Donald Trump Jr. would like to suggest an edit. To the Bible.
Speaking on Sunday (Dec. 19) at a conference in Arizona he claimed that while liberals are “playing hardball,” conservatives stay nice and are just “playing tee-ball” (though just because Junior still needs the tee doesn’t mean others haven’t figured out how to throw some spin). Thus, he urged the crowd of activists at the event sponsored by Turning Point USA, a conservative political group created by Charlie Kirk, to “band together” and fight back against an alleged “cancel culture.”
To accomplish this, however, they’ll have to put aside (ahem, cancel) some teachings of Jesus.
“We’ve turned the other cheek and I understand sort of the biblical reference, I understand the mentality, but it’s gotten us nothing,” Trump Jr. complained. “Okay? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.”
Since both Trump Jr. and Kirk attack Democrats as against churches or anti-God, the comment particularly jumped out. Trump Jr. didn’t merely reject the generic idea of avoiding retaliation but specifically took issue with the substance of a biblical teaching, one offered by none other than Jesus.
It’s tempting to dismiss the rantings of an unaccomplished son of a failed businessman turned failed politician, but the remark echoes several others made in recent years. In a quest for political power, the Trumps and their supporting preachers often take a stab at rewriting core biblical ideas. And at the top of the hit list is usually Matt. 5:39. Excising the red letters about turning the other cheek could create quite a, well, turning point for faith and politics.
In this issue of A Public Witness, we take off the extra layers to expose the anti-cheek turning rhetoric employed by the Trump family and their preachers. Then we go the extra mile to consider what we can learn about this effort from another presidential effort at biblical editing: the “Jefferson Bible.”
Trump Jr. demonstrated on Sunday that he inherited his father’s theology. As the elder Trump ran for president in 2016, he received what should’ve been a softball question for a candidate seeking the votes of evangelicals. A conservative radio talk show host asked him about his favorite Bible verse. The errant swing by Trump suggested he needed a theological tee.
“Well, I think many,” he hemmed and hawed, perhaps hoping an actual verse would come to mind. “I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. … And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
That wasn’t Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. That was the real Trump, who apparently started reading the Bible from the beginning and gave up long before making it to Matthew (maybe because Trump just likes people who weren’t exiled).
In case either of the Trumps are reading, the “eye for an eye” reference in the writings of Moses comes back up in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. The teaching to “turn the other cheek” is literally offered as a rebuttal to the “eye for an eye” mindset. Rejecting cheek-turning and endorsing eye-stabbing are two sides of the same bloody coin. Regardless which side lands up, you bet against the way of Jesus.
That Trump would gravitate toward “an eye for eye” shouldn’t surprise us. Before that radio interview, he told Liberty University students during a chapel service to “get even” with people. And he also emphasized the need to “have a prenuptial agreement” before getting married — advice perhaps derived from his experience but which also means ignoring Jesus’s admonitions against divorce that come just seven verses ahead of the “turn the other cheek” line. Liberty’s president at the time, Jerry Falwell Jr., responded to the chapel “sermon” by proclaiming his hope that Trump would become president. Falwell, of course, no longer leads the school following his own departures from biblical teachings.
Melania Trump joined in the family business by bragging during the 2016 campaign, “As you may know by now, when you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder.” So, there goes another passage in Matthew. Forget forgiving 7 times or 77 times, for this new gospel says hit back by a factor of 10.
Lest there be any doubt about his theology, then-President Trump took to the pulpit at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2020 to explicitly make the case for cutting out the Sermon on the Mount. At that event, Harvard professor Arthur Brooks gave a keynote about the importance of love amid growing polarization in the country.
“Some people say we need more civility and tolerance. I say, nonsense,” Brooks declared. “Why? Because civility and tolerance are a low standard. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘Love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”
As an altar call of sorts, Brooks asked attendees to raise their hands if they love someone with whom they disagree politically. Hands shot up across the room. But not Trump’s.
And then when it was his turn to speak, Trump admitted, “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you.” Trump proceeded to practice what he preached by going after politicians of both parties who had voted to impeach him, including lobbing attacks on the faith of Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
The next month, Trump participated in a Fox News town hall, where someone asked him why he uses “insult politics” and “controversial rhetoric” that doesn’t unite the country. Trump would have nothing of it, arguing that would’ve kept him out of the Oval Office.
“When they hit us, we have to hit back,” he insisted. “I wouldn’t be sitting up here if I turned my cheek. … You can’t turn your cheek.
We won’t claim “Jesus wept” is our favorite Bible verse, but it fits in moments like this.
Turn, Turn, Turn
Trump’s attack on the words of Jesus were so obvious that one Christian group put up a billboard in Michigan that shows Jesus saying “turn the other cheek” next to Trump saying “I’d like to punch him in the face.” The message is clever but might not actually be a good campaign strategy in today’s political environment. Just imagine a contest where people are asked to honk once if they love Jesus and twice if they, like Trump, want to punch someone in the face. There’s an election he might legitimately win.
In fact, this strongman preaching a gospel of getting even is exactly what too many want. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, hosted Trump as part of the “Christmas” service last Sunday, the same day that Trump Jr. shot off about not turning cheeks. An early and vocal backer of Trump, Jeffress explained why back in 2016: “I don’t want some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek. I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”
On the hypothetical ballot between Jesus and Trump, Jeffress bragged he would vote against Jesus. And he isn’t the only prominent evangelical who announced himself politically as a Never Christer.
Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is a longtime advocate of what he calls “guerrilla warfare” politics. As he explained while leading the Christian Coalition, “I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag” (a philosophy that almost makes an “eye for an eye” seem humane). Naturally, he applauds Trump’s WWE approach to politics.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna fight for you. I’m gonna defend you,’” Reed said as he explained why he and other White evangelicals like Trump. “He gets it. He knows they’re hungry for that.”
Thus, when Trump named his favorite Bible verse back in 2016, it might actually have earned him more votes than if he mentioned the call of Jesus to turn the other cheek. In fact, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez documented this as she traced how the militancy of White evangelicalism led to Trump’s rise. In her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, she contrasts the ethic of cheek-turning with the aggressive teachings of prominent Christian authors and speakers like Jeffress, John Eldredge, Gordon Dalbey, and Paul Coughlin. So, we asked her about Trump Jr.’s comments.
“Trump Jr. is perhaps a little less polished here with his ‘sort of’ understanding of the biblical reference, but he’s not exceptional in that many conservative Christian culture warriors have either ignored or explicitly rejected Jesus’s command to ‘turn the other cheek,’” she told us.
“Conservative evangelicals, for example, for all their talk of being ‘Bible-believing’ Christians, have been selective about which passages they view as literal and authoritative and which they readily explain away,” she continued. “Among those who have embraced a militant culture-wars Christianity, these words of Christ are seen as not applicable to the current moment — whatever that moment may be — because the threats to Christianity are always perceived as so dire that a militant response is the only appropriate response for Christians, and especially for Christian men, who are seen as God-ordained protectors of faith and nation.”
This matters because putting aside the words of Jesus — while elevating others — naturally impacts behavior.
“This militancy has been cultivated in generations of Christian men who have been told by pastors and popular Christian writers that sure, Jesus came to bring peace, but it’s an eschatological peace that comes only after his enemies are slayed,” Du Mez added. “Or that you can’t teach a boy to become a man by teaching him to turn the other cheek. Instead, he needs to be aggressive, and to channel that aggression in a way that defends Christianity against enemies, wherever they may be found.”
While Trump’s flagrant violations and repudiations of scripture’s commands are disturbing, he is not the first president to try and cut out the portions he dislikes.
The Jefferson Bible
In 2012, the self-styled “historian” David Barton wrote a book on Thomas Jefferson that attempted to present the third president as a faithful Christian. Unfortunately for Barton, the factual record got in the way. After real historians debunked many of his claims, his publisher pulled the book from store shelves.
An obvious issue with Barton’s misportrayal was that Jefferson took a literal knife to the pages of the New Testament. Reflecting his deistic notions of a God who set the world spinning and then left it alone, his personal Bible excluded miracle accounts, including those involving Jesus, that his rationalism found unbelievable.
While many may be unaware of Jefferson’s unorthodox scrapbooking, Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, knows it well. He even wrote a book about the book, The Jefferson Bible: A Biography. So, we asked him about Jefferson’s project.
"Jefferson believed the core teachings of Christianity had been obscured by centuries of commentary and elaboration,” Manseau told us. “He edited the Gospels in an effort to reduce them to what he considered the ‘life and morals of Jesus.’ As a man of the Enlightenment, he thought scripture would be improved if it accorded more with reason, and so he had little use for any of the miraculous or supernatural occurrences in the New Testament.”
Jefferson’s worldview caused him to struggle with some of Christianity’s foundational claims, but he was still attracted to Jesus as an ethical teacher — the part of Christianity that Trump and Trump Jr. claim to struggle with the most.
“Jefferson did not believe in the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or Jesus's resurrection,” John Fea, author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and a historian at Messiah University, told us. “But he WAS a follower of Jesus’s moral teachings. He removed the supernatural parts of the Bible so they would not impede his ability to meditate on the ethical teachings of Jesus. It is likely that he read his homemade edition of the Gospels as a bedside devotional to improve his moral life.”
Throughout his career, Jefferson’s religious beliefs became a weapon in the hands of his enemies. That explains why he largely kept quiet about his editing efforts while alive (though, you can buy a copy today).
“The book he created included only words drawn from the Bible, but he knew his contemporaries, many of whom were already suspicious of his religious convictions, would think his efforts went too far,” Manseau explained to us. “He preferred to keep it somewhat hidden, sharing its existence only with trusted friends, though he turned to it often for his own reading and reflection.”
In contrast, Trump and his supporters brazenly admit to their desire to excise whole core moral teachings of Jesus. And that might say more about us than Trump. Jefferson kept his holey Bible hidden lest it cause political problems; Trump openly preaches his edited gospel as a successful strategy to garner support.
Both Jefferson and Trump struggled to accept the Bible’s core teachings but in very different ways. Unable to believe the Bible’s miraculous claims, Jefferson still accorded the teachings of Jesus significant moral authority. In contrast, Trump’s disputes with the text appear more self-serving. He, his son, and his court evangelicals (as John Fea aptly terms them) loudly reject the demands of scripture when they prove inopportune. Somewhere, Barton is already feverishly writing his next book.
Losing Our Religion
While Jefferson’s radical reinterpretation of scripture is in the past, Trump remains a clear and present danger. We need to be clear about what’s at stake. Any Christian who assigns the Bible normative weight and believes its words to be inspired by God (we’ll leave the debates about what exactly that means for another day), should recoil at how flippantly the former president and his tribe treat the word of God. His disavowals have the effect of cheapening scripture’s authority, especially when he is falsely extolled by some as a virtuous Christian leader.
Let’s return to Matthew 5:39, the verse where Jesus demands his followers “turn the other cheek” that is included in his larger Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7. This element of faithfulness is not to be rejected as inconvenient but practiced despite the obvious difficulties. And whether it “works” or helps you “win” isn’t the point.
As theologian Stanley Hauerwaus put it, “A people of truth is sure to have enemies. This makes Jesus’s command against retaliation — as well as his call for those who would follow him to love their enemies — all the more extraordinary. He does not promise that if we turn the other cheek we will avoid being hit again. Nonretaliation is not a strategy to get what we want by other means. Rather, Jesus calls us to the practice of nonretaliation because that is the form that God’s care of us took in his cross.”
Similarly, the passage inspires Christians to move beyond the world “as is” to how God desires the world “to be.” In his commentary on Matthew, Russell Pregeant explained: “Retribution, in fact, was an important component of the ancient Mediterranean social system, in which it was necessary for the maintenance of honor. To allow an enemy or outsider to get the best of one would bring shame on one’s whole household or family. By breaking radically with the prevailing value system and presenting demands so extreme as to stand on the far edge of possibility, Jesus’s words call into question not simply individual actions that human beings normally pursue but the very principles by which persons and societies structure themselves.”
For Christians, the Bible is our path to understanding God and reorienting our lives according to God’s ways. To cut out key passages like Matt. 5:39 will lead us on a dangerous path. Like the one at the Turning Point USA conference in Arizona. In addition to Trump Jr., another celebrated speaker was Kyle Rittenhouse, feted as a hero after shooting and killing protesters. The organization’s head, Charlie Kirk, explained why they heralded Rittenhouse.
“We brought Kyle Rittenhouse to front stage. That’s a win,” Kirk claimed. “It’s a win for due process. A win for constitutional order. It’s a win for presumption of innocence — all biblical values, by the way. Plenty of people were wrongfully accused all throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament, including Jesus Christ himself.”
We missed the part where Jesus killed two protesters. But if you take out his words about turning the other cheek, you end up with a savior who guns people down with an AR-15.
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood
This is a terrible affront to our holy God....thank you for courageously exposing the lies that are being 'preached' out there; however, my greatest fear is that it will not be heeded by many Christians. The time of the separation of the sheep and the goats is now here it seems. God says He will not be mocked and His Word will not return void. The idolatry among my fellow Christians is appalling.
I just subscribed to your writings. Your words are SO important. Keep up the good work!