Richard Smoley is one of the world’s most distinguished authorities on the mystical and esoteric teachings of Western civilization. A graduate of Harvard College and the University of Oxford, he is most recently the author of How God Became God. For Signature, Smoley discusses how the bible is a bit like a talisman in the hands of Donald Trump.
A cover blurb on a recent issue of The New York Review of Books speaks of “the magic of Donald Trump.”
To push the metaphor further than the eminences of The New York Review may have intended, if Trump is a magician, he must make use of talismans.
And he has.
One surprise in a year of many surprises was how Trump, the vainglorious New York loudmouth, defeated devout Ted Cruz in the Bible Belt. Trump’s Christianity — no matter how you define the term — has never been in the foreground. Whereas Cruz, at least ostensibly, is a sincere evangelical Christian.
The answer lies in a magical talisman and the brilliant use that Trump has made of it.
I am speaking of the Bible.
It is hard to imagine how the Bible has played much of a role in Trump’s life, unless perhaps he has modeled himself on one of the wicked Old Testament kings. From a religious point of view, he is what most American politicians have been over the decades — a perfunctory mainstream Protestant (in his case, Presbyterian). But he has made use of the Bible in a way that has made him a hero among the evangelicals who might otherwise see little reason to support him.
The answer does not, of course, lie in Trump’s familiarity with the Bible, even though his famous gaffe — referring to Paul’s Second Epistle of the Corinthians as “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians” — is far from the biggest howler that has come out of his mouth. And his reverence for its teachings appears selective and opportunistic. In an April interview, he said that his favorite verse was “an eye for an eye” (Leviticus 24:20), an idea repudiated by Christ himself (Matthew 5:38-40).
Even so, it’s probably too facile to say that Trump is being capricious with the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Their greatness lies in their universality. Written over nearly a thousand years by dozens of hands, almost all of them unknown, it expresses the whole range of feelings and aspirations of which human beings are capable. Thus, as many have observed, you can find what you like in it. A nun working among drought victims in Africa hears Christ’s call to help the poor and sick. Trump leafs through his Bible and pulls out the lex talionis.
In any event, Trump’s brilliance in using the Bible has little to do with its content but with the physical book as an iconic artifact.
In his 1992 book The American Religion, literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that today “what is left is the Bible as physical object, limp and leather, a final icon or magical talisman.”
Donald Trump uses this talisman with remarkable agility. He has made a point of brandishing it (precisely in its limp leather form: no paperback or denim-bound Bibles here) and proclaiming, “I love the Bible.” His fans have even taken to sending Bibles to him. He has said:
“There’s no way I would ever…do anything negative to a Bible, so what we do is we keep all of the Bibles. I would have a fear of doing something other than very positive so actually I store them and keep them and sometimes give them away to other people but I do get sent a lot of Bibles and I like that. I think that’s great.”
Note that Trump hints that it is the physical copies of the Bible that are somehow sacred.
The history of the Bible as a physical icon has its roots in many sources. Protestantism is the chief influence. The Catholic church venerates the Scriptures, but has always held that its own teachings and traditions hold equal authority. But in the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers threw out many of these teachings and traditions and embraced the doctrine of scriptura sola — “Scripture alone” — as a source of doctrinal authority.
You can see the consequences of this decision in just about any Protestant church. Almost invariably, the two most prominent artifacts are the cross and Bible — the latter usually large, leatherbound, and gilt-edged.
Although some may not like to admit it, the Bible is even a central artifact in the American civil religion. What, after all, is the most solemn and important moment in public life? The inauguration of a president. And the president takes his oath on the Bible.
Actually there is nothing in the Constitution or anywhere else that obliges the new chief to use a Bible for his oath. In his inauguration in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt did not use one, and Lyndon Johnson, in his hasty first inauguration on Dallas’s Love Field, used a Catholic missal that happened to be at hand. Of course Johnson was not a Catholic. But he needed to take an oath, if not on a Bible, at least on something that looked like one, so a little leather-bound missal was pulled into service.
Barack Obama is well aware of the symbolism of this limp leather artifact. In his 2013 inauguration, he took his oath on Lincoln’s copy of the Bible atop one owned by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The use of the Bible as sacred artifact also owes something to Freemasonry. Although Freemasonry is to all appearances in decline, it has played a major role in shaping American thought. And the Three Jewels of the Masonic lodge, its central symbols, are the compass, the square, and the holy book — in the U.S., almost always the Bible. Indeed George Washington used his Masonic Bible, later used also by presidents Harding, Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush, to take his inaugural vow.
In a televised era, Billy Graham, one of the most powerful American orators of the last century, brandished his large-format leather Bible to great effect in his sermons.
In terms of actual belief, Donald Trump appears to be a creation of the positive-thinking movement, especially as preached by Norman Vincent Peale, the best-selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking. POLITICO recently ran a feature entitled “How Norman Vincent Peale Taught Donald Trump to Love Himself.”
Positive thinking can be helpful, but its insistence on self-reliance and the idea that “you create your own reality” can lead, and has led, to indifference and obliviousness toward those who are suffering. By this theory, all they need to do is change their thoughts and life will turn into a delightful bower.
Another champion of a hard-edged worldview, Ronald Reagan, was similarly inspired by the positive thinking movement, as Mitch Horowitz notes in his book One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Changed America.
In the end, it is a mistake to think of religion solely in terms of doctrines or dogma. Religious sentiment has always focused on artifacts, symbols, and rituals. The content has often had to sit far in the background. Or this content has to be linked by association with an already established symbol.
Some might wonder whether Trump is brandishing the Bible consciously or unconsciously. Does he realize what kind of use he is making of the Western world’s most sacred text? Is he acting from instinct? Or is it a calculated Elmer Gantry-like tactic?
It would be hard to say without having some window into Trump’s introspective process (perhaps best avoided). In the end it may not matter. In politics, smart instincts are often far more important than smart reasoning.