The Threat Behind Trump’s Bible-Waving Photo-Op
It wasn’t just offensive; it was a strike against the Constitution
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.— Thomas Jefferson, 1802
Perhaps you too were appalled by Trump’s photo-op on May 30
There was plenty about it to spark outrage: the spectacle of mostly peaceful protesters being routed by tear gas, smoke grenades, and chemical spray wielded by riot officers — on the orders of the attorney general (who denies that he gave the order because he is one of the foremost disciples of Facts Don’t Matter) — to clear the way for the Current Occupant to scuttle across Lafayette Square; Ivanka carrying her designer Bible-toting purse; the military and law enforcement leaders surrounding Fearless Leader; and finally, Trump standing grim-faced in front of St. John’s Church, holding said Bible aloft. All for a three-minute photo-op.
A reporter asked Trump, “Is that your Bible?”
To which our Fearless Leader replied, “It’s a Bible.”
The purpose of the whole sorry charade was unclear, which is not unusual for Trump and his courtiers. What is unusual is that it unfolded against, and because of, a backdrop of national agony in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
As the Washington Post reported, Trump had spent the earlier part of the day fuming about “weak” local and state leaders, furious that they had failed to quell the unrest spreading across the country, and in a phone call with governors he declared:
“We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before . . . but you got to have total domination, and then you have to put them in jail.”
He wanted to send in the military, an idea that even his advisers had trouble with. So how better to demonstrate his command of the situation than to march across the street and hold up a Bible retrieved from his daughter’s handbag?
The reaction has been, shall we say, mixed
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or on a silent retreat, you’re aware of the responses to Trump’s Bible stunt and the backlash it’s inspired, especially among military leaders like James Mattis, who called it “a bizarre photo-op” and “an abuse of executive authority.”
And lots has been said, and much bitter fun has been made, of Trump’s use of the Bible as a prop, his evident unfamiliarity with its contents and his apparent lack of awareness of what one does at a church, which is generally understood to involve prayer more than posturing.
But there was something darker and more dangerous going on. As is typical of Trump, it’s difficult to know whether it was calculated or merely a reflection of his grandiosity, but implicit in his action was a direct threat to one of our nation’s guiding principles.
Recall the First Amendment to the US Constitution
It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That sentence carries two clauses, the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause” which, taken together, form the basis of the doctrine of the separation of church and state.
If you grew up or were educated in America, this concept is foundational, as familiar as the Stars and Stripes. But when the First Amendment was drafted, it expressed a new and remarkably expansive idea in government, a stark departure from the notion of the divine right of kings still operational in Europe and England at the time.
Separation of church and state goes hand in hand with the principle of the authority of government arising from the consent of the governed. It means that America’s leader cannot claim legitimacy based on divine intervention or entitlement; nor can the state impose any particular religion on its citizens.
In positioning himself in front of St. John’s Church and waving that Bible — not as part of a solemn ceremony, not to swear allegiance or fealty, and certainly not to humble himself in service to a cause greater than himself — Trump may as well have used the Good Book to hammer a chink in Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State.”
And if you think it’s beyond Donald J. Trump to claim God-given authority, you haven’t been paying attention. It was less than a year ago when he declared himself “the chosen one” on national television.
What’s the intended message of “the chosen one” wielding a Bible?
And for whom is that message intended? What effect is it supposed to have on a nation already so grievously divided? If it was meant to cow protesters into silence, all the days since then in which demonstrations and protests have grown into an organized, determined movement attest to the dismal failure of Trump’s Bible stunt.
If it was meant to stir up his evangelical base, however, there are those who laud his upside-down-Bible-wielding. As the Guardian reported on June 4, the head of the Congress of Christian Leaders, the Rev Johnnie Moore, tweeted:
“I will never forget seeing @POTUS @realDonaldTrump slowly & in-total-command walk from the @WhiteHouse across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church defying those who aim to derail our national healing by spreading fear, hate & anarchy. After just saying, ‘I will keep you safe.’”
But other evangelicals aren’t so enthused, including Pat Robertson, who told his television viewers, “You just don’t do that, Mr. President. It isn’t cool!”
No, it’s decidedly uncool. It’s also cynical and very, very scary
Trump using the foundational document of Christianity to shore up his authority while surrounded by his minions in the military and the Justice Dept. is a threat to the foundational document of American democracy. It’s a demonstration, however hapless, of his belief in his unlimited power and his primacy over any law or principle that might seek to limit him.
Don’t forget that in April, when asked by a reporter at a news conference what authority he had to reopen the country, Trump cut off the question with this declaration: “I have the ultimate authority.” He went on to explain:
“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be. … It’s total.”
Anyone who took high school civics knows that’s in direct opposition to the Constitution, but that fact doesn’t stop Trump from saying it. Given that he’s wrapped himself in both the flag and the Bible, pronounced himself “the chosen one” and described his power as unlimited — while sputtering furiously about the need for domination — it’s no stretch to wonder:
What’s to stop him from refusing to cede authority when the time comes? And if he is re-elected, or can command enough military and police backing to prop him up to prevent him from being dislodged from his bunker if he’s defeated, then what becomes of our democracy?
Trump’s Bible-waving may be deserving of ridicule, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as just Trump being Trump. It’s a direct assault on the Constitution and the principles that keep us from descending into authoritarian rule, under the heel of a ruler who claims divine right.
“Here’s a good rule of thumb . . . Looking back through history, whenever you see someone in authority using the Bible to justify law and order, it ends badly.”
Let us pray that the wall of separation holds, and that our republic survives.