(Why Donald Trump’s “Love” of the Bible is Not Incompatible with Him Knowing Next to Nothing about its Contents.)
Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump has been enjoying an intriguing popularity among American evangelical Christians. Among the many reasons that this strikes some as a curious coupling is that Trump has never been known for his vocal religiosity, and his lavish lifestyle appears antithetical to what many people take to be the core of Christian teachings: humility, generosity, and charity. Moreover, he certainly does not lace his rhetoric (yet) with the same potent biblical metaphors that George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan were known for. Yet in a deliberate effort to gain further favor with such voters, Trump has recently begun to bring his religious proclivities to the front stage. In one interview, he assured potential voters that he held the Bible (and evangelicals) in high esteem: “I love the Bible. I love the Bible. I’m a Protestant. …But one of the groups I lead with substantially evangelicals and I led in Iowa, too, with the evangelicals because they get it. …I love the evangelicals.”
What troubles many is that, despite such claims, Trump does not seem to know much about the contents of biblical books. In a recent Bloomberg interview, he sidestepped identifying his favorite verse, claiming:
Well, I wouldn’t want to get into it because to me that’s very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible it’s very personal. So I don’t want to get into verses, I don’t want to get into—the Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.
The whole Bible, he insists, is “incredible” and “something very special.” The media, as is to be expected, pounced on answers such as this. The New York Daily News, for instance, accused him of “butchering” the Bible when he elsewhere quoted a doctrine that is not actually found in the text. MotherJones covered such missteps under the headline “Donald Trump: The Bible Is Great, But, Um, Let’s Not Get Into Specifics.” The underlying charge is that it is hypocritical to claim to “love” the Bible but not have a sense of its contents.
Is Trump’s unapologetic ignorance of things biblical really so surprising though? Religious literacy among American Christians is famously low. And despite the majority of Americans claiming some sort of Christian identity, a recent survey found that of those who read the Bible, “the majority (57 percent) only read their Bibles four times a year or less. Only 26 percent of Americans said they read their Bible on a regular basis (four or more times a week).” Likewise, few can recall the specific names of books in any of the Jewish or Christian canons. I am not suggesting this is a good or bad situation—that is for people within the traditions to decide—but rather, I am suggesting that Trump’s lack of familiarity with the contents of the Bible and his simultaneous boisterous appeal to it for its political capital should not be especially shocking.
To be more specific: the function of the Bible in U.S. politics does not seem to rely on a politician’s familiarity with its contents. The Bible has come to be treated as an object of self-evident authority, and we have seen it deployed for a variety of (often mutually exclusive) purposes: to support same-sex marriage as well as to oppose it; to bolster the right to bear arms as well as to restrict gun rights; to champion Pro-Life agendas as well as to defend Pro-Choice interests. As such a cultural object, then, “the Bible”—as a concept of authority, not a collection of specific teachings—is a touchstone for rhetorical currency and a buttress for political clout.
That the Bible has become unhinged from its original historical context and has been put to work in new socio-cultural settings is to be expected. Something similar happened with the figure of Jesus. Many scholars have persuasively shown that the historical Jesus is a kind of screen onto which people project their own concerns and theological proclivities. Even in the early twentieth century, Albert Schweitzer astutely observed that the project of studying Jesus’ life was directly related to those doing the research:
[I]t was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus. No vital force comes into the figure unless a man breathes into it all the hate or all the love of which he is capable. The stronger the love, or the stronger the hate, the more life-like is the figure which is produced.
More recently William Arnal has described in a similar vein the “symbolic Jesus,” a term signaling the ways in which the symbol of Jesus has been made to carry out all sorts of political and cultural functions in different contexts, having less to do with the actual historicity of Jesus in the first century and far more to do with the socio-historical contexts of the scholars and commentators engaged in the quests for him.
I would also claim now that the Bible is something of a similar sort in American culture, a symbol which can be made to conform to a number of different political ideologies and agendas. This may be hard to imagine, because unlike the historical Jesus, the Bible ostensibly comes with its own fixed doctrines. Yet in the case of Trump’s (and others’) appeal to the Bible’s self-evident authority and the clear paucity of biblical literacy in the U.S., we can hardly avoid the conclusion that the contents of the book evidently matter very little for some people. The presumed divine inspiration, the antiquity of the work, and the book’s symbolic capacity all contribute to an authority that functions independently of the (diverse) doctrines within its pages. For this reason, appearing to know few specifics about what biblical books actually say will hardly be a detriment to Trump’s courting of evangelical voters, and will certainly not amount to his “biggest vulnerability,” as The Daily Beast suggested. In fact, when many potential voters observe Trump and his habits toward the Bible, they may very well recognize some attitudes that are quite similar to their own.