The president’s strange photo op last night, in which he followed up a truculent law-and-order speech by marching across Lafayette Park (from which peaceful protesters had just been cleared with tear gas and rubber bullets) to a fire-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church, only to silently hold up a Bible, did not go over well with the proprietors of St. John’s, as the Washington Post reported:
The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, was seething …
She said she had not been given any notice that Trump would be visiting the church and did not approve of the manner in which the area was secured for his appearance.
“I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop,” Budde said.
She excoriated the president for standing in front of the church — its windows boarded up with plywood — holding up a Bible, which Budde said “declares that God is love.”
“Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” Budde of the president. “We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”
She didn’t use the word “sacrilegious” to describe the president’s actions, but others did, including former Bush speechwriter and “compassionate conservative” activist Michael Gerson:
But in the religious constituency Donald Trump cares most about, and for whom the stunt was almost certainly designed, the reaction was very different, as McKay Coppins reports:
A few hours after the dystopian spectacle, I spoke on the phone with Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and indefatigable Trump ally. He sounded almost gleeful.
“I thought it was completely appropriate for the president to stand in front of that church,” Jeffress told me. “And by holding up the Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it’s despicable—but God also hates lawlessness …”
“I will never forget seeing [Trump] slowly & in-total-command walk … across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church defying those who aim to derail our national healing by spreading fear, hate & anarchy,” wrote Johnnie Moore, the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders.
In an email to me, Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, heaped praise on Trump for his visit: “His presence sent the twin message that our streets and cities do not belong to rioters and domestic terrorists, and that the ultimate answer to what ails our country can be found in the repentance, redemption, and forgiveness of the Christian faith.”
It’s hardly news that Christians are as polarized by Trump as other Americans, with white conservative Evangelicals in particular glorying in his championship of such causes as the criminalization of abortion and a return to traditional (e.g., heterosexual and male-dominated) marriage. But the reactions to this particular incident represent significant differences in how Christians view their own faith and its proper place in 21st-century America.
To put it simply, for Trump’s Evangelical base, the Bible isn’t just the vehicle for a gospel of love and redemption, but a source and symbol of authority — a comprehensive blueprint for godly living in a godly country. As Christian-right politician Paul Broun Jr. once vividly put it, the Bible is regarded as a “manufacturer’s handbook,” that shows “how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches … how to run all of public policy and everything in society.”
So when Donald Trump holds up a Bible in front of a fire-damaged church, his most fervent religious followers don’t see a statement of personal faith or a mere pander, but rather an assertion that he will impose godly order on a disordered country, defined as cultural conservatism, or as many conservative Evangelicals confess, a return to the America of the 1950s. Coppins understands:
[M]ost white conservative Christians don’t want piety from this president; they want power. In Trump, they see a champion who will restore them to their rightful place at the center of American life, while using his terrible swift sword to punish their enemies …
To Trump, the Bible and the church are not symbols of faith; they are weapons of culture war. And to many of his Christian supporters watching at home, the pandering wasn’t an act of inauthenticity; it was a sign of allegiance—and shared dominance.
No wonder Trump’s staff is reportedly giddy with self-congratulation over last night’s events, as one dissenter told Axios:
“I’ve never been more ashamed. I’m really honestly disgusted. I’m sick to my stomach. And they’re all celebrating it. They’re very very proud of themselves.”
As part of an evening designed to put Trump on the offensive against the political enemies that he has linked with the violent turn in the George Floyd protests, it was a nice combo platter of symbols. There was the resolute POTUS calling down hellfire on the disorder in the cities and then, after federal park police imposed his authority over local protesters, posing as a sort of weird 21st-century defensor fidei — to the joy of conservative Christians already infuriated by coronavirus restrictions and hankering for four more years of conservative judges to stymie feminists and purveyors of “the homosexual agenda.”
Trump got what he wanted from the stunt, and likely doesn’t care about infuriating liberal Christians — whom many conservative Evangelicals disdain as not Christian at all — by commandeering their church to do so.