Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do not play very visible roles in US politics. “For God and Country” is a slogan that makes the rounds in some circles, but the nature of that God is left unspecified (perhaps beyond typically excluding Muslims). The dearth of direct appeal to Jesus even in conservative American politics, to say nothing of the silence about his mother and step-father, makes it all the more surprising that the Holy Family has been dragged into political debates twice in one month. The nature of those invocations, and their historical and theological confusion, reveals the cynical pragmatic secularism driving the use of these religious ideas at this political juncture. Christian complicity in these invocations threatens the intelligibility of the gospel message to outsiders.
Roy Moore’s Defenders
Alabama Republican candidate for US Senate has been credibly accused of sexual harassment of several women, and sexual assault of two, back in the late 1970s when he was in his early thirties, and they were teenagers. The most damaging is the story of Leigh Corfman, who alleges that the thirty-year-old Roy Moore initiated unwanted sexual contact with her when she was only fourteen. If true, it was illegal not only as sexual assault but also because of her legal minority. And Corfman is no political opponent of conservatives: according to the Washington Post report, she has supported Donald Trump, but has not supported any of Roy Moore’s political opponents (whether Democrats or other Republicans). The allegation will never go to trial, because the statute of limitation has long run out.
Moore’s response was not to confess and indicate that he has repented, but instead to deny that he knows Corfman (or any of the six other women who have alleged relationships with him or harassment from him). But in the face of some media playing up the disgust at someone so old chasing girls so young, some of Moore’s defenders have likened Moore’s middle-aged attraction to teenage girls to Joseph and Mary, perhaps inspired by the approaching Christmas season. If it was acceptable for a middle-aged Joseph to marry the teenager Mary, then Moore’s actions must be equally acceptable.
But Joseph did not sexually assault Mary.
As it turns out the Bible does not tell us how old either Joseph or Mary were. Mary is usually pictured as a teenager, the typical age of marriage in the ancient world, but the text does not say. Roman Catholics, some of whom wish to construe “the brothers of the Lord” as Jesus’s step-brothers, Joseph’s children by a prior marriage, often picture Joseph as a middle-aged widower, while Protestants more often picture Joseph as young like Mary, since they do not feel the need to defend the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity even after the birth of the Christ. But of these speculations, Scripture tells us nothing.
So this defense of how “natural” it is for a middle-aged man to pursue teenage girls only makes sense by adopting the Roman Catholic speculation regarding their respective ages, while rejecting the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The people adopting this line of defense hold neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic views on the Holy Family.
And let me repeat, lest we forget: Joseph did not sexually assault Mary.
The laws in place to criminalize statutory rape are based on the notion that teenagers need to be protected from being tricked into consenting to acts who consequences they do not understand. But by Corfman’s account, she was not consenting. She was trying to discover a way out. And no one is claiming that Corfman and Moore were married; the allegation is that Moore was instead engaging in an extramarital sexual act. The Bible condemns sex outside of marriage in all cases, and conservative Christians have typically done likewise, at least when their political power was not on the line.
The Holy Family analogy not only fails to cohere with any actual Christian doctrine, revealing the ignorance of Christianity of those who use it to defend Moore. It is also irrelevant and distracting, because it fails to address the crux of the accusation, that Moore forced sexual acts on a woman who was (a) not married to him, and (b) not consenting, regardless of her age. That Joseph did not do, for “he was faithful to the law” (Matt 1:19).
Donald Trump’s Anti-Christian Culture War
On November 30, President Trump tweeted a “Merry Christmas” in what has been billed as a culture war victory for Christianity over the forces of political correctness. But his account of the Christmas story contradicts central Christian doctrines:
The Christmas Story begins 2,000 years ago with a mother, a father, their baby son and the most extraordinary gift of all—the gift of God’s love for all of humanity.
Whatever our beliefs, we know that the birth of Jesus Christ and the story of his life… pic.twitter.com/P94C3LjWlx
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2017
President Trump’s version centers around “a mother, a father, their baby son and the most extraordinary gift of all-the gift of God’s love for all of humanity.” Presumably this sentence is referring in order to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. But if so, that would assert that Joseph was Jesus’s biological father. This contradicts the virgin birth of Christ and the doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God. Does Donald Trump really know so little about Christianity? What of the rumors that he was a “baby Christian” and a new convert? Has he learned anything about the faith he claims to espouse? A culture war victory has cost Christians their central doctrine, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Word made Flesh. The real message of Christmas (as anyone would know from reading Luke 2 or watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special) has been lost in the desire to score political points. This may be a culture war victory, but it is a real defeat for all true Christians.
The Bottom Line
Ignorant appeals to the Holy Family which are incompatible with Christian faith do not in fact help Christians. They are instead a cynical strategy by pragmatic secularists to secure conservative Christian political support, promising ephemeral rewards in today’s American political scene. But there is a cost far greater than any putative culture war gains. Some Christians’ support for anti-Christian and immoral politicians leads outsiders to call all Christians hypocrites. Roy Moore made a career staking his position on the Bible, and his lack of accountability or even plausible response to credible allegations leads non-Christians to reject all Bible-believing Christianity as a self-serving sham. Evangelical support for then-candidate Donald Trump in the face of his explicit declarations that he does not need forgiveness from God and bragging about his ability to engage in extramarital sexual acts, and now their support for a culture war sally which demolishes their own doctrine, leaves the remaining 75% of the American public puzzled about what it means when evangelicals say that everyone needs forgiveness, or that Jesus, the Son of God, is the “reason for the Season” this Christmas. Playing along with the cynical pragmatic secularism revealed in recent political uses of the Holy Family, among many similar ploys, is making the Christian message incoherent and incomprehensible to those with whom we share the good news.
Conservative Christians in America are at grave risk of falling under the biblical condemnation: “God’s name is blasphemed among the outsiders because of you” (Romans 2:24).
May God grant us repentance for our sins.