The Separation of Church and State

An American Bible? Been there, done that.

  Rob Boston

Fresh from his venture selling gold-plated sneakers, Donald Trump is now hawking a “God Bless the USA Bible.” There’s a lot to say about this – and blogger Hemant Mehta has a great piece on the checkered history of this particular Bible and its ties to Christian Nationalism – but perhaps it’s best to recall that past efforts to create an “American” Bible didn’t work out so well.

Come with me now to the year 1781. A man named Robert Aitken had just spent a ton of money producing the first Bible printed in America. He immediately began bombarding Congress with letters asking that he be named the nation’s official printer of Bibles.

There was a problem, of course: No such position existed. It’s unclear why Aitken thought an official printer of Bibles would be appointed, but remember, this was before the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were drafted.

A symbolic endorsement

Congress was wary. The best they could offer Aitken was a symbolic resolution lauding his Bible as “an instance of the progress of arts in this country.” As researcher Chris Rodda noted in Liars for Jesus, Congress took pains to cite a secular reason for highlighting the printing of this Bible, asserting that it proved that our new nation was able to run its own industries.

But Aitken wanted more. He wrote to George Washington, asking him to authorize the government to purchase a batch of Bibles to distribute to the American troops. In his reply, Washington made it clear that wouldn’t be happening. Funds were tight, and any money Washington could lay his hands on went to pay the troops, not purchase Bibles.

Aitken had printed 10,000 copies of his “American” Bible, but it was a flop and failed to sell. But as the years passed, myths and legends grew up around the Aitken Bible. Tales were told about Aitken’s version being named the Bible of the Revolution, and claims were made that U.S. soldiers carried it into battle when they fought the British. None of this was true – the war was winding down when the Bible was printed, but by the 19th century, copies of Aitken’s Bible had become rare and valuable, and these romantic claims boosted the volume’s value.

‘Christian nation’ mythology

Aitken’s Bible was also reprinted over the years, and later editions often included grandiose claims about it being the “official” Bible of Congress and whatnot. Christian Nationalists further distorted the history of the Bible to buttress their false “Christian nation” views.

The Aitken Bible, of course, is of genuine historical interest. Like any other antiquarian volume that played a role in our history – like a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – it’s sought out by book dealers and collectors. But it was not an “official” American Bible – and neither is the edition Trump is selling. Such a thing simply cannot exist in our nation where we separate church and state.

Congress needs to hear from you!

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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