If Misquoting the Bible was a Political Contest…

If misusing the Bible was an Olympic event, many politicians and political candidates seem determined to win the Gold Medal. In the article below, I offer several examples of some of the more egregious misuses of the Bible. Depending on the severity of the misuse, politicians are divided into Bronze, Silver, and Gold .

Choosing examples was much harder than I thought. First, there was a stunning amount of examples from which to pick. American politicians of all parties quote from the Bible all the time. Second, several examples didn’t neatly fit into any category. Politicians often make subtle allusions to Scripture rather than direct quotes. Third, I’ve limited my examples to contemporary politicians operating at a Federal level. Fourth, sometimes the quotation is fine in and of itself, but the application or purpose of the quote is problematic. To streamline this process, there are some types of biblical citations I’ve chosen to exclude.

I am not including examples when the politician is simply attempting to apply a biblical principle, even when I don’t agree with that application. For example, Andrew Yang, who attends a Reformed Church in America congregation, cited 1 John 3:17 in support of his advocacy for universal basic income. As his comments made clear, he wasn’t suggesting that this biblical passage was about universal income, but rather that he believed it was one way to apply the biblical principle of compassion that lay at the heart of the passage. In his words, “Universal Basic Income is a beginning for followers of Christ and all who believe in putting Humanity First, to begin to love our neighbors as ourselves and begin caring for and helping others the way we have been commanded.” While one might not agree with his application, Yang at least deserves credit for seeing the distinction between meaning and application.

Also, I am not including examples when the politician’s use of Scripture is technically correct, even though it is misleading. In 2018, then Attorney General Jeffery Sessions caused understandable anger regarding his use of the Bible when addressing the border crisis. While defending Trump’s administration regarding the practice of separating children from their families, Sessions pivoted to the criminality of illegally crossing the border. Citing Scripture, Sessions said, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purpose.” Sessions correctly cited that passage, even though this is a perfect example of a politician changing the subject (the controversy wasn’t about the illegality of border crossing but the ethics of child separation).

BRONZE MEDAL WINNERS

The Bronze Medal is awarded to politicians who either misquote the Bible or mistake popular quotes/truisms for Bible passages. We will save the more abhorrent misquotes for the Silver and Gold categories.

Barack Obama, Al Gore, & Nanci Pelosi

I’m lumping these three politicians together because they all committed the same error: they quoted verses that don’t actually exist.

In an eyebrow raising statement in 2014, Obama said, “The good book says don’t throw stones at glass houses.” No such verse exists in Scripture, though it’s a really cool line from Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde. To be fair, I once heard a fundamentalist Baptist preacher say, “As the Bible says, cleanliness is next to godliness.” Again, there is no such Bible verse.

Albert Gore did something similar in a 1992 speech when he affirmed, “In the words of the Bible, ‘Do not lose heart. This nation will be renewed.’” I’m really not sure what verse he is alluding to. It’s possible he was referring to Deuteronomy 20:3b-4, “Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory” (NRSV). Another possibility is 2 Corinthians 4:16, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” It is likely he mashed together a few different passages.

Nanci Pelosi not only made up a Bible verse, but she has quoted the same made-up verse on dozens of occasions. The “verse” in question supposedly says, “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.” Apparently, she was aware people had criticized this quotation. At a conference for Christian Colleges and Universities, she repeated the quote again before adding, “I can’t find it in the Bible, but I quote it all the time. I keep reading and reading the Bible —I know it’s there someplace. It’s supposed to be in Isaiah.” At some point one would have thought an intern or a religious friend would have pulled her aside and brought this error to her attention. I guess not.

Marco Rubio

In the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglass High School shooting in 2018, several young leaders emerged who passionately advocated for gun control legislation. Since Florida was the epicenter of this particular shooting and its resulting political aftermath, Senator Rubio was the focus of these teen leaders’ outrage. To Senator Rubio’s credit, he genuinely attempted to dialogue in good faith in a public forum, though the event turned hostile towards him. Weeks later, Rubio tweeted a dig against these back-talking teens. The tweet quoted Isaiah 3:4-5, “I will place boys as their princes; the fickle will govern them & the people will oppress one another, yes, each one the neighbor. The child will be insolent toward the elder & the base toward the honorable.” Without realizing it, Rubio was insulting himself since that passage refers to the eventual destruction of Israel due to the wickedness of its rulers (thus leaving only the fickle and insolent in charge). Still, weaponizing this verse against teenagers just seems mean and rightly earns Rubio a Bronze.

Joe Biden

In 2021, Biden gave a speech honoring the 12 Marines killed in an ISIS attack in Kabul. Biden said, “Those who have served through the ages have drawn inspiration from the book of Isaiah when the Lord says, ‘Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?’” We should have sympathy for the circumstances of that speech. We can even praise Biden for attempting to use Scripture to provide comfort to grieving families. However, that passage is talking about the prophet’s willingness to boldly speak for the Lord even in the face of opposition. While Biden clearly misunderstood and misappropriated the passage’s context, he lost out on the Silver Medal because I’ve heard conservative preachers make the same error. For that reason, he receives the Bronze.

SILVER MEDAL WINNERS

Whereas the Bronze Medal winners made silly interpretational errors or mistook popular truisms for Bible passages, winners of the Silver Medal overtly twist Scripture from its original context. One common example is when politicians read America or American interests into biblical texts. Modern examples include George H. W. Bush and Ted Cruz.

George H. W. Bush & Ted Cruz

The 1992 political season was ripe with Scriptural abuse (see the Bill Clinton section below). In a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters, George H. W. Bush commended the organization for their support in the war to drive Iraq from Kuwait. While opinions on this war still divide Christians, I remain convinced it was an ethically proper response to the injustices committed by Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, in that speech the president offered an abhorrent application of Matthew 5:14: “I want to thank you for helping America, as Christ ordained, to be a light unto the world.” Of course, it is necessary at times for a nation to justly go to war in an effort to stop evil. However, that biblical passage deals with a Christians’ calling to live meek, peaceable lives even in the midst of great persecution. It specifically commands Christians to forgo violent responses. The theologian Richard Neuhaus later referred to the speech as “balderdash spiced with nationalistic hubris, a generous sprinkling of mendacity, and more than a hint of blasphemy.”

Ted Cruz misused Scripture in a similar manner. While running for president in 2016, Cruz 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.” I know many Christians love hearing this verse applied to America and I’ve lost track of how many pastors have done the same thing. Still, it is wildly irresponsible to appropriate that promise to the United States. That passage is a promise to ancient Israel. If they obeyed God, He would heal and protect Israel in perpetuity. Their refusal to heed God’s warning resulted in Israel’s destruction. Because of this, God sent Jesus to inaugurate an entirely new kingdom. To claim that God will restore an earthly nation, especially one birthed 1,800 years after the Bible, turns the entire biblical story on its head.

Donald Trump & Pete Buttigieg

The Silver Medal is also awarded to politicians who overtly cherry pick which Bible verses the wish to believe. It’s likely most politicians do this, but this Medal is reserved for those who do so openly. Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg are two examples of this kind of misuse of Scripture.

As for Trump, it was somewhat difficult to determine where he should place in this contest. While he has alluded to Scripture (or, even just the book itself) on multiple occasions, he has rarely quoted or referred to its contents in a coherent manner. At times, he seems unaware of its most basic teachings. Most of us just rolled our eyes at his “Two Corinthians” reference at Liberty University in 2016. His 2015 admission that he has never once asked for God’s forgiveness was even more jarring. He would later outdo himself in a shocking display of biblical discordance when he infamously ordered the streets cleared of racial justice protesters so that he could have a photo taken in front of St. John’s Church while holding a Bible. Nothing says “I side with Jesus” more than shooting gas canisters into protestors!

On other occasions, Trump seemed to make up Bible passages. He told an evangelical interviewer that his favorite book of the Bible is “Proverbs, the chapter ‘never bend to envy.’” There is no such line in the Bible and Proverbs certainly has no chapter about envy. If we wish to be extremely generous, we could perhaps assume Trump was referring to one of the very few verses in Proverbs that addresses envy.

However, he received the Silver Medal for his shocking rejection of biblical teaching. In a 2016 interview with WHAM 1180 AM radio host Bob Lonsberry, Trump was asked if he had a favorite Bible verse or story that impacted his thinking or character. He confusingly replied, “an eye for an eye, you can almost say that.” Things went downhill from there. Rambling on, Trump added, “if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us…. And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.” While Trump did quote from Exodus 21:24, he seems to be intentionally rejecting Jesus’ reversal of that idea in Matthew 5:38-41. Trump cherry picks the “strong man, revenge” motifs of the Bible while repudiating its “forgiveness, kindness” motifs.

He is hardly the only politician that cherry picks. Whereas Trump appears to accept or reject the Bible teachings in an almost capricious fashion, Pete Buttigieg does the same thing in a more intentional and methodical manner. After being accused of “cherry-picking” from the Bible in his support for abortion, Buttigieg responded by saying he was not “so much cherry-picking as just being serious, because of course there’s so many things in Scripture that are inconsistent internally, and you’ve got to decide what sense to make of it.” That just sounds like a more sophisticated version of cherry-picking with a healthy serving of intellectual snobbery to boot.

Trump and Buttigieg receives a Silver Medal not so much for their misquoting or misappropriating of Scripture, but rather due to their overt disregard for much of its content.

GOLD MEDAL WINNERS

Like the Silver Medal winners, those who win the Gold have also egregiously ripped the Bible out of its context. However, unlike the Silver Medalists, the Gold Medalists actually changed the Biblical text to accommodate their misappropriation. That’s a bold move, but that’s also why they win the Gold. Their mantra might as well be “Go big or go home!” Notorious examples come from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Bill Clinton and Mike Pence.

Bill Clinton & Mike Pence

In their acceptance speeches at their respective nomination conventions, both Bill Clinton (1992) and Mike Pence (2020) appealed to Scripture to underscore the greatness of America. Though these speeches were nearly 30 years apart, they used almost identical tactics. Let’s examine these tactics below.

In 1992, Clinton spoke about the need to have faith in ourselves and what Americans can accomplish if we stand united. On every objective metric, his delivery was electrifying. To prove his point of America’s great potential, he added, “As the Scripture says, our eyes have not yet seen, nor our ears heard, nor our minds imagined, what we can build.” His is supposedly quoting from 1 Corinthians 2:9. Let’s compare his wording with the actual wording of 1 Corinthians 2:9.

BIBLICAL TEXT

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.

CLINTON’S SPEECH

Our eyes have not seen, nor our ears heard, nor our minds imagined, what we can build.

Before we analyze Clinton’s statement any further, let’s now consider a statement made by Mike Pence at the 2020 Republican National Convention. In that speech, Pence offered a “paraphrase” of Hebrews 12:1-2. Let’s also compare his wording with the biblical passage.

BIBLICAL TEXT (Hebrew 12:1-2)

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

PENCE’S SPEECH

So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.

Look the corresponding words in bold to see how both Clinton and Pence radically changed the biblical passage. To be clear, I have no problem that either Bill Clinton or Mike Pence was asking us to have hope for America’s future or a fond view of our nation’s past. But I have a serious problem when a politician alters a Bible passage to radically change its message. 1 Corinthians 2:9 is about the magnificent plans of God, but in the mouth of Bill Clinton this was twisted into being about the magnificent plans of America (or at least his dream for America). Hebrews 12:1-2 commands us to fix our eyes on Jesus, but Pence altered this to ask us to fix our eyes on America! As an old farming friend used to say, “I’m not the brightest guy, but I know hog manure when I step in it.”

In both cases, the politician was using bible-sounding language as a crass appeal to authority. When Scripture didn’t fit their intentions, they simply changed Scripture to suit their purposes. Most likely, they understood that bible-sounding language added weight and gravitas to their comments. In a word, this was scripture-twisting (to the extreme).

Conclusion

Politicians of all parties have been misusing Scripture for centuries. It doesn’t especially alarm me when a politician disagrees with the Bible, misquotes the Bible, or even changes the Bible. It’s not right, but it’s also not surprising. No book has been more weaponized, more mischaracterized, or more misused.

As the mid-term political season heats up, Christians would be wise to be discerning when a politician quotes the Bible. Admittedly, politicians from both parties have used Scripture in a genuine, good faith attempt to heed its truths. These instances should be celebrated.

Even when we encounter a misquotation or abuse of Scripture we don’t need to become enraged. I deeply respect some of the politicians listed above (I even voted for a couple of them). Politicians aren’t in the business of giving Bible studies. They are trying to win votes and long ago discovered the advantage of “sounding” biblical.

My prayer is that God would give His people the discernment to see past “Bible sounding language,” and instead recognize when they are hearing genuine and faithful representations of God’s voice. After all, the Bible is God’s spoken word to us. We should take notice when that voice is being distorted.

There is a reason for the old truism that says, “Never trust a politician who quotes either the Bible or Shakespeare.”

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