Trump could try opening the Bible instead of using it as a prop
Bible was never meant to be used as a way of signalling to a target demographic
President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St John’s church in Washington, DC, on Monday. Part of the church had been set on fire during protests the previous night. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo
My favourite response to US president Donald Trump’s use of a Bible in a photo opportunity outside St John’s church in Washington, DC, came from a priest on Facebook who captioned the photo with: “Open it. I dare you.”
Episcopal clergy and others who had been handing out water and first aid to peaceful protesters from the plaza outside St John’s were cleared with what protesters believed to be tear gas. (It may have been pepper spray.) This was all to facilitate President Trump posing outside with a Bible.
Trump’s team did not inform the rector of the church before the president chose to brandish the Bible outside it
The irony is that while St John’s is known as the presidents’ church, Trump rarely attends. In fairness, the last president to attend St John’s on a semi-regular basis was George W Bush, who spent more time in Lincoln Park United Methodist and Washington Cathedral. Bill Clinton favoured Foundry United Methodist Church, which Hillary and he attended very regularly. Barack Obama attended church so rarely in Washington that it once made headlines when he did. His family did attend church regularly in Chicago before he became president.
Of course, church-going is no guarantee of probity. Trump’s team did not inform the rector of the church before the president chose to brandish the Bible outside it, nor did Trump pray while there.
How often does president Trump open a Bible? I have no idea. He certainly did not look that comfortable with it after it emerged from his daughter Ivanka’s $1,500 Max Mara bag. (Those who judge, quite accurately, that this writer could not distinguish a white Max Mara bag from a first-aid kit may like to know that CNN journalist Kate Bennett identified it.)
I do know that Trump changed his pattern of Christmas church-going last year after a row with the editors of Christianity Today, a respected evangelical publication founded by Billy Graham.
Bill Galli, then editor in chief, wrote a blistering editorial about Trump in December 2019 stating that Trump should be removed from office. For example, Galli said that Trump’s “Twitter feed alone – with its habitual string of mischaracterisations, lies and slanders – is a near-perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
After it, Trump deserted the liberal Episcopal church in Mar-a-Lago where he was married and usually attends at least twice a year. He went instead to a Christmas service at a conservative Baptist church aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Galli’s editorial was significant for a number of reasons. White, Christian evangelicals are a vital part of Trump’s support. More than 80 per cent of them chose to vote for Trump.
Somewhat to the magazine’s surprise, I suspect, the Trump editorial lost it 2,000 subscribers but gained it 5,000 new ones. The evangelical love affair with Trump might be waning. The gesture outside St John’s was aimed squarely at regaining that demographic because they are vital to Trump’s electoral success.
Whether or not Trump reads the Bible, Christianity Today was also the recent source of a picture of a different man holding a Bible aloft, this time one with his name on it. That man was George Floyd.
Floyd was arrested for the alleged crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Later, he was pinned to the ground by three police officers for nearly nine minutes, with one of them, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on his neck despite Floyd pleading that he could not breathe. The police officers are all facing murder charges of varying degrees.
Christians in the US are going to have to decide whether they will continue to give Trump a free pass for all the other egregious ways in which he violates their values
According to those who knew him, Floyd had moved to Minneapolis in order to take part in a Christian work-placement programme. Before that, he had lived his whole life in the Third Ward in Houston, in an area of extreme poverty and gun violence. After a spell in prison for armed robbery in 2007, his friends say he wanted to turn his life around.
When Pastor Patrick PT Ngwolo started a church outreach in the Third Ward in 2012, Floyd was one of the first people to help.
Outsiders such as the pastor would not have had access or credibility without people such as Floyd, described as a person of peace and community leader. Floyd wanted people to come to a real understanding of faith as an alternative to guns and violence.
Instead, as a result of institutionalised violence, he was suffocated face down on a street by people charged with upholding the law.
The Bible was never meant to be used as a prop, or a way of signalling to a particular demographic. It should challenge everyone who reads it – not least to dismantle systems that routinely treat some lives as less valuable and less worthy of preservation than others.
Many Christians voted for Trump despite his vengefulness, impulsivity and narcissism because he promised to do something about one such system. Ultimately, Christians in the United States are going to have to decide whether they will continue to give Trump a free pass for all the other egregious ways in which he violates their values, including using the Bible for a self-promoting stunt.
Or Trump might have his own road-to-Damascus moment on racism and police brutality: a good place to start might be opening that Bible and absorbing its message.