Donald Trump’s Bible or George Floyd’s? That's the choice facing America’s Christians.

President Donald Trump’s decision this month to have peaceful protesters removed from Lafayette Square with tear gas to stage an appearance in front of St. John’s Church has been condemned by his political enemies and defended by his political allies. I’m more interested in how this scene captures the crisis facing American Christianity: Is the Bible still the foundation of the faith, or has it become a tool of political tribalism?

Trump has an instinct for theatrics. Whether hugging a flag or staging a military parade, he understands the power of symbols. The St. John’s photo op was designed for this purpose but stood out for its obvious vacuity. Unlike previous presidents who referenced the Scriptures in times of national crisis, Trump did not. He offered no prayer, no words of peace or comfort, no heavenly perspective. The Bible was there, as Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska put it, “as a political prop.” Trump confirmed this when a reporter asked him if it was his Bible, and he replied, “It’s a Bible.” The book’s presence is what mattered to Trump, not its message.

In this regard, Trump’s photo-op represents the way many Americans have come to see the Good Book, including many of my fellow evangelicals for whom the Bible has historically served as a foundation of faith and life.

Bible's words are optional for some

It became apparent to me several years ago that the faith of some evangelicals no longer stands on this firm foundation. I was teaching a class on the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ most famous message, which contains many of the faith’s core teachings on compassion, forgiveness and loving one’s enemies. After reading the full sermon together with a room full of lifelong evangelicals, I asked: “How many of you think Jesus actually expects us to live out these commands?”

No one raised their hand.

One person said it was impossible, no one could live that way. Another said Jesus was illustrating what a perfect life looks like, and how "none of us" can attain it.

At the time, I was amazed by the logical contortions these committed churchgoers employed to nullify Jesus’ commands, even neutering the parable at the end of his sermon about the perils of not obeying his words. Since then, I’ve discovered the ubiquity of this approach. Like Trump, far too many American Christians believe it’s enough to display a Bible; following it is entirely optional.

A protester near the White House on June 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Consider an interview with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in 2018. The reporter asked why so many evangelicals supported Donald Trump, a man who reveled in disobeying Jesus’ teachings. “I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully,” Perkins replied.

“What happened to turning the other cheek?” the reporter asked, referring to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about non-retaliation.

“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins replied.

Like some other Christians, Perkins thinks Jesus’ words are to be followed up to a point. Once important things are at risk, like elections and federal court appointments, it’s okay to ignore them.

A dangerous path: After St. John's: Will Trump do anything to stay in power? And what will we do if he does?

As I continued to witness how eager many evangelicals were to dismiss Jesus’ words, I began to understand the negative perception the broader culture has of Christians. Although Christians often claim to be marginalized for taking Jesus too seriously, I’m convinced it’s the opposite. The negative perception of evangelicals in America is caused by our not taking Jesus seriously enough. Venerating the Scriptures while disregarding their teachings is exactly why Jesus called the religious leaders of his day “hypocrites,” “serpents,” and “whitewashed tombs that outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones.”

African Americans take Bible seriously

Jesus’ rebuke applies equally today. For example, poll after poll shows that "evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general," in the words of evangelical theologian Michael Horton. George Barna, head of a polling firm that studies faith, concluded that “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century because Jesus’ modern-day disciples do not act like Jesus.”

There is an important exception to this trend — African Americans. The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study found black Americans read the Bible more than any other group, and they are far more likely than whites to view it as God’s authoritative word (blacks 51%, whites 26%). This data was confirmed by a theological survey in 2018 by LifeWay, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. It that found African Americans were more likely to hold orthodox Christian beliefs and biblical ethics than white Americans. Simply put, more African Americans take the Bible seriously.

George Floyd, whose killing by a police officer has ignited nationwide protests, came from this Christian tradition. Before moving to Minneapolis, Floyd was deeply involved in Christian ministry to Houston’s Third Ward where he mentored young men in the faith, helped lead a basketball outreach program and served as a bridge between pastors and the community. "If y’all about God’s business, then that’s my business,’” he told Corey Paul Davis, a Christian hip-hop artist, at a 2010 benefit in Houston. Pastor Patrick PT Ngwolo called Floyd "a person of peace sent from the Lord that helped the gospel go forward.”

The St. John's debacle: I helped create the worst photo-op ever. Thanks to Trump, now it's only second worst.

Unlike Trump and those who use the Bible as a token, George Floyd believed in the power of Christ’s words to transform. He engaged his Bible to heal lives and to bring renewal to one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in America. Floyd’s Bible mobilized him to alleviate suffering, not inflict it for a photo op.

Donald Trump and George Floyd represent two possible futures for American Christianity. One is a facade, a faith whose power and history have been expunged and replaced with the heresy of nationalism that celebrates Christian symbols but scorns the poor and marginalized with whom Christ identifies. The other is a faith that has inspired personal and social reconciliation for centuries and whose message is needed in America now more than ever.

Which future Christianity moves toward in our country will largely depend on how those who claim the faith choose to view its Scriptures. Will we see the Bible as Donald Trump does — as a political prop? Or will we see it the way George Floyd did — as a path to peace, justice, and flourishing?

Skye Jethani is the co-host of the Holy Post Podcast, a former executive editor at Christianity Today, and author of "What If Jesus Was Serious?" Follow him on Twitter: @SkyeJethani

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Bible Trump used as a prop mobilized George Floyd to heal lives