Psalm 109:8: Trivia or Conspiracy

By Michael Utzinger

With all of the discussion of the midterm elections, I would like to rewind the clock to a bizarre little incident from the ghost of news cycles past. Last November there was a short-lived furor about a bumper sticker that read:

Pray for Obama
Psalm 109:8

When I first saw this bumper sticker, while driving, I naturally went home and looked up the passage in the Bible: “May his days be few, let another assume his office.”

Because I found it moderately clever, I was surprised when the news broke that the websites selling Psalm 109:8 bumper stickers and T-shirts had stopped peddling these wares because the message may have been against the law, a law that bans threatening the President of the United States

The guilty speech in this case was not the verse printed on the bumper sticker (Psalm 109:8) but the verse that follows it in the Bible which reads: “May his children become fatherless, and his wife a widow” (v. 9).

Speaking with some colleagues about this, I admitted that I thought it odd that “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8” would be construed as a threat against the President. One colleague disagreed. “You have the read the next verse,” he insisted. “This is clearly a threat.” The implicit argument of my colleague was based upon the claim that the bumper sticker must be interpreted contextually. In other words, Psalm 109:8 can only be understood if it is read with Psalm 109:9. My colleague pressed that these people know their Bible, so they know what they meant.

I have no doubt that they knew what they meant. The problem is: how do “we” know what they meant? For example, what about verse 6? “Appoint an evil man to oppose him; let an accuser stand at his right hand.” (So much for the newest Republican revolution or the Tea Party.) Better yet, in the full context of the Psalm, it appears that verses 6-19 represent the voice of those that oppose the anointed of God, the king, the messiah. Perhaps, the bumper stickers implies those that paste it to their cars are the “accusers” (Satans) mentioned in verse 6? Perhaps, Obama was God’s anointed?

And this, of course, is the rub. Bible verses can be de-contextualized and re-contextualized on a bumper sticker or a shirt or a sign. On what grounds does one verse printed on a bumper sticker carry some or all of the rest of the meaning of the literature from which it was decontextualized?

For example, it is cliché to use John 3:16 in a decontextualized manner: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall perish but have everlasting life. My experience, however, has been that those that use the verse are completely unaware of verses that follow that speak of the condemnation of those that do not believe. How do I know if the fan in the rainbow wig is inviting me to accept Jesus as my personal savior, warning me that I am potentially hell bound, just an eccentric, or all of the above?

“Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8” on a bumper sticker, it seems to me, was clearly a bible-believing version of “throw the bum out.” Further, our current president was not the first to be targeted by this Bible verse as Arlen Specter, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton would certainly attest. So, why did this verse attached to Obama make the idea that it constituted a threat seems credible? Perhaps it seemed plausible because the media bombarded us the previous summer with images of the raw anger manifested by individuals within the emerging Tea Party movement and assumed that tea partiers were really populist remnants of the religious right. However, we now know (if little else) that the tea party movements are not primarily a cloaked religious movement of potentially violent evangelicals.

Claims about what the verse meant and why a certain interpretation seems credible at a particular historical moment requires argument and evidence if it is to have validity. This, of course, usually takes more time than a new cycle. However, well after the event is news, it becomes our job as students of American religion to determine if this was simply a trivial misunderstanding or a religious conspiracy to threaten the president.


Anonymous said…
Or a non-trivial misunderstanding, by the meme’s creators and carriers.

When you say “that the tea party movements are not primarily a cloaked religious movement of potentially violent evangelicals,” I say “bwha-huh?” Sarah Posner, for one, might too:

Sure, their rhetoric, when it’s violent, is often just hyperbole. Presumably most Psalm 109 prayer warriors vehemently opposed Obama, even if they did not intend the Psalm to be an actual threat. Some though, such as Pastor Wiley Drake in California and Pastor Steven Anderson, explicitly read it as such. That no one sporting the bumper sticker has choked on the irony that the biblical quote casts the driver in the role of an ungodly opponent of the Messiah suggests that many have misunderstood the Psalm. They have not, however, misunderstood its desire to express hostile opposition to one’s political enemies.

So I think your historical evidence is right there: it is conservative anger that explains why the whole context of the Psalm was taken more seriously by commentators. That anger made the Psalm’s violent language non-trivial. Maybe comparative evidence from the examples of bible thumping at Specter, Bush, and Clinton will undermine that point, but I doubt it.

Tom Van Dyke said…
I meself put "eliminationist rhetoric" somewhere below fluoridation as a threat to the republic.

Although some make their livings in hyping such non-existent threats. What can you do? [Hi, Mr. Niewert. Howyadoin'?]

But I applaud any encouragements to read the Bible, although it's doubtful anyone who needs a T-shirt to read Ps 109:8 will continue onto Ps 109:9 and take up arms against the president as a result.

On the whole, Mr. Utzinger's argument does not border on the bizarre, it is bizarre, especially when he drags the Tea Party thing in. This obsession with the tea parties is getting squirrelier than they are.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, "May his days be few, let another assume his office." It's an inside joke, not a call to violence. Sober up, take a pill, whatever it takes.

AMBurgess said…
Were the "F--- Bush" bumper stickers threatening? I don't think so. Tasteless, yes, but this kind of thing isn't new. It's also tasteless to use sacred writings to score a cheap political point, but reading any serious threat into it is an overreaction. Tom is right. We all need to relax.
JM Utzinger said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
JM Utzinger said…
Eric, you make some excellent points, particularly noting that some of the meme's creators could mean this as a threat and their writings/speeches may make such clear. But do we agree that the meme’s carriers probably aren’t (at least without some better evidence to the contrary)? Obviously, I'm more in the camp that sees this as trivia and not as a widespread serious threat (on this Mr. Van Dyke, Mr. Burgess, and I appear to agree). However, I also wanted to understand why so many people thought it might be a threat. Mr. Van Dyke's implication may be right: those who thought it a threat (or bothered to write about it) are just bizarre. I also admit that I assumed that those who used the bumper sticker and those that attacked it are not stupid or deranged (despite manifold ironies and hypersensitivities). However, without explanation and evidence, the claim bizarreness does little to get to the bottom of the issue: how could and why would one pose the idea as serious? My argument about depicted raw anger may be wrong but the rejoinder of bizarreness is no argument at all. Perhaps, I might have added that a common perception (a perception I think is false) that all forms of religious conservatism are the same (and include some element of violence) also helped make such a claim credible for some folks.

Eric you have another excellent point when you cite Posner's blog. However, even with PRR stats mentioned in her post, I am not sure I am convinced that the Tea Party movement is a “cloaked” movement religious right. In other words, I am not convinced that tea partiers have purposely hidden a religious agenda so they can really bring in a social conservative agenda like a Trojan horse. Further, even if this did happen because there is overlap in constituencies, it doesn’t mean that the tea party movement is primarily religious. If religious, the movement has a funny way of showing it (and perhaps the other 50%--I accidentally write 11% in my original response--of the religious right not in the tea party perhaps agrees with such an assessment?). I worry that much of this becomes the language of conspiracy theory, and the bigger the conspiracy (11% of the U.S. population is a stunningly large conspiracy), the less likely it will be true. So, while I am quite open to this argument, I am not yet convinced. Perhaps the next round of PRR stats will help sort some of this out.
I've been reading Colleen McDannell's _Material Christianity_ today. She makes the point that its not that objects have multiple meanings depending on the context. Rather, objects have multiple meanings within the same context. In effect, meaning is constantly shifting--it has always already escaped us. So, trying to nail down what the bumper sticker "really means" is sort of an impossible task. Rather, the better questions is "Whose meaning counts?" This is a question about power rather than content and in this case it's pretty clear. The authorities that shutdown the t-shirts had the power so their meaning stuck.