It was a jarring and awkward photo op. It did not play well, even with many of the president’s supporters.
Every pastor has, at some point, accidentally held a Bible upside down, so that can happen. But, the president did not open it. He did not read from it. When asked if it was his Bible, he said it was a Bible (emphasizing the “a”).
To use the Bible in a photo op, after clearing peaceful protestors (with tear gas and rubber bullets) from Lafayette Park so he could walk to a church, was simultaneously unhelpful to the current situation and at odds with the message of that Bible.
A Bible in a photo op was not the Bible we needed.
Anyone who has been paying attention to national politics immediately understood what was happening. Likely aimed towards evangelicals like me, it would show that, somehow, standing in front of a church and awkwardly holding a Bible means that we should support the president.
In the past I have voiced my support when I have seen this president’s administration do good things. I have worked with the administration toward their good efforts on opioid abuse and mental health.
Moreover, I’ve prayed for President Trump regularly.
But what Trump did on the steps of St. Johns is what most pastors around the country remind their congregations not to do. The Bible will be as useful to you displayed on the fire mantle as it will when held aloft outside a church. Jesus himself warns against this in Matthew 6, cautioning to “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”
In other words, God is not pleased when we use the Bible as an ornament to be seen by others.
Rather, the power of the Bible is in the story that it tells. More than just 66 books and over 1000 individual narratives, the Bible is one cohesive story about how God has reconciled us to Himself through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
It is not a talisman that bestows godliness by proximity or demands our political fealty to the bearer. To use it as such represents a profound miscalculation about its Author.
The message of the Bible is that Jesus died on the cross to provide forgiveness of our sin. And, most critically to where we are now, we stress the importance of people taking hold of the Bible and reading it themselves, because it is through the words inside that we encounter Jesus and become more like Him.
This episode laid bare a fundamental misunderstanding we must recognize and confront: The Bible is not a tool for political photo ops.
Yet, the applicability of its teaching might surprise many at this moment.
Opening the Bible
Evangelicals like me believe Scripture is inerrant–the belief that God has worked in supernatural ways to inspire its human authors without error. That’s part of why seeing it used as a prop is so jarring. But, its truths could be so powerful right now.
Two months ago, I was explaining the Bible, verse by verse, in one of evangelicalism’s historic institutions, The Moody Church in downtown Chicago. I shared from the Epistle of James that, “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9).
So that opened Bible teaches us in James (and other places) that favoritism and racism are wrong, and that a system that treats people of color with different outcomes is, well, sinful.
That opened Bible also teaches us in many places that stealing, looting, and violence are all clearly addressed and condemned in the Bible. The communities being destroyed, often hurting the marginalized and the poor at a greater level, needed to hear a call for an end to the violence with a commitment to listen to those who are hurting.
That’s not the only thing we’d find in that opened Bible. Micah 6:8 tell us what God requires, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
And inside that Bible is something often quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” King understood that justice–both personal and systemic–were not secondary to the story of scripture but at its very core.
America is burning. We need a call to justice that sees each and every person as image bearers of their Creator—as the Bible teaches.
But, we did not need that photo op.
A Better Way
I don’t expect the president to be a pastor, but when he picks up a Bible, I expect more than what I saw from him yesterday. Perhaps he was symbolically tying a religious book to that religious building behind him. It was hard to tell.
Imagine, instead, if the president had opened that Bible and read words about justice, or even words of comfort. More than the greatest poetry and prose, God’s Word can heal our deepest wounds and cut through the most hardened hearts.
On those steps in Washington, the President held what I believe could have been part of the answer to our national grieving.
By definition evangelicals have a high regard for the Bible. But that authority comes from the words inside. I hope that the backlash from yesterday is a reminder to all of us that we need less pictures of Bibles and more actions that flow from the Bible’s teachings.
We look to Scripture to change lives, not to score political points. Our nation is in crisis and the last thing we need is a closed Bible.
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Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.