It was astonishing as an attempt at a public performance. What was he doing? What did he think he was doing? The president standing in front of a church holding up a Bible means, conveys, symbolizes . . . what? What is the viewers’ expected take-away?
If he’d gone into the church and prayed, or pretended to, you’d know what he was trying to tell people. I’m pious. I ask God’s help. But just holding a Bible in the air? Yay Bible? Yay God? What?
The president walked from the White House to St. John’s Church nearby solely for a photo op. Rioters had tried to set it afire on Sunday evening but failed to do much damage. Trump had just told the nation he would be the “law and order president.” He promised to bring the riots under control, using an 1807 law called the Insurrection Act to override the states and send in federal troops.
It’s a prop he clearly didn’t know how to use, and to be fair, I don’t know what I would have done with it.
St. John’s, Lafayette Square, as it’s known, belongs to the Episcopal Church. Presidents have visited the church ever since it was built, in the early 19th century. Eisenhower gave it the presidential connection in the media age, by going to a service before his inauguration. A shrewd move, in support of civil religion, by a man who doesn’t seem to have believed much. Every successor followed him, with perhaps varying degrees of piety, because everyone wants to appear to begin his work with God’s approval. Or at least to be seen approving of God.
The president’s people had peaceful demonstrators hit with an array of non-lethal “crowd control” munitions, which reportedly included rubber bullets, flash bang grenades, and tear gas (or were they PepperBall pellets?), all so he could cross the park to get to the church. And then use the Bible as a prop in a photo op. It’s a prop he clearly didn’t know how to use, and to be fair, I don’t know what I would have done with it. He stood around trying to find a good pose. C-SPAN posted video to YouTube. He finally settles on holding up the book in his right hand in a way no one ever holds a book, except maybe at an auction.
He speaks or a minute or so, but entirely about making America greater, coming back, etc. Not a word about God, despite the Bible he’s holding and the scene he chose. He then turns to walk back to the White House.
The Calvin University scholar Micah Watson, definitely no liberal, posted the picture of the president holding the Bible with the caption: “Definition of profane transitive verb 1: to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverence, or contempt : DESECRATE 2: to debase by a wrong, unworthy, or vulgar use.”
My learned Calvinist friend (and fellow writer on C. S. Lewis) added: “It is because I am religious and because I’m conservative that I find using the Bible as a prop for political purposes to be damnable. Because I think it actually is, literally, damnable.”
I don’t think the first definition applies, but the second definitely does. Using the Bible for a photo op misuses it in a vulgar and unworthy way. It’s at least a profanation. In any case, it’s wrong.
I’m still amazed at how badly he performed.
But of course politicians have misused religion since we’ve had politicians. G. K. Chesterton addressed a similar misuse in his poem “Antichrist, or the Reunion of Christendom: An Ode.” He wrote against a Tory leader named F. E. Smith. He’d declared in reaction to the bill to disestablish the Anglican Church of Wales, which served almost no one compared with the Methodists and the Catholics, that the bill “has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe.”
It is one of Chesterton’s most sarcastic works, I suspect because exploiting religion offended him so much. He begins comically describing people all over Europe intensely interested in the bill. (Hansard is the verbatim of Parliamentary debates.)
Russian peasants round their pope
Hear about it all, I hope,
Don’t they, Smith?
In the mountain hamlets clothing
Peaks beyond Caucasian pales,
Where Establishment means nothing
And they never heard of Wales,
Do they read it all in Hansard —
With a crib to read it with —
“Welsh Tithes: Dr. Clifford answered.”
Chesterton lets him have it at the end.
It would greatly, I must own,
Soothe me, Smith!
If you left this theme alone,
For your legal cause or civil
You fight well and get your fee;
For your God or dream or devil
You will answer, not to me.
Talk about the pews and steeples
And the cash that goes therewith!
But the souls of Christian peoples …
Chuck it, Smith!
He could have written something similar about the president and his prop. I’m still amazed at how badly he performed. The ineptness of the performance makes the misuse of the Bible even worse. If you’re going to debase something, at least respect it enough to debase it well.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.