Donald Trump sees the Bible as a political prop. For George Floyd, it was a path to peace, justice and healing. America needs that now more than ever.

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President Donald Trump’s decision this month to have peaceful protesters removed from Lafayette Square with tear gas to stage an appearance in front of St. John’s Church has been condemned by his political enemies and defended by his political allies. I’m more interested in how this scene captures the crisis facing American Christianity: Is the Bible still the foundation of the faith, or has it become a tool of political tribalism?

Trump has an instinct for theatrics. Whether hugging a flag or staging a military parade, he understands the power of symbols. The St. John’s photo op was designed for this purpose but stood out for its obvious vacuity. Unlike previous presidents who referenced the Scriptures in times of national crisis, Trump did not. He offered no prayer, no words of peace or comfort, no heavenly perspective. The Bible was there, as Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska put it, “as a political prop.” Trump confirmed this when a reporter asked him if it was his Bible, and he replied, “It’s a Bible.” The book’s presence is what mattered to Trump, not its message.

In this regard, Trump’s photo-op represents the way many Americans have come to see the Good Book, including many of my fellow evangelicals for whom the Bible has historically served as a foundation of faith and life. 

Bible's words are optional for some

It became apparent to me several years ago that the faith of some evangelicals no longer stands on this firm foundation. I was teaching a class on the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ most famous message, which contains many of the faith’s core teachings on compassion, forgiveness and loving one’s enemies. After reading the full sermon together with a room full of lifelong evangelicals, I asked: “How many of you think Jesus actually expects us to live out these commands?” 

No one raised their hand.

One person said it was impossible, no one could live that way. Another said Jesus was illustrating what a perfect life looks like, and how "none of us" can attain it.

At the time, I was amazed by the logical contortions these committed churchgoers employed to nullify Jesus’ commands, even neutering the parable at the end of his sermon about the perils of not obeying his words. Since then, I’ve discovered the ubiquity of this approach. Like Trump, far too many American Christians believe it’s enough to display a Bible; following it is entirely optional.

Consider an interview with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in 2018. The reporter asked why so many evangelicals supported Donald Trump, a man who reveled in disobeying Jesus’ teachings. “I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully,” Perkins replied.

“What happened to turning the other cheek?” the reporter asked, referring to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about non-retaliation. 

“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins replied.

Like some other Christians, Perkins thinks Jesus’ words are to be followed up to a point. Once important things are at risk, like elections and federal court appointments, it’s okay to ignore them.

A dangerous path: hypocrites,” “serpents,” and “whitewashed tombs that outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones.”

African Americans take Bible seriously

Jesus’ rebuke applies equally today. For example, poll after poll shows that "evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general," in the words of evangelical theologian Michael Horton. George Barna, head of a polling firm that studies faith, concluded that “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century because Jesus’ modern-day disciples do not act like Jesus.”

There is an important exception to this trend — African Americans. The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study found black Americans read the Bible more than any other group, and they are far more likely than whites to view it as God’s itative word (blacks 51%, whites 26%). This data was confirmed by a theological survey in 2018 by LifeWay, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. It that found African Americans were more likely to hold orthodox Christian beliefs and biblical ethics than white Americans. Simply put, more African Americans take the Bible seriously.

George Floyd, whose killing by a police officer has ignited nationwide protests, came from this Christian tradition. Before moving to Minneapolis, Floyd was deeply involved in Christian ministry to Houston’s Third Ward where he mentored young men in the faith, helped lead a basketball outreach program and served as a bridge between pastors and the community. "If y’all about God’s business, then that’s my business,’” he told Corey Paul Davis, a Christian hip-hop artist, at a 2010 benefit in Houston. Pastor Patrick PT Ngwolo called Floyd "a person of peace sent from the Lord that helped the gospel go forward.”

The St. John's debacle: Holy Post Podcast, a former executive editor at Christianity Today, and of "What If Jesus Was Serious?" Follow him on Twitter: @SkyeJethani

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