At the EPA as throughout his political career, Pruitt blurred the lines between church and state.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, resigned Thursday after months of allegations of corruption during his time in office, including using staffers’ credit cards to make travel bookings, over-spending government funds on seemingly frivolous items like a $43,000 phone booth for his office, and an ethically dubious “sweetheart housing” deal with the family of a prominent lobbyist.
Pruitt’s resignation letter was thoroughly unapologetic, blaming the “unrelenting attacks” on him and his family for his untimely departure. He repeatedly referred to the honor of serving President Donald Trump, and made no reference to serving the American people. But one line in his departure letter stood out — and could help to explain why Pruitt survived such a scandal-prone tenure as long as he did.
“I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence,” Pruitt wrote, “I believe that same providence brought me into your service.”
On the face of it, Pruitt’s remarks are relatively anodyne. But taken against Pruitt’s wider willingness to allow very particular evangelical strains of theology to define his approach to the environment, as well as an administration where the performance of Christian nationalism is all but mandatory, his words take on a more troubling character.
The assertion that God made Donald Trump president, and that Trump is thus directly favored by God, is well-established in the Trump administration. Major figures in Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory cabinet, such as pastors Robert Jeffress and Paula White, have frequently, publicly leaned into this idea. Jeffress has frequently thrown pro-Trump rallies as part of his megachurch services, including making “Make America Great Again” into a hymn.
Other figures in Trump’s orbit have likewise leaned into the notion that he’s a modern-day King Cyrus (the Persian king chosen by God to deliver the Jewish people from exile in Babylon). The idea that the Trump presidency is rendered legitimate by God’s providence is a sustained part of Trump’s wider political strategy.
Scott Pruitt’s evangelical faith has informed his environmental policy
Pruitt has long allowed particular strains of evangelical theology to define his approach to his office. Pruitt is a Southern Baptist and a trustee of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He launched his early career as a lawyer arguing religious freedom cases. Faith-based issues — including federal funding of faith-based programs and legislation of abortion restrictions — defined his time in the Oklahoma State Senate.
As chief of the EPA, however, Pruitt embraced a particular school of evangelical thought that sees human beings as having the God-given, inalienable right to do whatever they want to the planet. The way he was able to cast deregulation as, in part, an evangelical faith issue, allowed him to successfully maintain a solid base of evangelical support for mass rollbacks in environmental protections.
As I’ve written previously, Pruitt has frequently invoked a Bible verse often used by proponents of this school of thought to legitimize loosening environmental restrictions: Genesis 1:28, in which God tells his new human creations, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”
As EPA chief, Pruitt was involved in persuading Donald Trump to leave the Paris climate accords and has spearheaded a number of rollbacks of Obama-era initiatives, including reversing the Clean Power Plan, as well as smaller repeals like on a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been shown to cause developmental problems in children.
He’s also drastically reduced the number of fines the EPA has collected on businesses that break the law by making use of toxic or dangerous chemicals. More broadly, the Trump administration has used a variety of excuses to legitimize its record-setting rollbacks on environmental protections, calling global warming a hoax, or arguing that the economic consequences of increased regulation would outweigh their benefit.
Last year, Pruitt told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, “The biblical world view with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.”
Pruitt has also gone on record doubting the veracity of evolution, and is a member of a congressional Bible study that also includes other Trump administration officials, including Jeff Sessions.
Pruitt’s evangelical credentials have made him politically valuable
As the Huffington Post’s Alexander C. Kaufman noted earlier this year, Pruitt’s evangelical credentials have made him highly useful to Trump, and Pruitt, Kaufman says, “has played an outsize role in courting leaders on the evangelical right.” Pruitt’s evangelical bona fides and ability to engage with the evangelical leaders who are, increasingly, shoring up Trump’s base may have better allowed him to weather some of his early scandals and last as long as he has.
It’s unlikely that Pruitt’s interim replacement, Andrew Wheeler, will be much of a change. A former coal lobbyist, Wheeler seems to share Pruitt’s passion for deregulation. But as we reflect on Pruitt’s tainted history in office, it’s worth taking a second look at why, exactly, he lasted so long.