Trump’s Bibles and Sneakers Campaigns Tell an Old Story About the Role of Race in Christian Nationalism

A tale of two campaigns. The image on the left comes from the former president's sneaker site, while the image on the right is featured on the God Bless the USA Bible site.

In late June, national news outlets reported that former President Trump had received the largest donation of the 2024 election. Billionaire Tim Mellon’s $50 million contribution, arriving just a day after the former president’s hush-money trial, in which he was convicted on 34 charges of falsifying business records, effectively closed the gap between the pro-Trump super PAC “MAGA Inc” and the Biden campaign’s war chest. 

Although not the only substantive donation Trump has received as of late, Mellon’s contribution is credited with rescuing the Trump campaign from the financial hole it’s been in for much of the election cycle largely due to dwindling donor support and the exorbitant costs associated with his legal fees. Over the years the Trump campaign has resorted to fundraising tactics that have raised eyebrows, including one they referred to internally as the “money bomb” which, according to the New York Times, “steered supporters into unwitting donations.”

In March of this year, just days before Easter, Donald Trump held a press conference to announce the sale of his new Bible. For $59.99, Americans wishing to join the former president in “Making America Pray Again” could own what he claimed to be his “favorite book.” 

The God Bless the USA Bible (GBUSA), the only edition of the holy writ the former president endorses, includes the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible alongside the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Pledge of Allegiance, and the US Constitution. Unsurprisingly, Trump hawking the greatest story ever told elicited the expected lambasting social media posts and late-night comedy jokes; what it failed to elicit, however, was any acknowledgment of the role of race in American Christian nationalism.

So even as Cavan Concannon observed here on RD that the GBUSA “[ties] the Bible to patriotism and to Trump himself,” and Bradley Onishi noted that “there are folks who are gonna eat this up” (i.e., White evangelicals), I’m not aware of any commentator who read this moment through the lens of anti-Black racism and the history of American Christianity. This is an important distinction from the often ambiguous use of “POC,” which includes Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and others. A recent report noted Latino evangelicals’ increasing grassroots efforts to support Trump, explicitly in favor of Christian nationalism, suggesting, as NBC News’s Dasha Burns points out, that the GBUSA might actually be a move in their direction. So if the GBUSA is a nod to Latino evangelicals, how is Trump courting Black voters? 

Despite the fact that Black Americans remain the most religious demographic in the country, this was not the intended audience for Trump’s Bible. Instead, when Trump sought to promote his latest wares, he didn’t approach Black American voters like some “low-rent televangelist,” as he had with the GBUSA, but rather as the neighborhood sneaker vendor.

Unlike the GBUSA website, The Never Surrender High-Top Sneaker site doesn’t make grand claims about patriotism and values. Moreover, there’s no formal advertising campaign, and the site is much less polished. In addition, unlike its counterpart, it lacks photos of families, celebrities, and politicians proudly brandishing the product. “The Never Surrender” sneaker page is busy, tacky, and cluttered with multi-angle images of the gold footwear (which reportedly sold out within hours), low-top options (in “T-Red” and “POTUS White”), a gold Trump superhero charm, and his Victory47 fragrance line. Anyone familiar with the aesthetics of an urban beauty supply store will unquestionably identify deep resonances on the site. 

This raises some questions: Why did the Trump team choose sneakers over Bibles when looking to court Black voters? And why the local beauty supply store and not the storefront church?

In his recent piece outlining the Republican Party’s play on racial distinctions titled “How Trump is Dividing the Minority Voters,” Ronald Brownstein opens with a line from Republican Representative Matt Gaetz: “What I can tell you,” Gaetz said earlier this year, “is for every Karen we lose, there’s a Julio and Jamal ready to sign up for the MAGA movement.” 

Racial coding and gender neutrality be damned! Brownstein rightfully notes that “Jamal,” along with “Julio,” are not only “stereotypical racial shorthand” but also gender-specific placeholders for “ Black and Latino men without a college degree”—namely, those “traditional,” cishetpat individuals who arguably may feel left behind in a so-called progressive, left-leaning, and woke America, but who aren’t entirely aligned with Trump, according to a February 2024 report from PRRI (full disclosure: I’m currently a PRRI Fellow). 

In addition to White evangelicals, the former president needs young, non-White males if he hopes to win the upcoming election. So, it’s unsurprising that when he appeared at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia this past February, although standing before a mixed crowd, including Trump-supporting Cheer Moms, his campaign hoped he would “win over more young and minority voters, particularly young Black men.” 

Or, as Fox News contributor Raymond Arroyo now-famously stated: 

This [sneaker line] is connecting with Black America because they love sneakers. They’re into sneakers…This is a big deal, certainly in the inner city. So when you have Trump roll out his sneaker line, they’re like, ‘Wait a minute; this is cool!’ He’s reaching them on a level that defies and is above politics. The culture always trumps politics, and Trump understands culture like no politician I’ve ever seen.

The assumption that Sneaker Con and not the local church is the best place to capture new Black voters is a notable shift in American politics. But the Trump campaign opting to lure Black voters with gold lamé hightops rather than a Bible should give us pause. Whether it’s a pair of kicks or the KJV, Trump’s campaign strategy operates as a curious contemporary echo of the imperial Christianity and commodification of racial hierarchy that underwrote colonial expansionism and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

To be clear: this is not an attempt to compare Trump’s campaign strategies to the transatlantic slave trade, but rather to acknowledge that there’s a shared cultural heritage or DNA. Or, as womanist theologian Katie Cannon showed, it is part of a “theologic of racialized normativity,” first implemented by the earliest European colonizer. Within this framework, the earliest European colonizers justified monetizing the spreading of the gospel through the free labor of colonization and slavery. Thinking about Trump’s grifting tactics in this light might help us understand why all of this matters, and should not be taken for granted as politics as usual.  

Could it be that, insidious racial stereotypes aside, the Trump Campaign understands, as Albert Raboteau wrote in 2003, that “For three centuries, white and black Americans have dwelt in the same land. For at least two of those centuries, they have shared the same religion. And yet, during all those years, their national and religious identities have been radically opposed”? 

Consequently, did they opt not to market their Bible to Black Christian America because they honestly know that there’s nothing in a Christian nationalist-laden KJV Bible that will critically, much less sincerely, work to repair the most crippling effects of the Black experience that originated with chattel slavery? If so, at least we can say that, in this respect at least, their honesty is refreshing.