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27 January 2017

Donald Trump's Bible

Paul Woolley is deputy chief executive at Bible Society.

If, like me, you want to see the Bible exerting more influence on public discourse and the political imagination of leaders, you might think that last week's presidential inauguration was reason to celebrate. It really wasn't. 

In common with tradition, the Bible was given centre stage as Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States.

President Trump was sworn in using not one, but two Bibles. One had been given to him by his mother in 1955. The other was the Bible that Abraham Lincoln had used at his first inauguration in 1861. 

Not only was the Bible physically present, it was also alluded to and explicitly referenced in Trump's address.

After introductory remarks where the new president expressed gratitude to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their "gracious aid" throughout the transition, Mr Trump went on to talk about the importance of giving power back to the people and putting America first. 

"From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land," he announced. "From this moment on, it's going to be America first … America will start winning, winning like never before … We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American." 

It was at this point in his remarks that President Trump quoted Psalm 133. "The Bible tells us: 'How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity.' … When America is united, America is totally unstoppable."

I have probably seen a dozen inaugural addresses, but never one like this. Of course, some of what took place was in keeping with tradition. While there is no requirement that any book be used to administer the oath, the use of the Bible is customary. Similarly, President Trump is not the first president to turn to the Bible for inspiration or to quote from it to support his vision for America. In his inaugural address in 1993, President Clinton quoted Galatians 6:9: "And let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not." 

We should avoid being too quick to criticise President Trump for taking a passage out of context – we've all done it, even Jesus – or even be overly critical at the way he conflated the United States of America with Old Testament Israel. I've lost count of the number of occasions 2 Chronicles 7:14 ("If my people humble themselves and pray…") has been cited as applying to a context, without any consideration of the historical and theological situation of the passage, by people who really should know better. 

What was significant, and troubling, was the ends to which President Trump deployed scripture. 

The Old Testament people of God were to be a light to the gentiles (i.e. non Israelites) and a blessing to all nations. The idea was that by looking at Israel, the surrounding nations would see a vision of what God is like and what it is to truly flourish as human beings. In loving God and neighbour, the glory of God was to be seen. The tragedy of Israel's history was that the nation and its leaders lost sight of this God-given vocation to be a universal blessing and reverted to nationalism and self-interest instead. 

Donald Trump is not alone among world leaders in talking about putting the national interest first. That language was used by both sides in last year's EU referendum debate. It is entirely appropriate that political leaders seek the wellbeing of the territories they govern. What is unacceptable is using the Bible to promote an inward looking and nationalistic vision of human flourishing that is so alien to the one the Bible itself promotes.   

Image: CC Ben White