Donald Trump talks to press
Credit: The White House/Flickr

I had it in my mind that I would write something about the odd way that President Trump physically handles the Holy Bible, but I hadn’t come up with anything specific before I saw how McKay Coppins went about it:

He wielded the Bible like a foreign object, awkwardly adjusting his grip as though trying to get comfortable. He examined its cover. He held it up over his right shoulder like a crossing guard presenting a stop sign. He did not open it.

“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked.

“It’s a Bible,” the president replied.

I misread this the first time I looked at it. I thought Coppins was asking me to picture President Trump holding a red octagonal sign like he was presenting a gift. On my second reading, I understood he instead meant that Trump looked like a crossing guard holding up traffic, only with a Bible in his hand.

Either image does the job of conveying that there’s something unnatural going on. When Trump flashed the Bible on Monday at St. John’s Church near Washington’s Lafayette Park, he was holding it upside down and backwards, almost as if the book—or any book—has an unknown purpose.

This made is painfully clear that he was using the Bible as a prop, and that his appearance in front of the church was an effort to pander to the religious right.

In order to reach the location of the photo op, a block from the White House, he used the National Guard and the Secret Service to disperse protestors in his path. They utilized tear-gas and flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to clear Lafayette Park, even though it was only a half hour before an announced citywide curfew and there had been no violence or other threatening disturbances.

Linda Tirado, a freelance photojournalist, was blinded in her left eye by a rubber bullet in Minneapolis. She also lacks heath insurance and is looking perhaps at almost a quarter million dollars in health care costs. Rubber bullets are no joke.

As for tear gas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “prolonged exposure, especially in an enclosed area, may lead to long-term effects such as eye problems including scarring, glaucoma, and cataracts, and may possibly cause breathing problems such as asthma.”

Using tear gas outside is less likely to cause serious harm, but it’s not without risks. It’s highly immoral to blast tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd without a corresponding risk you’re looking to counteract.

In this case, the risk was that some harm would come to the president of the United States if he attempted to stroll through Lafayette Park while the crowds were still there. But all risk could have been avoided if Trump had decided that a visit to St. John’s Church a half an hour before curfew wasn’t a good idea.

No one in the White House thought to notify the Church that they were coming, and this brought severe condemnation from both the city’s Episcopalian bishop and St. John’s presiding priest:

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington who helped organize the clergy presence at the church, said Trump’s arrival at St. John’s happened without warning and left her “outraged.”

“The symbolism of him holding a Bible … as a prop and standing in front of our church as a backdrop when everything that he has said is antithetical to the teachings of our traditions and what we stand for as a church — I was horrified,” she told Religion News Service.

“He didn’t come to pray. He didn’t come to lament the death of George Floyd. He didn’t come to address the deep wounds that are being expressed through peaceful protest by the thousands upon thousands. He didn’t try to bring calm to situations that are exploding with pain.”

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, also criticized the move, accusing the president of using “a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”

The president’s behavior was widely criticized throughout the capital, but some on his campaign team believed it had been a success.

By late Monday, campaign officials were already tweeting a black-and-white photo of him walking to the church with a coterie of aides in his wake. Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s top spokesman, posted the picture without a caption.

This was just one incident in an extremely violent day that saw the president implore the nation’s governors to get tough and “dominate” and then watched many of them try to comply.

The president’s short field trip may have given his campaign a nice picture of him “walking to the church with a coterie of aides in his wake,” but it’s likely to be remembered as one of the most shameful stunts of his entire presidency.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at