The Bible is not a Prop

For the religious community whose building President Trump used as a background for his photo op, the Bible is a sacred text. Their bishop has spoken clearly to the misuse of the image of the Bible. Interviewed on National Public Radio this morning, Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said, “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.”

Bishop Budde articulates a core notion of what the Bible is for many Christians who appreciate the work of the Westar Institute. The Bible is where Christians encounter Jesus and learn from him a way of life grounded in love and justice. For these Christians, this text is sacred as the location of that encounter. Critical study of biblical texts has offered them a way to learn more about the historical-jesus in his own time and more broadly about forebearers in the faith that Christians seek to live.

Not all who identify as Christians see Mr. Trump’s use of the Bible as antithetical to its contents as Bishop Budde does, however. Writing in The Atlantic, McKay Coppins also quotes an “almost gleeful” Dallas megachurch pastor and Trump ally, Robert Jeffress: “I thought it was completely appropriate for the president to stand in front of that church,” Jeffress told me. “And by holding up the Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it’s despicable—but God also hates lawlessness.” This pastor supports Trump’s use of the Bible and the church in what Coppins identifies as “weapons of culture war,” not as “symbols of faith.” He lifts a Bible not just as a prop but as a weapon against lawlessness and as a weapon of dominance. Doing so, he seeks to reassure his base of his own dominance and of the dominance of their Christian identity.

The Westar Institute is not a faith-based organization. Our collaborative study takes an academic approach to biblical texts. We recognize that the collected writings in the Bible do not contain one single moral perspective, nor do they tell a unified story. Support for imperial strategies and ethnic violence can be found alongside powerful narratives of liberation and of the power of love. In our present time of crisis and confusion, the very complexity of the Bible offers a resource for historical grounding and sustenance for the long haul, whether as members of faith communities or more simply of human communities.

As human beings, we do not need a religious text to know that a police officer dispassionately, a hand in his pocket, pressing his knee into a person’s neck until he dies is a despicable crime. There is no moral ambiguity here. The biblical texts can, however, help us to understand the long history of the more complex dynamics of such violence and of resistance to it as communities respond to this instance of ongoing heinous violence and seek to end the structural racism that produces it.

When Mr. Trump uses a Bible as a prop and as a weapon, I am offended along with Bishop Budde and millions of the members of the Christian faith who know this as a desecration of their sacred text. They merit respect.

As a scholar of the texts it contains who no longer holds them as sacred, I am also offended by Mr. Trump’s use of the Bible as a prop and a weapon.

This is a text to be opened and read to seek understanding of ourselves and our culture and our history and our humanity and how understandings of God are part of that. The image of Mr. Trump wielding the Bible without reading it offers an icon for the willful ignorance he glorifies as well as his authoritarian intentions.

Offended as I am by the use of the Bible to create this iconic image, however, the violent systemic domination it signifies is the true offense.

Part of the iconic image is the violence used to clear peaceful demonstrators so that Mr. Trump and his entourage could walk to use the church as their backdrop to lift the Bible as a weapon.

Against that entrenched and systemic violence, we must employ every resource we have at our disposal.

Susan M. (Elli) Elliott is a writer, lecturer, workshop leader, and environmental activist based in Red Lodge, Montana. She began her doctoral work after years in urban ministry in Chicago where she served a local church, directed human rights organizations, worked in grassroots economic development, and organized direct actions on local and international justice issues. For several years, she managed construction companies and a mailing service as ventures to employ and train urban young people in Chicago. She also spent a year in a village in Mexico assisting with the economic development work of the Arizona Farmworkers Union.

Elli Elliott's scholarly work focuses on the pagan and Roman Imperial backgrounds of early Christianity, including Greco-Roman mystery cults—particularly the cult of Cybele—and central Anatolian popular religiosity. Her first book explores Paul's letter to the Galatians and the relation of the circumcision controversy to the practice of ritual self-castration. Her current book project is based on a lecture series offered in local churches and uses George Lakoff's work on the family metaphor in political discussion to understand early Christian family language in the context of the Roman Empire She is the author of scholarly articles and reviews that have appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Biblical Research, Semeia, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and Listening, and a contributor to Eerdmans' Dictionary of the Bible and The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.


Academic Credentials

  • B.A. equivalent, The Institute at Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona
  • M.Div., Jesuit School of Theology at Chicago
  • Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago

Academic Appointments

  • Adjunct Instructor, Humanities Department, Northwest College, Powell, Wyoming, August , 2010 to present
  • Faculty Member in New Testament, Lay Ministry Institute, Montana Association of Churches, August, 2008 to closure of institute
  • Faculty Member, Theological Education Institute of the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1999–2003
  • Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1997
  • Lecturer of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1993-1996

Professional Service

  • Minister, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Fairmont, Minnesota, 2005–2007
  • Minister for Faith & Learning, Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2003–2005
  • Pastor, Zion United Church of Christ, Sterling, Colorado, 1997–2003
  • Director, Justice and Peace Network of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1990–1992
  • Pastor and Community Program Director, Douglas Park Church of the Brethren, 1987–1990
  • Director, Interfaith Coalition for Justice to Immigrants, Chicago, 1981–1982
  • Coordinator, Alliance to End Repression, Chicago, 1978–1980

Membership in Professional Societies

  • Society of Biblical Literature
  • Westar Institute
  • Catholic Biblical Association
  • North American Patristics Society
  • Chicago Society for Biblical Research
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