Almost every religion asks a version of the question, “What would Jesus do?” Buddhists look to the Buddha, Muslims to the Prophet Mohammed, Sikhs to Guru Nanak, observant Jews to Moses, and the list goes on.
Emulating holy men and women from the distant past is hard — what would the Buddha do with Facebook? — but the effort has helped faiths keep their founders’ missions alive, even as they amble across centuries and continents. Still, there is a shadow side to this devotion: the use, or misuse, of sacred stories to condone bad behavior.
The latest and perhaps oddest example came this week, when an Alabama official invoked Christianity’s Holy Family to defend Senate GOP candidate Roy Moore from accusations that he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl decades ago.
“Take Joseph and Mary,” Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
Moore, for his part, has vigorously denied the accusations. In keeping with his hardcore Christian image, the Senate candidate said he is engaged in a “spiritual battle” with “those who want to silence our message.”
But few Christians have risen to voice support for Zeiglers’ interpretation of Scripture. In fact, quite the opposite.
The invocation of the Holy Family was “ridiculous and blasphemous,” said Ed Stetzer in a Christianity Today column.
“As Christians, this should provoke anger,” said Stetzer, who heads the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois.
“We should be angered, first, that politicians think they can lie to us so easily by appealing to biblical language and characters. Second, that we so easily fall for such tactics. For the past decade, evangelicals have been easy marks, and I hope that people won’t fall for these things.”
For what it’s worth, the Bible doesn’t tell us how old Mary and Joseph were. The gospels refer to Mary as a “parthenos,” which can be translated as “young woman” or “virgin,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of a recent book on the life of Jesus.
In biblical art, Joseph is often depicted as elderly and Mary as maidenly, but the purpose is to desexualize their relationship, Martin said, not to normalize liaisons between older men and younger women.
“Using the relationship of Mary and Joseph to, in any way, excuse or legitimize the sexual abuse or sexual harassment of a minor, or anyone, is monstrous,” Martin tweeted.
Zeigler’s comparison is bizarre for another reason, Christians said. Joseph didn’t prey on Mary, according to the Bible. He protected her.
As the Nativity story recounts every Advent, Jesus was not conceived through relations between Joseph and Mary. In fact, when Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, he considered divorce, Scripture says, until an angel told him about Jesus’ divine father. After that, Joseph remained betrothed to Mary and raised Jesus as a son.
Another unappreciated comparison
Friday, as news spread about the allegations against Moore, another of his allies compared the Senate candidate not to Joseph and Mary but to Jesus himself.
Jerry Moore, Roy Moore’s brother, told CNN’s Martin Savidge that the women who say Roy Moore pursued them as teenagers decades ago “will have to answer to God for these false allegations,” Savidge said.
Jerry Moore then said that his brother is “being persecuted … like Jesus Christ was,” according to Savidge.
Again, the comparison was not appreciated by many Christians.
“A wall of separation between politicians and sacrilegious comparisons to Christ ought to exist,” said Philip Wegmann in the Washington Examiner. “To do otherwise is neither politically safe nor spiritually right.”
In some ways, it makes sense for Moore’s allies to draw on religious examples when defending him. The longtime Alabama Supreme Court judge has made Christianity and the Bible central to his political identity. He has insisted on displaying a monument to the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, even after he was told to remove it, and earned a suspension for refusing to follow the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage.
But you don’t need to be a Bible-thumping Southerner to earn biblical comparisons these days.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, many of Donald Trump’s evangelical backers compared the brash and unorthodox businessman to the morally flawed kings in ancient Israel.
“God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of evangelical Liberty College and a staunch Trump supporter.
Other evangelicals compared Trump to Saul, the first ruler of the unified kingdoms; to Nehemiah, who built the walls around Jerusalem; and even Esther, who rose from obscurity to become a Persian queen. There grew to be so many biblical analogies that the Washington Post made a game of it. (Meanwhile, a growing number of white evangelicals decided to be more accepting of politicians who commit immoral acts in their personal life.)
What does Christian Scripture say about comparing ourselves to faith’s founding families? One indication comes in a letter written by St. Paul.
“Each one should test their own actions,” Paul writes in Galatians. “Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.”