As dozens of cities burned across the United States June 1, the president needed a distraction. Donald Trump put down his twittering device, left his bunker and ordered police and military forces to use rubber bullets and tear gas on peaceful protesters, clearing them from a legal position outside the White House so he could stroll to a church for a photo session.
He held his prop up for all to see. The Bible was closed, pages untouched. He did not quote from it nor pray.
Trump regularly uses churchy showmanship to divide neighbors, distract from coarse behavior and cover up habits contrary to biblical teachings of love and hospitality. In a moment when he could have called for peace and unity, he said nothing, other than not answering affirmatively when a reporter asked if the Bible was his own.
The leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington did not approve. “The president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese without permission as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for,” Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said.
The photo had something to do with the historic church, St. John’s, catching fire briefly during protests the night before. Trump has fanned the flames of division and discord for so long, he has lost the moral authority to condemn the fire.
The photo was immediately preceded by Trump’s criticism of violence, which rang especially hollow as he simultaneously called on governors and mayors to use military force to “dominate” what the Secretary of Defense called “the battle space.” Among those tear gassed for the charade were church staff, evicted from their own house of worship.
Hoisting a Bible was not an act of charity or healing but a cynical misuse of Christian symbolism. People who care about loving their neighbors, the sacredness of Scripture, the dangers of authoritarian rule and the need for empathetic leadership to unify a wounded nation might have seen through the president’s unseemly ploy.
As calls for racial justice rose across the U.S., Trump sensed he might be losing some of his most loyal supporters. He sensed the image of him with someone else’s Bible should be enough to keep them in the fold. He sensed an empty stunt would satisfy.