Police dispersed peaceful protesters outside the White House with tear gas on Monday so the president could have his photograph taken with a Bible in front of a church. Law enforcement began forcibly clearing Lafayette Park about 15 minutes before curfew in Washington. In a bizarre bit of pageantry that drew immediate condemnation from the church’s leaders, the president then slowly strolled from the White House through the park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he posed for photographs holding up a Bible.
The photo-op was lambasted by Bishop Mariann Budde, whose jurisdiction includes St. John’s. “I am outraged,” Budde told the Washington Post on Monday night. “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.” Michael Curry, the national head of the denomination, released a statement condemning the president for using “a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.” The church’s rector, Robert Fisher, also spoke critically of the visit.
The church visit was the president’s idea, because he “wanted the visual,” according to sources who spoke with NBC News. By that measure, it was a success. Photos from the event quickly began circulating online, and they depict exactly what they were intended to depict: The president holding a Christian symbol and looking stern in front of a church that had been damaged the previous night during protests.
But still photography does not do justice to the utter strangeness and cynicism captured by video of the same event. Upon arriving at the side entrance of the church building, the president paused and held the black Bible aloft in his right hand for several seconds. He briefly answered a few questions shouted by reporters, affirming that “we have a great country” and “it’s coming back strong.” He then walked several paces to his left to pose in front of the building’s stairway, holding the Bible with its spine out and then with its cover out, briefly glancing at the book as if in admiration. After several seconds of further posing, he gestured to several White House officials to join him, including Bill Barr, Mark Meadows, and Kayleigh McEnany.
Known as “the church of the presidents,” St. John’s has hosted every American president since James Madison at its services. Trump and his wife attended a private service there during his inauguration weekend, although Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress—rather than the church’s own rector—preached the sermon. On Sunday evening, a small fire briefly burned in the church’s basement nursery as protests over police brutality escalated in intensity in Washington and across the country. Firefighters extinguished the blaze quickly and described the damage as minimal. Fisher, the church’s rector, told the Post that attention to the damage should not distract from “the more important message that we have to address racism in this country.”
Trump’s slow walk to the church was not an event that began with a photo-op. It consisted of nothing but the photo-op itself. The president did not give a speech at the church. No clergy joined him. He did not read a passage from the Bible he held. When a reporter on the scene asked Trump if it was his own Bible, he replied, “It’s a Bible.” The president’s personal copy of the Bible, which he used to take the oath of office, is now located at the Museum of the Bible. It is not clear if he personally owns another copy.
Trump’s evangelical defenders generally do not claim he has a deep personal faith or even a competent grasp of Christian language and ideas. They support him because they believe he’s on their side, not because he is one of them. So perhaps it doesn’t matter that holding up a Bible in this manner for a photograph is not a Christian custom. Trump’s stilted poses are just the latest example of the president’s total inability to even pretend to be a practicing Christian. He has referred to the book of “Second Corinthians” as “Two Corinthians,” called Communion “my little wine and my little cracker,” and failed to name a favorite Bible verse. In 2015 he told an interviewer that he had never asked for forgiveness from God.
The ongoing protests against police brutality that began last week after the death of George Floyd have attracted countless Christian clergy and protesters who have articulated their presence there as an expression of faith. But for the president’s most loyal evangelical supporters, Trump’s photo-op was a show of Christian strength in the face of an anti-Christian movement. “I don’t know about you but I’ll take a president with a Bible in his hand in front of a church over far left violent radicals setting a church on fire any day of the week,” Christian Broadcasting Network chief political analyst David Brody tweeted.* On Fox & Friends on Tuesday morning, Jeffress described the photo-op as the president “demonstrating his intent to protect churches from those who would try to destroy them.” Time will tell whether the greater threat to American Christianity is a few small fires and broken windows, or a president who is praised for making a campaign prop out of a holy book.
Correction, June 2, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the Christian Broadcasting Network as Christian Broadcasting News.