Scripture vs. Scripturalism

15 November 2004

A scholar of Hindu fundamentalism looks at American “moral values.”

By Gregory Grieve

In exit polls taken after the November 2nd vote, 22 per cent of Republican voters cited “moral values” as the most important issue of the election. Since then it has become clear to secular and evangelical observers alike that “moral values” operated as political code for those opposed gay marriage and reproductive rights. The category of “moral values” was rhetorically powerful because it operated as an empty signifier, similar to Barthes’ notion of “myth,” onto which people are projecting their conceptions. As Barthes writes in “Myth Today”: “The signifier presents itself in an ambiguous way: It is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.”

What is it that gives this empty form authority? “Moral values” are empowered by “scripturalism,” a pattern of mediation that represents texts as ahistorical and uses them to legitimize a specific regime of practices and beliefs. Scripturalism rests upon a transcendental understanding of religious texts. Scripturalism differentiates itself from other forms of understanding those religious texts by accusing them of idolatry—the worship of material human constructions.

Of course, all religious communication involves the material. Even speech depends on the medium of air. Moreover, no scripture is without its history. It most be uttered, written down and interpreted.

My concern is not simply academic. Far from being a neutral taxonomy, scripturalism tends to structure knowledge so as to benefit a elite, educated, conservative worldview. It tends to privilege the linguistic, the discursive, and the cognitized over the visceral and tacit. For instance, in South Asian religions, scripturalism has forced local traditions into a “world religion’s” echo of Christian theology. While in the 19th century the scripturalism may have been solely a Western concern, by the 20th century scripturalism had become one of the most powerful rhetorical tropes of Hindutva fundamentalist political groups such as India’s religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

While I am not a scholar of contemporary American evangelical Christianity, I believe that the South Asian case can cast some light upon America’s current situation. In the same way that Hindu nationalists in India used the authority of the Veda to further there own agenda, America’s religious nationalists are now using a very idolized notion of scripture to impose their “moral values.” This is an idolized notion of scripture that by denying the materiality and history of the text, authorizes a vision of Christianity that is far from moral. And it causes harm to many of the people I hold dear.

Gregory Grieve, an assistant professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, is a Visiting Fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media.