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Mediation Perspectives: Trump, the Bible, and the Instrumentalization of Religion

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Image courtesy of The White House/Flickr

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors.

In the evening of 1 June, one week into nationwide protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, US President Donald Trump left the White House and made his way to nearby St. John’s Church. He stopped in front of the church and posed for the media holding a Bible.

In the polarized US media landscape, reporting on this event was predictably divided. Outlets such as CNN and the New York Times focused on the heavy-handed actions of the police to clear away protestors in advance of the President’s outing. They also highlighted criticisms of the manipulation of religious symbols for political purposes. Many Christians condemned his actions, including Bishop Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to which St John’s belongs, who criticized the “misuse of the symbolic power of our sacred texts”. Conversely, the reaction from the pro-Trump media, and his base, was enthusiastic. “It was the coolest thing he could do” one supporter was quoted as saying.

For many, this was a clear example of “the instrumentalization of religion” – a topic that mycolleague Jean-Nicolas Bitter and I happened to be writing a piece on when these events unfolded. For them, President Trump was cynically making use of Christian symbols for political purposes. As one media commentator claimed, to Trump the “symbols mean nothing”. The display was just a means to shore up support amongst his evangelical Christian base. For others, including Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway, people who questioned Trump’s faith and sincerity were out of line. “We don’t look into other people’s hearts and souls and discern and judge what their faith is,” she told Fox News.

I highlight this incident not to pass judgement on President Trump’s Bible holding, but to illustrate two points about religion and politics.

First, commenting on references to religion in politics can itself quickly become politicized. To condemn Trump as an instrumentalizer of religion is to invite accusations of aligning oneself with Democratic and progressive voices. And indeed, when asked in an interview on Fox News Radio to react to criticism that he had been using religion as a political tool – which incidentally came from both the right and the left –, Trump suggested such criticism came only from the Democratic camp: “Most religious leaders loved it… I heard many other people think it was great – and it’s only the other side that didn’t like it, you know, the opposition party as the expression goes,” he said. Conversely, to celebrate Trump’s photo-op as a reminder that the US has a president who stands up for Christian values (at least a certain interpretation of them) will likely result in being classified as being on the right of the political spectrum. In short, by passing judgement on politicians when they make religious references, one risks being labelled as politically partisan.

Second, regardless of whether President Trump was being sincere or not in his use of Christian symbols (something only he can know), for many of his supporters this was a strong signal that their President is committed to an agenda informed by the kind of Christian values they support. In the context of polarization in the US, it is less relevant whether or not President Trump was being sincere, and more important that a large number of his supporters sincerely subscribe to a political agenda informed by a particular kind of Christian faith.

What does this have to do with mediation?

For a number of years, colleagues and I have been running courses on religion and mediation. These courses are designed to support mediators and others trying to address social and political conflict. We aim to help them understand the role religion can play in conflict and the implications it can have for their mediation processes. When we discuss analyzing religion’s role in conflict with our course participants, the theme of instrumentalization always comes up. For some, I would go so far as to say it is the first thing that comes to their minds when asked how they associate religion with conflict. However, as Jean-Nicolas Bitter and I argue in our recent piece, judging actors as instrumentalizing religion is a trap that mediators should avoid falling into. Why? For the same reason outlined above. Claiming others are instrumentalizing religion is to risk positioning yourself politically within a conflict, thereby violating one of the core tenets of good mediation practice: remaining impartial. Imagine for a moment putting yourself forward as a mediator on the US political scene right now, seeking to facilitate discussions between Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter activists on the future of policing in the US. What credibility would you have as an impartial broker if you had called out Trump for instrumentalizing religion, or simply suggested that his references to religion had been insincere? None.

This example may seem so obvious as to be banal, yet in the face of what seems like evident manipulation of something like religion, I repeatedly observe that even aspiring mediators struggle to adopt a mediation mindset. This is not to say that Trump cannot, has not, and should not, be criticized for holding a Bible in front of a church. It all depends on who you are and what your goal is. If you hope to prevent the use of religious symbols for political ends, you might criticize Trump. If you oppose Trump’s political agenda, and see his church visit as political opportunism, you may call it out. However, if you aim to try and bridge the divide between Trump supporters and their opponents, then you are best advised to suspend your judgement, and allow for the possibility that Trump’s actions were sincere and, more importantly, meant something to his many Christian supporters. How we react when we see religion being invoked in politics should depend on our own role in the situation. Judging whether instrumentalization is occurring is difficult and politically sensitive. If we aspire to play a mediative role and win the trust of those in conflict, we must check our assumptions, withhold our judgements, and engage with people on the basis of how they present themselves. Calling out instrumentalization is best left to others with different goals in mind.

This does not mean that the role of religion in conflict should be ignored, or that people’s concerns about the instrumentalization of religion should be dismissed. Once a mediator has won the trust of both sides, and created a safe space for dialogue, the role of religion and religious symbols can be one topic to discuss, particularly when the use/misuse of those symbols has become an issue in the conflict. By listening openly and without judgement, and encouraging participants to do the same, a good mediator can foster understanding of why people are attached to certain symbols and what they mean for them, helping to build mutual understanding about differing perspectives.

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

About the Author

Owen Frazer is a senior program officer in the Mediation Support Team of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH Zurich. He works on the program on Culture and Religion in Mediation, a joint initiative between the CSS and the Human Security Division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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