Does Donald Trump Have Scripture on His Side?

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Last week James Carroll wrote a sensitive piece in the New Yorker (“The Radical Meaning of Pope Francis’s Visit to Juarez”) about the testy exchange between Pope Francis and Donald Trump regarding immigration. Midway through the brief article and on his way to making the point that the pope held the ethical high ground in the debate, Carroll takes an intriguing turn when he writes:

The [p]ope’s standing shoulder to shoulder with a beleaguered people recapitulates the very foundation of the Biblical faith, which began, after all, in a migrant crisis like ours.

He then plumbs the story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt for parallels to the plight of modern immigrants miserably queued in places like Juárez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Carroll is an accomplished novelist and invoking the Exodus was a nice polemical touch, but it’s also scandalously false as history, and on multiple levels the parallels he proposes are flawed.

That’s quite an indictment against a well-meaning opinion piece calling for tolerance toward the downtrodden, and I regret how harsh it sounds, but the false associations Carroll makes have proven over history to be decidedly dangerous. Even so, I wouldn’t bring it up if it were merely dangerous—there’s plenty being said online every millisecond that’s dangerous, and it’s hard to argue that Carroll’s article itself is. I only bring it up because it’s fascinating that sharp-eyed editors at the New Yorker, still the gold standard in fact-checking and taut reasoning, and Carroll himself would read over his six-paragraph draft completely unaware that it’s fundamentally untrue. While it may seem nit-picky to deconstruct the entire affair, it points to a cognitive blind spot we in the West have toward the Bible.

To begin with, the foundation of biblical faith did not start with a “migrant crisis”—the Exodus—for the very simple reason that by all the mental standards we commonly employ, the Exodus simply didn’t happen. When you read this, it’s important to have a sense of what people who study these things and who aren’t married to biblical validation really think. In other words this is not just a case where it’s hard to find corroboration for the biblical story; it’s a case where the physical evidence and the texts outside the Bible argue convincingly that anything resembling the biblical Exodus could not possibly have happened.

This is where the cognitive difficulties in Western culture tend to begin: Could the Exodus have “kind of” happened? Maybe the migration was smaller than what was described in the Bible. Maybe it happened more gradually. Maybe there was an in-migration into ancient Canaan by people who thought they were Egyptians but weren’t. No, no, and no. Surely you can find someone on the Internet somewhere who thinks one of these can be argued, and that might soften the cognitive blow. And you can always abandon your critical faculties entirely and find a fundamentalist who views all evidence as a conspiracy. But if you treat this like all the other things you deal with day-to-day, you have to conclude that the Exodus was not an historical event. Even so, it’s difficult for most of us, even very secular types, to remove the story entirely from our worldview.

It doesn’t help that you see references to the-Exodus-as-history meme all over, and not just among the religious. I complained mildly when my childhood idol, the erudite popular historian Barbara Tuchman, made an uncritical reference to the Exodus in her classic Encountering Bible and Sword, and I noticed Michael Korda doing it as I was rereading his fine biography Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. In both cases the Exodus reference was fleeting and sly, a harmless-seeming bit of literary flair, but also in both cases the Exodus story was being called into a work of serious history, and apparently neither historian found it worth the mental effort to question whether it belonged there.

You can argue, of course, that Tuchman, Korda, and now Carroll were each merely using a myth they knew wasn’t true but was still instructive in some allegorical way. I would still quibble with them if they were doing that since it seems disingenuous and tantamount to saying, “I’m serious unless you think I’m joking, in which case of course I am joking.” Unfortunately, Carroll’s article doesn’t qualify even for that lower standard, because his Exodus-as-literature interpretation is also dead wrong. He proposes an astonishing statement:

The Bible tells a story of power, violence, and conquest, but—and this sets the Bible apart—it tells that story from the point of view of the victims of power, not the possessors of power.

There is much to debate about this, but even if it’s true of some interpretations of some portions of the Bible, it’s weird to apply this sentiment to the story of the Exodus, especially when considering that the Exodus is the preamble to the rest of the saga involving the conquest of Canaan which, by the way, also didn’t actually happen or even “kind of” happen. Taken together as literature, the two stories are straightforward foundation myths whose message is plain: the once-powerful Egyptian empire thought nothing of oppressing “our” mythical forefathers and God punished them for that. Now it’s proper to oppress the non-Hebrews in “our” midst, and in fact God demands that of us. The foundation of our biblical faith did not begin in a migrant crisis, as Carroll writes, but in an imagined story about a migrant crisis that was sharpened (most probably in Jerusalem in the era before the Babylonian conquest) into a cutting ideological worldview whose thrust is transparent even today. And though it claims to be a story of an oppressed people, it’s not being told from the standpoint of an actually oppressed people. It’s basically a story about “us” and how our instinct to be jerks toward people who aren’t like “us” is justified by events in the distant past.

Events, by the way, that actually happened unless they didn’t, in which case they’re allegorical.

Carroll brings his reasoning home by asserting that God stands with the dispossessed and that the powerful—meaning people like Donald Trump—inevitably expropriate the language of religion from the downtrodden to whom it is properly directed. Carroll makes this final point using gauzy language that is the literary equivalent of the carefully posed and artfully blurred photographs Hollywood used to produce for aging stars. But the unpleasant truth is that when it comes to the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, the final language of our biblical texts was not authored by or about the downtrodden but by the powerful segments of Judahite society who sought to consolidate and legitimize their power. Among knowledgeable textual critics of the Bible this is far from a controversial statement, and it is well known to all mainstream religious historians including an impressive line of modern Roman Catholic scholars.

When it comes to the topic of immigration itself, every moral bone in my body tells me that Pope Francis’s (and Carroll’s) deep sympathy for immigrants is correct and that Trump’s breezy antipathy is wrong. But Trump’s polemical stance is much more closely aligned with the ideology behind the stories of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan—with their crisp moral distinction between “us” and “them”—than the pope’s. There are other biblical stories Carroll should have selected, say the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, which would have made his point much better, but then again there are other Bible stories Trump could choose to validate his own point of view, like Ezra’s command from God that the Israelites abandon their foreign wives and maintain their purity by living separate from the “peoples of the land.”

That almost any ideological assertion can be validated by scripture-shopping like this, or conversely that scripture is malleable in the hands of ideologues, is hardly a modern innovation. This is a process that has characterized scripture from the earliest days when it was written down and considered sacred, and scripture has always had an overwhelmingly ideological purpose that drew its power from the idea that it documented events that actually happened. Faith, when it merely means belief in the absence of evidence, is morally ambiguous, meaning it could just as easily be morally proper as morally improper. But whether one is the pope or the Donald or James Carroll, to act out of faith in spite of evidence is frankly unethical. Those who quote scripture need to be clear to themselves and to others whether their appeal is to history or to literature in making their points, and in either case come prepared to argue why the lesson applies as either history or myth.

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  • Jack Pedigo

    Very interesting article and one which, yet again, shows
    that the bibles and religious stories have no real basis for fact. I wonder, though,
    where ones moral bones located? Is morality an instinct or something one can
    acquire a realistic sense of through experience and knowledge and true critical
    thinking? Immigration and other social justice issues are deeply anthropocentric
    and are proving to be a part of the dwindling health of the planet. More often
    they tend to be symptoms of a larger issue than actual problems themselves.
    With anthropogenic Climate Change, for example, more increases in carbon
    footprints is NOT conducive to a healthy planet. Dirt is more important than
    people is a fundamental fact that seems lost on most. Overpopulation is real
    and continues unabated. Until we start to see the real problems we are causing
    to our Life (inclusive not exclusive) support system the only outcome will be
    extinction! To me morality is about hard and fast rules set by nature not
    humans.

    • Ruth1940

      You are certainly correct that overpopulation is a huge problem that is generally ignored. I lived for a couple decades in Flagstaff, taking not that the mule deer in the Grand Canyon overpopulate when food is plentiful, then die off in droves in dry years. One would hope that humans are smarter than that!

    • Larry Longfinger

      Very good observation … we (the human species) are facing a mathematical problem – the more people = the more consumption = more destruction of the water, air, environment. That is it in a nutshell and turning down the thermostat or a light bulb is not going to solve anything. regards, doctor longfinger – political proctologist IISIFI

    • Bob

      Morality would suggest that the only way to solve the population problem is by attrition. Why are you writing to a Humanist magazine if you reject the idea of a common humanity? If you’re trying to say that there is no morality unless it flows from a supernatural source, I would ask why live at all you’re doing is taking Hitler’s side.

      • Jack Pedigo

        Where was there even a hint of morality coming from some supernatural entity? “…one can acquire a realistic sense of through experience and knowledge and true critical
        thinking?” The idea I am touting is that morality must be pragmatic (Life reinforcing NOT Life destroying as the Hitler’s and Popes have done) and involve all Life not just human. Since Life tends to be interdependent a common humanity must include other non-human lifeforms. Critical thinking must center around one’s own ideas and groups for which one belongs. It evolves and often changes. Humanism has been criticized for being like religion, anthropocentric. We must go beyond ourselves to find answers. One thing too many of us forget is that our species has a way to limit our numbers and damage but chose not to do so on a workable level.

  • Ruth1940

    Excellent on the bible not being history. In the 1990s, I heard a talk by a retired history professor (who was also president of the local conservative synagogue where he spoke) on whether or not the Tanakh is an actual history of the Jewish people. He concluded that it was not, saying he didn’t believe the Hebrews were ever in Egypt, giving three reasons: 1) the Egyptians kept careful records, even the amount of grain in each bin, but no references to the Israelites, 2) there was no sign in the relatively short distance between Egypt and Canaan that a huge group of people had been there for 40 years, although it’s been thoroughly searched, and 3) the archeological records show that some of the cities in the story weren’t there at that time.

  • Bob

    I got as far as the monster god murdering everyone on earth except 9 people and killing all the animals except one mating pair each. CREEPY! People like Noah Kennedy keep writing about this nonsense as though it has some value. I lied too. I actually read the bible from cover to cover twice and made extensive notes, wondering if I had missed something the 1st time. I hadn’t and I get more (it wouldn’t have to be a lot) spiritual satisfaction from the Lord of the Rings than from the bible or any other “holy” book. On a happiness scale from 0-10, I ‘m right around nine, mostly because I don’t think any thing conscious is in charge of the Universe.

    • akunna okafor

      Mr Bob, please for GOD’S sake, think like an intelligent human that JEHOVAH made you to be of HIS own image. You’ve said to have read the holy bible, twice and you still find it difficult to understand, there exist a creator, who made the universe and is an eternal living being. HE is ever conscious of what is happening on this earth, all happening according to HIS PROPHESIES.

      I whom you are reading his message, now, is a product of this HOLY SCRIPTURES.

      I am the TRUE promised CHRIST or MESSIAH meant to come in this last day, the day of judgement, to judge the entire inhabited earth, choosing the good things in it for a keep while destroying the bad ones eternally. The Christian holy bible is my living witness and the events of the day happening in the world, before our very eyes are my witnesses too. I started revealing my presence and myself late last year 2015. My profile is described in the Christian holy scriptures in pure black and white. The above message is true and faithful

      I am CHRIST IMMANUEL, THE PRINCE OF PEACE.

  • rblevy

    I’m afraid Kennedy’s article itself is misleading as so many are these days about this topic in another way, mainly by conflating illegal aliens with legal migrants and collectively calling them all “immigrants”. This popular word distortion puts an undue burden on those of us who approve legal immigration but oppose the border crashers. So called humanists seem to have no sympathy for legal immigrants who waited years for their visa to enter the U.S. and years more to become citizens,(my wife being among them). Instead in general they applaud the proposal to give illegals a path to citizenship, which in effect gives preference to these law-breakers who will be allowed to cut in line in front of those migrants those who played by the rules.

    One solution to this injustice is to grant immediate citizenship to those permanent residents who qualify for such an offer. In light of the baseless resistance to deportation of those who don’t belong in the U.S,. it’s the only fair thing to do.

  • Manuel Berger

    That the Exodus did not happen is clear to most specialists on the matter and well confirmed by archaeological non-findings. That the 603550 adult men plus women and children represent more than 1 million people crossing the desserts for more than 40 years, with not 1 archaeological trace should make this clear.
    However when someone refers to the Bible, this is not relevant. You have to seek the message in the Exodus story and see if it is comparable with the situation of today and here the answer is clearly NO.
    The Israelite had made themselves slaves of Egypt, not in the least because of one of their own, Joseph. Joseph managed Egypt during the 7 years of abundance but he did not sent any message to the Israelite to warn them for the 7 years of famine. When the Israelite later came to Egypt for food, he first took their money, then their property and finally the ownership of their lives by making them slaves (he could have given them a loan). Then later the new King of Egypt ordered the newborn boys to be killed, so then the story of Moses starts with the Israelite now being a people heavily mistreated and threatened in their existence. Compare this to the situation of poor Mexicans seeking a better life is just to much. Further more, what would you do with the part of the story where the Israelite could take the promised land, by force if needed.
    If any parallel can be found between the Bible and current history, it would be the parallel between the Jews going to Egypt for food and becoming slaves, and the Mexican immigrants going to the USA for a better life and turning into slaves working for less than the minimum wage. So in the end still a story where Trump plays a questionable role.

  • Hanrod

    “Morality” is a mode and perceived result of our thought development, occurring in a time of relative peace and plenty, when there has been time and circumstance to permit it. In times of increased conflict and want, old or current, it tends to fracture under the pressures of the more “natural” order of things, and despite any and all of our tribal teaching myths such as our “religious” stories, old or newer.