President Donald Trump signs a Bible as he greets people at Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Ala., Friday, March 8, 2019, as they travel to tour areas where tornados killed 23 people in Lee County, Ala.
Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

This Week in God, 3.9.19

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at Donald Trump’s trip yesterday to Alabama, where the president visited communities devastated by recent tornadoes, and where Trump apparently wanted to show his support.

While greeting locals at Providence Baptist Church in Opelika, however, the president was apparently comfortable autographing Bibles, which seemed a little … different.

“Growing up in a religious home, it would’ve been seen as blasphemous as having someone signing your own name,” said Jamie Aten, an evangelical and psychologist at Wheaton College.

Aten, who specializes in the effects of disasters on the religious mind, said it’s common for disaster survivors to use the Bible to help make meaning of what happened. However, he said, he has never seen survivors bring Bibles for someone to sign.

“Maybe you penned your own name so people knew it was yours,” Aten said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In case there were any doubts, Trump signed the covers of the Bibles handed to him.

In fairness, the Washington Post article on this noted that there are some documented instances of other modern presidents having signed Bibles. In this case, however, the motivations of those who asked for Trump’s signature on their holy book may have said even more than the president who agreed.

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, told the newspaper, “The fact that people are bringing Bibles to him says a lot about them. It seems to imply that they see him not only as a political leader but a spiritual savior for the nation.”

It’s not the first time Trump raised eyebrows by signing something he probably shouldn’t have. At a White House event last summer for the families of murder victims, the president thought it’d be a good idea to autograph pictures of violent crime victims.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The U.S. Supreme Court this week passed on hearing a case involving historic preservation grants to churches in New Jersey, though Justice Brett Kavanaugh made a point to express his conservative perspective on the separation of church and state.

* On a related note, the U.S. Supreme Court also recently heard oral arguments in a case involving public support for a 40-foot-high cross created to honor Americans killed in World War I. Predictably, the conservative court seemed sympathetic to the idea that public support for a religious symbol is constitutionally permissible.

* Leaders of the United Methodist Church are in the midst of a major dispute about marriage equality and LGBT clergy.

* And this was just a stunning recent report out of Texas: “The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News in an expansive investigation named 220 pastors, ministers, deacons, volunteers, Sunday school teachers and others who were found guilty of sexually abusing churchgoers over 20 years. More than 250 have been charged. And roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct involving more than 700 victims, the report found.”