Twitter Jitters: Ill. Congressman’s Bible Tweets Raise Church-State Worries

“I think most constituents expect their member of Congress to solve problems of war and peace, economic crisis, and not theological matters,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director.

If I lived in southern Illinois and wanted a lesson in Christianity, like most people, I’d consult a Christian pastor, priest or theologian.

I definitely wouldn’t think to consult U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) or any other politician for that matter. Yet Shimkus seems to think he can be a one-stop shop – serving as not just a political representative but also a religious leader.

Why else would he bother to tweet  Bible verses daily on his official Twitter page and quote Scripture passages on his official Facebook account?

For example, today, he tweets: “Psalm119:37-38 Turn my eyes from beholding vanity; quicken me in the way. Stablish thy word unto thy servant, who is devoted to thy fear.”

And yesterday, he tweeted: “Psalm 34:8 O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.”

Columnist Bernard Schoenburg at The State Journal Register has been following Shimkus’ tweets and began wondering whether the government official’s use of religion was appropriate. He contacted Shimkus’ spokesperson, who told him:

“The Congressman’s Twitter and Facebook accounts are official government sites, thus they cannot contain campaign-related materials. The Congressman tweets roughly 90 percent of the posts himself, including his daily Scripture passage and messages about events he is or has participated in. Staff only posts data or re-tweets from other sources. The majority of comments posted online after Scripture passages are supportive. The Congressman is a devout Lutheran and has never hidden his faith. His faith and personal core values form the basis for many of the Congressman’s votes.”

Of course, this answer just made Schoenburg more uneasy. He then called Barry Lynn, Americans United’s executive director, to find out his thoughts.

“I think most constituents expect their member of Congress to solve problems of war and peace, economic crisis, and not theological matters,” Lynn said. He then pointed out that the tweets indicate an even larger concern – whether Shimkus is using his office to advance his personal religious views.

“Nobody’s denying that he has a right to have his religious views,” Lynn said, “but as a legislator, he must make his decisions based on the commonly shared values that American law has, and those are the ones found in the Constitution and our statutes.

“[The tweets] kind of send the message to non-Christians that [Shimkus] would like them to see the world through his religious eyes,” Lynn continued. “I mean, why else would he do this? If he was simply talking to himself, presumably he could...read Scripture to himself in the mirror. He obviously wants to have an influence on other people, and it’s the very nature of trying to use his official office as one place for evangelism that I think raises eyebrows.”

Shimkus should know better. As a government official, he must represent constituents of all faiths and none. While he’s certainly entitled to practice his own faith on his own time, there is no reason to use an official platform to push his religious beliefs on others.

In the future, maybe Shimkus could mention the Constitution in some of his tweets. I recommend the First Amendment for starters.