Bad Religion

Why do Republican politicians keep getting Scripture wrong?

Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz participate in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016, in Detroit.
Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz participate in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016, in Detroit. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Marco Rubio wants you to know one thing about him: He reads his Bible. Every couple of days, Rubio’s Twitter account sends out a Bible verse that seems to pertain to the current politics of the day. Often, Rubio’s quoted Bible verses are not-so-veiled subtweets of whatever liberal political idea he’s arguing against that week.

Unfortunately, like many in his GOP cohort, Rubio frequently doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying. In late March, Rubio tweeted Isaiah 3:4–5, as a rebuke of the young leaders who have arisen in light of Congress’ inaction on gun control in the face of the increased pace and ferocity of mass shootings.

Rubio’s point, essentially, was that young people make bad leaders. But in attempting to throw shade at Stoneman Douglas High School students, Rubio ended up exposing his own ignorance. Those verses from Isaiah are from a chapter rebuking the people of Israel for failing to lead—to the point where young people had to step up and take their place. It is not an indictment of the young; it is an indictment of the leaders, for failing them.

Rubio is not the only politician whose biblically informed reflections reveal his ignorance.

Ted Cruz, while running for the Republican nomination, repeatedly cited 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” In the context of a stump speech, I’m sure it sounded like a call to save America with prayer and piety. But the context is a very specific blessing of a royal lineage—a renewal of God’s promise to David that “You shall never fail to have a successor to rule over Israel.” A quotation from 2 Chronicles is wildly out of place in the politics of a democracy founded on the rejection of the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

More broadly, as Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress has noted, many Republican members of Congress likewise misrepresent Scripture in their efforts to present biblical support for their attacks on the welfare state. And while President Trump is less likely to cite Bible verses (“I don’t want to get into specifics”), he did once name as his favorite the famous line from Exodus 21, “an eye for an eye.” He has never mentioned Jesus’ gloss on that verse in the Gospel of Matthew:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

This inability to correctly read Scripture is both a political and theological problem—and one that’s intrinsic to modern American Christianity.

One of first things any theology student learns is the importance of reading the Bible for context. Verses that seemingly speak directly to a political issue can be misunderstood if not read within the bounds of the time and culture from which they emerged. In the heavily politicized theology of evangelical Christianity, however, this decontextualization seems to be a deliberate feature. White evangelical Christianity is first and foremost an individualized faith, exemplified by the imperative to have “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and asking forgiveness for individual sins. What’s important is how you read a Bible verse and how it speaks to your life—not the fact that the verse is actually about something completely different.

This inability to exegete properly—to place verses in their contexts and understand the whole instead of just the part—is symptomatic of the politicized national religion that evangelical Christianity has become. White evangelical Christianity is built to cherry-pick, and the politicians of the religious right are particularly adept at doing it.

The context-free tweeting of verses as political digs, the use of a promise to King Solomon as a promise to America, the ham-fisted quoting of Jesus’ commentary on the poor to justify denying them health care—all of these are part of the larger problem of the Republican establishment in America: that it is more concerned with bending America to a specific brand of conservatism than with understanding phenomena in their proper contexts, or learning from those with expertise, or reading even its own sacred texts carefully. The result is a movement that looks to the world, and to the Word, only for confirmation of its own ideology.

For many followers in the history of Christianity, the Bible has been a source of wonder, a holy book for understanding God throughout time, and a way of connecting with the larger community. But as with any sacred text, the Bible has also been bent to the will of the powerful in their pursuit of furthering that power. Nothing sums up that pursuit of power like Rubio quoting the Bible to condemn youthful leaders like David Hogg and Emma González. Lest we forget, this is the same Bible in which the Apostle Paul instructs his protégé, Timothy, to “not let anyone look down upon you because you are young.” Perhaps, like his president, Rubio didn’t get to the New Testament part of his Bible yet.