Nancy Pelosi addressed an assembly of Christian college presidents this week in Washington, where she thanked the evangelical community for their leadership on reforming immigration and refugee policies. To this end, the Speaker quoted a favorite passage of Biblical wisdom in his opening statement: “Providing for God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore these needs is to dishonor the God who created us.
OKAY, Actually, she said, it might not be technically be from the Bible. “I can’t find it in the Bible, but I quote it all the time,” Pelosi said, introducing the quote. “I keep reading and reading the Bible – I know it’s out there somewhere. It’s supposed to be in Isaiah. I heard a bishop say: ‘To meet the needs of God’s creation…’ ”
To clarify: it’s not “out there somewhere”.
“The Pelosi passage is not in the Bible,” Will Kynes, associate professor of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at Whitworth University told me by email. The closest analogue he could find was Proverbs 14:31, which changes the order of the two main ideas and focuses specifically on the poor: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Creator, but those who are kind with the needy honor him. Greg MaGee, associate professor of Bible studies at Taylor University, independently suggested the same verse as the closest approximation to sentiment in Pelosi’s version.
Pelosi is right about one thing: in fact, she “quotes it all the time”. The first example I found comes from the Congressional Record in 2002, in a speech in honor of a recently deceased prominent Catholic priest in San Francisco. “The Bible tells us that meeting the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship,” she said on the floors of the House. “To ignore these needs is to dishonor the God who created us. “
This is the next best thing for the prophet Isaiah himself appearing on the house ground.
Between 2002 and 2018, the citation appeared 12 times in the Congressional Record, with Pelosi responsible for all but one entry. (The other time, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert was quoting Pelosi.) She used it in speeches to acknowledge the genocide in Darfur (“To ignore the creation of God, who are these children, is to dishonor the God who made them ”), to strengthen the Endangered Species Act (“ to meet the needs of God’s creation, and that includes our beautiful surroundings ”), twice to honor Catholic schools (“ my Catholic education taught me how to respond to the needs of God’s creation ”), and to express my condolences after the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia (“ It’s appropriate many times, but I have thought about it since that I saw the tsunami ”).
It’s easy to see why the line is useful for a politician. This suggests that doing any earthly good – “providing for the needs of God’s creation” – is a holy act. The quote is a spoonful of ancient wisdom in addition to a dry discussion of politics. This is the second best thing for the Prophet Isaiah himself appearing in the House to, say, oppose a particular iteration of the 2013 Federal Farm Reform and Risk Management Act (“ignore these needs, as this bill does, is to dishonor the God who created us ”).
Pelosi has faced surprisingly little hindsight over the years for his repeated quotation of a nonexistent Bible verse. There was a wave of criticism on conservative websites in 2008, after a site called Bible scholars to confirm that the line was not from the Bible. But she continued to use it, and there were few objections from the left or the right in the decade that followed. Perhaps this is because politicians are constantly changing quotes and their sources. And Pelosi’s hemming in her speech this week suggests that she is now aware that she is wrong.
As for the actual source, it remains a mystery for the time being. A questioning phone call to Pelosi’s office on Thursday was not returned. There is no example of the line on the Internet as a whole apart from its many uses by the Speaker of the House. While “a bishop” is responsible for it, as she suggested this week, he has not put it in writing somewhere accessible to search engines. If anyone reading this has any clues as to the origins of the quote, I hope you share your perspective with those of us who are curious. After all, meeting the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore these needs is to dishonor the God who created us.
Update, February 5, 2019: A reader has pointed out to us the Good News translation of Proverbs 14:31, the verse mentioned by the two Bible scholars in this article. The Translation of the Good News, a “common language” Bible first published in the 1970s, translates the verse this way: “If you oppress the poor, you insult the God who created them; but kindness to the poor is an act of worship. Pelosi reverses the sentences and extends the subject of the poor specifically to all of “God’s creation”. But otherwise it is a fairly accurate translation. Mystery solved?