King James Bible as Cultural Signifier

King James BibleSteve Benen brought my attention to a story from Louisiana. It seems that some people in the Republican controlled House thought they ought to have an official state book. And that book was, of course, the Bible. At first it was going to be the King James translation, but in committee it got changed to any translation whatsoever. That’s actually dangerous, because an atheist could translate the Bible in such a way that would make it quite embarrassing. After all, there are no explicit standards for translations. As I know from Don Quixote, translations can vary extremely far from one another and from the source material itself.

It doesn’t matter because the bill to make the Bible the official state book was withdrawn. State Representative Thomas Carmody said he didn’t want the bill to be a distraction from other more important issues. And he added that there were questions about the bill’s constitutionality. Both comments are pathetic. Certainly everyone knew that the bill was symbolic at the beginning. This is the kind of thing that Republicans do to avoid doing actual work. And if anyone thought for a minute that the bill was not constitutional then they should be thrown out of the country, or at least back to second grade civics. (Although I have little doubt that at least two justices on the Supreme Court would find it constitutional.)

But what really strikes me about the whole thing is the choice of translation: King James. Why that translation? It certainly isn’t held in high esteem by experts. The main thing you can say in its favor objectively is that the prose is nice. But the main thing about this translation is that it is the standard protestant Bible. There is no standard Catholic Bible, but among Catholics, the King James isn’t that big. And of course, those upstart Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation. Even the Gideons have backed away from it. So the King James translation fits into the whole “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” myth of America. I don’t want to lay this on too thick, but that is the philosophical basis for the KKK.

I’m not suggesting this is about racism though. And the switch from the official book being the King James Bible to any Bible is indicative that the conservative Christians have largely embraced Catholics and others who they once looked at askance. What I think is going on is rather just cultural signifying. This is something I write about here a lot. And it is what I find most frustrating about American Christianity: it is mostly about culture. To these cultural Christians, there are the good, church going people and the bad, non-church going people. Of course, if people have other cultural signifiers, it doesn’t matter if they go to church. Thus: it was perfectly fine that Reagan wasn’t actually religious.

So when Thomas Carmody and his friends decided they wanted to strike a blow for their dying culture, they grabbed the default Bible. But in a very real sense, the Republican choice of the Bible to be the official book of Louisiana was not religious; it was cultural. But don’t be deceived: it is still exclusive. The whole purpose of it is to divide people into two groups: the right kind of people and the wrong kind of people. And that’s what makes this kind of effort so evil. As interfaith conferences all over the world can attest to: different religions can find enormous amounts of common ground. But the Louisiana Republicans didn’t want to use the Bible as theology; they wanted to use it as symbol—a way to sort out the worthy. And just because they have given up this battle doesn’t mean the war is over; I fear it has only begun.

0 thoughts on “King James Bible as Cultural Signifier

  1. What we call the christian right was originally organized around racism, the Bob Jones University case. Much to the chagrin of the Catholic founders of this coalition, the Protestants were indifferent about, or favored choice in the issue of abortion. Paul Weyrich documents this in his memoirs. Weyrich and the vile Phyllis Schlafly eventually prevailed upon their Protestant allies to accept Catholic theology on this issue. And the sheep were informed that they had always been at war with EastAsia. And it was so. And it begins again with Griswald and contraception.
    I am interested in seeing what the real limits are in Catholic/Protestant cooperation in opposition to liberals. I imagine they are able to tolerate each other quite well until we are defeated.
    So, the King James bible. It’s the one I read when I did such things. Ecclesiastes is worth reading, in that translation, no matter what. And I don’t know what makes that version a fetish with some Protestants.

  2. @Lawrence – I still scratch my head abut abortion. I know why the Catholics are against it, but it doesn’t really make much sense for the protestants. How it became just about the only thing protestants believe is even more bizarre. But the truth is that I don’t see the Catholics working very well with the protestants. The Catholics may be with them on abortion and homosexuality, but Catholics aren’t literalists. They aren’t trying to stop the march of culture. But the Pope really does matter. Pope Benedict really was trying to move the church backwards. I don’t see Francis hedging on Darwin.

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