Donald Trump and America's Iconic Bible

On Monday afternoon, Donald Trump, after delivering a "law and order" speech in response to the demonstrations, that at times have become violent and destructive, had federal officers clear a path through a park to historic St. John's Episcopal Church, so he could have his picture taken with a Bible. We have since learned that priests from the church were pushed off of church property so this could take place. To many of us, including the leaders of that congregation, as well as the local bishop and the Presiding Bishop, this was not only a politicization of a sacred site but photo op that in essence was a desecration of the Bible.  

This got me to thinking of a column I wrote when I was serving as a columnist for the Lompoc Record, and which was subsequently included in my book Faith in the Public Square, (Energion Publications, 2012). I responded at the time to a statement made by radio host Dennis prayer, who suggested that only the Bible should be used in Congressional oath-taking. This after a new member of Congress took the oath on the Qu'ran. I used that to reflect on the iconic nature of the Bible in American society. As with Donald Trump's use, the Bible is not so much a sacred authority as it is a national symbol that can be used in ways not intended by the users of that Bible. As many pointed out, the very act of using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the way to the church from the White House is antithetical to the very message of Jesus. 

What you'll read below is the version published in my book. You'll notice I draw upon Mark Toulouse's excellent book God in Public, which would be a worthwhile read right now. The question I raise here has to do with the way we use the Bible almost as a talisman, a magic symbol. Whatever Donald Trump was trying to do, it didn't match the message of Scripture.

America and Its Iconic Bible

A controversy concerning the use of the Qur'an in Congressional oath-taking ceremonies raised the question of the Bible’s place in American life. Radio host Dennis Prager laid down the gauntlet in a much-publicized column when he said:

Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.

If the Bible is America’s Holy Book, what exactly does that mean? It’s true that the Bible is regularly used in a variety of public ceremonies, from swearing-in of witnesses to oathtaking by public officials. It’s believed that using the Bible in such a way guarantees truthfulness, although there’s little evidence that such use prevents either corruption or perjury.

When we talk about the Bible as America’s Holy Book, we’re not talking about its content; we’re talking about its symbolic status. Indeed, that’s Prager’s point. Therefore, since the Bible is essentially an object of veneration, we dutifully trot it out whenever we deem it appropriate. If necessary we’ll read it selectively in support of our pet projects. Take for instance the Ten Commandments: many venerate them, but spend little time examining their meaning.  

The Bible’s iconic value is connected to America’s mythical “Judeo-Christian” heritage, something that’s apparently now under siege by pluralists and immigrants alike. Reference is often made to the nation’s golden age when that heritage is assumed to have reigned supreme. However, a close reading of America’s history suggests that the story is much more complicated than that. Besides, there are dark shadows that lay across our nation’s religious heritage, from slavery to segregation. Nonetheless the Bible is often regarded as synonymous with American life. The tradition of using the Bible to take the Presidential Oath of Office dates back to George Washington, who used his Masonic Bible in that ceremony. We’ve had presidentially-decreed “Years of the Bible,” while speech writers pepper political speeches with biblical allusions, often taken out of context. To give but one example: President Bush, in a speech following 9-11, said "the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it." He was referring to America, but the passage (John 1:5) refers not to our nation but to Jesus’ entrance into the world. The iconic stature of the Bible, Mark Toulouse writes, "subordinates biblical values to whatever American political thought might need at the moment." (Toulouse, God in Public, p. 61).

Upwards of 93% of us own a Bible, and somewhere around 82% believe it to be divinely inspired. No wonder so many people embrace Creationist views. Unfortunately, there’s also significant evidence that Americans know very little about the Bible’s content. To give an example, in a Gallup poll only 49% of Americans could name the first book of the Bible (Genesis) and only 34% of us knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (It’s Jesus by the way).

For the Christian, however, the Bible should be more than simply a national icon that we venerate but ignore in our daily life. Instead, it should inform our faith and our practice as Christians. The same could be said for religious Jews as well. It should challenge us to walk with God and walk humbly and peaceably with our neighbor (Micah 6:8). And so we who wish to take the Bible seriously need to heed this reminder by Mark Toulouse:
When the nation uses the Bible in iconic fashion, the nation honors the book as a symbol instead of taking the book seriously for its content. In this context, politicians, and even ministers and Christian social activists, can easily slip into the political misuse of the Bible's content to suit their own purposes. (Toulouse, p. 63).
God hasn’t made special covenant with the United States of America. Whatever covenants God has made transcend national boundaries.

As one who finds the words of the Bible to be enriching and challenging, I believe its words must be interpreted carefully and very seriously. To do otherwise, especially if the Bible is read or used in a politicized way, could be dangerous. Therefore, I’ll take my Bible seriously but not as a national icon. 

(From Faith in the Public Square, Energion Publications, pp.103-105).


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