The Texas Senate voted Sept. 16 to acquit Attorney General Ken Paxton of all charges in his impeachment trial. Thus, the most controversial of all Texas politicians has returned to his position in state government with barely a slap on the wrist for the accusations of misconduct it took Texas House leaders two weeks to lay out in the Senate trial.
North Texas Sen. Kelly Hancock — a Southern Baptist who also serves as a trustee of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission — was one of only two Republicans who voted to convict Paxton in the Senate trial, even though House Republicans had voted to impeach their own attorney general.
Hancock says he plowed through the evidence presented and concluded Paxton abused his office. The other Republican senators — reportedly influenced by threats from Donald Trump to support their opponents in the next Republican primary — concluded there was not sufficient evidence and that the Republican House trial managers failed to meet the “high burden of proof.”
Somewhere in all this Texas-sized political shootout, there were assumptions that require additional challenge — on the nature of biblical womanhood, the battle between truth and power, and the changing nature of defending those accused.
Defended by a ‘biblical woman’
One of the intriguing issues here is the defense mounted by Angela Paxton, wife of the attorney general and a Republican member of the Texas Senate. While she was required to attend the trial, she was not allowed to speak. This, of course, did not stop her from influencing the trial through daily tweets.
Angela Paxton moved “stand by your man” to a whole new stratosphere. She involved God and the Bible as co-defendants.
An article by Texas Monthly reporter Sandi Villarreal, “The Biblical Womanhood of Angela Paxton,” concentrates on the theology known as “complementarianism.” According to this notion, the attorney general’s wife was being a faithful biblical woman.
Yet complementarianism hides a primal male hierarchy that uses the Bible to justify a severe form of male control. In truth, few if any doctrines have been further from being “complementary,” and the application of a male hierarchy to society would more accurately be termed antisocial Darwinism.
Newt Gingrich, the fire-eating architect of toxic politics, expresses the primate understanding of male hierarchy: “The male lion procreates, protects the pride and takes the best portion. It’s the opposite of every American feminist vision of the world — but it’s a fact!”
“Complementarianism” seems a better fit for our primate ancestors than for humans.
Angela Paxton defended her husband with daily tweets, each containing a photo of her in a red dress, hands folded at her mouth in prayer, and Bible verses. She insisted on her husband’s innocence even against the overwhelming public evidence of his guilt.
God as defender of the ‘powers that be’
Not only was truth a victim of the impeachment trial, but the very nature of defending the accused became a farce. Neither a law degree nor the ability to speak at a trial are required to be a defense attorney. Political defendants have learned the art of making a defense before the trial begins and doing so in public and in the media. The jury becomes all the supporters of the accused candidate. The message is repeated in an endless loop. The verbal memes: “The politician did nothing wrong,” “His actions were perfect,” “The media is fake,” “The prosecutors are liars and mentally ill,” “It’s a witch hunt” and “I am innocent of all charges.”
The trial becomes an afterthought when the defendant has the freedom to win his case in the court of public opinion — or cutthroat politics. The institutions of the law are displaced — the courts, the judges, the prosecuting attorneys, evidence, rational deliberation. In the expanded notion of defense, there’s popular opinion, the power of the dominant party, the pleas of righteousness based on Bible verses and a sense of outrage that Paxton is being persecuted.
“Everybody wants God on their side, but it takes a lot of nerve to involve God in the messiness of Texas politics.”
The worst travesty of this trial must be the use of God as defender of the “powers that be” and their definition of truth. Everybody wants God on their side, but it takes a lot of nerve to involve God in the messiness of Texas politics.
There is biblical precedent for such efforts. There are biblical narratives of the involvement of a politician’s wife with the career of her husband.
Bathsheba, for instance, inserted herself into the decision of who would be the next king of Israel. She had an ally in the prophet Nathan as the pair schemed, lied and cheated to make Solomon the new king — a carefully choreographed subterfuge, designed to deceive the old king and mobilize him on behalf of his ambitious son. Bathsheba willingly involved herself in political power, political intrigue, deception and violence.
Jezebel had no compunction about instructing Ahab in how to conduct his political affairs. When Ahab’s attempt to negotiate a deal with Naboth over land failed, Jezebel used executive privilege to write letters in Ahab’s name, recruited a pair of false witnesses and told the court to condemn Naboth to death by stoning. With Naboth dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money, for Naboth is not alive but dead.”
Angela Paxton, dressed in a red dress plied the public and her fellow senators with daily doses of Scripture:
- “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
- “The rain came down, the streams rose, the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
- “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
The irony of these verses bites hard. Her husband was literally on trial for abuse of power.
I am not questioning Angela Paxton’s sincerity. I am convinced she is a very serious Christian. The problem is not her sincerity. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The problem is that the Christianity about which (she) is sincere is not shaped by the gospel.”
Her efforts smack of a brazen attempt to use the language of Scripture and God to paint a picture of her husband as unfairly treated, persecuted by his enemies, and a good man who deserves to keep his position as attorney general.
The Bible doesn’t lend itself to populist tropes of paranoia and persecution.
The truth on trial
The relationship between power and truth never has been more strained. Power, always a willing user and manipulator of truth, will, if left unchecked, lock justice away in solitary confinement and sacrifice truth on the altar of pragmatism.
Power characteristically traffics in established “truth” about which there is general agreement among the parties that matter: the state, the political party in the majority, the evangelical Christians who control the ideology of the state, and the wealthy who support said party. These several institutions are skillful in shaping and articulating and maintaining “truth” that can readily be seen as allied with status quo power.
In other words, “truth” is what the power says it is.
Power is master; truth is servant of power.
The Texas Senate, where power resides with the Republican Party, declared Paxton innocent. In that moment, power defined the meaning of truth. When power and truth collide, truth always gets bullied and bloodied. And not just in Texas.
God on trial
Of all the suspicious and nefarious behavior in this farce of an impeachment trial, nothing produces more questions than Angela Paxton involving the Bible, and by implication, God, in Texas politics. I know there’s a country song that makes it clear God made Texas and with that conclusion I have no quarrel, but God did not want to be involved in an impeachment trial.
After his acquittal, all that was left was for a shameless Paxton to crow, “Today, the truth prevailed. The truth could not be buried by mudslinging politicians or their powerful benefactors.”
The occupants of power, because they could, constructed a version of truth compatible with present power arrangements. It takes no imagination at all to realize a Democratic attorney general would have been impeached by the Republican Senate even without credible evidence.
Paxton reached deep into the spurious well of emotional appeals to baptize the new version of truth. The impeachment was a “sham.” The Biden administration and the “liberal” Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan were the real culprits. The impeachment was a “kangaroo court.”
Paxton confuses his tropes in this instance because a kangaroo court, by definition, is a court where a person is found guilty of a crime without any evidence. Maybe he didn’t learn that in law school.
There’s a song from “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” that Ken and Angela Paxton could sing as a duet:
Fellow Texans, I am proudly standing here to humbly say.
I assure you, and I mean it — Now, who says I don’t speak out as plain as day?
And, fellow Texans, I’m for progress and the flag — long may it fly.
I’m a poor boy, come to greatness. So, it follows that I cannot tell a lie.
Ooh, I love to dance a little sidestep, now they see me, now they don’t.
I’ve come and gone and, ooh I love to sweep around the wide step,
cut a little swathe and lead the people on.
Nowhere in Texas can a pair of boots be found large enough to wade through the barnyard horse manure of Ken Paxton’s defense and Angela Paxton’s Bible verses.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor and writer in New York state. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy.