June 4, 2020

“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.