Autocrats Love Using the Bible as a Prop. Americans Shouldn’t.

As he posed on a church step, Trump’s false idols were on full display.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside St John's Church across from Lafayette Park in Washington on June 1.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside St John's Church across from Lafayette Park in Washington on June 1. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

America opposes idolatry. Not just the act of idolatry but the very idea that idols have power. That is why its laws—unlike those of many other nations—do not criminalize the burning of holy books or the destruction of sacred images. Its citizens do not worship pictures of leaders. The power of words and images in the United States is in the values they represent, not the objects themselves. Even the perpetual attempts to criminalize flag-burning consistently—and rightly—fail.

Just as destroying these objects has no magic power, neither does holding them up. Only idolaters believe that waving a flag makes you a patriot or wearing a cross makes you a Christian. As the singer John Prine, who died of COVID-19 in April, put it: “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven.”

When U.S. President Donald Trump brandished an upside-down Bible in front of a church he rarely attends and whose leaders and congregation work against the policies he trumpets, the clouds of toxic irritants deployed to part peaceful protesters and allow his visit still hanging in the air, it was idolatry.

It was the same idolatry that whitens the teeth and tans the cheeks and furnishes the mansions of the prosperity gospel pastors who pant for attention at his side, before returning to homes like Trump’s, choked with the same precious metal that King Nebuchadnezzar used to craft his image of gold. And it was the same spirit that drove Vladimir Putin to coyly boast of the Bible on his plane and Saddam Hussein to have a Quran written in his own blood.

Far before Trump’s election, televangelists like his thrice-married personal pastor Paula White were busy rotting their religion from the inside by making wealth and power the goal of prayer. For white evangelicals, the most stalwart block of Trump supporters, that has long meant embracing racism, from the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s lack of concern about apartheid South Africa (Bishop Desmond Tutu, he said, was a “phony”) to overwhelming pushback against accepting refugees. Dazzled by the promise of gold and scared at the prospect of having to share it, they worship a king instead of love.

Nebuchadnezzar’s sin wasn’t merely the creation of his golden idol. “Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.”

John Adams also understood the broad nature of the term, writing with concern about “universal Idolatry to the Mammon of Unrighteousness.” He recognized how all tyrants, from Julius Caesar to corrupt governors, exploited “the mad Idolatry of the People,” which inevitably turned into “the surest Instruments of their own Servitude.”

Idolatry is the most dangerous form of religion—and of belief in general—because it mistakes outside for inside, form for reality, displays of piety for piety itself. Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, warns Second Corinthians—or, as Trump calls it, “Two Corinthians.” But disguises and displays do not disclose what matters, and using them has no transformative power. The people who revel in display are suspect, says the book Trump waves but does not read. “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men.”

Only idolaters would believe there is something evil in the mere act of Trump’s holding the Bible upside down or saying “two” instead of “second.” The display, in itself, has no power. No, the evil, as Jesus warned, is pretending that a display of religion is actual religion. The evil is confusing the good book with a good prop.

This should matter to all Americans. Even those who don’t care about the Bible should oppose drafting it into a photo-op. “I am outraged,” said Bishop Mariann Budde of St. John’s Church, when she heard how her place of worship had been desecrated by the photo-op. “He did not pray,” she added.

It was a desecration far more disgusting than any physical damage could ever be. Wrath and crime are bad, but they are easier to forgive than idolatry. That’s why church leaders responded differently to the basement fire set by rioters only hours earlier. “I want to point the attention back to where it really should be,” the church’s rector, the Rev. Robert Fisher, said, “which is the purpose of the protests, and the people who did what they did to the church do not represent the majority, who are here for reasons that we totally support.”

The phrase “virtue signaling” has special currency among Trump supporters and other critics of the political left, who see sin in displays of liberal ideology that go no further than furious hashtags and fair trade handbags. The phrase may be used overzealously, but it identifies a real problem—the prioritizing of appearances over action and authenticity.

It is hard to imagine a better example of it than the signal Trump sent from St. John’s, American flag pin on his lapel, posing for his spiritual pornography.

There is concern among some deeply religious Americans that secular liberalism poses a grave threat to their faith. The atheists, the socialists, the gay-marriers, and the abortion-havers. The godless educators who refuse to post the Ten Commandments. But the real threat to holy texts isn’t those who refuse to post them. It’s people who think that once you’ve posted them, there’s no more work to be done, and go right back to the unrighteous idolatry of mammon, blind to sin as long as it is draped in a flag or decorated with a cross.

Americans should all be terrified by this unholy political theater. Terrified because in this unprecedented crucible of intersecting crises, the United States needs genuine faith and love. Terrified because if Americans are shaped instead by hollow leaders holding empty symbols, they will emerge battered and broken and divided, incapable of distinguishing even the crassest propaganda from the truth. And terrified because, as the president gleefully calls in the military after posing with the unread word of Christ, the idolaters may have finally won.

Alan Levinovitz is an associate professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University. His most recent book is Natural.

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