Geoff Davidson graduated from the University of Alabama Religious Studies Department in 2009 before earning his M.Div. at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He is now a minister, writer, and library information specialist at Baylor.
Late last week President Trump was seen autographing Bibles while surveying the effects of a devastating tornado in eastern Alabama, leading to skirmishing in both news media and religious communities. There were those who dismissed this incident immediately, and why shouldn’t they? Why should a signed Bible merit discussion in the face of any other pressing political or religious topic de jour?
For the scholar of religion, such easy dismissiveness is a good way to miss important data. Christians, not a monolithic lot by any stretch, have been hotly divided on the topic with some leveling serious religious charges against both the president and those who asked that their Bibles be signed. This disagreement warrants accurate reflection in its own right, but it also points to critical underlying issues: how Christians see their holy texts and how this affects their actions.
The church at which the Bible signing occurred belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization shaken to its core by a scriptural disagreement during the 1980s. Several issues came up during this decade of dispute but they all came back to members’ views of the Bible and its authority. The eventually victorious camp made a rallying cry of their staunch view of biblical authority, using the term inerrancy to describe their view that the Bible is free of any error and to be taken at a strongly face-value reading mostly or even entirely removed from historical or literary criticism (e.g., supporting a literal six-day creation). It is quite common, then as now, to hear advocates describing their view as taking the Bible “seriously.”
This language belies the complicated task of sussing out which views are held seriously and the ways they intersect with the wider culture. What should be emphasized, sexual morals or teachings regarding the less fortunate? Do these views apply to individuals or are they to be fleshed out as public policy? And what of the physical book itself? Do the claims of inerrancy apply only to the original texts or to every copy sold? If the latter, are personal Bible copies sacred artifacts to be treated with respect and held in awe (one thinks of viral stories of Bibles surviving house fires and stopping bullets) or are they personal items to be used as a yearbook of sorts, for famous autographs?
Little of the contemporary United States has remained unaffected by these discussions. The homogenization of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, into a more conservative body (both theologically and politically) ran concurrent to the coalescence of white evangelicals into a reliable conservative voting bloc, drastically altering American politics.
Those who study religion should therefore pay attention to religious adherents asking a politician to sign their Bibles. Though it may seem like an isolated and quirky blip on the political radar, a closer examination reveals that this involved an official overwhelmingly supported by those with a certain view of the Bible being asked to sign Bibles while standing in a church dedicated to aforementioned view. With that in mind we can see this is no briefly lived news story; rather it is a valuable insight into how some Christians exhibit their beliefs.