On the second day of her husband’s impeachment trial, for which she was required to be present but could not vote, Senator Angela Paxton tweeted a photo of herself in the Senate chamber. In it, she’s wearing a tailored, lipstick-red suit and her hands are folded at her mouth in prayer. The text accompanying the photo is a verse pulled from the book of Hebrews (specifically, the English Standard Version translation): “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” And with that, a marathon of witness testimony commenced.
In the subsequent eight days of the attorney general’s trial, amid testimony detailing her husband’s sexual affair and alleged abuses of power, Angela Paxton continued tweeting: always a Bible verse and a photo. One post, quoting Matthew 7:24–25, read, “The rain came down, the streams rose, the winds blew & beat against that house; yet it did not fall, bc it had its foundation on the rock.” In the accompanying photo, her pen is perched above her notebook as she seems to be listening intently to the proceedings.
On day eight, Angela cited James 1:2–4: “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.” In the photo, she wears a concerned, or perhaps pensive, look as she swivels in her chair to glance behind her, dressed again in a red suit. (She tweeted the same verse on Saturday, shortly after her husband was acquitted on all impeachment counts, with a photo in the same red suit, though this time she was standing and waving, victorious.)
After the trial wrapped on Saturday, Angela Paxton moved from the Senate chamber directly to center stage at Great Hills Baptist Church, in Austin, for the Texas Faith, Family & Freedom Forum. She spoke publicly for the first time about the impeachment and about her experience as a nonvoting senator during such a consequential trial. “I realized that God wanted me to feel that powerlessness—the powerlessness of my flesh that normally I’m able to rely on in the Senate. And all of a sudden I’m like, ‘This is why I’m here.’ Because the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh—though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.”
Paxton pulled the line from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (a favorite text, famously, of Donald Trump). In the text, in chapter 10, Paul is defending himself against attacks on his character coming from members inside the church at Corinth. (Some had accused him of contradicting his written words with his in-person actions.) Paul spends the chapter essentially scolding his detractors and reaffirming his authority.
In her comments on Saturday, Paxton pulled from some of the other verses she’d shared throughout the trial, passages about adversity and perseverance. In the kind of evangelicalism and politics practiced by the Paxtons, who attend a Southern Baptist church, trials and tribulations abound. Be they moral failings made walking along the slippery slope of a fallen world or stumbling blocks thrown by Satan into the pathways of the righteous, these adversities are also opportunities to identify with the temptations and sufferings of Christ—via Bible memes. Framing one’s difficulties as the work of Satan’s helpers has proven to be a winning approach for right-wing Christian politicians.
Angela Paxton expertly taps into evangelical anxiety through her choice of scripture verses, though some may be surprised at the platform from which she does so and the circumstances under which she’s choosing to act—after all, one of the “trials” here is an actual trial centering, in part, on her husband’s infidelity. For those acquainted with conservative evangelical belief systems, though, the strategy is familiar. Traditional biblical womanhood—“traditional” in the sense that it stems from a twentieth-century movement driven by theologians such as John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and others as a response to second-wave feminism—emphasizes complementarianism: the belief that a man is head of the household and his wife must submit to his authority. This belief extends to the church, where only men can preach, teach, or hold authority over other men. This belief system also holds that a woman’s highest calling is to serve in the home—not, then, in a position of political power.
It’s common for some conservative evangelical women to “preach” (not literally; that’s not allowed) complementarianism but not actually practice it; after all, it’s quite a difficult lifestyle to live by, especially when it puts what power those women have at risk. The late Christian author Rachel Held Evans famously attempted to practice biblical womanhood for an entire year—even calling her husband “master,” to his chagrin, and doing penance on the roof of their suburban home to atone for her “contentious” moments—to document an extreme version of the lifestyle.
Another brand of complementarianism, one with softer boundaries, is more appealing to modern evangelical women—and their spouses, who are often just fine with a second source of income. This approach embraces the idea that woman was made to complement man, to be his “helpmate,” while also affirming a woman’s calling to work outside the home or to disciple other women—still, never men—so that she might influence the culture for the glory of God. In a Mother’s Day sermon last year, the Reverend Jack Graham, senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, in Plano, where the Paxtons are members, preached on the biblical figure Phoebe, a “businesswoman” or “patron” or “helper,” he said, whom the Apostle Paul entrusted to deliver his message to the Romans. (In fact, many scholars translate Phoebe’s title as “deacon” or “minister.”) “God has given men and women complementary roles and responsibilities in the home and the church, and we are biblically to maintain these unique and distinct roles,” Graham told the congregation. “But the significance of womanhood and motherhood in the Bible, with women like Phoebe, is undeniable, and in her life we see the importance of a woman’s calling and command to serve Christ and his church.”
Angela Paxton’s version of biblical womanhood is typically displayed in the understated and modest power suits she wears in the Senate chamber and boardrooms; in the poise she maintains amid humiliation; in the pistol she supposedly packs; in the confidence and authority she projects, ostensibly rooted in Christian principles. She studied mathematical science at Baylor University—where she met Ken—and earned her master’s degree in education from the University of Houston–Clear Lake. She taught and counseled. She stole the show at her husband’s campaign events before deciding to jump in and start winning her own elections, building a loyal following. In her way, in her social media feed, at least, she is appearing to serve Christ and his church through her work.
And that’s exactly how she saw her role during the impeachment trial: “The reason we’re here in this body, in this earth, is not to pass bills,” she told the audience gathered in church on Saturday. “It’s not to do this, that, or the other. It is to bring the kingdom of God to people’s lives in people’s hearts so that they can become children of God and live forever with him.”
Alexandra Samuels contributed to the reporting of this story.
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