The Bible: more than a presidential photo prop
Christian leaders for and against Trump’s scripture stance
“We seek to be a place for grace in this city,” Reverend Robert Fisher, rector of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., told Fox News’ Martha MacCallum on Monday.
“The particular neighbourhood that we’re in is not always a place where you find grace. And we strive to make it so that the space, when you walk in the door, whatever background you may be, you feel that it’s a place where you can breathe. Where you can experience the Spirit.”
“We were just a presence of prayer and caring.” – Robert Fisher, St John’s Church
Fisher was being interviewed because the historic Episcopal church – located across the street from the White House – had been damaged the night before, during protests in the area sparked by the death of George Floyd on May 25.
“After what happened last night … we gathered people of faith, clergy – of course all the clergy from St John’s and other episcopal clergy – but people from other denominations and lay people … and we handed out refreshments and we prayed with people,” he explained.
“And we were just a presence of prayer and caring. And what I experience, right in the grounds of St John’s [is] actually very hopeful, very peaceful, very loving.”
As Fisher and MacCallum spoke, US President Donald Trump was walking from the White House to the grounds of St John’s.
Fisher watched the live footage while he was on air, describing it as a “surreal” experience. “I feel like I’m in some alternative universe,” he said.
Only after the interview would the rector discover the full story.
First, he learned that the walk culminated in an overtly-staged photo opportunity of the President awkwardly holding a Bible high in the air in front of St John’s church, before the media.
“Is that your Bible?” a journalist called to him.
“It’s a Bible,” Trump responded.
Second, that armoured military police and law enforcement had used both rubber bullets and tear gas to clear the area of peaceful protestors – including inside the church’s grounds where Fisher’s team was ministering.
Criticism of Trump’s Bible photo op
Rev Gini Gerbasi, an Episocopal priest who had been rector of St John’s, was also in the grounds ministering to protestors when police arrived in riot gear.
“I’m there in my little pink sweater in my collar, my gray hair up in a ponytail, my reading glasses on, and my seminarian who was with me — she got tear gas in her eyes,” she said. They watched as police began to expel people from the church patio. The pair fled and it was only when they were blocks away that they discovered why the area had been cleared.
“That’s what it was for – to clear that patio, so that man could stand in front of that building with a Bible,” said Gerbasi.
“So I was already stunned and shocked and deeply, deeply offended that they had taken what had become holy ground,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And literally desecrated it, turned it into not a metaphorical battleground but a literal battleground with those officers and heavily armed—and just the aggression and the hostility.”
When she learned of the President’s Bible-holding photo moment, she said that “‘offended’ hardly begins to describe how I feel.” Many other Christian leaders quickly responded to Trump’s Bible photo op and, while some were supportive (see below), the reaction of Rev Gerbasi was widely shared.
“This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us.” – Michael Curry
The Right Reverend Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington (who helped organise the church’s ministry to protestors), was shocked she had received no warning of the visit or request to clear the area.
“The symbolism of him holding a Bible … as a prop and standing in front of our church as a backdrop when everything that he has said is antithetical to the teachings of our traditions and what we stand for as a church — I was horrified,” she told Religion News Service.
“He didn’t come to pray. He didn’t come to lament the death of George Floyd. He didn’t come to address the deep wounds that are being expressed through peaceful protest by the thousands upon thousands. He didn’t try to bring calm to situations that are exploding with pain.”
Further up the Episcopal Church ladder, presiding bishop The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry – who gained world attention when he gave a rousing message at the wedding of (then) Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – tweeted Trump had used “a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”
“This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us,” he wrote. “For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be ‘one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.’”
But it wasn’t only Christian leaders already known for their progressive leanings who publicly denounced the events.
Some conservative leaders, who have previously supported the President, also expressed concern.
“The Bible is a book we should hold only with fear and trembling, given to us that in it we might find eternal life,” J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement to the Washington Post.
“Our only agenda should be to advance God’s kingdom, proclaim his gospel, or find rest for our souls.”
Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Religious Liberty and Ethics Convention, said told the Post he was “brokenhearted and alarmed.”
“For me, the Bible is the Word of the living God, and should be treated with reverence and awe,” he said.
“The murder of African-American citizens, who bear the image of God, is morally wrong,” Moore said. “Violence against others and destruction of others’ property is morally wrong. Pelting people with rubber bullets and spraying them with tear gas for peacefully protesting is morally wrong.”
“You just don’t do that. Mr President. It isn’t cool.” – Pat Robertson
Later this week, Pat Robertson – the influential evangelical host of Christian television show 700 Club – was also critical of Trump.
“It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain. I want to comfort you. I think it’s time we love each other’. But the president took a different course. He said, ‘I am the president of law and order’,” Robertson said.
“And he issued a heads up. He said: ‘I’m ready to send in military troops if the nation’s governors don’t act to quell the violence that has rocked American cities’. Matter of fact, he spoke of them as being jerks,” Robertson said.
“You just don’t do that. Mr President. It isn’t cool,” he said.
Support for Trump’s Bible photo op
Some Christian leaders, however, heralded Trump’s photo opportunity as a sign of his strength and authority.
Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and Trump ally, told reporter McKay Coppins he thought it was “completely appropriate for the president to stand in front of that church.”
“By holding up the Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it’s despicable—but God also hates lawlessness … So I’m happy.”
“I’ll take a president with a Bible in his hand in front of a church over far-left violent radicals …” – Johnnie Moore
Coppins also reported that Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “heaped praise on Trump for his visit” and says he wrote in an email: “His presence sent the twin message that our streets and cities do not belong to rioters and domestic terrorists, and that the ultimate answer to what ails our country can be found in the repentance, redemption, and forgiveness of the Christian faith.”
Johnnie Moore, the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, also tweeted praise:
“I will never forget seeing [Trump] slowly and in-total-command walk … across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church defying those who aim to derail our national healing by spreading fear, hate and anarchy,” he wrote.
“I don’t know about you but I’ll take a president with a Bible in his hand in front of a church over far-left violent radicals setting a church on fire any day of the week,” wrote David Brody, a news anchor at the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Call to focus on actually reading the Bible
The American Bible Society (ABS) though, has released a statement reminding people that the reason the Bible is so special – particularly in times of national traumas – is that it is much more than a mere symbol.
“It’s a message of unity, justice, hope, love, faith, and liberty. It’s a message of Good News for all people. That’s what gives it power,” the statement reads.
“We should be careful not to use the Bible as a political symbol …” – American Bible Society
“In this time of pandemic fear and social isolation, in this time of racial injustice and senseless violence, in this time of economic uncertainty and generational pain, we should be careful not to use the Bible as a political symbol, one more prop in a noisy news cycle. Because, more than ever, we need to hear what’s true. “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5.24 NIV). “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…” (Psalm 23.4 KJV). ”
Here at Eternity, which is published by the ABS’s Aussie cousin, Bible Society Australia, we’re in agreement. The Bible, while undeniably powerful when used as a photo op prop by a president, is yet even more powerful when it’s open and read.
There, within its pages – when it is read, meditated upon and prayerfully applied – it becomes a tool for heart transformation.
Imagine that in the context of a country in turmoil, Mr President.