When Very Public Christians Go Astray
The Bible commands Christians to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” That makes things a little awkward for some top Texas officials who wear their faith on their sleeves.
In November 2014, a slate of outspokenly Christian Republicans took office in Texas and swiftly began using their newfound power to promote what they’ve called “biblical values.”
Who are these folks? Well, there’s Attorney General Ken Paxton, who advocates restricting access to abortion, which he considers an “abomination.” There’s Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who has called for standing up against “the homosexual lifestyle” and “the radical gay community.” And there’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who’s made it his mission to block anti-discrimination protections for transgender kids.
Now, it’s an open question whether those values square with Jesus’ good news of compassion and forgiveness. But setting that question aside for the moment, you’d think that with all these very public Christians at the helm, state government would be the model of biblical rectitude. Or at least that our new leaders, being good Christians, would “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22), so as not to “become a stumbling block” to others (1 Corinthians 8:9).
Well, think again.
The reign of these very public Christians (let’s call them VPCs) has had no shortage of “appearances of evil,” even accusations of fraud, misuse of taxpayer funds and just plain false witness.
And yet the response from religious groups that call for restoring “biblical morality” to Texas has been either utter silence, or protection of their pet politicians.
Among these VPCs, Lieutenant Governor Patrick may be the Very Public-est. Earlier this year the Conservative Republicans of Texas gave Patrick its “Warrior for Biblical Values” award, and the lite guv contends that elected officials should have a “biblically based” mindset.
Yet in apparent violation of the part of the Ten Commandments that forbids bearing false witness, Patrick repeatedly misrepresented the process by which the Fort Worth ISD developed and implemented its guidelines on transgender students. He called FWISD Superintendent Kent P. Scribner a “dictator,” accusing him of imposing the guidelines behind the backs of the school board and community.
However, FWISD board president Jacinto Ramos made clear that school board members “had had months to review” the guidelines, which merely clarified policies that had been in place since 2011. Once that news became public, Patrick didn’t confess his error and apologize for mischaracterizing Scribner, but doubled down, attacking both Scribner and the school board. (The lieutenant governor’s office declined comment on this story.)
Another VPC whose behavior appears to be less than strictly biblical is Agriculture Commissioner Miller. As famous for the fundamentalist Christianity he wears on his sleeve as for the cowboy hat he wears on his head, Miller told delegates at this year’s Texas GOP convention that Americans need to elect “good, God-fearing conservatives to all offices from the statehouse to the White House.” He closed his speech by taking off his cowboy hat and reading from the Bible.
Yet being a “good, God-fearing conservative” hasn’t kept Miller out of trouble. The Texas Department of Public Safety is currently investigating Miller’s use of taxpayer dollars to pay for personal trips — one to Oklahoma to receive a supposedly medicinal “Jesus shot,” the other to Mississippi to compete in a rodeo. Miller reimbursed the state for both trips but only after being questioned by reporters. Whatever the results of the DPS investigation, it’s clear that Miller has failed to avoid “all appearance of evil.”
Of course, the most serious scandal, and the only one so far to result in criminal indictments, involves Ken Paxton. He ran for office as a “conservative Christian,” declaring at Pflugerville’s First Baptist Church last September that “our faith informs the decisions that we make, and we must live our lives in a fashion that is true to our values.”
However, it’s hard to reconcile those words with the charges he’s currently fighting in court. He’s the target of a criminal indictment and federal charges from the SEC for allegedly luring investors to buy stock in tech company Servergy without telling them (or the state) that the company was paying him commissions. But Paxton has come up with a perfectly good excuse for the whole thing: He’s being persecuted not for fraud, but for his faith. Yet if the charges stick — and Paxton, of course, is presumed innocent until proven guilty — one has to wonder whether he put his conservative Christian faith on hold when talking up those Servergy shares.
Since then, a not-so-faint odor of impropriety has continued to linger around Paxton. Reporters recently revealed that his legal fund received donations from a businessman whose company was investigated by the AG’s office for Medicaid fraud. Paxton also hired two top-level officials — one, an attorney from the conservative foundation First Liberty; the other, a former pastor from Paxton’s church — without first publicly posting the jobs.
Miller and Paxton have also drawn fire, along with Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, for using — or misusing — state funds to continue paying former employees long after they stopped working for the state. One of Paxton’s employees complained that she had been fired after she raised concerns that the AG’s office was breaking federal contracting rules. In a settlement, she was given six months’ pay in exchange for dropping her complaint and keeping quiet about it.
Given that “highly religious Christians” overwhelmingly rate forgiveness and honesty as the top two essential elements of Christian identity, according to a recent Pew poll, you’d think that religious conservatives here in Texas would be equally quick to call out this “appearance of evil” in our leaders.
You would be wrong. Conservative Christians have been about as quiet as a Saturday night in Tioga when it comes to public condemnation of these guys. In the few instances where right-wing Christians have spoken out, it’s been to defend their political favorites, not to rebuke them. For instance, last December, well after Paxton had been indicted on fraud charges, Texas Values, which claims “to stand for biblical, Judeo-Christian values,” gave him its 2015 Faithful Leader Award, citing “his tremendous leadership in defending religious freedom, marriage, and life throughout Texas.”
A few months earlier, Grapevine’s First Baptist Church featured a chat between Paxton and lead pastor Doug Page at the invitation of church member Julie McCarty, head of a local tea party group. The AG’s many legal problems were never mentioned. Instead, the AG listed Daniel, Paul and Joseph as his biblical heroes, all of whom were imprisoned for their faith — implicitly linking his own troubles with theirs. Finally, as a pianist noodled reverently in the background, Page prayed aloud over Paxton: “God, there is no doubt that when a man of God seeks to stand forth for truth, the Enemy will attack.” Page asked God to “put a hedge of protection” around Paxton.
By email, Page clarified that by “the Enemy” he meant Satan, “the Father of Lies” (John 8:44), and by the “hedge,” he had in mind protection of “a person of God against evil (Job 1:10).”
“If General Paxton is found guilty, our legal system has consequences for such a crime,” Page added. He also wrote that although he hopes that the allegations prove untrue, “any time a Christian is accused of impropriety, it grieves my heart.”
However, given the friendly tenor of the chat, and the fact that Paxton’s implicit self-identification with biblical heroes persecuted for their faith went unquestioned, it would be easy for congregants to conclude — despite Page’s intentions — that Paxton, like those biblical heroes, is a man of God suffering unfairly for his faith.
It’s hard to square the righteous victim image with the vitriol and extremism of Paxton’s public pronouncements and those of his fellow VPCs. Paxton slammed the Supreme Court for its “lawless” ruling on same-sex marriage, and claimed that “Roe v. Wade ripped from the hands of the American people the issue of life.” In the wake of the July 7 police shootings in Dallas, Patrick blamed the protesters for the incident, even though they, too, were in the line of fire. And then there was Miller’s 2015 social media post that called for nuking the Muslim world.
None of this seems very Jesus-like.
The questionable behavior of our VPC leaders has built up a reservoir of distrust and ill will in the wider Texas public. That came to the surface just hours after the Orlando nightclub massacre. Like Paxton and Miller, Patrick regularly posts biblical quotes to his Facebook page, and on the morning after the massacre, a reportedly prescheduled post appeared featuring a quote from Galatians: “A man reaps what he sows.”
It was immediately read as yet another of Patrick’s attacks on the LGBT community. One woman responded to Patrick in a tweet: “‘Christians’ like you are the reason I won’t associate with a church any more. SO ashamed of the hatred I see.”
In other words, Patrick had become the very “stumbling block” Paul warned about. Paxton and Miller risk doing the same.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying politicians or government officials should be paragons of virtue. Lord knows, we all fall short — yours truly included. But folks who portray themselves as Christians dedicated to restoring “biblical values” create the expectation that they will actually behave according to the values of the Bible. When they don’t, it brings into disrepute not only those folks but also Christianity in general. This is a pitfall of muddying the boundaries between church and state.
The second problem is the brand of Christianity these VPCs espouse — a religion of exclusion, intolerance and just plain mean-spiritedness. These traits fly in the face of a central tenet of Christianity: that we all go astray, and that we should be just as forgiving toward others as we need God to be toward us.
If our Christian leaders insist on blurring the lines between religion and politics, perhaps they should try embracing Christian forgiveness instead. Who knows? They may need a little themselves one of these days.
[Featured image of Ken Paxton addressing the 2016 Texas GOP convention by Patrick Michels.]