I’m fairly confident that Donald Trump doesn’t read the Bible. That’s not a moral condemnation, but simply a conclusion based on the documented evidence that he doesn’t know what is in the Bible and doesn’t like to read. So, why does President Trump want you to read the Bible?
A segment on Fox News (of course – Trump does like to watch TV) inspired President Trump to Tweet (see, Trump also likes to write – Tweeting is still technically writing) in support of legislation in several states that would promote Bible literacy in public schools. Ostensibly intended to promote studying the Christian Bible for its historical and literary significance – something I’m doing in my own class on Western civilization at the moment – this proposed legislation is part of a larger, detailed plan crafted by proponents of a philosophy known as Christian Nationalism.
Christian Nationalism in America is a religious and political ideology that has its origins with the Puritans of the 1600s, who saw their community as a “city upon a hill,” ordained by God to be a shining example of a Christian society for the world to see. This strain of Christian political ideology has waxed and waned throughout American history. In foreign policy, this “city on a hill” ethos has manifested itself in calls for isolationism, something that lines up well with President Trump’s own nationalist ideas. Domestically, Christian nationalists have become focused on supporting laws based on Christian principles and putting into political office Christians who will govern based on their religious beliefs.
America has always been unique – exceptional even -when it comes to its religious fervor and identity, but Christian Nationalism is not without precedent in the rest of the world. Even if we ignore the centuries of world history where “separation of church and state” would never even cross anyone’s mind, the closest modern(ish) analogue might be mid-19th century Europe, which saw the rise of Catholic Church-backed Christian Democratic political parties in the late 19th century, as a reaction of anti-Catholic political liberalism (“liberalism” with a small “L”).
In some ways, Christian Nationalists are recreating the Christian Democratic model (without the actual, you know, church-state conflicts that preceded it). They view American Liberals (big “L”) as being ascendant (despite Republicans controlling the White House, Senate, Supreme Court, and most state legislatures and governorships –you know, details). And Christian Nationalists see American Liberalism as just as dangerous to American Christianity today as the Catholic Church saw European liberals in the late 1800s.
To counter this perceived threat, many Christian Nationals have organized around the country to promote a whole host of pro-Christian laws, including the infamous Religious Freedom bills that would carve out religious-based exceptions to anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws. The Bible Literacy bills are another part of the Christian Nationalist playbook (I mean that in a literal sense; they have a playbook available online with goals, strategies, and sample language for legislation, including a “Bible Literacy Act” template).
Bible Literacy is ostensibly meant to examine the Bible for its historical value (as stated in the playbook’s talking points – yes, there are actual, bullet-point lists of talking points!), but it’s not hard to conclude that the true aim is to both expose more students to scripture during their impressionable teenage years and to gain a foothold into introducing (Christian) religious education to public schools.
The Bible tells us an instance of the Apostle Paul, while siting in a jail and dealing with reports of Christian preachers operating with various motives, writing to his fellow Christians “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (see, I got you to read scripture too!) The thought was that, regardless of the motives of people who were spreading the Christian message, the fact that the message was being spread was a victory for Christians like Paul who wanted to expose as many people as possible to the Gospel. With bills like the Bible Literacy Acts, Christian Nationalists seem to be attempting to turn Paul’s declaration into a political strategy.