Trump’s supporters are busy combing the scriptures for that perfect verse that justifies the president violently blasting his way through a crowd of peaceful protestors to hold up a Bible for a photo-op in front of St. John’s church in Washington, DC on June 1st.
Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and head of the Samaritan’s Purse organization, tweeted that “the word of God…is sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress declared that Trump held up the Bible because it teaches that God “hates lawlessness,” echoing verses like 1 John 3:4 (“Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness”) and Romans 13:1-5 (“Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed,” and so on).
This isn’t the first time Jeffress used a “law and order” interpretation of the Bible against Black Lives Matter; he also wielded Romans 13:1-5 against preachers who supported the movement after the 2016 shooting of Dallas police officers. The authoritarian interpretation of these infamous verses has a long, gloomy history tracing back to the antebellum South. Slave owners used the passage to justify slavery, and racists have used it ever since to defend police brutality against people of color.
Meanwhile, the president’s critics have also responded by using the Bible to condemn Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked Ecclesiastes 3:3 (“a time to heal”), Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry cited the Golden Rule and the prophet Micah’s call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (6:8), and social media platforms have swelled with debates about Good Samaritans, rebukes of the Devil, and appeals to the Exodus story.
This heated biblical battle playing out across media creates the false impression that Trump’s use of the Bible as a prop was an unusual spectacle pandering to his Christian base. It was, however, fully in step with the Trump administration’s persistent use of the Bible as a symbol of Christian nationalism.
The Trump administration’s Bible of Christian nationalism
The Trump administration deploys physical Bibles, biblical quotations, and biblical language to temper its program of Christian nationalism. In their book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civil life.” One of their most important arguments is that Christian nationalism “seeks to preserve white supremacy” and often favors the use of force to this end.
Trump said in a 2011 interview that the Bible is his favorite book and “There’s no way I would ever…do anything negative to a Bible.” Yet, many of us are still waiting to see him do anything positive with one—to use the Bible as something other than an instrument of exclusion. Whether he opens it or not, a Bible in Trump’s hands is more than a prop used to satisfy his base. It’s a symbol of Christian nationalism that the Trump administration and its mouthpieces among the Christian Right use time and again as a weapon against people of color.
In the appendix to his 1845 memoir, Frederick Douglass issued a scathing critique of Christianity’s role in slavery that sadly is still relevant for understanding white supremacism today:
“The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of their heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. …The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. …The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other.”
When Trump encourages police and military brutality against people proclaiming that Black lives matter and then poses in front of a church with a Bible, he stands in continuity with the slave owner holding a Bible in one hand and a whip in the other. Armed with the police and the Bible, the Trump administration ensures that the profits of labor performed by people of color still line the pockets of white businessmen.
It’s time to take Douglass’s insights more seriously. Trump’s violent force and his Bible are both in plain sight. Those of us on the Left need to focus more attention on exposing the “infernal business” cloaked by the “garb of Christianity”—on the invisible political and economic structures by which white elites accumulate “blood-stained” profits from the unholy union of violence and the Bible. Let’s consider some of the ways that the Trump administration has used the Bible in the past to put this most recent incident in context.
As soon as Trump took office, the right-wing Christian influencers who supported his campaign seized the opportunity to spin biblical interpretations that supported the administration’s platform of Christian nationalism. Ralph Drollinger, the xenophobic fundamentalist who runs the White House Bible Study, trains the administration’s leaders in authoritarian hermeneutics.
As Katherine Stewart lays bare in The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, Drollinger preaches that the state’s “God-given responsibility” is “to moralize a fallen world through the use of force.” He proclaims that welfare programs “have no basis in Scripture” but free market capitalism is God’s biblical blueprint for the supremacy of (white, wealthy) Americans. To ascertain this supremacy, Drollinger endorses the ancient slaveholding ideology of 1 Peter 2:18 (“Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh”). “The principle…of submitting to one’s boss,” he concludes, “carries over to today.”
The biblical interpretations of key administration officials have fallen in line with Drollinger, whether his sermons directly influenced them or not. Former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13:1-5, that same passage used to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, to defend the administration’s separation of immigrant children at the U.S. border. “Persons who violate the law of our nation,” he rasped, “are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
Sessions failed, of course, to mention that the subsequent verses in Romans explain that all the commandments are summed up in “Love your neighbor as yourself” (13:9). Instead, he elaborated with the paternalist sentiment that law and order are inherently good and “protect the weak.”
Christian nationalism’s ultimate frontier
Pence’s speeches about new NASA initiatives have also teemed with biblical language. Marina Koren has shown that Pence’s space exploration talk fits with an older evangelical tradition that defines space as the “ultimate frontier.” Cold-War anxieties shaped this tradition as Christians constructed space as a lawless wilderness where the capitalist forces of good (i.e., the US) are destined to overcome the communist forces of evil (i.e., the Soviets) and bring law and order to the cosmos.
The administration’s Bible-infused space speeches translate its myths and symbols of colonialism, militaristic authoritarianism, and neoliberal paternalism into the heavenly realm. Back in April, 2018, Pence encouraged space-industry professionals to be confident in their faith because “as millions of Americans have believed through the long and storied history of this nation of pioneers, I believe, as well, there is nowhere we can go from His spirit.” Alluding to Psalm 139:10, he avowed that even in the heavens, “His hand will guide us.” The hand of God aside, Pence envisions commercial space companies building platforms “where the government will be a tenant and a customer, and not the landlord.”
Pence cited this same verse from Psalm 139 to legitimate the mission of the administration’s newly formed Space Force: God’s hand will guide these space soldiers in their “defense of freedom”—that is, the freedom of commercial enterprise. The administration advertised the biblical foundations of its protectionist pursuit of dominance in space with a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral on January 12th, 2020.
At an event that conflated Christian supremacism with American exceptionalism, the first Chief of Space Operations was sworn in on a King James Bible donated by the controversial conservative-run Museum of the Bible. Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the dean of the cathedral, said that the Bible would accompany Americans to space. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation was quick to condemn this “repulsive display” of “exclusivist, fundamentalist, Christian supremacy, dominance, triumphalism, and exceptionalism.”
Trump’s own speech on May 30th, 2020 applauding the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft went even further when painting white, Christian supremacist ideas on a cosmic canvas. As the preface to a speech about a rocket launch delivered at the Kennedy Space Center, the president’s remarks on the murder of George Floyd by police and the ensuing spread of protests across the country appeared fleeting. I would suggest, however, that the parts of the speech about the rocket reveal more about the administration’s white supremacism than the brevity with which he addressed Floyd and the protests.
Armed with Pence’s vague biblical metaphors, Trump activated Christian nationalists’ traditions pitting providential, civilizing, pro-market forces against lawless, uncivil, anti-capitalist forces. He described rioters as thieves who destroy jobs, hurt businesses, and threaten civilization with anarchy. And he praised SpaceX, the first rocket launched into orbit by a private company, as representing the “march of civilization” by a “nation of pioneers” seeking to fulfill their “destiny” of American “dominance” across “a new magnificent frontier.” It’s only because of “private American companies” and “fierce competitors” like Elon Musk, Trump crowed, that Americans have been able to “blaze a trail … into the heavens.”
So much of Trump’s space talk smacks of nineteenth-century colonial rhetoric that cast white men as superior to Native Americans and African slaves. “The innate human desire to explore and innovate is what propels the engines of progress and the march of civilization,” Trump said. He praised Musk—a quasi-eugenicist whose family capitalized on apartheid in South Africa—and other “risk-taking” investors as the (wealthy, white) innovators who are leading this “march of civilization.”
Nineteenth-century slave owners like Josiah Nott used this same expression to argue that “the negro race” did not have the capacity for “self-government.” An anthropologist and early proponent of the theory that negroes have smaller brains than whites, Nott mused in The Negro Race: Its Ethnology and History (1857), “Is [the negro] capable of taking any part in the march of civilization beyond that of a mere ‘hewer of wood and drawer of water?”
This racist justification for slavery in terms of civilization and the capacity for self-government has left a lasting mark on race relations in the US. After emancipation, privatization often functioned as a way for whites to control black bodies by defining them in relation to public institutions and spaces. New convict laws criminalized not having a job with the result that freedpersons were imprisoned and their labor was leased out to private companies and plantations. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander famously showed how the criminal justice system that exploited the labor of African Americans in the wake of the Civil War has never faded. The “New Jim Crow” continues this legacy through neoliberal tactics—privatization, deregulation, austerity, tax cuts for the rich, and anti-unionism—that disproportionately affect people of color.
The infernal business beneath the garb
The promotion of corporate investment in space exploration is only the latest instance of the Trump administration cloaking neoliberal initiatives in the garb of Christian nationalism. And it won’t be the last.
When an administration that questions climate change and mocks public health officials during a lethal pandemic appears committed to “scientific discovery,” we can trust that they’re more interested in power and opportunity for the privileged than knowledge and justice for all. Will this expansion of free market enterprise into space provide equal opportunities for people of color? Or will it exacerbate racial and economic disparities on earth while giving wealthy, white Christian nationalists new privileges of cosmic proportions in the heavens?
The Trump administration’s praise of private interests as securing American dominance in space is one symptom of a broader policy agenda that advances the privatization and commercialization of prisons, education, the military, and other public institutions—an agenda that normalizes the New Jim Crow.
Much more could be written on the myriad ways that the influencers around Trump spin the Bible to support Christian nationalism. The bottom line is that a Bible in the hand of Trump or his political allies is a symbol of Christian nationalism that cloaks the “infernal business” of neoliberal economics.