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Joseph Q. Jarvis: Trump offers a hollowed-out pretense of religiosity

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) President Trump holding a Bible outside St. John’s Church in Washington on Monday, June 1, 2020.

I watched the president of the United States use a Bible as a talisman, a political good luck charm. He wanted a photo op, so his minions hammered the peaceful protesters who were standing in the way. I am told that Trump, while preening with grumpy visage at the camera, was holding the Bible upside down.

He wanted to project power and domination. What I saw instead was a fool who is intentionally ignorant about the nature of biblical authority.

If Trump had ever read the Bible, he might have come upon the story in 1 Samuel about how the House of Eli, the high priest, came to its end. Eli, himself, it seems, was a good man, except when it came to the affairs of his family. He had two sons who used their father’s position to scam believers who came to worship at the national shrine in Shiloh. They found nothing sacred around the Ark of the Covenant or the Tabernacle, which their father was meant to protect. Business as usual for them at Shiloh meant trading on their nation’s most sacred values in pursuit of personal interest.

But then came a national crisis — the Philistines, with their weapons of iron, attacked. The Army of Israel had no military answer and lost the opening battle of the war. What did Eli’s two sons propose? Use the Ark of the Covenant as a talisman, a military good luck charm. They brought it to the battlefield and expected that its presence alone would secure victory. Much like Trump asserting a righteous cause by brandishing a Bible in front of an historic church building.

But the authority of religion is not found in the physical presence of religious articles. Faith is powerful because loving God changes people on the inside, no matter what they stand next to or physically hold in their hand. When we learn to hold biblical values sacred, like integrity, equity and justice, then the rule of law makes all of us strong together. That is the prosperity we are taught by the Bible to pursue.

Eli’s sons died on the battlefield as the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines, and Eli himself, when he heard of the defeat, likewise fell over dead.

Like the House of Eli, the Trump administration is a hollowed-out pretense of religiosity which is in fact wholly about the self-interest and selfishness of its leadership. Like the ancient nation of Israel, the United States has come to a moment of national crisis because our leadership let the enemy outclass our defenses.

We are not militarily weak like the Israelites of old, facing Iron Age technology with Bronze Age weapons. Rather, we are facing biological forces without being prepared to use 100-year-old public health methods combined with modern day technology.

Without testing based on contact tracing (because Trump and others unilaterally disarmed our state and federal public health infrastructure) we were forced to fall back on universal social isolation, which has killed our economy and threatened our free elections.

Not surprisingly, in the midst of that chaos, our chronically unatoned national original sin, racism, has reemerged and put our society in peril.

Trump’s Bible stunt won’t save us or his presidency. Like the House of Eli, the Trump administration will go on the trash heap of history, taking all of his collaborators with it. Whether the nation will survive, however, will depend upon each of us.

American greatness is not found in a stock portfolio, but in virtue: integrity, equity, justice, and the rule of law.

Joe Jarvis

Joseph Q. Jarvis, M.D., Salt Lake City, is a public health physician and author. He welcomes comments at josephqjarvis.com.

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