March 29, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The important but overlooked detail in Trump’s bible sales pitch

It was a signal to believers of “the one true religion.”

Via screenshot.
Via screenshot.

Share this article

An important detail was lost in the outrage, shock and disgust over Donald Trump’s decision this week to get into the business of selling bibles. I think it was overlooked, because few people in mainstream American culture recognized its significance, and they didn’t recognize it, because they were not raised and educated by white conservative Protestants. 

If they were, they might understand that Donald Trump was doing more than just commodifying a sacred text in the week running up to Easter. He was sending a message to specific followers: I will establish a state religion. Not just any religion, however – the one true religion.

The reaction to his bible pitch might have gotten America closer to national unity than anything Trump has ever done. Here was a lying, thieving, philandering sadist, who wouldn’t know a Christian virtue if you slapped it out of his mouth, saying “Christians are under siege in this country and we must protect content that’s pro-God.” Buying his “God Bless America Bible” will help, he said, to “spread our Christian values to others.” Howls of derision were deafening and collective.

For most mainstream Christians, a bible is a bible is a bible. Not so for white conservative Protestants. To them, the other versions are not just wrong. They are blasphemous. Only one version is the inerrant word of God. That’s the King James Version.

Charlie Sykes seems representative. “It is not only cult-y. It is grift-y. It is so much on-brand for Donald Trump,” he told MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski. “He’s playing on the theme of ‘I am the defender of Christianity,’ encouraging Christian nationalists. But the one thing you can’t take your eyes off of is he’s commodifying the Bible during Holy Week, that he’s selling it for $60. This money might go to pay for some of the legal fees for his relationship with a porn star that he paid off.” 

All true, but more important is the kind of bible he was selling.

Now, I would guess that, for most mainstream Christians, a bible is a bible is a bible. Whether it’s the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the New Living Translation Catholic Edition, or the Oxford Annotated Bible, the details may differ, but the message is the same, and the message – the “good news” – is the whole point. 

That’s not the case for white conservative Protestants, which is to say, the people who tend to stand apart from mainstream American culture and who tend to support Donald Trump emphatically. To them, the other versions are not just wrong. They are blasphemous. Only one version is the inerrant word of God. That’s the King James Version*.

I don’t know why this is the case. Perhaps there’s a history worth recounting. (If you know it, please share it.) I would guess, from my experience, that such loyalty to the King James Version comes from a variety of factors. One is custom and tradition. Another is the beauty of the text. (All those thees and thous just sound reverent and holy!) But more important is politics. People of a “true religion” worshiping “a true God” very often define themselves in opposition to people who, they believe, are of “a false religion” worshiping “a false god.” The King James Version establishes a permanent border between “us” and “them.”

Leave a tip here ($10?). Thanks!

Trump knows nothing about the Bible, forget about knowing that there are different versions of it. So it was striking, to the point of alarming, that he very carefully name-checked which version he was selling in his sales pitch, and that the supplemental texts to the King James Version included the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Pledge of Allegiance and the lyrics to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” Trump is enough of a showman to understand the uncritical appeal of Greenwood’s song, but I can’t imagine he knew the significance of the King James Version to the white conservative Protestants who follow him. Someone told him to mention it so that his message was clear.  

That message? He said “religion and Christianity are the biggest things missing from this country,” with the implication that buying one of his bibles will rectify that. But by name-checking the King James Version, he subtly signaled what’s missing is not just any religion, nor just any Christianity. What’s missing is the one true religion, the one that established a permanent border between “us” and “them” and the one that, if elected, he alone will restore to its rightful place of authority.

The First Amendment’s “establishment clause” – the one establishing the wall between church and state – is often misunderstood to mean protecting religions from the influence of the government. It’s more accurate to say, however, that it protects religions from each other, and that without such a guaranteed right, freedom of religion, especially the free exercise of religion, would be in constant jeopardy. If “the one true religion” gets the upper hand, and it will under a second Trump term, no other religion will be safe, not even other Christianities.

Donald Trump wants to be the spokesman for the Bible the way he was a spokesman for steaks and water and a “university.” He also wants to be the spokesman for Christianity itself, every variety of it. (Just as he doesn’t know the difference between bibles, I’m sure doesn’t know the difference between Christianities.) He may succeed – if mainstream Christians for whom a bible is a bible is a bible do not recognize, and do not appropriately fear, the political significance of an authoritarian presidential candidate who is pitching his King James Version. 

*The King James Version is in the public domain. Others are not. That matters to a cheapskate like Trump. But the political importance of the KJV is such that I can’t imagine him or his “bible team” choosing an alternative text. Even if cost were the reason for choosing it, that doesn’t explain Trump going out of his way to say that his bible is the King James Version. He’s selling it for a reason.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.