Feature Image Credit: CBS News.
by Daniel L. Dreisbach, American University
Biblical language, allusions, and themes have long featured prominently in American political discourse. The rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign was no exception. Indeed, the Bible was often front and center in stump speeches, debates, and controversies. A brief analysis of its use can provide insight into the continuing role of the Bible in political discourse.
Although the Bible may have had a greater presence in this political season than in some recent election cycles, its prominence was consistent with tradition. In his June 1783 Circular to the States, for example, George Washington paraphrased Micah 6:8 to describe the virtues he said Americans must exhibit if they “hope to be a happy Nation.” In his memorable, but brief, second inaugural address, widely acclaimed as one of the most eloquent of all presidential addresses, Abraham Lincoln mentioned the Deity fourteen times, quoted the Bible four times (two of which he placed in quotation marks), referenced prayer three times, and explicitly mentioned the “Bible” one time. In one of the most famous political speeches in American presidential politics, delivered at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, William Jennings Bryan famously decried the “gold standard” with a biblical allusion: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” George W. Bush, for one more example, referenced or echoed a dozen or more biblical texts in his two inaugural addresses.
The campaign rhetoric of 2016 was liberally seasoned with quotations and allusions that resonated with biblically literate audiences. Candidate Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, frequently mentioned her Christian faith on the campaign trail. For example, in a speech replete with biblical references before the National Baptist Convention, two months before the election, she expressed gratitude “for the gift of personal salvation and,” she continued, “for the great obligation of a social gospel. To use the gift of grace wisely, to reflect the love of God and follow the example of Jesus Christ to the greater good of God’s beloved community.” In support of this “social gospel,” she turned to the Bible: “The scripture tells us that faith without works is dead [James 2:20, 26]. The Epistle of James tells us we cannot just be hearers of the Word, we must be doers [James 1:22-23].” The application of this admonition to her political agenda found expression in the words of the Prophet Micah: “Yes, we need a President who will do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God [Micah 6:8].” She had mentioned this prophetic text in previous speeches and even in a much retweeted tweet. She returned to Scripture once again in closing, encouraging her audience, in the words of the Apostle Paul: “‘Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart [Galatians 6:9].’ Those are words we all should live by. And if I have the great honor of serving as your President, these are words that I will lead by.”
Clinton’s running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, stirred controversy when in a September speech at a Human Rights Campaign event, the devout Roman Catholic politician invoked the words of the Creator, as recorded in Genesis, to endorse same-sex marriage. “My church,” he said, “also teaches me about a Creator in the first chapter of Genesis who surveys the entire world, including mankind, and said, ‘It is very good [Genesis 1:31].’” From this text, Kaine concluded: “Who am I to challenge the beautiful diversity of the human family? I think we’re supposed to celebrate, not challenge it.”
In perhaps an effort to convince Evangelicals that he shared their values, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the Saturday before the Iowa caucuses, released a Facebook video in which he displayed a Bible his mother had given to him as a boy. (In at least one previous and a number of subsequent campaign events, the candidate publicly exhibited the same Bible.)
This was not the first time the Bible was mentioned in his campaign. In August 2015, Trump told a Republican audience in Michigan that the Bible was his favorite book. “Nothing beats the Bible,” said the self-identified Presbyterian who for a time attended the Manhattan church pastored by Norman Vincent Peale. In a follow-up question a few days later, however, he was unable or unwilling to identify a favorite portion of the Scriptures, saying only “the Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.” A few days before the election, when asked again to identify his “two favorite books,” Trump apparently forgot his previous answer and mentioned two books he had authored.
In April 2016, when asked by a radio host if there was a biblical text that informed his thinking or character, Trump raised a few eyebrows when he cited the Old Testament principle of lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24), a text, at the very least, Jesus qualified in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42). He then concluded the interview by saying: “we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
Raised eyebrows turned to guffaws when, in a speech at conservative Christian Liberty University, he mangled the biblical vernacular familiar to most Evangelicals, directing the audience to “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians.” (He drew attention to his text, 2 Corinthians 3:17, because it is the University’s “school verse” and it highlights the word “liberty,” which is the host institution’s name.) After an initial wave of ridicule for his biblical faux pas, a few commentators acknowledged that Trump’s unorthodox locution is not unknown in the English-speaking world, especially in the United Kingdom, his mother’s homeland.
In the wake of revelations of a 2005 video in which the Republican candidate crudely described kissing, groping, and sexually pursuing women, the Internet exploded with tweets and posts invoking the Bible, both denouncing and supporting the beleaguered candidate. Critics drew attention to biblical texts condemning sexual infidelity and admonishing believers to treat women “in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). Supporters were quick to appeal to the Christian duty to forgive, expressed in the familiar biblical aphorisms to “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37) and “let him without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). Another often repeated defense, which acknowledged that Trump’s words and alleged conduct were wrong (even sinful), was that the Bible is filled with biographies of similarly flawed, sexually reprobate men – such as David, Solomon, and Samson – whom God used to achieve great things.
Arguably the most substantive uses of the Bible came in the lone vice presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence on October 4, 2016. Both men have Roman Catholic backgrounds and have long emphasized their Christian bona fides. When the topic of abortion was raised, both candidates invoked Scripture. “I would tell you that for me,” said the Republican candidate, referencing Jeremiah 1:5, “the sanctity of life proceeds out of the belief that – that ancient principle that – where God says before you were formed in the womb, I knew you, and so for my first time in public life, I sought to stand with great compassion for the sanctity of life.”
The Democrat, who claims to be both pro-life and supportive of a woman’s right to choose, took a different tack. He condemned Trump’s comment earlier in the campaign (March 30, 2016) that women who have abortions should be punished. Although Trump subsequently disavowed this remark, Kaine raised doubts about the sincerity of the retraction by paraphrasing a New Testament passage: “Great line from the – great line from the gospel of Matthew. From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” (a reference to Matthew 12:34 or 15:18).
After declining to concede defeat publicly on election night, Clinton delivered a deeply personal and emotional concession speech the following day in New York City. As she had done so often in the campaign, she appealed to Scripture in the closing lines of her address. “You know,” she said, “scripture tells us, ‘Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season, we shall reap if we do not lose heart [Galatians 6:9].’ My friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.”
Shortly after noon on January 20, 2017, as a light rain fell on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, Donald J. Trump took the presidential oath of office with one hand on two Bibles – one his mother had given to him in 1955 to commemorate a Sunday school promotion and the other the Bible Abraham Lincoln used at his 1861 inauguration. (Vice President Pence took the oath of office with his hand on a Ronald Reagan family Bible opened, as it was at Reagan’s two inaugurations, to 2 Chronicles 7:14.)
In the address that followed, infused with religious intonations, the 45th President of the United States, like so many of his predecessors, invoked Scripture. “The Bible tells us,” said the president, referencing Psalm 133:1, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our minds honestly, but always pursue solidarity.”
What does this recurrence to Scripture in the 2016 campaign tell us about American politics and the major party candidates in this contest? It may reveal little except that the Bible remains, even in the twenty-first century, a familiar cultural touchstone and useful literary resource. In my book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford, 2017), I contend that a study of the Bible’s place and role in political culture and discourse must be attentive to the purposes for and contexts in which biblical texts are used. Politicians reference the Bible for a variety of purposes, several of which were illustrated in the discourse of the recent political season. The diverse uses range from the strictly literary and cultural to the essentially theological. Among the reasons for the Bible’s use is to enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary through distinctively biblical phrases, figures of speech, allusions, symbols, proverbs, aphorisms, and the like; to enhance the power and weight of rhetoric through its identification with a venerated, authoritative sacred text; to identify and define normative standards for ordering and judging public life; to marshal biblical authority in support of specific political agendas and policy objectives; and to gain insights into the character and designs of God, especially as they pertain to God’s involvement in the affairs of humankind and nations. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and a use of the Bible can be illustrative of more than one of these purposes.
What can we learn from the 2016 campaign about the changing place and role of the Bible in American political culture? The Bible, it seems, remains a significant text, at least for some Americans, and retains a powerful rhetorical presence in public discourse. And, yet, in an increasingly secular and biblically illiterate culture, the Bible is rarely cited substantively to express normative standards for ordering and judging public life. Rather, biblical phrases are interjected into political speech as quaint rhetorical ornaments, pithy aphorisms, or interesting figures of speech. Significantly, however, the mere mention of the Bible or invocation of a familiar biblical phrase can infuse rhetoric with solemnity, sanctity, and authority. Such usage of morally freighted language can be an honest rhetorical device; it can also, in the cynic’s hands, be an instrument to manipulate a pious public that venerates the Sacred Text.
Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. Among his published works are Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (NYU Press, 2002) and Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford, 2017). You can follow him on Twitter @d3bach