Savannah H. Finver is a recent graduate of U.A.’s Master of Arts in Religion in Culture program. Beginning in the Fall of 2020, she will be pursuing her Ph.D. at Ohio State University in Comparative Studies. Her interests lie in discourses on religion as they appear in U.S. law and politics, especially as they pertain to the assignment of civil rights and legal privileges.
Regardless of what platform you use to get your news, you likely saw a photo circulating in the early days of June like the one above of President Donald Trump holding up a bible in what many have decried as an irreverent fashion in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. The President’s photo op unleashed a whirlwind of controversy for several reasons, including that he reportedly used police and National Guard troops to clear the area of demonstrators peacefully protesting police brutality and the death (though some would prefer the term murder—after all, the two terms place the onus of responsibility on different subjects, with important legal implications) of George Floyd. Likely due to the civil unrest that has been so prominent throughout the U.S. in the past few months, the photo also prompted backlash from religious practitioners, clergy, and institutions who insisted that Trump was using the bible and St. John’s Church—objects traditionally associated with religion—for a political stunt.
Consider the following tweet, for example, posted on June 1, 2020 by James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor for the Jesuit magazine America:
Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. God is not your plaything. pic.twitter.com/RZwPeqrwoZ
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) June 2, 2020
This tweet stands out to me as a scholar of religion primarily because of Martin’s statement that “[r]eligion is not a political tool.” Here, Martin effectively declares as a fact the notion of the separation of church and state—a notion which, though widely popular in the U.S. and other democratic nations, has been heavily critiqued by scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell McCutcheon, William Arnal, and Craig Martin, among others. Craig Martin frames this critique clearly in his book Masking Hegemony (2010), in which he writes:
Most of those traditions we colloquially call ‘religious’ habituate citizens into ideologies and desires with political consequences, thereby producing political actors. (2)
In other words, the ideologies produced by so-called “religious” groups and embodied in so-called “religious” symbols influence how members/practitioners think, choose, and act, and—often and especially—how they vote.
Despite such extensive critiques of the discursive/rhetorical separation of what we tend to call “religion” and what we tend to call “politics,” the idea of these terms operating in a mutually exclusive binary is deeply routed in the modern American vocabulary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, James Martin’s tweet was only one of many similar condemnations of Trump’s photo op. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, told NPR that Trump
did not pray. He did not offer a word of balm or condolence to those who are grieving. He did not seek to unify the country, but rather he used our symbols and our sacred space as a way to reinforce a message that is antithetical to everything that the person of Jesus, whom we follow, and the gospel texts that we strive to emulate … represent.
In this time of pandemic fear and social isolation, in this time of racial injustice and senseless violence, in this time of economic uncertainty and generational pain, we should be careful not to use the Bible as a political symbol, one more prop in a noisy news cycle. Because, more than ever, we need to hear what’s true.
Yet what gets to count as true, or what the bible and the figure of Jesus are made to represent, often depends on who you ask. Those who claim that the bible is not a political text often forget (or, at times, intentionally disregard) that the gospels contain several verses that seem overtly political and violent in nature. For example:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household (Matthew 10:34-36, NRSV).
Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him (Mark 12:17, NRSV).
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God… For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them… (Romans 13:1-7, NRSV).
So, is the bible a religious symbol, or a political one? The answer, it seems to me, depends on who you ask and what their interests are. From the standpoint of religious practitioners, labeling Trump’s behavior as “political” relegates him to the status of an outsider, i.e., what he does is political (negative) while what we do is religious (positive). This rhetorical move not only establishes the boundaries of identity (an act that, some would argue, is inherently political), it also marks off certain places and symbols as apolitical and thus somehow beyond the scope of attack or critique. We might say, then, that the very act of designating or labeling something as “religious” is itself an interested and thus political act.
If this is the case, then it seems to me that the religious is always the political.