thinking and writing. This is the mark of either shallow thought, a failing, inept attempt at theological interpretation, or a deliberate attempt at a false persuasion to an ignorant (in the original sense) audience.

The substance of the President’s opinions here is not the kernel of this article. It is the comedy/tragedy of errors found in the half-sentence:

1) The Romans passage is hardly obscure.
2) If not judging others is what the President is referring to, then he exhibits a superficial and false understanding of the Bible’s overall stance on the issue.
3) If a more general “be nice to everyone” interpretation of the Sermon is meant, then the entire sermon is robbed of its complexity and power. And,
4) A false opposition is created between sharing Paul’s perspective and being a loving and kind person.

To understand the Bible in its proper context takes a great deal of work and time; in many ways, it’s a lifelong effort. In the ongoing arguments over the issue the President is addressing here, it does no one any good to present one’s case by calling clear passages obscure and making vague references to a monumental three-chapter address in Matthew that ultimately doesn’t contain support of your perspective.

*In Luke, Jesus tells the story about having a plank in one’s own eye while the person being judged only has a speck. While that has been used by those unfamiliar with the passage to pass judgment on judgment, it really means that we need to take care of our problems first before we are able to make a proper judgment call on the needs of others. Once we do that, we then find ourselves able to help the one with the speck because we can see more clearly (