Last Wednesday morning, Rep. John Shimkus took out a Lutheran devotional, read the day’s Bible passage and then tweeted it.
It’s a regular ritual for the Illinois Republican, who has posted biblical verses on his official Congressional Twitter and Facebook accounts for a year.
The tweets are short and to the point.
“Psalm 115:1 Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake,” read Wednesday’s tweet.
Shimkus is not the first Member of Congress to talk openly about religion — lawmakers regularly quote the Bible and talk about God on the floors of the House and the Senate.
But Shimkus’ daily devotional tweets are something of a rarity in a medium better known for fiery political hyperbole or dry announcements of upcoming town hall meetings. (Not to mention the occasional scandalous photo.)
The eight-term Congressman is something of an amateur theologian. He teaches a Bible class every Sunday at the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Collinsville, Ill., and closely reads the Lutheran quarterly periodical, “Portals of Prayer,” where he gets the verses for his tweets.
If he wasn’t a Congressman, he says he would probably be a teacher or clergyman.
Sitting on a brown couch in his office in Rayburn, Shimkus says he was somewhat skeptical when he began using social media last year. He had seen colleagues such as Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) make good use of it, but he also felt it too often chronicled relatively mundane activities, like what a Member had for lunch.
Over the past year, however, he saw social networking sites become another venue for politics, messaging and outreach.
For Shimkus, however, Twitter and Facebook are not simply ways to record his voting record and policy positions. The sites have provided the Congressman with new ways to share his faith.
Through Twitter and Facebook, he says he hopes to contribute to what he sees as a larger discussion of religion in American life and society.
It begins each morning with the devotional.
Every day, the editors of the “Portals of Prayer” highlight two passages from the Bible, typically from the Book of Psalms or the New Testament. These passages run about seven or eight verses long and are followed by a brief analysis, or meditation, on the scripture’s meaning.
Shimkus describes this daily meditation as his moment to focus on his “thought for the day” and help ground him before the hard work of legislating.
“I am a Christian by faith,” he said. “I believe in God’s role in our daily life.”
In keeping with the official teachings of the Lutheran church, Shimkus believes God has a great plan and has placed people in positions — including positions of power — to see that his will is done. As an elected official, Shimkus said he feels a strong sense of obligation to his constituents, as well as to God.
The daily devotionals he tweets help to keep his public life in perspective, he says. They remind him every day to follow the scriptures and stay close to his faith.
“It helps remind me that there are people watching,” he says.
Not everyone watching approves.
Last year, a columnist for the State Journal-Register in Springfield wrote that the use of Shimkus’ official Twitter account for biblical verses made him uneasy. The official blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued there is “no reason” for Shimkus to “use an official platform to push his religious beliefs on others.”
Shimkus argues he is not trying to convert others to his faith. He’s also not too threatened by the complaints. As a conservative in a heavily Republican district, he notes that he can speak freely about his faith.
“If you are ideologically in line [with your constituents],” he says, “it is pretty liberating.”
The Rev. Richard Shields, president of the American Lutheran Theological Seminary, says separation of church and state is a fundamental tenet of Lutheran teachings, but that does not mean religion has no role.
“Any political decisions you make should be congruent with your faith,” he said.
Shimkus’ favorite Bible verse (Ephesians 2:8-9) explains a lot about the lawmaker’s relationship with God. The verse is, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Sitting in his office, Shimkus launched into a long discussion of the theological implications of the verse, which boiled down to this: He believes people cannot be saved by good works, but only through their faith. Good works, he said, come later, as those who have been saved already feel compelled to do them.
“We want to do good work for Christ,” Shimkus says — not to earn a place in the hereafter.
Shields, too, is a fan of the verse.
“If that’s his verse, I commend him for it,” he said. “It is one of the central passages in the Bible for all Christians. If that is his favorite, I would say he understands quite a bit about it.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.