The following opinion piece was written by Catherine A. Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America.
On June 1, 2020, a group of peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C. was tear-gassed so that Donald Trump could be photographed brandishing a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
In the aftermath, Trump’s critics have condemned his actions as an insult to Christianity. While Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a rare voice of Republican dissent, has lamented that Trump used the Bible as a “prop,” others have censored him for making a crude calculation meant to appeal to his evangelical base. The Reverend Marion Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., has expressed her shock and pain that Trump used the Bible “as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus."
What few have acknowledged, however, is that this is not the first time in American history that a powerful white man has flaunted the Bible after wreaking violence against black people and their allies. As William Faulkner taught us, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” The spectacle outside of St. John’s Church is only the latest iteration of a scene that has been repeated countless times in America, including on southern plantations before the Civil War. Too often in our history, the Bible has been displayed as an object of racial terror.
Many white Christians today have expressed their desire to move past the ugly history of Christian racism, but few have fully reckoned with the way that the Bible was once used to defend slavery and white supremacy. In the 15th century, when the African slave trade began, Christians developed a new interpretation of a verse in Genesis, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren,” to argue that Canaan had been cursed with black skin. Even though this biblical story says nothing about blackness, Christians turned the Bible’s many allusions to slavery, widely practiced in the ancient world, into a justification for a distinctly modern form of racial bondage. They profited handsomely as a result.
In the years before the American Revolution, Protestant ministers often used the Bible to threaten rebellious slaves with punishment. In 1749, the Reverend Thomas Bacon, an Anglican minister in Maryland, preached a sermon to slaves that glorified white masters as “God’s overseers.” “You are to do all Service for your Masters and Mistresses, as if you did it for GOD himself,” he pronounced. Though Bacon acknowledged that Jesus had died to save black as well as white people—“there was not a single Drop of his precious Blood spilled, in which the poorest and meanest of you hath not as great a Share, as the richest and most powerful Person upon the earth”—he also warned that if they were disobedient, they would be tormented for all eternity by “the Vengeance of Almighty GOD.”
Even after the Revolution, when Americans found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the existence of chattel slavery with the words of the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness”—many white Christians, both northern and southern, insisted that the Bible had ordained whites to rule over blacks. Thornton Stringfellow, a prominent Baptist minister in Virginia, argued that the Bible authorized “the holding of men and women in bondage, and chastising them with the rod, with a severity that terminates in death.” Stringfellow explained that in “civilized countries,” masters could not murder their slaves, but if their efforts to “produce subordination” inadvertently led to a slave’s death, they had committed neither a crime nor a sin.
Despite these efforts to turn the Bible into an instrument of terror, many enslaved people found hope and inspiration in its pages. They thrilled to the story of Moses leading the captive Israelites out of bondage, and they treasured the words of Jesus, “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Like Frederick Douglass, who distinguished between “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ” and “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land,” black Christians argued that the central message of the Bible is love. They were supported by thousands of white Christian abolitionists.
Yet even when the Civil War ended the practice of chattel slavery, many white Christians continued to defend white supremacy as biblical. The Ku Klux Klan, founded as an explicitly white Protestant organization, required all new members to swear an oath of allegiance to the Bible as well as the American flag. As the Klan set fire to black houses, terrorized those who tried to vote, and lynched black men, they saw nothing incongruous about holding a Bible in one hand and a noose in the other.
In the decades between the Civil Rights Movement and Donald Trump’s election, white evangelicals made efforts to atone for this repugnant history. In 1989, for example, Southern Baptists issued a Resolution on Racism that repented for their “past bigotry” and affirmed that the Bible upholds the principle of racial equality. In 2019, the National Association of Evangelicals urged Christians to “rectify the effects of our racist history, including the disproportionate impact of poverty, incarceration and educational inequity.” Yet since Trump’s election, relatively few white evangelicals have challenged his inflammatory statements about race, even his shocking defense of white nationalists at the 2019 Unite the Right rally in Charleston as “very fine people.”
Before Donald Trump strode into Lafayette Square, he delivered a speech in the Rose Garden expressing his desire to “dominate the streets.” His decision to bring the Bible to St. John’s Church with him seems to have had little to do with his personal faith. Throughout his presidency, he has had an uncanny ability to exploit the worst features of America’s racist history for his own advancement, and on some level, he seems to have understood that the Bible has been used not only to defend the principles of love and redemption, but also, in the white Christian imagination, racial subordination.
When Trump wordlessly held up the Bible, a smirk on his face, he did so to demonstrate his power, not to ask for peace or forgiveness. It was a strategy taken straight from the playbook of white Christian slaveholders, who, in their moral cowardice, boasted that the Bible justified their violence against black men and women. The next morning, Trump tweeted, “D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination.”
The question now is whether the white evangelical Christians who have supported Trump will recognize his action for what it was: not a pious veneration of their most sacred text, but a crude attempt to turn the Bible into a justification for the “domination” of black protesters and their white supporters. One can only hope that white Christians will not stand by silently as he tries to breathe new life into one of the most painful chapters of their history, their defense of white supremacy.