PROVIDENCE, R.I. — President Donald Trump was just doing what he could to raise spirits when he signed Bibles at an Alabama church for survivors of a deadly tornado outbreak, many religious leaders say, though some are offended and others say he could have handled it differently.
Hershael York, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky, said he didn’t have a problem with Trump signing Bibles, like former presidents have, because he was asked and because it was important to the people who were asking.
“Though we don’t have a national faith, there is faith in our nation, and so it’s not at all surprising that people would have politicians sign their Bibles,” he said. “Those Bibles are meaningful to them and apparently these politicians are, too.”
But the Rev. Donnie Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said she was offended by the way Trump scrawled his signature Friday as he autographed Bibles and other things, including hats, and posed for photos. She viewed it, she said, as a “calculated political move” by the Republican president to court his evangelical voting base.
Presidents have a long history of signing Bibles, though earlier presidents typically signed them as gifts to send with a spiritual message. President Ronald Reagan signed a Bible that was sent secretly to Iranian officials in 1986. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the family Bible his attorney general used to take the oath of office in 1939.
It would have been different, Anderson said, if Trump had signed a Bible out of the limelight for someone with whom he had a close connection.
“For me, the Bible is a very important part of my faith, and I don’t think it should be used as a political ploy,” she said. “I saw it being used just as something out there to symbolize his support for the evangelical community, and it shouldn’t be used in that way. People should have more respect for Scripture.”
York said that he, personally, would not ask a politician to sign a Bible, but that he has been asked to sign Bibles after he preaches. It feels awkward, he said, but he doesn’t refuse.
“If it’s meaningful to them to have signatures in their Bible, I’m willing to do that,” he said.
A request for comment was left the White House on Saturday, a day after Trump visited Alabama to survey the devastation and pay respects to tornado victims. The tornado carved a path of destruction nearly a mile wide, killing 23 people, including four children and a couple in their 80s, with 10 victims belonging to a single extended family.
At the Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Alabama, the Rev. Rusty Sowell said, the president’s visit was uplifting and will help bring attention to a community that will need a long time to recover.
Before leaving the church, Trump posed for a photograph with a fifth-grade volunteer and signed the child’s Bible, said Ada Ingram, a local volunteer. The president also signed her sister’s Bible, Ingram said. In photos from the visit, Trump is shown signing the cover of a Bible.
Trump should have at least signed inside in a less ostentatious way, said the Rev. Dr. Kevin Cassiday-Maloney.
“It just felt like hubris,” said Cassiday-Maloney, pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Fargo, North Dakota. “It almost felt like a desecration of the holy book to put his signature on the front writ large, literally.”
He doesn’t think politicians should sign Bibles, he said, because it could be seen as a blurring of church and state and an endorsement of Christianity over other religions.
It would have been out of line if Trump had brought Bibles and given them out, but that wasn’t the case, said James Coffin, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.
“Too much is being made out of something that doesn’t deserve that kind of attention,” he said.
Bill Leonard, the founding dean and professor of divinity emeritus at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, woke up to Facebook posts Saturday morning by former students who were upset about Trump signing the Bibles because they don’t view him as an appropriate example of spiritual guidance.
But, Leonard said, it’s important to remember that signing Bibles is an old tradition, particularly in Southern churches.
Leonard said he would have viewed it as more problematic if the signings were done at a political rally. He doesn’t see how Trump could have refused at the church.
“It would’ve been worse if he had said no because it would’ve seemed unkind, and this was at least one way he could show his concern along with his visit,” he said. “In this setting, where tragedy has occurred and where he comes for this brief visit, we need to have some grace about that for these folks.”