Another Debate, More Bad Christianity

DES MOINES, IA-October 31: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), speaks at the Growth and Opportunity Party
DES MOINES, IA-October 31: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), speaks at the Growth and Opportunity Party, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Saturday October 31, 2015. With just 93 days before the Iowa caucuses Republican hopefuls are trying to shore up support amongst the party. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)

We'll soon be treated to another Republican debate. I don't mean to pick on this one party, but they do seem to like to talk about religion more than the other one. Recently, Ted Cruz opined that atheists ought to be excluded from the presidency. Aside from the howlingly poor understanding of the Constitution this infers, it's important to note where he made this claim. It was at Freedom 2015: National Religious Liberties Conference. Keynote speakers at that gathering included Kevin Swanson, who would go on to make a bizarre, but undeniably impassioned, allusion to Job.

2015-11-11-1447203393-2021496-cruzswansonscreenshot.pngScreenshot from Right Wing Watch/YouTube

Why is it a bizarre allusion? First, there's the matter of who is standing in for Job in the reference. When he begins by moaning that he would cover himself in sackcloth and ashes (and cow manure) at the doorway of his son's hypothetical gay wedding, Swanson continues by calling LGBTQI people the people "covered in the pussy [pus-filled] sores". What is odd is that Job is the one inflicted with horrible sores "from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head" (Job 2:7b). He is also, of course, the one who has rent his clothing in despair upon hearing not of a same-sex wedding, but of the death of his children.

Some have looked to Job as a book that explains theodicy, the term used for the persistence of evil in the presence of a loving God. David Burrell offers a different read of the book, saying even in the sub-title of his work that "Job has nothing to say to the puzzle of suffering." I agree with much of what Burrell offers in this work. Job is much less an explanation of how God is still good even though we may suffer than it is a meditation on the unknowability of God's own motives in all things. We experience God, but we do not know God-in-Godself.

Job was blameless in all things. His wife and his friends argued that he should curse God if this was the case. If this was not the case, they reasoned, then Job was lying about his blamelessness. Job's character is never in question. His misfortunes are the result of a wager between God and a figure often incorrectly identified as the Devil (this figure is called "ha-Satan" in Hebrew, which translates to "the Accuser"). The Accuser is granted power to inflict suffering on Job, because he is certain the latter will turn and curse God. God, however, never doubts Job. Job does not disappoint, only asking for an explanation in the end. God's answer largely boils down to the fact that God's reasons are not human reasons.

Let's return to Swanson. While his discourse on sores certainly seems to invoke Job, his earlier claims about "sackcloth and ashes" may bring Jonah to mind. Most of us know Jonah as "that guy who got swallowed by a whale, or possibly a big fish." Jonah was a prophet, commanded by God to proclaim the destruction of Nineveh. He panicked, and ran to Tarshish instead. From there, he had his encounter with some kind of very large marine creature. When God rescued him from that ordeal, Jonah finally went to Nineveh and proclaimed their destruction. The people of Nineveh converted, proclaimed a fast, and sat in sackcloth and ashes. So perhaps Swanson's intent was an allusion to the necessity of conversion. But if this is the case, his claim that he would be the one in sackcloth and ashes makes him a Ninevite and not a prophet.

So we have a presidential candidate saying that atheists shouldn't be president at an event that also included a man making a strange allusion or two to ancient prophets. Why does this matter in the context of either politics or religion?

Both are examples of bizarre interpretations of their source texts. These interpretations are not just subjectively or subtly incorrect. They are incorrect in bold face. Cruz takes an inexcusable liberty with the Constitution by stating that there could -- indeed should -- be a religious qualification for president. This is explicitly forbidden in Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution. This is not a corner case, subject to argument and nuance. It's just plain not allowed.

In Swanson's case, it's less that he gets the same kind of fact wrong and more that he just doesn't seem to know what to do with his source text. In arguing that same-sex marriage is horrific, Swanson puts LGBTQI people in the metaphorical place of a truly blameless person whose life is being bet on by forces beyond his ken. He places himself in the position of a repentant convert who has heard the cry of a reluctant, and famously petulant, prophet. Here's precisely where it doesn't match up. If Swanson wanted to say that he has repented from approving of same-sex marriage, then his place as a Ninevite is secure. He still, however, places the community he would exclude from Grace in the place of someone without moral culpability for his situation. So is he a repentant convert from approving of something that blameless people do?

These men have both created unworkable and grotesque idols of their texts. Cruz's appeal for a religious test for the presidency flies in the face of the Constitution itself. Swanson's mixed metaphors fly in the face of scriptural literacy. Both men hope to simply make their interpretations true through repetition. If Cruz just calls for a religious litmus test enough, it will be constitutional, right? If Swanson just makes himself a bit less clear, but still appeals to scriptural authority, we'll forget to look into it and come along a bigoted ride, right?

This is bad politics. This is bad Christianity. We hear a lot of this on a daily basis. It is practically background noise during our preternaturally long election season. There are two main ethical duties that fall to us when we hear this kind of speech: one from a secular/political perspective and one from a religious perspective. From the secular/political side, it is important to counter Cruz's unconstitutional assertions about the interplay of religion and politics. From the religious side, it is important to counter Swanson's odd ramblings with a better interpretation of scripture; one that takes the history and context of Job and Jonah into account would be a start. One that calls for justice instead of exclusion would be an even better step.

This post originally appeared on Medium.com.