The Bible is not a prop. Yet the president used it in front of St. John’s Church across from the White House on Monday to burnish his image with evangelical voters, whose support has waned since the administration’s inept response to COVID-19. On Tuesday, he trekked to the National Shrine of St. John Paul II with a similar aim of mollifying Catholic voters who have grown disillusioned with his rhetoric and divisiveness.
The president’s naked political manipulation drew quick rebukes from the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, in whose diocese St. John’s sits, as well as the Roman Catholic Archbishop. The Right Rev. Mariann Budde said the president is welcome to sit and pray at St. John’s but “is not entitled to use the spiritual symbolism of our sacred spaces and our sacred texts to promote or to justify a completely different message.” Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C., said he found it “baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people, even those with whom we might disagree.” The shrine is owned by the Knights of Columbus, a lay fraternal order.
These publicity stunts reveal Donald Trump’s total ignorance of Christian teaching and the life of Jesus Christ. Had Trump opened the Bible he brandished in front of St. John’s, he would have read Christ’s admonition in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor and shalt hate thy enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven who makes His sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Trump’s instinct is to dominate, to crush, to “punch him in the face.”
Trump’s entire life is a repudiation of the Gospels. He embodies none of the cardinal virtues—prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice—and shows little adherence to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. We see him at church when he wants to send a political message. He chose to spend the first Sunday after ordering governors to open churches on the golf course instead of in the pews, but dispersed peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square with police in riot gear shooting tear gas and rubber bullets so he could walk to St. John’s for a photo op.
Trump is the embodiment of the Deadly Sins: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. He takes credit for anything that might bring him glory, slapping his name on everything from hotels and condominiums to the checks appropriated by Congress to alleviate the economic suffering of Americans during the pandemic. He cheats people with phony universities and get-rich-quick schemes. He calls women pigs, tells police, “when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, I said, please don’t be too nice.” He envies moral strength and leadership among figures like John McCain, yet longs for the power of those who rule by force like Vladimir Putin. His multiple marriages, affairs, and sexual assaults reflect not masculinity but misogyny. He is too lazy to master the art of governing and surrounds himself with sycophants who are willing to do anything he asks.
Religious Americans do not ask their leaders to be sinless—none of us is, though Trump has declared he has nothing for which to ask God’s forgiveness. But if the articles of our faith—whatever our religion—teach us anything, it is to recognize a power higher than ourselves, higher than self-interest, higher even than civil authority to guide our lives. We should seek the good, not the advantageous. We should ask that our leaders teach by example to honor human dignity, not degrade it.
“Beware of false prophets,” Jesus warned. “By their fruits you will know them. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” Trump may try to hide his moral rot behind a Bible, but his actions speak for themselves.