Letter to the Editor: The Ethics of Proof-Texting
by Emily Morrell
Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.
— Psalm 33 (12)
To Whom It May Concern:
I write to you as a graduate student of theology, a professing Christian, and a concerned citizen. Throughout the Independence Day holiday season, I have noticed numerous church signs in Greene County and the broader region displaying Psalm 33:12: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord.”1 I admit, the verse used in juxtaposition with the holiday gives me pause.
I fear that churches displaying the verse without context or commentary are providing textual and theological backing for xenophobia and self-congratulatory nationalism. My argument may sound alarmist or overly-sensitive when local churches might have displayed the verse in an honest attempt to contribute to the holiday’s festivities. I understand that concern and appreciate the community’s effort to celebrate the holiday together. However, even if churches chose the verse with the best of intentions, the very fact of its selection points to a rise in theologically supported nationalism in our region that we are often loath to address.
If the logic of the twelfth verse of Psalm 33 is followed through to its conclusion without taking into account the chapter’s broader implications, it seems that nations who do not worship a Christian God are doomed to unhappiness. What about the more than 89 million Americans who do not identify as Christian? 2 Do people of other faith traditions have a part to play in the America this isolated verse presents?
Proof-texting the verse also implies that any national unhappiness is correlated to a lack of Christian faith. The phrase suggests that, if Christians adequately practice and profess their faith in the public and political sphere, then God will reward them with national—even political—happiness.
These conclusions lead me to wonder if displaying the verse on the anniversary of America’s independence serves to celebrate independence at all. I worry that churches emphasizing the verse give tacit approval to dangerous nationalism and reinforce xenophobic prejudices regarding people and nations who practice religious traditions other than Christianity.
In a national and international political climate that is saturated with fear mongering, hate speech, and isolationist politics, it is imperative that people of all faiths take into account the ethical norms and implications of their textual and theological arguments. I fear that the broader ethics of proof-texting Psalm 33:12 do more harm than good. When cited alone and in reference to Independence Day, Psalm 33:12 normalizes a Christian, theocratic value system. If, as the verse claims, the only way a nation can prosper is through faith in the Christian concept of the Divine, then it follows that that nation would hope to adopt Christian mores in order to succeed. To suggest such a theocentric worldview on a day celebrating the independence of a nation that claims to separate church and state not only contradicts that founding tenant, but implicitly threatens the freedom of the nation’s citizens who are not professing Christians by creating dangerous in-group and out-group categories.
This is a region full of Christian churches that, I believe, work to create spaces where people know they are loved. In the spirit of that work, I invite congregations to reflect on the ways in which their language and method of citing scripture might inadvertently work against such a noble goal. This is not a matter of conversion, soul saving, or politics but rather an attempt to expand our community’s theological discussion beyond such narrow bounds. Psalm 33 is a beautiful text, as intricate and profound as this community and the people who call it home. Therefore, I am convinced that the text and this region are both worthy of serious study and sources of surprising hope.
Emily Morrell was a 2019 Seminary Fellow. She is a third year student at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, pursuing masters’ degrees in Divinity and the Arts.
1. All Biblical citations are drawn from the New Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version.
2. Frank Newport, "Percentage of Christians in U.S. Drifting Down, but Still High," Gallup.com. June 07, 2017. Accessed July 10, 2019.