This article was originally published on Psychology Today on March 11, 2019.
The attention it’s being given may be more about psychology than theology.
On Friday afternoon, a disaster relief colleague sent me a text about President Donald Trump having signed Bibles while visiting disaster survivors after the deadly Alabama tornadoes.
As soon as I pulled up a headline to learn more, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
As Slate reminded readers, President Trump is not the first president to sign Bibles. Many have pointed out that Christian celebrities, like former NFL athlete Tim Tebow, have been known to sign Bibles as well. Some, including my Wheaton College colleague Ed Stetzer, have brought attention to the fact that in the South, it is not completely out of the norm to ask a figure of respect to sign your Bible.
After the initial shock wore off, I realized that at its heart, the uproar over this particular incident is less to do with the fact that he signed a few Bibles and more to do with salience—defined within the field of psychology as something that stands out and is noticeable, usually because of some sort of uniqueness or peculiarity.
At the moment, there seem to be more headlines about Trump signing the Bibles of survivors than about their actual needs in the wake of the tornadoes that devastated their community.
One plausible reason for this is that shifting the focus helps us avoid facing fears about our own mortality. In social psychology, this is known as mortality salience: the state of being aware that death can’t be escaped. This concept evolved out of what is known as terror management theory, which argues that people will go to great lengths to shield themselves from distress that arises from thinking about their own death.
In other words, talking about Trump instead of the victims and survivors buffers us from the existential realities brought to focus by disasters.
Perceptual salience is best understood as an object that catches observers’ attention because it is visually different from other objects or surroundings. It’s all about context.
In this case, it wasn’t just President Trump signing Bibles that likely caught most observers’ interest. It was the context in which he did it—a church in the middle of a disaster zone.
The President publicly posed for photos and signed Bibles, along with hats, shirts, and other items handed to him by onlookers in the church. The interactions captured by journalists more closely resembled images of a celebrity autographing souvenirs than a president offering solace.
Trump’s tweet earlier in the week instructing FEMA to give Alabama “the A Plus treatment” may have caused his actions to stand out even more in a church setting because of perceived political motivations.
Though President Trump has portrayed himself as a supporter of evangelical Christianity, his religious participation and engagement were noticeably lacking until his political run for office. Because of questions plaguing the authenticity of the President’s faith amidst questionable actions, many see the President as being wholly out of place in a church or signing Bibles like heroes of the faith.
The concept of social salience—the reasons that draw people’s attention to an individual—also offers important insight into the strong response to Trump’s Bible signing.
Presidents have long held the role of comforter-in-chief when major disasters strike, providing not just leadership but also hope and support to communities in crisis. Yet this has been a role that President Trump has continually struggled to perform.
Shortly before the deadly tornadoes struck Alabama, he threatened to cut aid to wildfire survivors in California to support building a border wall. Following Hurricane Florence, the President awkwardly got fixated on and appeared more concerned about a boat that had washed onto shore than about the survivors he was there to support. Then after Hurricane Maria, he minimized deaths in Puerto Rico by arguing over study findings, blamed survivors and local government for the difficult recovery, and was seen tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of survivors.
When presidents visit a disaster zone, it can help bring more resources (often leading to a spike in donations) to those in need. Unfortunately, because of President Trump’s difficult track record communicating with survivors, more attention is being given to his signing Bibles than to the actual disaster victims and survivors.
To put it simply, cognitive salience is the meaning we give to something. For some Christians, discomfort with the President signing Bibles may be driven by what the Bible means to them.
Many Christians view the Bible as a sacred and holy text that should be treated with reverence. As I shared with the Washington Post, the act of autographing the Bible would have been seen as blasphemous among many of the faith communities in which I grew up. On the other hand, several prominent pastors have described the act as one of encouragement and as something that shouldn’t be newsworthy.
For others, it’s not the meaning they give the Bible, but rather the meaning they give to President Trump’s actions that raises alarms. The image of the President of the United States signing Bibles in a place of worship is perceived by some as a thinning separation of church and state. Arguments could also be made that what occurred is symbolic of an unhealthy Christianity that mixes faith and politics too closely. And the backlash against the outrage after Friday’s event may indicate that many others saw Trump signing Bibles as an act of good will and innocent of any political motivation.
Ultimately, the meaning people assign to Trump signing Bibles—and the uproar that has followed—may be more about psychology than theology. That’s why people are still talking about this—myself included.
But despite all this, it's important that our reactions to President Trump not allow us to lose sight of the fact that our most important call is to care for and support survivors. Emotionally, what survivors need most right now is for others to help them know that they are not alone and that there are people in their life that they can turn to for help. For more on how to provide this kind of help, check out this interview I did with Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett on how to recognize and respond to trauma. I also shared a few basic helping skills that would help President Trump—and all of us—do a better job of supporting disaster survivors.