Joshua and Pruitt Prepare a New Jericho

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (photo by Gage Skidmore)

It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s administration is not friendly to science.  It’s also no secret that his White House is friendly to evangelical Christians. Recently, these two issues came together when Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), explicitly relied on the Bible as his foundation to justify expelling scientists from government panels.

Last week Pruitt announced a change in EPA rules that will exclude scientists who receive funding from the agency from serving on agency advisory boards. Essentially, the top scientists in their fields are now unable to advise the government through the EPA’s three major advisory groups.  Their places on the panels will be taken by scientists working for corporations.  In other words, industry-backed scientists will increasingly help to create the regulations that govern their industries. The Union of Concerned Scientists called the step, “the capture of the EPA by the industries it is supposed to regulate.”

Pruitt explained, “We want to ensure that there’s integrity in the process and that the scientists that are advising us are doing so without any type of appearance of conflict of interest.” Of course, conflict of interest policies are already in effect on these panels to ensure the integrity and independence of the members.

But what Pruitt said next is a major cause for concern. He defended the new policy by explicitly relying on the Bible:

Joshua says to the people of Israel: choose this day whom you are going to serve. This is sort of like the Joshua principle—that as it relates to grants from this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or chose the grant. But you can’t do both. That’s the fair and great thing to do.

There is some irony in Pruitt’s choice of the book of Joshua to further the EPA’s anti-science stance, since the book also that claims that God made the sun and the moon stand still in the sky in order that Joshua could lead the Israelites to victory in battle. (Joshua 10:13). Interestingly, this passage follows perhaps the most famous story in the book of Joshua, the Battle of Jericho, when Joshua and his armies marched around the governing city of Canaan seven times, blowing horns and carrying the Arc of the Covenant. The story ends with God smiting the governing body and giving Canaan to the Israelites (Joshua’s armies).  Not only does it seem pretty clear that the book of Joshua isn’t a sterling source of scientific knowledge or integrity, the reference also puts Pruitt in the position of Joshua. Does Pruitt intend to win the EPA over for the Christian evangelicals with his Joshua principle? The comparison is clear; all he needs now is a big horn to blow.

It was widely reported over the summer that several of Trump’s cabinet members regularly attend Bible study together at the White House, so connecting scripture to government seems to come naturally for some of them. And although Pruitt’s comments are the clearest example of a cabinet member quoting scripture to justify policy decisions, two days after his announcement another cabinet official also referenced the Bible to support administration policy.

Rick Perry defended fossil fuels saying, “But also from the standpoint of sexual assault…when the lights are on, when you have light that shines the righteousness [emphasis added], if you will, on those types of acts…so, from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that. I happen to think it’s going to be a positive role.” Some commentators have linked his odd use of the concept of light being righteous to Proverbs 13:9: “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out.”

Other Republicans have quoted the Bible in their official capacity. Marco Rubio regularly tweets Bible verses, often from Proverbs, although he usually doesn’t explicitly connect them to policy issues. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a 2016 speech when he was then Senator from Alabama, characterized his immigration positions as “right and moral and just and biblical.”

At a time when the ranks of the non-religious are growing, this eruption of Bible-quoting seems out of place–certainly in the realm of scientific decision-making and government policy. According to an article in Scientific American, “Since 1990, the fraction of Americans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled, from about 8 percent to 22 percent. Over the next twenty years, this trend will accelerate: by 2020, there will be more of these ‘nones’ than Catholics, and by 2035, they will outnumber Protestants.”

And yet, religious conservatives seem to have a stronger hold on our government than ever. As humanists, we must continue to speak out on this issue. We should not let our government officials use the Bible to create policy, rewrite ethics, or attack science.