Once again, a Trump supporter has stretched the Bible to defend his conduct. In response to reports that Trump had an affair a few years ago, prominent pro-Trump evangelical Jerry Falwell, Jr, argued that since Jesus said lusting in your heart is the same as adultery, we’re all sinners.
Falwell’s Biblical appeal (he was referencing Matthew 5:28) — and similar pro-Trump evangelical support — has provoked anger from many reasonable conservative Christians. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has been a consistent and powerful critic of the misuse of Christianity to support Trump. Christianity Today’s Mark Galli carefully explained the problems with Falwell’s Biblical understanding.
There are thus many reactions to this and similar incidents. Mine may be a bit surprising: it made me appreciate the liturgy. Catholic, Episcopal and mainline Protestant churches use a liturgy in their worship, a fixed set of Bible readings, prayers and rituals that structure church services and put the Bible verses we hear in context. Some criticize this form of worship as being less sincere or less connected to God, but it has its benefits. One may actually be to guard against the sort of misuse of the Bible we saw with Falwell.
Unfortunately, Falwell’s misuse of the Bible wasn’t the only such recent example.
After news broke about Roy Moore’s “alleged” (but pretty well documented) harassment and abuse of teen girls, some turned to the Bible to defend him. Jim Ziegler, the Alabama State Auditor, compared Moore’s despicable behavior to Joseph and Mary in the Gospels. Additionally, Moore’s brother said the Senate candidate is being persecuted like Jesus. As James Martin pointed out on Twitter,the comparison of Moore to Joseph and Mary is both Biblically inaccurate and offensive. Likewise, it is downright shameful to try and use the Son of God’s suffering to defend someone like Moore.
Additionally, Scott Pruitt — the administrator of the EPA — referenced a Bible verse about not serving two masters to justify removing EPA-funded experts from an advisory board. But he doesn’t really seem to understand the passage. Joshua was calling on the Israelites to choose between God or false idols, which is kind of a stretch.
Then there’s Robert Jeffress, who referenced Romans 13 to defend Trump after his dangerous threats against North Korea. Jeffress claimed this passage gave Trump the authority to wage war. As I pointed out at the time, this is totally wrong.
And then there is the astounding comparison of Trump to King David. This came up a few times, such as when Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that just as “King David wasn’t perfect,” God still used him, and so too can Trump be a vessel of God. This is a pretty weak argument. David wasn’t perfect, yes, but he was frequently remorseful for his sins and humbled by God’s mercy.
Ironically, the evangelical focus on the Bible alone, with no intermediary liturgy, may be opening up evangelical leaders to this sort of misuse of the Bible. Evangelical Christians argue the Bible is inerrant and needs to be taken literally. Sophisticated evangelicals apply this by attempting to resolve confusing passages with each other through close and careful reading. Some, however, believe it means that every passage in the Bible is equally inerrant and literal. Thus, for some, memorizing a passage is just as good as reading the context in which it occurs or understanding its deeper meaning.
Compare this to the Episcopal Church I attend now (and the Lutheran Church I attended for some of my childhood). Children learn the meaning and tradition behind catechisms. Bible passages are part of an organized lectionary we cycle through every few years; an Old Testament reading is paired with a passage from the New Testament, a Psalm, and a Gospel passage. The sermon ties these passages together, helping the congregation understand how different parts of the Bible speak to themselves.
This difference may facilitate the sort of arguments we see from Falwell and others. If their tradition prizes Biblical recall, then a Bible verse that seems to justify their position may appear to be a coherent argument. Obviously (and thankfully) this doesn’t necessarily make it a convincing argument to many reasonable evangelicals. But it does seem convincing to pro-Trump evangelicals. An argument made in a liturgical context, however, would — ideally — require a discussion of the scriptural context and tradition of interpretation.
The liturgy isn’t perfect. Liturgical churches have twisted the Bible for horrible political purposes. Some mainline Protestants are comfortable disregarding Bible verses that don’t fit their argument.
Moreover, I don’t think all evangelical churches should adopt a liturgy. Their more personal approach can be valuable, and diversity of worship in the Christian community is a good thing. And some evangelicals seem to be realizing the way their tradition is being misused in the service of Trump.
But the repeated misuse of the Bible by Falwell and others to defend Trump does demonstrate the value of a liturgical approach. Establishing a higher standard for Christian arguments than “look up a verse” can improve the tenor of faith and politics.
I hope evangelicals do realize the value of liturgical worship. It’s just not rote tradition or a non-Christian addition to worship; it can lead to a deeper, more consistent worship by placing Biblical passages in a broader context. As more evangelicals begin to oppose Trump, it may be worth thinking about how their tradition produced arguments such as Falwell’s.
Moreover, I hope mainline Protestants also realize the value of their worship. Too often we try to downplay liturgy and tradition, thinking it’s old-fashioned or an obstacle for newcomers. But the liturgy can both demonstrate the value of our worship, and enable us to engage in the very important debates on faith and politics currently embroiling America.