Challenging the 'Sins of Scripture'

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," April 13, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY, HOST: In the "Personal Story" segment tonight, one of the most controversial clergymen in the country is Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong (search), an outspoken liberal theologian. His new book is going to make a lot of believers very angry.

Bishop Spong's book is called "The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Text of Hate to Reveal the God of Love." And he joins us now.

Boy, are you going to tee off some people. I gave the bishop a blurb for his book and I read the book. And it's a very, very thought-provoking book, but it's against all Christian orthodoxy, almost all of it.

And I want to get very specific. We just saw the pope and an amazing outpouring of affection for the pope. First of all, did you think he was a good man, the pope?


O'REILLY: You respected him?

SPONG: Oh, yes.

O'REILLY: Because he was as conservative a Christian as you are a liberal.

SPONG: I respect you, but I don't always agree with your point of view.

O'REILLY: OK. But you respect him.

SPONG: I thought he made great contributions in Eastern Europe. I thought he was right on when he attacked the war in Iraq. I disagreed on him on the treatment by the church of the role of woman and homosexuals and some other issues, birth control (search).

O'REILLY: You thought he was a good man?

SPONG: Oh, yes. He was a positive force in this world.

O'REILLY: OK, good. Now one of the central themes of Pope John Paul II's (search) life was to pray. He was an extremely spiritual man, praying all the time for direct intervention by God. His tactic to deal with terrorism, Saddam and all of these other people, was to pray that good would overcome evil.

And he believed in his heart that the prayers that people said brought down the Soviet Union, rather than the hardware the USA put up to bankrupt the Soviet Union. He believed, the pope believed, in an interventionist God, a higher power that actually does things directly for good people. You don't believe in that.

SPONG: That's not exactly fair. I think you've got to be careful when you claim that you know how God acts, because every time God is said to intervene to say bring down the Soviet Union, that reflects your desires.

But why didn't God stop the tsunami? Why didn't God stop the AIDS epidemic (search) in Africa? Why did God not intervene to stop the Holocaust? It's just not easy enough to say that I pray and God will accomplish.

O'REILLY: Well, everybody says the Lord works in mysterious ways. And nobody knows...

SPONG: That's because they can't understand.

O'REILLY: I think any believer would say that. But in your book I got the impression that you don't pray to Lord and ask him for things, because you don't believe he operates that way.

SPONG: Bill, I pray probably two hours every day of my life. But to me it's to get in tune with the God presence in this world so that I can be a part of that God presence.

O'REILLY: Do you pray for anything specifically?

SPONG: Well, it depends. I've had a daughter in Iraq for the last seven months, and I pray daily for her safety.

O'REILLY: For her safety.

SPONG: Do I think that God will put down a shield and stop bullets that happen to be headed in her direction? No.

O'REILLY: Well, then why pray for her safety if you don't believe that the deity would keep her safe?

SPONG: Well, I do that because I have to do that. That's what love does for somebody, and I don't know that it doesn't work. I just don't want to count on it.

O'REILLY: OK. Because you don't want to count on it.

SPONG: I don't have to...

O'REILLY: Because most people watching me right now pray to a higher power in whatever religion they operate and even if you don't have a religion, you know, for certain things, world peace...

SPONG: I think that expresses your feelings.

O'REILLY: Is that a healthy thing to do?

SPONG: Well, yes, it's not unhealthy. I think one of the things we've got to look out for is human beings claiming that they know how God operates.

O'REILLY: I understand.

SPONG: To me that's like a horse claiming that they would know what a human being is doing...

O'REILLY: I do it every day on the radio when people call up and say I'm a bad Catholic and I'm going to hell. I already know I'm going to hell, but I'm trying to be a good guy.

SPONG: I have that sort of thing, too, but I tell them I'd really rather be in hell than in heaven with people like that sometimes.

O'REILLY: Whoa! Now I think there's a resurgence, a spiritual resurgence underway in this country. A lot of it has to do with the War on Terror, all right? Because we see how villainous these Islamo-fascists are, and I think people are turning inward and saying, you know, there's got to be a good.

There's a program on "Revelations" tonight, OK, which is going to scare the bejesus, pardon the pun, out of everybody because it's about the end of the world. And I think this is going to do very well, this program. And people are going to be engaged.

Is this healthy for people to believe Revelations, to believe these kinds of things?

SPONG: Religion is a mixed blessing. In the book I talk about how the Bible can be used to hurt homosexuals, to hurt women, to keep women from being educated, to keep the Magna Carta from being adopted, to oppose Galileo. We've done a lot of things like that: to justify the Inquisition and the crusades. That's the negative side.

The positive side is that religion, I believe, in its highest and purest form, calls us to respect the innate dignity of every human being and help them, and help them become all that they can be.

When I define God and it's not as a being upstairs. That's the God I grew up with. I don't want to say that God isn't so, but that's not how I experience God. I experience as the power of life. I experience God as the power of love. I experience God in the words of my favorite theologian, Paul Tillich (search), as the ground of being.

O'REILLY: But you're a believer, though?

SPONG: Yes, I am. What that means is if I worship God by living, by loving, and by being all that I can be, and I serve that God by helping to build a world where everybody else can love...

O'REILLY: Well, that's what you're just saying what Jesus taught.

SPONG: That's my opinion.

O'REILLY: That's the Jesus message to love God and then love your neighbor as yourself. A very simple lesson.

I agree with you that religion has been perverted for bad things. There's no question that it has been. And we're looking at it right now with, again, Islam. I mean, it's been used to butcher people.

SPONG: The only good thing about the Islamic terrorists, the only good thing is that it forced us in the west to recognize that we have also been terrorists toward the Jews, towards the Muslims during the crusades, toward...

O'REILLY: That's a long time ago.

SPONG: That's true, Bill, but it's still in the background. Don't think that the crusades...

O'REILLY: It didn't do anybody any good — it doesn't do anybody any good to go back 400 years and say, "My action today is justified for what you did 400 years."

SPONG: I'm not saying that it's justified. I am suggesting that it helps you understand the hostility, which I believe we've got to be willing to understand.

O'REILLY: Well, I'll understand them, but I'll also take a bullet and put it right through their brain. And I don't think Jesus is going to be mad at me for doing that.

SPONG: Well, he did say love your enemies.

O'REILLY: Also, I have to protect my family. All right? That is the greatest love. And if these people come into my purview, they're not going to come out. And I don't think I'm a bad Christian for doing that.

One more question for you. When I read the New Testament, I don't see any of the xenophobia that you're talking about, you know, the bad things against women, the gays. You know, Jesus never mentioned gays.

SPONG: I think Jesus was a revolutionary.

O'REILLY: Yes. I think if you really zero in on we Christians, what is actually said there, it's free of hate. There's hate.

SPONG: But that's not the history of the Christian Church.

O'REILLY: It doesn't matter. Men have perverted it, not the word.

SPONG: Yes and no. I grew up in North Carolina in a segregated world and the Bible was quoted to justify segregation. I grew up as a total sexist and a patriarchal fellow, and the Bible was quoted to me to justify that.

O'REILLY: Those were men doing that, not Jesus. Jesus wasn't a segregated guy.

SPONG: Well, I agree with that. But it was still the fact, and I grew up thinking homosexuals are either mentally sick or morally depraved. That's the nature.

O'REILLY: All right.

SPONG: I think we've got to banish those prejudices.

O'REILLY: Now it's the conservatives who are mentally sick and depraved. Things change.

"Sins of the Scripture" is Bishop Shelby's book — Bishop Spong's book. And we appreciate you coming in.

SPONG: It's a pleasure being with you.

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