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Trump’s biblical power play The President's curious photo-op had little to do with religion

Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty


June 4, 2020   5 mins

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

It was the curious way Donald Trump held up the Bible outside St John’s, Layfayette Square that got me thinking. It was almost like he was showing it off to the crowd as a dictator might parade a captured prisoner. Or like someone holding up a severed head. There again, it was also faintly reminiscent of the slightly camp way that sales people display their products on the shopping channel.

Everyone knows Trump is not much of a reader. In a 1987 interview, he tied himself in knots trying to name a book — other than his own — that had actually read and enjoyed. As Michael Wolff put it in his Trump biography: “He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-­literate.”

And as with reading in general, so too with Bible reading in particular. Trump can’t answer even the most basic “what is your favourite bit of the Bible” type of noddy question, retreating into the vapid response that the Bible is very personal to him and so he doesn’t want to get into it. It’s hardly a surprise that the 783,137 words of the King James presents as a little intimidating for a non-reader. But it seems that Trump is not au fait with even the most heavily abridged version.

Elizabeth I was right that we ought not to seek to make “windows into other men’s souls” thus to put others on trial for their religious beliefs, or lack of them. But when someone is so transparently irreligious and totally ignorant of the even the most basic tenets of the faith, windows are not required.

Several people have made the point that Donald Trump probably wouldn’t like the Bible very much if he ever did read it. All that forgiveness and love your enemies stuff isn’t really his style. Nor giving all your money to the poor. And certainly the idea that you might clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protestors, with the heavy handed use riot police and tear gas, thus to do a photo op with the Bible, makes a mockery of the continual cry for justice that the Bible itself contains. This is the book that gave words of hope and defiance to those African-Americans who were subject to slavery. For Trump to so ostentatiously brandish it at a time when racial division is once again pulling American into civil war, was a deliberate provocation.

Trump is hardly the first political leader to celebrate Christianity while ignoring the very basic teachings of Jesus. You could argue that the convergence of the early church with the Roman empire under the supervision of the Emperor Constantine did precisely that. Indeed, the Nicene creed that was assembled under the Emperor’s careful watch, and which to this day remains one of the central summaries of the Christian faith, very effectively ignores any mention of Jesus’s radical teaching on money or violence, and instead skips from his birth to his death, as if nothing came in between. “Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” It’s a brilliant piece of misdirection. If you focus attention on the story of Jesus’s life and death — a religion of the baby and the cross — you can make what he actually said about things disappear into the background.

Trump achieves something similar, not by talking about Jesus, but by holding up the Bible. Indeed, for Trump and many others, the Bible is not something you read, it is something you have. He actually collects them. He will sign them and hand them out to people. For him, the Bible here is not so much a library of words, but a thing in itself. Something you can believe in independently of its literary content, or even its wisdom about God. This is the religion of Father, Son and Holy Scripture — as if the book itself could be an object of veneration.

And what is going on here, of course, is partly a very basic appeal to authority. To write something down, to capture it with words, especially when everything about that process required money, education and power, was one of the earliest ways to codify authority. A book is not just a collection of words, it is also frozen power. That is what Trump with his rat-like cunning can smell on the pages of scripture.

This is why revolutions burn books. “Oppose book worship” was one of Mao Tse-Tung’s revolutionary slogans. “Whatever is written in a book is right — such is the mentality of culturally backward Chinese peasants,” he wrote. To reclaim lost power, books must be destroyed.

Ironically, and for all the terror that has come to be associated with this idea, the suspicion of frozen divine power has its origins within the pages of scripture itself. Indeed, what is called idolatry is probably the number one thought crime within the Hebrew scriptures, and consists of worshiping something other than God. And this false worship often takes place by turning some representation of the divine into the very thing that is worshipped. That is why the Golden Calf had to be destroyed. Because representations of the divine can sometimes feel more compelling than the elusive divine itself, almost as if the representation can take hold of God, turn God into some sort of captive thing, like a pet that can be occasionally taken out of its cage and shown off.

And this is what we have with Trump and the Bible. His little show-and-tell photo op was a way of parading to others the god of his own limited imagination, the god of power, of law and order. Trump didn’t hold up his Bible in fear and trembling, thinking nervously of the day he will get to meet his maker. Quite the reverse. Trump has turned the divine into his little pet creature, trapped like the meat in a sandwich, caught between the pages of his unread Bible.

In the back of my church vestry cupboard we have a little used piece of liturgical equipment known as a monstrance, from the Latin word “to show”. It’s like a fancy gilded frame you can put a consecrated wafer into so you can parade it about the church, thus to celebrate the presence of the bread-become-body of Jesus within the worshipping life of the community. We bow or kneel before it. The service is called Benediction. Protestants disparage it as “wafer worship”. But protestants are themselves hardly immune from the idolatry that they recognise in others. For, at worst, theirs is a religion of book worship.

Indeed, Trump’s Bible stunt on the steps of St John’s was a protestant version of Benediction. He held up the Bible as something worthy of veneration. It felt like an encouragement to bow or kneel, as if its power and his power might be fused in the public imagination. Bow before me was its message.

But the book he was holding up has other ideas about power. “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” as Trump’s King James version puts it. The man who would be king has to empty himself of power, taking the form of a slave. And he dies a slave’s death on the imperial gallows. But I don’t suppose he has got to that bit.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Dave Smith
Dave Smith
4 years ago

You are over thinking this. Trump was telling his supporters that he is standing with them against what they conceive as the forces of darkness. It is probably very effective . If you have spent time in the parts of the USA where the church is still the centre of life for the community then you get it.
It is still a frontier society built by men and women who believed that strength of character and hard work and faith was what built the USA. They see the rioters as the direct anthesis of this.
Look on youtube and you will see the citizens of small towns well armed and turning out to protect their communities. Trump is giving them the sign that he is fine with that,. They are nothing like Europeans they just happen to speak English.

Go Away Please
Go Away Please
4 years ago

Giles, very interesting until you got to Trump’s “little show-and-tell photo op was a way of parading to others the god of his own limited imagination, the god of power, of law and order. Trump didn’t hold up his Bible in fear and trembling”.
What you appeared to be doing in your attempts to portray Trump as a tiny mind was to denigrate just about all of us because lets face it most of us, myself included, have a limited imagination when it comes to God. Then you seem to imply that the only way to approach the Bible is via fear and trembling.
After that you proceeded to tell us that anybody who thought the Bible and its words important eg Protestants were a bit guilty of book worship. You also managed to disparage those Americans who do read the Bible in a very literal sense and I can think of another religion that takes its book literally too.
All of that so you could have a dig at Trump. I wonder if it was worth it?

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

I do fear that this is the standard British journalists sneering at Trump. There isn’t much analysis, no consideration that Clinton would have been no better (or considerably worse) and the Democrats are desperately trying to hide Joe Biden in his cellar because he has been shown up to be both racist and senile.

The reality is this picture will play well with the evangelical right who Trump needs to keep on board and will annoy the metropolitan left to an extent that they will repeat the “deplorable” mistake by doing exactly what this article did.

gordon.pedersen
gordon.pedersen
4 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Here is how I understood your perspective, and I’m probably wrong on that, so please clarify. Both the evangelical right and the metropolitan left are putty in the hands of Trump. One should not try to critique his strategy or tactics, as they are clearly the best we could hope for. This applies double to British journalists.

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

Not quite, he’s playing to his electorate. The evangelical right will vote for him because he will put an evangelical Christian on the Supreme Court. That will give them a clear majority on the court for the next 20 years or more. This was Trump conforming he will do that. He has already started that process with two appointments and the president elected in November will appoint at least one more.

The left hate him for the same reason as they where hoping a two term Clinton presidency would ensure a liberal Supreme Court majority. They hate Trump and the imagery of this photograph will drive then mad.

So it’s not about putty in Trumps hands just good old fashioned electioneering and showing he plans to keep to his pledge.

Penelope Newsome
Penelope Newsome
4 years ago

Well, I don’t agree with the tenor of this piece. Trump quite rightly here draws other people’s attention- ie the rioters , looters – attention to the Bible. Heis standing in front of a church, one of quite afew, that hey have attacked. Quite right to remind them of the importance of the Bible and of Christianity, the religion after all on which the USA is founded.

Derek M
Derek M
4 years ago

Perhaps you should have taken Elizabeth I’s advice, this doesn’t come across as very Christian, a bit like the C of E bishops last week.

lizzzygoode
lizzzygoode
4 years ago

This article just feels rather nasty.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Trump’s use of the bible is indeed absurd given that he is patently not at all religious. If only politicians (and people in general) would drop all this religious nonsense.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Surely it’s just a bit of what they call chutzpah isn’t it?
Not quite the “Life of Brian”, but funny enough.

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
4 years ago

This piece is self-defeating. So Trump is both a semi-literate nincompoop with no capacity for deep concepts, but also a crafty and cunning authoritarian using the Bible as a prop. You can’t have it both ways, Giles. I lean more towards the “nincompoop” side.

If you had your ear closer to the ground of American Evangelicalism, you’d know that there are near-daily prayer meetings happening in the Oval Office. The fact that most people don’t know this kind of shows you that this isn’t being exploited, and neatly served to the media Right for strategic political distribution.

So we can argue about how much, but there is certainly some level of genuineness to his religious peacocking. To the extent that a lifelong high-rolling self-absorbed borderline sociopath is capable of absorbing anything of value from the Bible, I think he’s making some effort.

And that fact that you just bypass all good faith and even some more pertinent details about his “religious journey”, and just base your entire indictment on a visceral feeling that a photo gives you, is just as much of a religious imputation on you as it is Trump.

Dennis Wheeler
Dennis Wheeler
4 years ago

The stupidest photo-op ever. He looked awkward and utterly clueless, like an automaton told to stand there and hold a book he was unfamiliar with while posing for a camera. Has he no sane advisors?

jakealexanderson
jakealexanderson
4 years ago

Amusing that Fraser uses the very book he criticises Protestants of ‘worshipping’ to call them out; perhaps it’s the case Protestants worship the God who reveals himself through that book.

Teo
Teo
4 years ago

Trump knows his audience and only he knows his conscience.

clairecraske
clairecraske
4 years ago

You Cathols, a? Tut tut.

h j
h j
4 years ago

Trump wants his “base” to know that their belief that he is the Messiah – the new age Cyrus as the evangelicals call him..is still the case. He counts on their vote and wants a repeat of 2016 in the states that Obama forgot about but happen to be in the electoral college and differentiators to an election outcome. Having given billions to big business he’ll be sure to have them in his pocket (or is it the other way around) already.

William Harvey
William Harvey
4 years ago

To infer Trump is unintelligent or “semi litrtate” is itself an unintelligent comment. Its hardly likely he survived and prospered in the cut throat world of US property speculation without at least a passable grasp of legal contracts and mathematics.
OK , so he probably is irreligious or maybe evrn and agnostic. He probably doesn’t read much literature. However, to portray him as unintelligent seems illogical and runs against the available evidence.
Here’s the thing…. not all Republican president are dumb war hawk and not all democratic presidents are weak, liars and cheats. That narrative is too simplistic.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  William Harvey

He is clever rather than intelligent and, possibly as a consequence, foolish rather than wise.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago

It’s all rubbish…the people who think Trump is Christ’s rep. on earth will still cheer him on….

…those who think is Satan’s rep. on earth will still despise him….

…and the religious loons will dance on the head of a pin as they try to justify what the POTUS does or doesn’t to with references to the Bible to suit….

…religion by transaction so to speak….

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
4 years ago
Reply to  Allan Dawson

From what I understand Christian Evangelists don’t see Trump as God’s representative, but as God moving through him (much like the Emperor Cyrus that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland).

I know religion gets sneered at, but I’ve been to some parts of the US where that is all people have to sustain themselves. Without attending church some of them would fall into back into bad habits like drugs and crime. It’s a marker of ‘privilege’ when you don’t need religion.

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
4 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

Actually it was Cyrus

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
4 years ago

Thanks, I always get those two mixed up.

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
4 years ago

Well done Giles, going back to your old tricks of inciting antisemitism in your words. The Merchant of Venice is the key source of English antisemitism and for those who obviously don’t know, Jesus was actually Jewish. But as we all know, the Jews, according to TS Eliot are lower than rats (endorsed by Hitler in Mein Kampf) and who’s to blame for the current violence in America – why those accursed Jews of course!

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 years ago

Irene, if you’ve been reading Giles’s recent contributions here, you’ll know that his wife is Jewish. If he’s antisemitic, theirs must be a very unhappy household. Fortunately there’s nothing in the article, or anything else he’s written, to suggest that he is.

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Knew this would come up -a) some of my best friends, b) have met the man, c) Goebbels also enjoyed his time in Israel, d) read Anthony Julius’ book where gf is mentioned In dispatches and e) are you suggesting that the Merchant of Venice is philosemitic?

Ahmno Kidinya
Ahmno Kidinya
4 years ago

Are you saying that any and every quotation from the MoV is anti-semitic? `You sound as if you have quite a bee in your bonnet. Do you hear buzzing noises?

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

I too am Jewish but I don’t think this article is anti-semitic just because he quotes MoV. Do you think that the painting of The Last Supper is antisemitic?

h j
h j
4 years ago

What utter nonsense you speak. I don’t agree with some of his views but Fraser isn’t what you very unjustly paint him to be.
Also it’s not a done thing to vote for yourself. What’s the point of that.

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 years ago

The Bible is a book of two unequal parts, each presenting a very different version of the deity. I suspect that Trump hasn’t got beyond the Old Testament, so hasn’t read the Jesus bit. This is true of many so-called ‘Bible Christians’ in the US (the people to whom he’s trying to appeal)

clairecraske
clairecraske
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Ooh! That’s not so! And the two parts AREN’T unequal! The Old foreshadows the New through dozens of prophecies and New is the fulfilment of the Old!
101 Bible study.
The church-going Americans I know in the NorthWest have a better grasp of the whole Bible than a lot of English clergy!

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

This is rubbish – Jesus only read the OT (sic) and would undoubtedly have condemned the NT as anti-Semitic. Most of the positive parts in the NT are pure Judaism and are filched from the OT (sic). This includes the Sermon on the Mount. The 15% of the NT that is anti-Semitic (around 600 entries according to NT scholars) was written by self-hating Jews in order to placate the Romans. How do I know? Unlike AD above, I’ve been teaching the Bible and related subjects to clergy and academics for over 40 years. So why am I not totally surprised that this website allows comments that will inflame people to attack the Jewish community – and in fact could be accused of being anti-Semitic itself. But it was ever thus. Corbyn did not arise in a vacuum – definitely not, and comparing the hated Jew Shylock to the American President is an example of venomous hatred towards Jews – whoever the writer. Especially, as a greater number of anti black judicial murders were carried out (also under Democrat mayors) when Obama was king!