Holy Biblegate! Trump signs Bibles in Alabama, critics pounce

President Trump and Melania went to Alabama Friday to survey tornado damage and comfort those suffering in the aftermath. The President and First Lady do quite a good job of that sort of thing. Unfortunately, they have been getting lots of practice dealing with victims of natural disasters. That’s not good enough for the folks looking for any excuse to criticize the First Couple. They both signed some Bibles, handed to them by local people in Alabama, and faux outrage on social media commenced.

President Donald Trump signed Bibles for survivors of the Alabama tornado that killed 23 people during a visit of the disaster area on Friday.

During his visit five days after the storm hit, Trump met with state and leaders and assessed the damage for himself in Beauregard. He also met with the families of tornado victims, including Marshall Lynn Grimes, who died alongside his fiance.

Prior to being on the ground, Trump took an aerial tour of the devastation after landing at Fort Benning.

“I saw this and it’s hard to believe,” Trump said. “You saw things that you wouldn’t believe.”

After surveying the storm’s damage, President Trump and Melania stopped at a church with Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Crosses were set up in memory of the victims and the Trumps stood before each and read the names. Then they went inside the church which serves as a shelter and distribution center for donations. As happens, a crowd gathered to see the president and maybe get an autograph. One 12-year-old boy came forward with a Bible for Trump to autograph. I’ll remind you that they were standing in a church and no doubt there were few options of items for the president to autograph.

The impromptu autographing by Trump began innocently enough. Trump was responding to a child. Melania signed some too. He signed his name on the cover of the Bibles. He wasn’t playfully spiking them to the onlookers as he did with the paper towels that one time. So while our betters in the media made certain to play up the bible signing, religious leaders didn’t think it was any big deal. It may be odd but it’s not heresy.

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.”

The people in that church were mostly Trump supporters. They were happy he was there. It’s common that President Trump is criticized or mocked on social media. All presidents come under scrutiny by their opponents and in the case of President Trump, the press is part of that opposition. I just don’t remember this exaggerated reporting when other presidents signed Bibles.

Look at this reaction from someone who wasn’t there and I’d bet not a Trump supporter, either.

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.

“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.

Sure, a critic can make a political connection but so what? When someone asks a politician for an autograph, they are doing so because the person’s fame is in the political world. The President of the United States is president of all Americans, however, and not just the evangelicals with which Rev. Anderson seems to have a problem. A presidential autograph is a historical keepsake. The “but politics” criticism is just petty. He was doing what he could do to comfort Americans in their time of need.

And then there’s the critic who was quoted complaining not only that President Trump signed Bibles but where on the Bible he signed. The minister even brought a straw man into the argument – it could show that Trump was not only violating the separation of church and state but that he favors Christianity. That’s some over-thinking of a simple gesture, if you ask me.

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.

I’m guessing that the folks in Alabama don’t really give a rip what clergy in Rhode Island and North Dakota have to say about the matter.

Left-leaning Slate actually brought a bit of historical context to presidential autographs.

Atten may have been shocked by the move, but it isn’t as odd as you might think. The Post talked to Peter Manseau, the Smithsonian’s curator of religion, who said many past presidents have signed Bibles, including President Barack Obama. And it’s not like Trump was handing out stacks of signed bibles, but rather, he was doing what some people asked of him. “Presidents seem to sign a lot of random things put in front of them,” Manseau added.

Manseau notes that Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush signed Bibles, too.

Maybe everyone should just take a breath now and then. If a trip to comfort tornado survivors by the president sets you off, maybe a little quiet contemplation is in order.