Evangelicals must not be fooled by a photo-op with the Bible as a prop. Scripture warns us too many times about those who seek to use it to promote themselves without internalizing the words into genuine faith and action.
The President’s behavior, particularly concerning race, has always been egregious. He has always counted on people of faith to overlook these transgressions with promises of political concessions and solidarity. When he was a businessman, he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the execution of five innocent black boys. At the start of his campaign, he characterized America’s Latino immigrant community as drug-dealing, criminal, rapists. Some, he assumed, were good people. When neo-Nazis and Klansmen gathered en masse in Charlottesville and murdered a woman, he told us with certainty that among their number were “very fine people.”
In between those moments, he has consistently portrayed himself as an ally to evangelicals, looking to boosters like Robert Jeffress or Jerry Falwell. Congressional allies like Rep. Loudermilk (R-Ga.) compared President Trump’s impeachment trial to Jesus’s hearing before the Sanhedrin. When asked about his own faith, he has been evasive, giving answers that would disqualify him at a membership interview. When asked if he has ever prayed for his forgiveness, candidate Trump said “I have a great relationship with God. I have a great relationship with the evangelicals… I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
When asked what his favorite Bible verse or story was, he was unable to name a specific example, saying only “I wouldn’t want to get into it. Because to me, that’s very personal.” Months later, when faced with the same question, he said “Well, I think many. I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think many. So many. And some people —look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that.” The President’s most recent actions demonstrate a disconnect with his stated regard for the Bible’s teachings on the righteous use of force. They reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of Holy Scripture.
On June 1st, a crowd of peaceful protesters gathered outside the White House. In compliance with curfew, they were speaking out against police violence in light of the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, the President delivered remarks in the Rose Garden where he declared he was an “ally to peaceful protesters.” Immediately following those remarks, federal law enforcement attacked the crowd, deploying tear gas (yes, pepper spray is a form of tear gas), flashbangs, and rubber bullets. Clergy, medical personnel, and other peaceful protectors were attacked preemptively. And why? So the President could walk across Lafayette Park with a Bible in hand and shoot B-Roll for an advertisement.
The video of the aftermath is bizarre. Wordlessly, Trump stands before the camera with a Bible in hand. He looks down at it, shakes it, and stares off to his left. Without opening it, he holds it aloft, swaying back and forth. A reporter asks, “is that your Bible?” He responds: “It’s a Bible. White House.”
A reporter asks what his thoughts are, and he responds without a word about God. “We have a great country, that’s my thoughts. Greatest country in the world, the greatest. We will make it even greater, it won’t take long. It’s not going to take long to see what’s going on. It’s coming back, it’s coming back strong. It will be greater than ever before.” Following this statement, the President walks a few paces to his left, poses with the Bible again and holds it in front of his chest before lowering it to his side. He calls his advisers over for a photo, thanks the reporters, and says “We have the greatest country in the world. Thank you very much, we’re going to keep it very safe.” He walks back to the White House.
What was meant to be a show of strength was instead a show of cowardice – proof positive that Trump is afraid to walk amongst those who peacefully protest the destruction of black bodies. What was meant to be a show of solidarity with American evangelicals was instead a demonstration of violence against clergy. What was meant to be a show of piety was instead a demonstration of idolatry. Rather than using the Bible to worship the Creator, he used the book in an act of self-promotion and autoidolotry in open opposition to those protesting the death of an image-bearer of God.
At no point is the Good Book opened. At no point are the words of God, or even the existence of God, evoked. There is not a moment of prayer. There is only a man, walking in the wake of beaten and gassed protesters, holding a Bible that is not his as a political prop. It may be for the best that he didn’t open the book. There are few words of comfort for a man transparently masquerading as a servant of God while unrepentantly enacting violence against the Imago Dei. There are, however, words of condemnation.
“Wicked men are found among my people; they lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things?” declares the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” – Jeremiah 5:26-29.