Some would have us believe that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is the author of his own troubles, which at the moment include, but are not limited to, three felony indictments alleging that Paxton committed securities fraud and failed to register as an investment advisor with the state. But those who would speak against Paxton bear false witness, as the congregation at Grapevine’s First Baptist Church learned Sunday morning.
For here is a righteous man! He who has ears, let him hear: in the time of Abbott and in the land of the Metroplex, there lived a man whose name was Ken. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had four children and a home in McKinney and some lucrative interests in state contractors. He was the greatest among all the statesmen of the North.
First Baptist is the home church for a number of prominent North Texas tea party activists, and Paxton’s appearance was advertised as a Northeast Tarrant Tea Party event. Paxton and Page never spoke directly about them, but our AG’s legal unpleasantries were a clear subtext of the talk, witnessed by a crowd of several hundred faithful.
During a 20-minute conversation on the church’s unadorned stage, Paxton and First Baptist’s senior pastor, Doug Page, placed the attorney general neatly within the history of Christian martyrs persecuted for speaking biblical truths. They warned of a dark future for America if virtuous men like Paxton are allowed to fall.
“We’ve been so blessed in America because we’ve had an unusual couple of hundred years. There’s not very many countries that have had the religious freedom, and the freedoms that we’ve had in this country, and it’s so easy to take it for granted,” Paxton said. Some of his favorite biblical figures, he said, were men who suffered at the hands of the powers-that-be for standing up for what was right.
He continued: “So it’s not that unusual, as Christians, to have to confront not only the culture, but also the government. And so here we are in America, where we haven’t really had to do that. And I think that has changed. What America was 50 years ago — even what we were 10 years ago — is very different.” Christians nowadays had to speak up more in their personal and public lives, he said. Paxton had tried to do so while working at noted den of iniquity J.C. Penney before he was elected to the Texas House, but he said it had not made him popular.
David and Jeremiah had turned challenging times into opportunities to spread the word of the Lord, and Paxton said that Christians today could take solace from these men, unafraid to speak even “at the cost of their lives.”
Paxton himself had also tried to speak out while in office. He took credit for the passage of the “pastor protection bill” in the 84th Legislature, which reiterates the right religious folk have not to take part in gay weddings. The bill appeared dead, Paxton said, but he put together a group of pastors to pressure legislators. After that, momentum behind the bill “kicked into high gear.” (This probably reads strangely to session-watchers, who may remember that the pastor protection bill essentially coasted through the session and passed the House 141 to 2, with even the support of LGBT Democrats.)
Page framed Paxton’s talk with a reading from the Book of Jeremiah — specifically, Jeremiah 29:7. In it, God instructs the Jews of the Old Testament, who have lost their home and have been forcibly exiled to Babylon, to make their captor’s city their home.
The America of 2015 is Babylon, Page said, and American Christians — “isolated and marginalized in many ways” — are the Jews of old. Godly folk must work to better the heathen host, even as it persecutes and rejects the righteous.
“It takes a lot of courage for believers to step into this realm of the political process,” Paxton said. Grapevine was lucky, he said — the Metroplex had some lawmakers who were believers “getting pounded inside the political process by the media.” He implored churchgoers to pray for lawmakers and elected officials struggling against anti-Christian state oppression. Such prayers had already worked wonders for Paxton himself.
“I feel it,” he said, finally alluding to his recent run-in with the criminal justice system. “I feel like it would be hopeless if I were out there alone and I didn’t feel the presence of people praying for me and knowing that there were believers who were behind me.”
And indeed, Paxton received renewed spiritual energy from First Baptist’s devout parishioners on Sunday, much as he received it from seven people earlier this year. A pianist walked on stage to begin playing soft music as Paxton bowed his head to receive the church’s blessing.
“We pray for our attorney general of the state of Texas. We pray for our brother in Christ, Ken,” Page said. He clasped Paxton’s shoulder — not God’s hand, but it would have to do.
“And so, Father, we pray that you will put a hedge of protection around him, and as he seeks to stand for truth that you will give him boldness. I thank you for his humility. I thank you for his testimony of faith in Jesus Christ,” he said.
“I pray, God, that you will help him as he continues to walk in this journey as attorney general. I pray, God, that you would just help him to stand on the truth,” he said. “And God, we pray that as the enemy attacks, that truth will prevail.”
Thusly inoculated against enemy attacks, Paxton returned to his front pew, then quickly left out a side door before the service was over. His SUV left the parking lot by a side street adjacent to a nearby festival, dodging a bank of TV reporters under the shadow of a tiny ferris wheel.
Jeremiah 29, the chapter Page flagged in his conversation with Paxton, is a remarkable passage. It seems to foreshadow the whole history of Jewish social activism in the diaspora and the West — work to make your adopted home a more just and tolerant place for all, and you will find safety in it. That this message was given to a people experiencing unimaginable pain, loss, deprivation and humiliation at the hands of their new neighbors makes their struggle all the more meaningful.
But the exiled peoples of the Bible were not powerful men who had lost — or in Paxton’s case, won — elections. They were not mainstream religious congregants offended by changes in civil law. The problems that Paxton portends are just not that great a threat to the American godly: Even if they were, the correctives Paxton has yet offered don’t seem all that audacious, anyway.
Paxton would like to be a biblical hero. But it is he and his friends, not his “enemies,” who enjoy most of the high offices of state. Paxton is the law; he holds the title of highest-ranking legal official in Texas. These congregants, too, judge themselves to have inherited the Jews’ transcendent pain of exile. But they leave their lovely church smiling, walking with their lovely families to return unmolested to their big Texan automobiles.
Is Texas really hedonistic, predatory Babylon? Grapevine doesn’t much look it, although it’s true that the Grapevine GrapeFest, a festival centered around heavy wine consumption, was taking place just across the street. Nebuchadnezzar would have loved it, probably.