Marco Rubio had a message for his nearly 3 million Twitter followers on the morning of June 26: “As dogs return to their vomit, so fools repeat their folly. Proverbs 26:11.”
That one might have been his most head-snapping, but Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, had been tweeting verses like that one since May 16. He has tweeted a biblical verse almost every day since then. Almost all of them come from the Old Testament, and specifically the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs is notable in that is presents a fairly consistent view of the world: The righteous are rewarded, and the wicked are punished. In the understanding of Proverbs, everyone gets what is coming to them; behavior is directly linked to reward or punishment. This worldview has social consequences: Those who succeed in life must be more righteous than those who struggle.
Some of the statements in Proverbs look strikingly similar to those made by modern-day conservative policymakers. Take, for example, Alabama representative Mo Brooks, who, arguing that poorer people should pay more for health care, recently said, “Those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy.” It’s not quite a direct quote from Proverbs, but it’s not too far from these: “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry” (Prov 10:3) and “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Prov 10:4). In short: Proverbs is probably the most Republican book of the entire Bible.
Proverbs is really a collection—or, more accurately, a collection of collections. Some of these sayings have very ancient origins, including one section that is clearly dependent on an Egyptian wisdom treatise from the second millennium BCE. Overall, though, the book was put together rather late—and not, as tradition holds, by King Solomon—and generally deals with questions of how to live a righteous life.
For example: Just this past July 5, Rubio tweeted, “They will die from lack of discipline, lost because of their great follow Proverbs 5:23.” Of course it’s not all diligence and righteousness—in Proverbs, faith in God, too, will keep you away from things like poverty and failure. Back on June 16, Rubio tweeted, “Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.”
Other Republicans appear to have a thing for Proverbs, too. Ben Carson, during the last presidential campaign, compared himself favorably to the blustery style of then-candidate Trump by quoting Proverbs 22:4: “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life.” Gerald Ford’s favorite Bible passage was Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust wholeheartedly in Yahweh [the Lord], put no faith in your own perception; in every course you take, have him in mind: He will see that your paths are smooth.” Ford repeated this when he served in the Navy during World War II, throughout his presidency and in his swearing-in.
Trump likes the idea of Proverbs, even if he doesn’t know much about the text itself. Back in September 2015, Trump claimed, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, that among the biblical verses he most appreciated was “Proverbs, the chapter ‘never bend to envy.’ I’ve had that thing all my life, where people are bending to envy.” This would have been a more effective citation if there were such a line anywhere in the book of Proverbs. (His interviewer later told the Washington Post, not entirely persuasively, that Trump was referring to Proverbs 24:1-2: “Be not thou envious against evil men, neither desire to be with them. For their heart studieth destruction, and their lips talk of mischief.”)
Proverbs, of course, is also just pithy and instructive and so has some appeal for Democrats, too. Bill Clinton employed Proverbs 29:18 when accepting the nomination in 1992: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But do a quick look at the Bible passages quoted past inauguration speeches, and you’ll see that Republicans, from Ford to Herbert Hoover all the way back to William McKinley, have a clear preference for the section relative to Democrats.
It’s not just the Book of Proverbs that politicians have quoted to justify a worldview or political philosophy, however much squinting was required to make a connection. In April 2016, Trump referred (loosely) to Leviticus 24:19-21 when asked what his favorite Bible verse was. “So many,” he told the AM radio host. “And some people—look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that.” He went on to explain why: “But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean … 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.” It didn’t take very long for Trump to segue back into his talking points about the need for more American muscle: Other countries “laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country.”
There is surely nothing wrong with a politician turning to the Bible for spiritual, ethical and moral guidance. The Bible is the foundational text of Western civilization, after all. But concentrating exclusively on the parts of it that affirm one’s own perspective is a form of confirmation bias. One might advise Rubio to read, and tweet, more widely: from Ecclesiastes, perhaps, or from prophets such as Amos: “Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of stone—but you shall not live in them” (Amos 5:11). Maybe Leviticus: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself” (Lev 19:33–34). Or even the gospels of the New Testament: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matt 19:24/Mark 10:25/Luke 18:25).
As for Trump’s favorite Bible verse, we should remember that Jesus later repudiated it in the New Testament, when he said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-42).
Nor does Proverbs represent the sole biblical perspective on such issues of reward and punishment. Indeed, the entire book of Ecclesiastes is nothing less than a direct rebuke to the harsh, almost social Darwinist worldview of Proverbs: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster” (Eccl 9:11–12).
It’s always nice to know that whatever your ideological persuasion, there’s a verse in the Bible just waiting to be appropriated. Or, as Ecclesiastes put it, “For every thing, there is a season.”