Lawrence O’Donnell: Atheist Fundamentalist?

By Neil Earle

On his MSNBC show “The Last Word” on January 10, 2013, fiery and controversial Lawrence O’Donnell (pictured, right), a former aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had a lot of fun ripping up the alleged hypocrisy of the Obama team. It concerned their removing an anti-homosexual Atlanta pastor from giving the invocation at next week’s Inaugural.

O’Donnell held up his Bible to support the “Rewrite” piece that saw him in full tear on the charged issue of homosexuality and the unfortunate Pastor.

Atheist Fundamentalism

It was classic liberal/agnostic ripping up of the Bible’s alleged inconsistencies, what some call “atheist fundamentalism.” Yes, O’Donnell said, the Bible does condemn homosexuality, and yes, the pastor in question does believe in this but the problem was, as O’Donnell said, no-one on the Capitol dais this month will agree with that Biblical position. So – why use the Bible at all?

O’Donnell noted that even President Obama doesn’t believe in the Biblical position and that Michelle Obama, the descendant of slaves, will be holding a book which doesn’t utter one word in condemnation of slavery, but does condemn homosexuality.

Is that right, Larry? Not one word?

O’Donnell actually reinforced a caricature Biblical-believing Christians see many liberals engage in – the sweeping generalization. O’Donnell followed the usual irate atheist script of placing most of his inverse defense of homosexuality by citing Leviticus 18:22 – you shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.

No one on the inaugural stand will believe this, says O’Donnell, so why are they using this book – or any religious book for that matter.

O’Donnell’s charges to make Christianity look archaic by quoting Leviticus are reminiscent of the attacks leveled on the faith by such a diverse band as Bill Maher, the late Chris Hitchens and of course Atheist in Chief, Richard Dawkins seconded closely by the Arizona scientist, Lawrence Kraus.

O’Donnell loved his five minute rant. But of course major matters of Biblical scholarship do not play well on prime time – even on cable. There are answers to O’Donnell’s wild and crazy and mildly amusing spin but they take some working through.

Amending the Levitical Laws

In his intemperate charge that most of our leaders are either dumb or hypocritical O’Donnell forgets one thing: the consensus that has guided sound Bible scholarship across the generations. In the 1500s Martin Luther said that he is the true theologian who can navigate between the Old and New Testaments. The simple truth is that for Christians the Old Testament is not the final word in church teaching or doctrine. The five books of Moses may make a good first word but it is very shortsighted to say that the Christian church has not advanced beyond the exotic-sounding Iron Age prescriptions of the Torah. Even the prophets said that God allowed statutes that “were not good” because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Ezekiel 20:25; Matthew 19:8).

The rather exotic Jealousy Offering in Numbers 5 is a case in point. Here a suspicious cantankerous husband could not be assured of his wife’s guilt except by the humiliating standards of this bizarre ritual. This is a law few, if any, modern church-goers know about let alone practice.

Then, too, One greater than Moses came along and significantly amended large potions of the Torah both in spirit and intent. O’Donnell worked long enough on Capitol Hill to understand amendments. Jesus made significant departures from the Law by saying that all foods were now clean, that he was the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest, and his treatment of women and children moved far in advance of both Jewish and Roman customs of the day.

Setting up Straw Men

A key mistake O’Donnell and other critics make is setting up a “straw man” Old Testament, citing Moses’ writings as if they were indeed the rigorous Law for Christians. This issue was answered by Christian writer Alistair McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. McGrath is addressing British atheist Richard Dawkins in this passage but it fits the O’Donnell rant very well:’

“The passages that Dawkins finds so shocking (e.g. Leviticus 18) appear alongside other material in the Pentateuch which he ignores, dealing with forgiveness and compassion – the laws urging hospitality toward strangers (Deuteronomy 10:17-19), setting limits on acts of revenge (Leviticus 19:18), prohibiting slavery (Leviticus 25:39-43), declaring a jubilee for debt (Leviticus 25:25-28), and forbidding infant sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2). He also ignores the prophets and the wisdom literature, in which the heights of Jewish moral insight are expressed…,Jesus did not create the wine of the Gospels [brand new] but took the water of the Jewish law and transmuted it to something better” (McGrath and McGrath, pages 90-91).

Careful Bible teachers understand that the prevalence of the death penalty in the Torah is tied to a wandering desert community perpetually surrounded and raided by hostile neighbors. Christians know this in reading the Bible – or any book: Context is everything. The life and teachings of Jesus Christ is the prism through which Christians read the Old Testament – and must be.

Is there any point to the Law then? Yes, as shown above it is not all rock ‘em and sock ‘em, stonings and witch burnings. Even Christian defenders of homosexuality (showing how dangerous it is to categorize such a diverse movement), even they deplore how conservative Christians use Leviticus 18 so freely. Liberal Christians argue that this chapter was part of the Holiness Code of ancient Israel, and therefore not for us today. But hold on. What about Leviticus 18:9, you shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister. Is that such a bad law because it is in Leviticus? What about Leviticus 19:18, which reads "you shall love your neighbor as yourself"? Is this not for us today? The church is to live by every word of God in principle, not in bovine-like simplicity. Else Jesus would be accused of telling us to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands (Matthew 5:27-30). Most churches today look to clearer (but not undisputed) New Testament passages such as Romans 1:26-27 for better guidelines in dealing with sexual matters. There is also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 where former homosexuals in Corinth were welcomed to the faith. O’Donnell did quote this but tried to refute it by raising the issue of translation which he must know is a tricky issue indeed, demanding more expertise than he possesses. There are so many translations today.

No, careful Biblical scholarship usually does not play well on prime time. Paul’s letter to Philemon, for example, addresses the case of a slave-master relationship. Paul pleads with the master, Philemon, to take back his runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). But to bring up a name such as “Philemon” would really be audience overkill.

I still enjoy Lawrence O’Donnell. He is a skilled and informed critic of much of the extremism in our politics, some of it unfortunately involving Christians. But a rapid-fire sweeping rant posing as scholarship advances no one’s Bible knowledge.