Both President Trump and Joe Biden visited churches on Monday—though “visit” is a poor descriptor of what Trump did. Consistent with his life pattern, he didn’t actually enter a church. Rather, he positioned his body in front of St. John’s Episcopal and held a Bible aloft, like a trophy, for the cameras. Asked if it was his Bible, he answered “It’s a Bible.” Well, score one for candor.
Though in the physical vicinity of a place of worship, Trump betrayed no trace of piety. Asked his thoughts as he brandished the book he has never read, he defaulted to rally slogans: “We have a great country, and it’s going to be even greater. And it won’t take long. It’s coming back strong . . . stronger than ever before.”
No, the nation is weaker than ever before—beset by a rampant epidemic, an economic shock of unprecedented severity, and widespread rioting. Sixty million Americans are under curfew. We are racked by racial strife, bitter polarization, and mutual suspicion. Trust in institutions and even in the democratic process itself are at record low levels. We are whipsawed by rumors and conspiracy theories. The percentage of people who say they are “extremely proud” to be Americans has declined from 70 percent of the country in 2003 to 45 percent today. With a mixture of terror and horror, Americans are watching wanton violence sweep the nation, and while they sympathize with the peaceful protesters, they are appalled at the breakdown of order. Yet, when they turn to the nation’s leader, they find only an arsonist.
If ever there were a moment that called for genuine prayer and reflection, this is it. As Hannah Yoest writes nearby:
Imagine a parallel universe in which the president doesn’t pull a Bible out of a Birkin bag and wave it around for cameras but instead takes the opportunity to kneel and pray for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in silence for and with the country. Imagine a president capable of paying respects to anyone or anything.
St. John’s was closed and boarded up after one of the marauders set a fire (quickly extinguished) in the basement. Instead of staging a photo op in front of the building, Trump could have requested that the church be opened. He could have invited black pastors, mayors, members of Congress, and others to a worship service where God’s mercy was humbly beseeched. He could have found inspiration in this prayer offered by George H.W. Bush at his inaugural:
Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: “Use power to help people.” For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us to remember it, Lord.
A little humility would go a long way toward pacifying the terrible cycle we’re in. In fact, the president’s fear of seeming weak is proving an accelerant to the chaos. He responded to the deliberate strangulation of George Floyd with a few pro forma statements of concern. This was followed by furious threats of “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers” to crush “lawlessness.” On a phone call with governors on Monday, Trump expressed no outrage over Floyd, but he did thunder that the governors risked looking “like fools.” Earlier in the week, frightened by protesters outside the White House, the president broadcast his id to the world, tweeting that “nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.” He practically invited his supporters to confront the protesters in Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House: “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” Worst of all, he tweeted a 1960s racist taunt from a Miami police chief: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Across the nation, some law enforcement officers are demonstrating grace in the midst of this mayhem. Police in Santa Cruz, California took a knee with protesters. In North Dakota, officers held hands with marchers. In New York City, police applauded protesters. And in Flint, Michigan, the county sheriff and his men joined the demonstration.
This reflects the widespread awareness that what happened to George Floyd was an atrocity and also that rioters exploiting the situation do not vitiate the horror of what was done. It is not weakness to recognize the need for reform in how police treat black suspects. It is simple justice.
Of course, no civilized society can tolerate widespread rioting and looting. But the rioters and marauders are opportunists. Without the cover of genuine protesters thronging the streets, their lawlessness would stand naked. What would defuse the situation so that protesters could disband in good conscience? They need respect. They need to believe that reform is coming. Vast majorities of Americans are on their side. And yet, the message they are getting from the White House is one of contempt. The president speaks of “dominating” the protests. His secretary of defense talks of treating America’s streets as a “battlespace.” The president openly fantasizes about the Secret Service hurting people assembled outside in protest: “Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action,” Trump tweeted as he quaked in his bunker, appending a quotation supposedly from a Secret Service source: “We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and . . . good practice.”
It’s a lie, of course. Secret Service professionals don’t talk like that. But the president’s personal demons are all of ours now. Every tough-guy utterance from the administration in the midst of these roiling passions puts reconciliation further out of reach. The seams of this nation are tearing because of his malfeasance.
Nor is it a matter only of the wrong words. Peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park were attacked on the president’s behalf. National Guard and other units used tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, and mounted police to drive them from the park a half hour before curfew so that the path would be cleared for the president’s walk across the street to St. John’s. A few moments later, he had the gall to say that he was on the side of “all peaceful demonstrators.”
The point of all these military actions he is threatening? The peace and security of the American people? Maybe. But first and foremost, your “Second Amendment rights.” As for the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble? That’s dispensable, apparently.
Joe Biden actually entered a church on Monday, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware. It wasn’t a prayer service, but a meeting with faith leaders. Biden listened for over an hour. He took notes. He heard criticism of the 1994 crime bill he had done so much to pass. When it was his turn to speak, Biden asked for a moment of prayer. He invoked Kierkegaard: He quoted the philosopher to the effect that “Faith sees best in the dark,” adding “And it’s been pretty dark.” He promised to take the problem of police brutality seriously, and mentioned that it is not limited to white officers. When the time came for a photo op, Biden chose to drop to one knee.
It wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d share on social media (though it deserved more coverage on traditional media). It wasn’t Biden “owning” anybody. He didn’t break any new ground or say anything especially quotable. It was just quiet decency. It was what used to be normal—and can be again.