Whether he was a genuine Christian or not, many theologians and historians remain repulsed by Emperor Constantine’s merger of the Christian faith with his military pursuits. Although many (then and now) rejoice at his “conversion,” that merger remains, to many within and outside the Christian faith an obscene and repugnant affront to the gospel.
One doubts Donald Trump knows anything of Constantine. One doubts he was attempting some kind of Constantinian imagery of strength when riot gear-wielding members of the Secret Service, Park Service, National Guard and other military/law enforcement agencies were deployed to remove by force protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Square and in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church during the early evening of June 1 for the sole purpose of accommodating a photo op of Trump hoisting a shiny new Bible aloft in front of the historic church. In doing so, this avowed, mendacious and incorrigible liar managed to verify without comment a most stunning pair of facts: the corruption of American power and the corruption of American evangelicalism.
“The perverse use of violence-by-police, is what made Trump’s photo op so obscene.”
In utilizing both the military and police peacekeepers in such an oppressive, aggressive, and egregious way, Trump demonstrated the very violence and power-abuse that have plunged the United States of America into a conflagration.
It is a violence inherent in the power-abuse that Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, legalized as he force-marched thousands of American Indians to their deaths in a “Trail of Tears.”
That same legalized violence and power-abuse was at the heart of the propertization and dehumanization of black human beings, imported as merchandise, against their wills, to feed the most squalid, horrid and long-lasting system of slavery known to humanity in the western hemisphere.
That same violence and power-abuse epitomized Bull Connor’s policing during Jim Crow and has survived into the post-civil rights era.
In recent weeks, that same violence and power-abuse killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick. And now that same violence and power-abuse has been perpetrated by an American president against American citizens exercising their Constitutional rights on the streets of the nation’s capital.
Only a day before Trump’s obscene photo op, one of his national security advisers obtusely, obstinately and obdurately declared that there is no systemic racism in America. Like the president he serves, he is both wrong and blind.
Trump’s transformation of law enforcement into his personal goons would make Eric Gairy (Grenada), Papa Doc Duvalier (Haiti) and Deng Xiaoping (China) blush. The misappropriation of federal resources – human ones in this case – is exactly the high crime for which Trump was impeached, and the yet unlearned lesson that at least one Pollyannaish U.S. senator thought he would learn. Misappropriation of resources and power is a favorite pastime of crooked and unconscionable politicians, bankers and governments, and it is rife in America, with its impact felt most by the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the person of color and the marginalized – the very people Jesus cared about most.
“Any American Christians still asleep, or duped, had better wake up. Otherwise, the price we are paying now shall become even dearer.”
This power-abuse by the elected leader of the most powerful nation on Earth and his enablers has done irreparable harm. That, and now the perverse use of violence-by-police, is what made Trump’s photo op so obscene.
The photo of the narcissistic, would-be celebrity awkwardly holding a Bible aloft speaks far more than a thousand words. It is a picture of an empty figure, with demonstrably empty values, holding (at least for him) an empty Bible, standing before an empty church, with nothing but an empty message. Imagination creates the nexus between the flames that destroyed a section of St. John’s facilities and the flames that demolish Trump’s claims of being a “stable genius” – or leader.
The photo captures the sum total of Trump’s presidency: his obliviousness to the precepts of the Constitution (as much as to precepts of the Bible); his professed “love” for “America” (even as he willfully disdains many of the people who are America); and his pretense of “paying his respects” before an empty church building (while insulting the church’s congregation and its leaders). In sum, the photo is as self-serving, self-engorging and self-embarrassing as Trump’s presidency.
It is Trump’s ignorance of the Constitution’s First Amendment that makes him – elected to serve as the president of all the nation, a nation of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, Rastas and atheists – grab the Christian holy book to make some nebulous but decidedly shallow and divisive statement to the nation. Trump’s evangelical supporters behave like America belongs only to them, that only their theology is right and only their perspectives matter.
The juxtaposition of Trump displaying his bullyism and Trump brandishing a Bible illustrates Trumpian evangelicals’ complicity in the violence and injustice perpetuated in America. In another time and place, a prophet (Nathan) would visit a king (David, of Israel) and accuse him for his wickedness – not praise him and adore him. In our time, these Americans do the exact opposite and fraudulent thing with the wannabe king.
Conservative white evangelicals who stick to Trump like Gorilla Glue have made Jesus ugly. They are too daft to see what has been true to one extent or another for too many Republican politicians and Republican voters: that their president exploits them as an obscene and partisan prop (or photo op), while laughing at them behind their backs for being so naïve as they hand him their allegiance, their money and their votes.
If Trump had opened the Bible he held awkwardly in front of St. John’s and read Psalm 51 and come away weeping, perhaps that would have been an act many Christians could applaud (if not believe). If he had walked there with the rector, had a conversation and thereafter made a statement bathed in humility, empathy, confession and compassionate leadership, we could sleep better tonight. What happened instead, is that Trump cartoonized and caricatured the proud American presidency yet again.
“Conservative white evangelicals who stick to Trump like Gorilla Glue have made Jesus ugly.”
Just as Trump has not risen to the stature of the presidency, those religious leaders who have steadfastly supported and defended him have not risen to the stature of their prophetic calling: not Franklin Graham, not Jerry Falwell Jr., not Robert Jeffress, not Paula White, not Darrell Scott, not far too many others. Some might even say that they, like Trump, are mere caricatures of the prophets they say they love and emulate. They have failed the church and the country, just as Trump has failed his presidential oath.
A country cannot afford to have both king (president, in America’s case) and prophets fail all at once. Any American Christians still asleep, or duped, had better wake up. Otherwise, the price we are paying now shall become even dearer.
James Ellis III | I’m so weary of hearing ‘I’m sorry’ from white people. Just stop it!
Wendell Griffen | Justice for George Floyd: what went wrong and how to make it right
Andrew Manis | George Floyd and the silence of white evangelical America
Cody J. Sanders | ‘We can’t breathe’: an apt Pentecost prayer for white Christians