By Lianne Kolirin
As the United States battles with the dual crisis of the coronavirus pandemic and the growing race riots, Donald Trump has now stoked the flames by provoking the anger of religious leaders.
Earlier this week the president was photographed brandishing a copy of the Bible outside St John’s Episcopal Church, across the road from the White House.
The photo opportunity came after he ordered law enforcement officers to use teargas to clear the streets of those protesting against the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a white policeman who knelt on his neck.
Trump’s gesture, which has caused widespread anger and disgust, has been perceived as a cynical and ill-thought-out political ploy to capitalise on religious belief.
Mark Woods, editor at the Bible Society, told the Religion Media Centre:
“Many who saw Donald Trump posing with the Bible outside a church in the context of protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd have been puzzled by it. It’s not entirely clear what he wanted to convey, but the picture and the context seems to imply that he’s using the Bible to sanction strong action against protesters.
“That’s using the Bible in a very provocative way. It’s as though he’s claiming divine justification and the support of the Bible for police actions. If so that’s deeply inappropriate, and when the Bible is associated with images of violence and fear it’s even more troubling. The Bible should not be used as a justification for heavy-handed crowd control.
“Protesters have been demonstrating — mainly peacefully — against an act of great injustice, and in that, the Bible is on their side. Any political leader who uses the Bible needs to be aware that it condemns discrimination, murder and oppression.”
Candida Moss, professor of theology at Birmingham University, believes Mr Trump was playing to his core evangelical supporters.
“I think it was a symbolic reminder to his white conservative base that he is their Christian president and that his actions and response to the protests should be read through the lens of restoring the US to its Christian roots.
“It’s part of a broader effort by Trump to turn the current crises — both the pandemic and protests about racially motivated police brutality — and his response to them into issues of religion.
“However far-fetched this may seem, if he can persuade his base that his conduct is motivated by a concern to protect Christianity, that will legitimise any steps he takes or fails to take. Superficial displays of piety take the spotlight off the character of his presidency and shortcomings as a political leader.
“This strategy worked for him in 2016, when Evangelicals who disliked him personally voted for him to protect the Supreme Court. It seems to me that Trump is trying to manufacture a similar crisis . . . to shore up support from his base. The people who will suffer as a result of this are those who are vulnerable to Covid-19 and African-Americans and people of colour whose safety and rights are being overwritten by so-called religious concerns.”
According to a study carried out in March by the Pew Research Center, white evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly feel that the Trump administration has helped (59 per cent) rather than hurt (7 per cent) the interests of evangelical Christians. Three-quarters of them say they agree with the president on “many,” “nearly all” or “all” important issues facing the country.
But while they agree that Trump stands up for their interests, they are less convinced about his personal religious stance with only 15 per cent choosing to describe him as “morally upstanding”.
Professor Moss added: “The lifting up of the Bible was a dog whistle to his base that as a ‘law and order’ president he wants to make America a Christian country governed by biblical principles.
“For me it was problematic because he was using it as a prop to support his presidency. He doesn’t worship at this church, has admitted to being unfamiliar with the Bible, and was holding the Bible upside down, all of which suggests that this is more about optics than anything else.”
Professor Stephen Pattison, secretary of Theology Religious Studies UK, said:
“In Protestant, especially evangelical, Christianity upon which white America was built, the Bible is not just a book to be revered and obeyed, but also a symbol of identity. Donald Trump is trying to affirm his authority by publicly seizing and displaying the Bible, thus appealing to his core supporters and implicitly to the authority of God.
“His religious critics are appalled. They see this as an unwarranted misuse of the Bible which they see as on the side of the poor and oppressed, especially black people, who they see Trump as ignoring and oppressing. If the message of the Bible is to respect and liberate those who experience injustice, Trump has annexed and abused it to justify his own position. This is all the more painful as Trump is not known for his personal Christian commitment or devotion.”
Dr Andrew Davies, reader in the public understanding of religion at Birmingham University, said:
“Using the Bible for a photo opportunity was offensive in and of itself, but the angry reaction was compounded by the context of Mr Floyd’s murder and the subsequent outcry.
“For Christians, and especially the black majority churches, the Bible is a fundamentally liberative text. They acknowledge its capacity as a tool of oppression, and that it has been abused to promote all kinds of social evil down the centuries, but believe its central message is one of love rather than hate, justice rather than judgment.
“Many church leaders see President Trump’s use of the Bible at St John’s, Washington, as incendiary in its own right, irrespective of the context of these events in the middle of a national crisis and immediately following a speech that many of them saw as tone-deaf, rejecting the deep hurts and anger of their communities out of hand and responding with anger when a modicum of empathy would have made all the difference.
“But the offence was made all the deeper because of the circumstances of his appearance at the church (uninvited, unannounced, and requiring the prior, aggressive removal of legitimate and peaceful protesters from the location), because the Bible clearly was not his own (he seems to have held it upside down) and was being pressed into service for political purposes at a religious site in a time of national distress.
“Most significantly they object because Trump holding the Bible up like a placard at a political convention implies that it endorses his hardline message on law and order, when many of them would see the Bible’s central message to be much more one of hope, inclusion, acceptance and the possibility of repentance and change, and indeed endorses him. Increasingly America’s Evangelicals are just starting to think that the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality.”