Commentary: Second Thoughts on Biblegate

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

The morning after President Donald Trump strode the short distance to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. for a staged show of force and a gesture towards invoking religion, I was asked to comment on the event by a British based international Catholic publication, The Tablet.

I commented then: “While going to church holding a Bible as a prop to signify piety was not invented by Donald Trump, it probably was never carried off so badly.  When asked by a reporter if the Bible he was holding was his Bible, Trump replied, ‘It’s a Bible.’ That’s about right—nothing about the stunt concocted by Hope Hicks for her President boss was authentic. President Trump displayed not his faith in God, nor his love for neighbor in having the crowd dispersed by riot police, horses, and tear gas, all so that he could preach anger from in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. As much as conservative evangelicals have stood with Trump, I wonder whether his blatant abuse of their symbols will not be seen as extreme hypocrisy.” Now, with time for further reflection, I have some second, additional thoughts.

Inchoate as Trumps’ words and actions were (including displaying the Bible upside down) they were intended for a purpose—a signal to his most loyal voters, white southern evangelicals. Nearly 250 years ago, Samuel Johnson said, “the last refuge of a scoundrel is patriotism.” If Johnson lived instead in contemporary America, he might insist that the last refuge of a scoundrel is religion. Living in the South for most of my adult life, I have come to appreciate the unique blend of strong moral expectations together with a willingness to forgive nearly any lapse in morality if the sinner is truly sorry.

That’s why last Monday’s playacting rings so false. The President mouthed sorrow in the Rose Garden for George Floyd, then used the military to “dominate” the protesters. He wrapped himself in the robes of religion, right after kicking one of St. John’s associate priests and a seminarian off the church’s own patio. We Americans watching were supposed to believe he was not only religious liberty’s greatest advocate but also a moral leader. It’s telling that the White House expropriated someone else’s church without permission. In one short excursion Trump managed to violate nearly every part of the First Amendment: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Nearly 250 years ago, Samuel Johnson said, “the last refuge of a scoundrel is patriotism.” If Johnson lived instead in contemporary America, he might insist that the last refuge of a scoundrel is religion.

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the Amendment’s proscriptions apply to every branch and instrumentality of government in the United States. That’s why I, as a member of the clergy, find it so upsetting when the expropriation of religious speech and place are made so thoughtlessly. I feel like the Psalmist, who in the midst of a national crisis, cries to God, “Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there.” (Psalm 74:4) Now let’s be clear, I do not begrudge Donald Trump his own religious views. He is entitled to them, even to express them as presidents ever since George Washington have chosen to do. Yet, Trump stands as the first such president to have his religious display backed up with an armed posse. I curiously find myself on the same side of the issue as Rev. Pat Robertson, who told 700 Club viewers, “It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain, I want to comfort you, I think it’s time we love each other,’ But the president took a different course. He said, ‘I am the president of law and order,’ and he issued a heads-up.” Good for you, Pat. 

The President, of course, has evangelical supporters, including Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham. But now is the time for religious people and their leaders to question whether we are being asked to support the cause of God or the false religion of “law and order” that has trapped white citizens and authorities in the hate-filled regime that leads to the death of unnumbered black individuals, including George Floyd. Long ago, the Bible that Donald Trump held aloft told us, “’Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) It is about time we human beings listened and gave up the politics and practice of hateful vengeance. Let’s give love and understanding a try.