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.
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.
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.
Bill Leonard, 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 upset about Trump signing the Bibles because they don't view him as an appropriate example of spiritual guidance.
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.