Donald Trump and uses and misuses of the Bible

Source: The New Yorker

By Ian Frazier, who is a staff writer at The New Yorker and most recently published “Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces.”

In extreme circumstances like the present, people go back to their deep beliefs and look into their souls. The Democratic Party, by way of the Joe Biden campaign, has announced that the upcoming Presidential election will be “a battle for the soul of America.” But, in religious terms, what kind of a soul will that be? America remains a Christian-majority nation, and evangelicals are an important and dependable part of President Trump’s base; part of his “Make America Great Again” theme has been his in-your-face cheerleading for Christianity. Although Trump has lived more or less the opposite of a Christian life, many evangelicals see him as their heaven-sent ally, an instance of God’s well-known habit of working in mysterious ways.

A faithful churchgoer he’s not. After he held up a Bible for his violence-enabled photo op in Lafayette Square, a reporter asked him, “Is that your Bible?” He replied, “It’s a Bible.” If, as he seemed to be saying (unsurprisingly), this particular Bible did not belong to him, its actual owner remained unknown. Ivanka Trump had carried it in a designer handbag during the walk from the White House to St. John’s Church and had given it to her father so that he could pose with it, but apparently it wasn’t hers, either. After the photo op, nobody stepped forward to claim this Bible as his or her own and take pride in its having participated in an important moment in history.

Of course, there are millions of Bibles out there that don’t technically belong to anyone. Maybe this was just a copy that the White House had on hand. In courtrooms, for the swearing-in of witnesses, there are Bibles that are the general property of the court. At a witness’s request, a court might provide a copy of the Torah instead; in places with more diversity, courts might also offer Qurans and Bhagavad Gitas. The option of not swearing on any text at all exists, too. Atheists, for example, don’t have to raise their right hands and swear on a hardback of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” but may simply affirm that what they say will be the truth. Some judges make a point of telling jurors to remember that a witness who chooses to affirm rather than swear is no less likely to be truthful.

For Trump’s purposes in Lafayette Square, however, only a Bible would do, because he was once again making a claim about America and Christianity. His senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis later told the Washington Post, “For me, as a constitutional law attorney, as an American, and as a Christian—all those things came together for me in that moment.” In America’s past existential battles, both sides were emphatically Christian. During the Civil War, Confederate troops prayed in revival meetings, sometimes led by their generals, and Union Army regiments sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they marched. Nowadays, only the Trump side is hugging the faith to its bosom, having trained it for combat during the so-called War on Christmas, in which Trump seems to have subdued the enemy to his satisfaction. Late in 2017, when announcing his huge tax cut for corporations and the rich, he said, “We will give the American people a big, beautiful Christmas present,” thus combining Father and Son—God and Money—with the Holy Spirit, which would be himself. Meanwhile, the anti-Trump side remains formally ungirded in holy armor, maybe so as not to leave anybody out. It’s a big country, after all, and the Trump-supporting evangelicals are outnumbered by the many millions of Americans who aren’t.

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