Along with many Americans, I watched with shock and fear as President Trump left the White House on foot yesterday, crossed H street to Lafayette Square Park, and stood in front of the recently damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church, a place the pastor confirmed he had not set foot inside since his inauguration day. Peaceful demonstrators had been cleared from the park with tear gas and rubber bullets just prior to Trump’s arrival. A priest and a seminarian from St. John’s, both of whom had been distributing water and hand sanitizer to the demonstrators from the patio of the church, were also forced to leave. It remains unclear who exactly gave the order to attack the protestors, but it is clear that getting Trump to the front of the church was the goal.
It was a terrifying sight, watching Trump, in his trademark centaur stance (enhanced with what was surely a bullet proof vest), attempt yet again to assert his dominance over the country and the demonstrators. And then, out of nowhere, he began to display a Bible. “Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked. Trump responded, with a grim scowl “It is a Bible, yes.”
Immediately, religious leaders began denouncing this stunt as “blasphemy” and they are correct. The Rev. Marianne Budde, bishop of the Washington Diocese was outraged at his use of the Bible as a prop or extension of his “military and authoritarian position.” Fr. James Martin, prominent Jesuit and bestselling author, tweeted that Trump’s use of the Bible was “revolting” and that “God is not your plaything.” Rabbi Jack Moline, President of the Interfaith Alliance, also slammed the gesture, calling it “one of the most flagrant misuses of religion I have ever seen.” Witnessing the sacred word of God used to prop up and justify racism, authoritarianism, violence, and death by one of the most dangerous and unethical men on earth was profoundly disturbing on both theological and moral grounds.
But what struck me as I watched, was Trump’s awkwardness with the Bible as an object. He doesn’t even know enough of religious symbolism and how it works to realize that if he wanted to rally his followers or demonstrate the power of the Word of God, that he ought hold the Bible aloft, as a priest or deacon would do while leading a procession [right], or like Billy Graham at a crusade [below].
But Trump knows absolutely nothing about religious faith; so little that he can’t even fake it. Instead Trump held the Bible like a hawker selling an object on QVC. He displayed the Bible holding it first this way and then that way, making sure we saw the spine as well as the front and back. He didn’t open it or hold it reverently. He appeared to have never held one before; or rather, he held it as he has held any number of objects before—objects he was promoting or selling. Products.
A search through the many Trump-branded products from Trump Steak to Trump Vodka [right] shows Trump holding his “signature” objects in just this way. Trump hasn’t read the Bible or prayed with it any more than he ever studied for finals at Trump University or sipped Trump Vodka (slogan: “Success Distilled”). Trump chooses objects, examines them for their potential to increase his money or power, displays these to the public through promotional materials or television appearances, then discards them. (A search of Trump branded products shows that almost all were failures and were phased out unceremoniously).
Trump understands how to use objects to manipulate and deceive. What he does not understand, cannot fathom, is that for some religious people (though certainly not all Christians), the Bible is more than an object: it’s the Word of God, a collection of stories and legends through which God’s plan for human beings has been revealed, in maddening and frustrating and beautiful ways. Just as he cannot understand or appreciate art or music, or feel love or empathy, Trump cannot fathom the experience of authentic faith, of awe in the presence of something much greater and more mysterious than ourselves, or the feeling when it dawns on the believer that a text may help us to understand, however incompletely, the mind of God.
Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church was indeed blasphemous. It was offensive, dangerous, and deeply appalling. For Trump, it was another empty sales pitch for what is to him a worthless object. Trump held the Bible the way the models on The Price is Right used to hold up cans of Turtle Wax. “How much is this worth to you?” he asked us all. We have yet to give our answer.