The president brandishes a Bible in front of a church, in search of a divine mandate that isn’t coming.
Late Monday afternoon, President Trump emerged from the White House and strode in the cool spring daylight to St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square. It was supposed to be an act of defiance: Mr. Trump has bristled at the observation that during the protests roiling the capital he has burrowed into a fortified bunker rather than addressing the nation.
Like most performances arranged by Mr. Trump and associates, it made only a disjointed sort of sense. Yes, the president’s decision to march through the heart of the city’s unrest caused police and National Guard units to blast a peaceful crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, carving a punishing path to the steps of St. John’s. But the show of force seemed to emphasize only that his legitimacy has shrunk to the point that he feels moved to dominate his own people with military power.
As he took up his post before the church, which was partially boarded up after a minor fire that broke out during a recent protest, Mr. Trump set his face in a stony scowl and held up a black Bible, tightly closed. “Is it your Bible?” a reporter shouted. “It’s a Bible,” Mr. Trump said neutrally. The entire routine was vulgar, blunt: There Mr. Trump was, holding aloft this mute book — neither opened, cited, nor read from — in the shadow of a vandalized church, claiming the mantle of righteousness.
After all, that was what he had come to do. A ruler maintaining order strictly by brute force has a problem. Such regimes are volatile and fragile, subject to eruptive dissolution. Mr. Trump may lack the experience or interest to even pantomime genuine Christian practice, but he has acute instincts when it comes to the symbolism of leadership. He seemed to know, as he positioned himself as the defender of the Christian faith, that he needed to imbue his presidency with some renewed moral purpose; Christianity was simply a convenient vein to tap.
“I think that’s a standard trope in American political frames of reference,” Luke Bretherton told me on a Monday night phone call. Mr. Bretherton, who is a professor of moral and political theology at Duke University’s Divinity School, cited Cold War efforts to demonize socialism as viciously atheistic and amoral. It was work undertaken with anxious eagerness precisely because socialist criticisms of American life were substantial and compelling.
So it goes with the protesters who have gathered to condemn the murder of George Floyd and the murders of others like him, black men and women slaughtered in America’s streets and in their homes by those entrusted with the force of its laws. Their moral case is clear, urgent, compelling. In Mr. Trump’s eyes, Mr. Bretherton said, “there’s only one way to combat that symbolically: “To claim divine sanction for what amounts to a declaration of martial law.”
Of course Mr. Trump is uninterested in the particularities of the Christian religion. St. John’s is a liberal Episcopal church, whose presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has vehemently condemned the stunt. (In a twist of bitter irony, the church’s sign posted behind Mr. Trump stated that “all are welcome.”) On Tuesday the president visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a holy space maintained by the Knights of Columbus, in honor of the pope whose blood resides in the shrine as a relic for veneration by the faithful. Mr. Trump is, of course, not Catholic; like the macabre parade in front of St. John’s, this is just an attempt at recruiting a vague Christian pastiche as the moral core of his authoritarian efforts.
Christian leaders ought to condemn this blatant prostitution of the glory of God. Some, like Mr. Curry, will; others won’t, either because of their own political allegiances or fear of Mr. Trump’s wrath. But the most worrisome prospect is that it won’t matter at all what Christian leaders do; Mr. Trump doesn’t need them to stake his claim.
“It’s significant that Trump did this alone,” Mr. Bretherton observed. Unlike prior presidents who sometimes appeared on grave occasions with priests or pastors, Mr. Trump “doesn’t need a Billy Graham figure to give divine sanction. He doesn’t need a priestly figure. He himself can be the mediator.”
And yet it is still worth saying that the Christian faith does not condone the wanton destruction of human life or the presumption of God’s blessing by any earthly power. At the heart of the faith is servitude, not domination; Mr. Trump, hoisting the Bible aloft like a scepter, clearly has other plans.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ is tempted by Satan three times, and the final temptation is this: dominion over “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Christ rejected the offer, scripture holds; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him,” he rebuked the Devil. But it wouldn’t have been a temptation if it weren’t in some way enticing. One imagines that Lucifer didn’t retire the gambit because of the one defeat and that in his years of similar propositions, he must have had many takers.
To hear the Christian right tell it, President Trump should be a candidate for sainthood — that is, if evangelicals believed in saints.
“Never in my lifetime have we had a Potus willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like Donald Trump,” tweeted Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham. The Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress sees a divine hand at work: “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose.”
.. the nationalistic, race-baiting, fear-mongering form of politics enthusiastically practiced by Mr. Trump and Roy Moore in Alabama is central to a new strain of American evangelicalism. This emerging religious worldview — let’s call it “Fox evangelicalism” — is preached from the pulpits of conservative media outlets like Fox News. It imbues secular practices like shopping for gifts with religious significance and declares sacred something as worldly and profane as gun culture.
.. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.
.. Every one of Mr. Trump’s predecessors declared “Merry Christmas,” too — including Barack Obama, whose message at last year’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony was virtually indistinguishable from Mr. Trump’s. What matters to Fox evangelicals, though, is not that Mr. Trump observes Christmas but that he casts himself as the defender of the Christian holiday.
.. From the beginning, the War on Christmas was a homegrown Fox News cause
.. Fox and allies like the American Family Association focused on getting more Christmas into stores and shopping malls
.. The regular Fox News viewer, whether or not he is a churchgoer, takes in a steady stream of messages that conflate being white and conservative and evangelical with being American.
.. while one-quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, “evangelical” effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning... I was both astonished and troubled, as a fellow evangelical, by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults... these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical... students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”.. One of the most consistent messages of the Bible is the exhortation “Do not be afraid!”
.. Fear,” says Mr. Schenck in the documentary, “should not be a controlling element in the life of a Christian.”.. Fear and distrust of outsiders — in conflict with numerous biblical teachings to “welcome the stranger” — also explain Fox evangelicals’ strong support for the Trump administration’s efforts to bar refugees and restrict travel to the United States from several majority-Muslim nations... “A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.”.. It’s meaningful, Mr. Martin says, that scions of the religious right like Jerry Falwell Jr. are not pastors like their fathers