President Trump has a keen eye for seizing the moment. Last Monday, in the midst of a social crisis stemming from the police murder of George Floyd and 400 years of systemic racism, Trump stood for photos clumsily holding a Bible at the steps of the boarded-up St. John’s Episcopal Church just across Lafayette Square from the White House.
This wasn’t easy for Trump. Between him and the church was a gathering of peaceful protestors and members of St. John’s, signs in hand, calling for an end to police brutality against black Americans and for reform to a system founded on racism. What these protestors didn’t expect was the animosity and shear callous action the president would take to court his base and satiate his own ego. To clear out the protestors just shy of the 7 p.m. curfew, officers dressed in riot gear were ordered to address protestors as if they were a mob. Pepper balls (which contain a synthetic form of the same chemical irritant found in chili peppers) and a rain of rubber bullets fell on the protestors. People cried out in pain and shock, and tears filled eyes from the irritants as disorientation and frantic running ensued.
All this for a photo op for the so-called leader of the “free” world.
Religious leaders are tirelessly trying to separate Trump from Christianity. Gini Gerbasi, the rector from St. John’s who was present at the protest, described Trump’s tactics as “sacrilege,” turning “holy ground into a battleground.” Bishop Mariann Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who last summer was critical of Trump’s dehumanizing language against Baltimore and its then-congressman Elijah Cummings, declared, “I am outraged.” The pastor of St. John’s, Michael Wilker, compared Trump’s use of the Bible to Adolf Hitler’s use of propaganda:
During Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler used symbols of the Lutheran church—our own church—as a way to divide Christians from one another, and especially to deny the humanity of Jews in Germany. It’s the same thing Trump is doing here: he is using the symbols of the church as a way to divide the church from one another and to divert our attention from the actual suffering and killing that’s going on.
Of course, Trump isn’t anywhere close to being devoutly religious; when asked whether the Bible he held was his own he replied, “it’s a Bible.” Nonetheless, Trump has been particularly vigilant in giving Christianity, particularly the religious right, a stronger foothold in the government. Whether its criticizing public schools in favor of private religious institutions or making hollow promises for a student’s right to pray in school (a right that has never been taken away or limited), Trump caters to Christian nationalists. But presenting himself at a church with a Bible in hand served an important purpose to this base. Amid civil unrest in the black community and their fight against systematic racism, Trump assured Christian nationalists he was on their side.
Christian nationalism is a longstanding authoritarian strain of American Christianity. Discussed at length by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry in their book, Taking America Back for God, Christian nationalism is “a collection of myths, symbols, narratives and value systems” that seeks a fusion of Christianity and American civil life. Notably, Christian nationalism is strongly associated with authoritarian control, militarism, nativism, and white supremacy.
Take, for example, a study conducted by the authors mentioned above, where a person’s level of Christian nationalism (based on responses to questions about Christianity, separation of church and state, and school prayer) is compared to their response on whether America must “crack down on troublemakers” to save “moral standards.” The higher respondents scored on nationalism, the more likely they were to want a crackdown. It’s important to remember that the concept of “cracking down on so-called troublemakers first emerged in the 1980s in reference to inner-city black Americans. The rhetoric gets worse still as those who sympathize with Christian nationalism view black Americans as “inherently more violent than whites.”
Trump’s actions, therefore should come as no surprise. The authoritarian, militarized tactics outside the White House and around Washington, DC, last week play into the Christian nationalist rhetoric. Targeting state-sanctioned violence towards black Americans and others protesting will not only be approved by Christian nationalists, it will be perceived as necessary. Trump’s unspoken message in front of St. John’s was that he is cracking down on troublemakers—on those who would cause trouble for the white, Christian status quo.
When the president of the United States uses the Black Lives Matter movement as a platform to promote white America, there is no excuse to not act. Make your voices heard now, on November 3, and every day until real change is achieved.