Trump is using the Bible as a defence but for Christians everywhere it is an offence

(Photo: CNN)

Where on earth do we start when faced with the image of Donald Trump awkwardly brandishing a Bible outside a church, after ordering the teargassing of peaceful demonstrators who stood in the way of his photo opportunity?

The church had suffered minor damage from protesters following the appalling killing of unarmed black man George Floyd last week whilst in the custody of a white police officer in Minneapolis. Presumably Trump's idea was to appeal to his evangelical voting base and show them that he was aligning himself with biblical principles. He did not inform church leaders of his intentions, and rightly caused them great anger.

Indeed, this appropriation of the Bible as a prop in his pursuit of re-election is so odious that it should surely bring his Christian supporters up short. I hope that many will reconsider their defence of a man whose posturing and behaviour are complete anathema to the Gospel message of justice, love and forgiveness.

Trump does not profess to any personal faith, but he knows that 81% of white evangelicals voted for him in 2016 and he wants their votes again this year. He is chasing them by showing them that he is in their corner, positioned against the secular liberalism of the Democrats and against 'lawlessness'.

A man beleaguered by his own mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, costing more than 100,000 lives in the US so far, he clearly believes he has been presented with an opportunity by the current unrest across his country. But instead of seeking to unite the nation by promoting justice and care, he simply views this as another battle in the culture wars and is using it to beef up his base ahead of the November elections. The Bible is merely another artefact to be deployed as he seeks to shore up his support, along with the police and the military; and he makes a mockery of its message.

As a white British male, I share and seek to better understand the horror and anguish felt by the black community on both sides of the Atlantic at the cruel and senseless murder of George Floyd. St Paul said that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Today he would certainly add black or white. All are made in the image of God and all are welcomed into the love of Christ.

Trump's appropriation of the Bible this week was purely for the visual impact. Simultaneously he chose to demonstrate the strength of a bully by calling on police power to teargas peaceful demonstrators – including members of the clergy – outside the church itself.

Had he taken the trouble to open the Bible he was holding, and sought to understand the story that it tells, he would have discovered that Jesus turned political powerplay on its head. He spent his time with the outcasts of society, the needy and the poor, and angered the religious authorities by his refusal to put the Judaic law before the inherent worth and dignity of each human being.

Conservative Christians in the USA do not need to love Joe Biden to realise that their President is seeking to use Scripture to support an agenda that has no basis in Christian love. Indeed, I know that many American Christians feel that the Democrats have treated them with contempt.

Hillary Clinton's famous dismissal of some Trump supporters as 'a basket of deplorables' was viewed by many to mean anyone who didn't sign up to the liberal values they believed she personified. The result? Trump's popularity rocketed amongst those who felt that 'the liberal establishment' rejected them, judged their ways, ignored the views they held and dismissed them as backward. For many Christians in America this is no doubt how they felt - not necessarily because they didn't hold liberal values but because they held views of certain issues that amongst Hillary's supporters would be seen as beyond the pale. As a liberal, I would say that the decision of liberals to treat the American Christian community this way is both illiberal and electorally stupid.

Nevertheless, the evangelical Christian community must take responsibility for its collective choices to wear the Trump label. Labels are significant, not just in what they represent for those that subscribe to them but for the connotations they come to hold for everyone else.

Voting for Trump and being a white evangelical Christian have become synonymous in the eyes of a British audience. I find this to be a dangerous state of affairs and hugely unhelpful to the gospel message.

In an article in the New Yorker in 2017, the American pastor Tim Keller noted that 'Evangelical' used to refer to the commitment to evangelism: the Christian duty to make the gospel of Jesus Christ known, to share with people a message of saving faith. That is what it means to me. Today the label has come to mean something very different – it has become associated with a form of right wing hypocrisy, increasingly aligned with the bullying tactics of the current President. And this in turn is becoming associated with Evangelical Christians, whether they approve of this or not.

As a result a huge proportion of the population of America and the UK – and the rest of the west – now has its fingers in their ears when it comes to the gospel. I believe many among the youthful, liberal, millennial communities in the West are increasingly repelled by Christianity because of Trump (who, I repeat, isn't even a Christian!).

We do not need anyone to sugar-coat the Gospel. It speaks for itself. It asks for sacrifice and humility but offers immense and eternal hope, which we so desperately need at this time.

So what Christians in the USA need to ask themselves is this: is it our primary duty to have the country run by someone who might legislate, if not live, according to a conservative morality, but who upholds a version of law and order that is short on justice and mercy? Or is it our primary duty to hold out a gospel that in the words of theologian Tom Wright, claims that: "Jesus Christ will one day ...put the whole world to rights, flooding the entire creation with his justice, his peace and his glory". In my mind at least the answer is obvious.

Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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