Nancy Pelosi addressed a gathering of presidents of Christian colleges this week in Washington, where she thanked the evangelical community for its leadership on immigration and refugee policy reform. To this end, the speaker of the House quoted a favorite bit of biblical wisdom in her opening statement: “To minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”
OK, actually, she said, it might not technically be from the Bible. “I can’t find it in the Bible, but I quote it all the time,” Pelosi said as she introduced the quote. “I keep reading and reading the Bible—I know it’s there someplace. It’s supposed to be in Isaiah. I heard a bishop say, ‘To minister to the needs of God’s creation … ’ ”
To clarify: It is not “there someplace.”
“The Pelosi passage is not in the Bible,” Will Kynes, an associate professor of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Whitworth University, told me by email. The closest analog he could find was Proverbs 14:31, which switches the order of the two main ideas and focuses specifically on the poor: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” Greg MaGee, an associate professor of biblical studies at Taylor University, independently suggested the same verse as the closest approximation of the sentiment in Pelosi’s version.
Pelosi got one thing right: She does in fact “quote it all the time.” The earliest example I found comes from the Congressional Record in 2002, in a speech honoring a prominent Catholic priest in San Francisco who had recently died. “The Bible tells us that to minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship,” she said on the House floor. “To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”
Between 2002 and 2018, the quote appears 12 times in the Congressional Record, with Pelosi responsible for all but one of the entries. (The other time, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert was quoting Pelosi.) She has deployed it in speeches to recognize genocide in Darfur (“to ignore God’s creation, which are these children, is to dishonor the God who made them”), to strengthen the Endangered Species Act (“to minister to the needs of God’s creation, and that includes our beautiful environment”), twice to honor Catholic schools (“my Catholic education taught me that to minister to the needs of God’s creation”), and to express condolences after the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia (“it is appropriate on many occasions, but I thought of it the minute I saw the tsunami”).
It’s easy to see why the line is useful for a politician. It suggests that to do any kind of earthly good—“to minister to the needs of God’s creation”—is a holy act. The quote is a dollop of ancient wisdom on top of a dry discussion of policy. It’s the next best thing to the Prophet Isaiah himself appearing on the House floor to, say, oppose a particular iteration of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (“to ignore those needs, as this bill does, is to dishonor the God who made us”).
Pelosi has faced surprisingly little pushback over the years for her repeated citation of a nonexistent Bible verse. There was a flurry of harrumphing on conservative websites in 2008, after one site called around to some Bible scholars to confirm that the line didn’t come from the Bible. But she kept on using it, and there’s been little objection from the left or the right in the decade since. That may be because of the fact that politicians mangle quotes and their sources constantly. And Pelosi’s hemming and hawing in her speech this week suggests that she’s aware by now that she has it wrong.
As for the actual source material, it remains a mystery for now. An inquiring phone call to Pelosi’s office on Thursday was not returned. The entire internet contains zero examples of the line apart from its many uses by the speaker of the House. If “a bishop” is responsible for it, as she suggested this week, he or she has not put it in writing in a location accessible to search engines. If anyone reading this has any leads on the origins of the quote, I hope you will share your insight with those of us who are curious. After all, to minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.
Update, Feb. 5, 2019: A reader has pointed us to the Good News Translation of Proverbs 14:31, the verse mentioned by both Bible scholars in this article. The Good News Translation, a “common language” Bible first published in the 1970s, translates the verse this way: “If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship.” Pelosi reverses the phrases and expands the subject from the poor specifically to all of “God’s creation.” But otherwise it is a fairly faithful translation. Mystery solved?