The moment when Trump sauntered from the White House to St John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square, is very telling. He was encased by guards repelling those protesting the murder of George Floyd in support of #BlackLivesMatter. Then, the President posed with a Bible in front of the Church.
The gesture, intended to present pious solemnity, was hollow. Trump clasped a holy book, which read ‘God is Love’ aloft, but was irreverent to those campaigning for the protection of human life. The PR stunt was not religious, but instead reaffirmed the Christian Right’s lamentable cultural dominance. As presiding Bishop Michael Curry summarised, Trump has used ‘a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes’.
This accusation sounds familiar. Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde called for the President’s ‘moral leadership’, yet Trump’s prior indiscretions make this demand more difficult. But attempt to fulfil it, he must. According to Budde: ‘he’s done everything to divide us’. This claim, in part, reflects the anguish of many that demand genuine, careful leadership of which Trump is apparently incapable.
Trump’s posing invokes figures that have demanded dangerous ‘moral’ revivals in response to social crises. In the haunting words of Jerry Falwell, inside The Fundamentalist Phenomenon published in 1981, Christian conservatism, so often underpinned by bigotry as seen in the endorsement of George Wallace, must provide a ‘voice for the return to moral sanity in these United States of America’. Falwell’s war cry and Trump’s photo-op represent an allegiance to the same staunchly conservative bloc. In fact, Falwell set out the Moral Majority’s aims within the book partly in response to Carter’s reluctance to politicise Christian morality. Briefly after his election in 1976, Carter confessed that he’d ‘committed adultery’ in his heart ‘many times’ in an interview with Playboy and compounded this confession by claiming that ‘you cannot legalize morality’. Despite Carter’s ‘born again’ evangelicalism, the interview marred his presidency among Christian conservatives because he sustained a separation of Christian morality from politics.
Those defending Trump’s photo-op show that America is engaged in a cultural war. David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network defended Trump’s gesture saying: ‘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’.
Brody’s analysis is unsurprising but significant because it wastes no time by immediately polarizing ‘right’ from ‘wrong’, ‘peaceful’ from ‘violent’. Brody’s statement locates Trump’s gesture within the traditionalist side of a cultural war. But ranking members of Trump’s administration have also supported the preservation of American Christianity.
William Barr, Trump’s Attorney General, spoke at Notre Dame Law School last October detailing his conservative faith and its influence on his decision-making. Barr denounced the ‘militant secularists’ that are apparently behind a ‘campaign to destroy the traditional moral order’. Barr’s reference to a traditional moral order aligns with Trump’s gesture because they both attempt to appease concerned conservative Christian voters. As Barr put it, the United States’ ‘traditional Judeo-moral system’ was the supposed target of ‘organized destruction’ by ‘secularists and their allies among progressives who have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture […]’. His reference to ‘allies’, ‘force’, and ‘destruction’ hints at the knowledge of a war to preserve America’s Christian conservatism against those campaigning for a departure from it.
Reagan garnered much of the Christian right’s support from Carter by appeasing its social agenda and hauling it into political discourse. Reagan publicly pledged support for the Christian right, suggesting during a rally in Dallas that, ‘I know this is a non-partisan gathering, and so you can’t endorse me … but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing’. Unsurprisingly, Reagan received 60 per cent of the white evangelical vote from Carter during the 1980 election, culminating in a ‘majority of slightly more than 80 percent’ by 1984, according to Reichley. Reagan’s victory clarified the electoral influence of Christian right voters, but also marked the Republican Party’s successful monopolisation of value-candidacy.
Trump’s championing of the Bible in front of a church is a similar pledge to Christian conservatives. James Davidson Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America defines the American cultural struggle between conservative ‘orthodoxy’ and liberal ‘progressivism’. Hunter defines cultural orthodoxy as the ‘commitment on the parts of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority’ which implies that progressivism’s attempt to reform historic authority is an affront to America’s cultural orthodoxy.
Trump’s photo-op ironically, but clearly, attempts to grasp moral superiority by siding with America’s orthodox impulse, which aggressively resists those fighting for change. Harming protesters with tear-gas and flash-bang grenades to secure the photo-op captures Trump’s cultural allegiance to America’s orthodox, Christian right within a cultural war. It was a weaponization of faith.