M. Girma is International Advocacy Officer at British and Foreign Bible Society
Donald Trump, the republican presidential nominee, is not a conventional republican. Nor is he a conventional democrat. Well, he is not a conventional politician of any sort. Perhaps the only ideological framework that captures his ever-moving political positions is “trumpocracy” – the term I first heard being used by Jon Stewart, the former Daily Show host. His rise to a political prominence has surprised even veteran politicians. Baffled, Tony Blair once surmised, "Sometimes I look at politics today and wonder if I still understand it." Let’s imagine for a moment that he wins the presidency and becomes the most powerful person on earth. How would the Bible fare under his leadership?
Not long ago he sat down with Pat Robertson of CBN at Regent University to discuss, among other things, his foreign policy. In a typical Trumpean manner, he expressed his love for the Bible amid criticising John Kerry’s foreign policy grasp. “Obviously Kerry did not read The Art of the Deal”, Trump says referring to his book. And then he hastened to add, “Probably didn’t read the Bible either”.
On another occasion, Trump claimed that the Bible is his favourite book. But when he is pressed to tell his favourite verse, he responded, “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics”. Later on he pointed out that his favourite biblical verse is the one which says, “never bend to envy”. Well, that verse is not found in the Bible we know, unless, of course, he has his own personalised version.
Being able or unable to recite a Bible verse accurately might not make one more or less Bible-friendly. Or, at least, that is less of a worry for many Bible lovers, even though one would naturally expect him to be able to recite at least one verse correctly.
But, this apparent flaw has been effectively addressed in his recent interview with The Washington Times. On the question about his favourite Bible verse, Trump responded, “eye for an eye”. Not only that he is spot on with the citation of the verse this time, but he also has an argument for it. He said, “That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us … we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
This probably is an important quotation that opens a window not only in the Trumpean world but also his application of the Bible. The question then is: What are the ramifications for the public perception of the Bible? I would say this is a mixed blessing.
I’ll start with the negatives.
Riding on Fear - Trump’s political rhetoric uses fear as an important political vehicle. Needless to say, fear is not hard to come by in the age of global conflict and mass migration. People fear about their security. They feel anxious about the resource (such as jobs and social benefits) the newcomers might share. They worry about the loss of culture and identity. One might rightfully argue that fear towards the unknown is not entirely unwarranted. However, it is the political use of it that is a cause for concern. Fear might bring you to the needed political destination. It, however, can leave a lasting scar on our social bond as human family.
How does the use of the Bible to promote the politics of fear affect its public perception? It damages the image of the Bible. Central to the biblical message is the “we” of organic human race instead of the “you versus us” of ideological poles. Fear-based politics not only contradicts the fundamental narrative of the Bible about social harmony, compassion and benevolence, but also it reduces the Bible to a cheap political tool.This is because the Bible does not teach us to fear “the other”. Instead, as politically naive as it may sound, it teaches us to enter into the narrative of the disadvantaged and dehumanised in order to re-humanise them.
The Bible is about entering into the narrative of the disadvantaged and dehumanised in order to re-humanise them.
Guilt by association – There are some who would be eager to capitalise on any fatal slip from public figures who profess Christian faith. They do not stop with bashing the public figures who used the Bible to advance their political cause; they also use the opportunity to mudsling on the Bible itself. For example, Richard Dawkins was critical of religion and religious scriptures for a long time. However, he admits that his publication of The God Delusion was triggered by George W. Bush’s religiously tinged foreign policy. This book eventually was sold in millions and translated in dozens of languages. Trump's carefree deployment of the Bible to back up his political rhetoric can lend its hand to similar thesis that the Bible is a toxic document with very little to offer to our contemporary society.
Trump's carefree deployment of the Bible to back up his political rhetoric can lend its hand to similar thesis that the Bible is a toxic document with very little to offer to our contemporary society.
But, all might not bad for the Bible in the Trumpean world.
Driving readers towards the Bible – There is no doubt that Trump’s positive talk about the Bible has more to do with pandering for the evangelical vote than anything else. However, one has to note that Trump is a populist with an extraordinary media interest around him. Like him or not, you cannot stop watching him. He has the ability to steer the emotions and galvanize for action. So Trump’s claimed love affair with the Bible can generate different reactions. As a result more people might want to explore more about the Bible, either because they resent what he says or they like what he stands for. This could provide some with a chance to come to the Bible because of him, and discover it for themselves.
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