Before Trump Promoted a Bible, President Truman Blessed One - Word&Way

Before Trump Promoted a Bible, President Truman Blessed One

An unholy fuss erupted recently after former President Donald Trump released a video encouraging people to buy a “God Bless the USA Bible,” which draws inspiration from Lee Greenwood’s patriotic anthem. SNL parodied the presidential promotion as a cynical money grab. Former GOP congresswoman Liz Cheney trolled Trump’s advertisement by encouraging the thrice-married salesman to purchase one for himself and read Exodus 20:14, which prohibits adultery.

Since Trump prominently struggled in the past with both biblical literacy and biblical living, many questioned the appropriateness of him hawking the Bible — especially during Holy Week, when Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus — like it’s steak, vodka, trading cards, golden sneakers or some other Trump-branded product.

Missing in all the jokes and news reports is that this isn’t the first time a presidential stamp of approval was sought for the Good Book. As the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

When the leadership of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical group long known for a more progressive approach to social policy, completed its Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1952, it celebrated the new text with a ceremony at the White House. NCC leaders gifted President Harry Truman with the first printed copy of the new volume, looking to gain publicity and credibility from the president.

Truman blessed the new translation and connected the messages of the Bible to American foreign policy goals. He told those present: “If people understood the contents of this book from cover to cover, and we could get a complete understanding of it behind the Iron Curtain, there would be but one thing in this world: peace for all mankind.”

The gathered clergy seemed to agree their holy text easily aligned with American ideals. Dr. Luther Weigle, a Yale Divinity School professor who led the RSV translation effort, had the privilege of presenting Truman with the Bible. An ordained minister in the mainline Protestant traditions today known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ, Weigle was among America’s religious elite.

Weigle later testified as an expert witness before a district court in the case of School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp which eventually saw compulsory Bible reading removed from public schools. Given that he was no fundamentalist, it might surprise people today that Weigle argued for the practice, and he later criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling that denied government support for Christianity. While urging a constitutional amendment to support prayer and Bible reading in public schools, he wrote to the House Judiciary Committee in 1964: “The state cannot be neutral as to God, the creator and sustainer of our being. Here neutrality is equivalent to denial.”

Today, Weigle’s arguments would be called Christian Nationalism as he pushed a worldview that fused American and Christian identities in service to a social order privileging the power of white, straight, Christian men. It led him to defend government prayer and Bible readings in schools, and it inspired him to seek a presidential blessing for his biblical translation.

Christian Nationalism is now generally associated with far-right evangelical preachers and politicians. Such individuals represent a core constituency of Trump, making his endorsement of the “God Bless the USA Bible” easier to understand despite his documented character flaws and lack of faith.

The $60 Bible Trump is promoting, which ironically seeks to advance American patriotism using the translation authorized by a British king, is a textbook example of Christian Nationalism. The book includes an American flag on the cover and adds the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Pledge of Allegiance, and Greenwood’s chorus as a supplement to sacred texts.

Decades before MAGA supporters waved Christian flags, carried Bibles, and offered prayers during the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, mainline Protestants like Weigle were the primary practitioners of what we now call Christian Nationalism. It’s an inconvenient part of the story that needs to be told if our society is truly going to address this pernicious ideology that threatens American democracy.

Many mainline Protestants and other people of faith today recoil at the abuse of religion by Trump and his evangelical base without interrogating the ways their own churches and denominations helped create this monster. While it might be cathartic for our fellow mainline Protestant ministers to blame evangelicals, consider the scene that played out the last time Trump made headlines for holding a Bible.

After police teargassed Black Lives Matter protesters to clear Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, Trump walked over to St. John’s Episcopal Church — which calls itself “the Church of the Presidents” — and awkwardly held up a Bible for the cameras. What version was it? An RSV Bible, just like the one Truman endorsed.

Denouncements roundly followed Trump’s act, but most people missed the larger context of the photo. A president who has spent most of his religious life in mainline Protestant denominations stood in front of a prominent mainline Protestant church often frequented by presidents and held up a Bible produced by mainline Protestants. It was a moment of Christian Nationalism that mainline Protestants helped to make.

If we want to actually counter the threat of Christian Nationalism, a fuller interrogation of its rise will be required. Evangelicals are not the only ones in modern American history to seek validation of their faith from the political and social elite.

There’s no denying the obscenity of this moment when it comes to how religion and politics are being mixed. Jan. 6 was just one example of the anti-democratic nature of Christian Nationalism. Defeating this dangerous ideology will require more than just making jokes about Trump and evangelicals. Telling the truth about how we arrived here — and the complicity of a much broader swatch of Christians — is a necessary step toward the democratic redemption we collectively seek.


This piece was originally published on Religion Unplugged. You can find the original version here.

Brian Kaylor is a Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in political communication.

Beau Underwood is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor and a doctoral student in public affairs. They are the authors of “Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism.”