As the 2016 US Presidential election continues to heat up, pundits are paying increased attention to the Bible and politics. However, the most telling moments are not who gets the Bible right -chapter and verse- but who is reading between the lines. Sophomore Jessica Loving reflected on this sort of reading for her final paper in Dr. Richard Newton’s Introduction to New Testament class at Elizabethtown College. This post is adapted from her work.
Often people will use the Bible to support their own beliefs. Throughout history, the same book has been offering different perspectives to people around the world. Since no authors of the Bible are around to interpret the text for us, interpretations are left to the reader.
For example, Americans are interpreting the Bible to decide whom to support for president in the November election. During the Republican presidential primary, Trump had initially struggled to gain Evangelical support.
“When you go into the voting booth, you’re not electing a Sunday school teacher. You’re not electing somebody that agrees with you…Jesus said render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. And that means be good citizens and choose who would be the best leader for the country so that’s something that endeared me to Donald Trump,” he said.
Falwell cites the New Testament passage as a call to action to vote, to do the right thing, further explaining that his choice is Donald Trump.
Mark 12 In Situ
In Mark 12:13-17, Jesus’s interrogators ask whether or not paying taxes is lawful in the eyes of God. Jesus replies that since the coins have the brand of the Roman Empire printed on them, anyone in possession of such coins should offer them back to the emperor rather than to God. The Gospel of Mark advocates that the path to salvation is not letting worldly possessions keep you from the Kingdom of God; true believers only follow God.
Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (NRSV)
Liberty and the Text
The emperors of course were not elected but were appointed through a dynastic line, yet it is the absence of certain topics in the Bible, such as popular voting, that allow Falwell to interpret the book in a different way than was originally intended in order to apply it to modern life.
Due to a democratic government’s need of people’s support, modern times do not allow for the strict choice between God and government. Falwell recites Mark 12:17 as an encouragement of the separation of church and state rather than a choice between God and politics. He attempts to convey to the American public that participating in voting is a civic duty. And because American Christians often associate the Bible with “doing the right thing,” Falwell can use the New Testament to gain more support for Donald Trump.
So an “outdated” message is stretched to fit a present-day situation, namely that Christian supporters of Trump are “doing the right thing” in God’s eyes…by voting for the best presidential candidate.
Regardless of whether he’s interpreting the Bible in a way that is correct to Markan intent, he is applying it to a people who are less inclined to separate church and state than to choose between them. Falwell may not give the “true” meaning of the passage but rather a meaning that better applies to a modern society as he sees it.
 Candace Smith, “Meet the Pastors Who Support Donald Trump,” ABC News, 14 April 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/meet-pastors-support-donald-trump/story?id=38406350..
 Clifton Black, Notes on “Mark 12: 13-17,” rev. Adela Yarbro Collins, in The HarperCollins Study Bible: NRSV, Fully Revised and Updated, ed. Harold W. Attridge (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 1748. See also Jonathan L. Reed, The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament: What Archaeology Reveals about the First Christians (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007), 130.