The image of President Donald Trump holding up a Bible as a sign of “law and order” or maybe “victory” in front of the historic St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC is hard to forget. It might be an image that follows Trump all the way to November. If ever there was a symbol for why religious literacy matters, it’s that one.
President Trump’s faux pas, that is, “false step,” where police violence was used to clear a walking path through protesting American citizens, was to use the Bible more with a Roman than an American spirit. It was, after all, Roman imperial violence that crucified Jesus, also known as the Prince of Peace, and it was Roman imperial theology that justified violence to protect and to propagate the Roman political order. Much like in Trump’s America, violence for Rome was the way of peace.
Violence places select citizens on top of the political order where the view does not include the oppressed people they are standing on.
Violence first and foremost is the presumed right to oppress.
Violence secondly is the brutal use of force to silence objectors on the pretense that to object is to be violent.
As Rome learned, and maybe as America is learning, sustained structural violence that blames victims for reacting to violence eventually leads to revolution. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reportedly said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
We need literacy for healing, and not just literacy limited to religion. Literacy is needed in many different forms. One is justice literacy. Neither President Trump nor Attorney General William Barr seem to have that form.
Another is social literacy, which includes the broadminded quality of priority for the common good. Trump does not hold that quality, and it seems the GOP has long since forgotten that its historic foundation rests on this literacy, too.
In comparison to other literacies, religious literacy may seem insignificant, but religion accepted without critical thinking skills is what puts “law and order” in bed with White nationalistic theology, and that association brings us back to Rome.
Rome was also good at mixing imperial violence with an imperial version of theology. Augustus was a “son of god,” after all, and there was no room for two sons of god in the empire. Jesus as a son of god was an opponent to the Roman imperial gods of law and order.
Theologians today are right to call White nationalism a theology of fascism, for fascism, like ancient Roman imperialism, consists of power placed in the hands of a singular figure surrounded by a limited circle of executives appealing to a popular nationalistic base.
Presently in American, the singular figure is Trump, the limited circle is the sycophant Republican Senate, and the nationalistic base is White evangelicals. Popular religious literacy could blow this fascist circle apart.
We could say, too, that religious literacy is a threat to fascism because fascist governments rely on cultural popularism, which can take the form, and sometimes the support, of religious institutions. Jesus and Rome should be a reminder that the two really do not go together.
The White nationalist criticism of Westar making statements on this matter is that Westar is a non-profit organization. It does not support a political party. It cannot advocate for a political candidate. It does not favor one religion over another. All of that is true. Westar is about academic study and religious literacy. The problem is that literacy, in religion and other subjects, changes thinking. When thinking changes, politics changes; and when politics changes, society changes.
Meanwhile, the abuse of the Bible is also the abuse of politics. Westar is justified in calling out the absence of religious literacy that leads to the absence of social justice.
David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University. He is the author of God’s Human Future (Polebridge, 2016), Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press, 2012), and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press, 2011). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.
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