Trump’s public act of blasphemy

Michael Gerson Syndicated Columnist
Friday, June 5, 2020
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In addition to being an act of sacrilege, Donald Trump’s (literal) elevation of the Bible following the Battle of Lafayette Square was a culmination of the president’s approach to communication.

In front of St. John’s church, the president removed a syllable from his monosyllabic rhetoric and only held up a symbol. His awkwardness in handling the Bible made even his silence inarticulate. This approach does have the advantage of making the lives of White House communications staffers simpler. Instead of his next speech on agriculture, Trump could simply hold up a carrot. When communicating on law and order, he could have jackbooted enforcers of his whims throw flashbang grenades and pepper-balls at citizens assembled in lawful protest.

Sorry, Trump already thought of that.

The problem with symbols, however, is that they don’t interpret themselves. In other settings, holding up Holy Scripture might have been the president’s way of saying: “BIBLE GOOD!” But the context here is more sinister. Following the brutal clearing of Lafayette Square, Trump seemed to be using the Bible as a symbol of conquest. It was a bit like planting the flag at Iwo Jima - except without the courage, honor or patriotic purpose.

Christian symbols have been used this way before. In 312 AD, on the night before a decisive battle for control of the Western Roman Empire, Constantine claimed to have the vision of a cross of light in the sky bearing the command, “In this sign, you will conquer.” Few seemed to notice the irony of using a symbol of sacrificial love as a battle standard. And a dangerous precedent was set of applying religion as a tool of tribal conquest.

Trump is our cut-rate Constantine. He seeks to employ the sacred as a means of political influence. And more than that, he is now using the Bible to sanctify the physical abuse of peaceful protesters. It is a strategy that doubles as blasphemy. Trump is, in effect, proposing his own bent Beatitude: Blessed are the brutal, for they shall dominate the battle space.

My main concern is not for the standing of the Bible. Having weathered the barbarian invasions, it is likely to survive mishandling by Paula White and Donald Trump. But there is a genuine threat to democracy when citizens spiritualize their political differences. An opponent can be defeated; an infidel must be destroyed. And that seems to be Trump’s intention: to convince evangelical Christians that opposition to his will is really opposition to their faith.

Trump is attempting something ambitious and revolting. He is trying to reshape the content of Christian social engagement in his own image. He is making the claim that brutalizing protesters, disdaining migrants, excluding refugees, discriminating against Islam, and treating opponents with casual cruelty are the natural elements of a biblical ethic. And he is using the Bible itself as a kind of talisman or fetish, carried into culture war conflicts. “In this sign,” Trump seems to be saying to his followers, “you will conquer.”

But for Christians, the Bible is not a charm to be borne into battle. It is not the words and pages that are holy; it is the message they contain. And that message, as Jesus summarized it, is this: “He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This statement of purpose stands in judgment of almost everything for which Trump stands.

There are those on the evangelical right who have clearly abandoned this conception of scripture. They display not the transformed heart of the believer, but an iron stomach of a political operative. They will swallow anything. If Trump stepped on the Bible, they would interpret it as “the foundation of his life.” If Trump lit it on fire, they would regard it as “lighting the way to a better future.” Their tolerance for sacrilege is the revelation of their true priorities.

The good news of Jesus Christ is not the story of a triumphant tribe. It is the story of extravagant, creative, sacrificial, relentless divine love. If the biblical account of that love is true - as evangelicals would uniformly contend - trading it for the gospel of Trump is an act of monumental foolishness.