(RNS) — In a dizzying 24-hour span carefully choreographed to enrage his opponents, delight his supporters and boost ratings for his reality-TV presidency, Donald Trump’s production team turned to a handy prop Monday night and Tuesday: religion.
On Monday night (June 1), the president appeared in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House, where, minutes earlier, armored police used smoke canisters to clear peaceful demonstrators as they were packing up to vacate in compliance with the city’s 7 p.m. curfew. After protesters — including clergy — were forcibly expelled from the area, Trump stood in front of historic St. John’s, which had been vandalized in a previous day’s unrest.
On Tuesday, in advance of signing an executive order on international religious freedom, Trump’s handlers turned the St. John Paul II shrine in Washington into another campaign-style photo-op. Located just a few miles from the White House, the shrine celebrates the life and work of the second-longest-reigning pope, who tirelessly advocated for human dignity from his election in 1978 until his death in 2005.
While the show’s executive producer and star merely had to stumble over to a few nearby locations and say some words, his handlers’ and disciples’ deliberate manipulation of religious settings, themes and objects revealed Trumpworld’s cynical and shameless approach to faith.
Trump held a Bible in a variety of awkward poses that brought to mind a model silently displaying an item on a home-shopping TV channel. He then motioned for several senior officials to join the photo-op and said: “We have the greatest country in the world. We’re going to keep it nice and safe.”
Trump did not say why, in a safe country, so many unarmed black men, such as the late George Floyd, killed by a law enforcement officer May 25 in Minnesota, have been slain by police.
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington, who previously ministered in Minneapolis for almost two decades, expressed outrage at Trump’s Bible-waving stunt. “He didn’t come to pray. He didn’t come to lament the death of George Floyd. … He didn’t try to bring calm to situations that are exploding with pain.”
It’s important to remember that racism is the context not only for this season of the Trump show, but for the entire series.
Trump built his political aspirations on the racist delegitimization of our first black president. He has openly trafficked in white supremacy, essentially daring his religious supporters to call him out on it. Since they were untroubled by his decades of unethical dealings with business associates, wives and girlfriends, Trump correctly predicted that the chaplains of white nativism would decline to call out his racial insensitivity.
Since Trump’s disciples know that his grandstanding and shamelessness costs him nothing with his base and brings the added benefit of infuriating religious progressives, they doubled down on Tuesday.
The appearance at the shrine was a nod to the Knights of Columbus, who provided a cash infusion to the shrine in 2011 after years of financial difficulties. While Pope Francis offered a message of unity for the faithful in the United States after Floyd’s death, the Knights’ leadership is evidently untroubled by the timing or optics of providing political cover to Trump, who has a concerted campaign underway to hold white Catholic voters close to him in this fall’s election.
A wealthy but declining fraternal organization of Catholic men, the Knights of Columbus increasingly appears too comfortable with the conservative legal and political establishments. Once respected as a community service organization, the Knights are in perilous danger of forsaking their legitimate mission in favor of becoming too white, too right-wing, and too Trumpy.
While Trump’s white Christian boosters willfully ignored Trump’s Bible-waving stunt at St. John’s and his photo-op at the shrine, the Catholic archbishop of Washington was having none of it. The Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory spoke out against the fake pilgrimage, calling 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.”
It’s not likely the shrine visit will hurt him with the sectors of the Catholic hierarchy Trump values most. In April, Trump claimed he would watch a livestream of Cardinal Timothy Dolan celebrating Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This announcement came hours after a conference call with Catholic prelates and educators in which Trump claimed that he was “the greatest president in the history of the church,” slammed Democrats and sought reelection support.
The Trump show is painful to watch, as even religious conservatives of good faith and goodwill acknowledge. But the president’s manipulation of religion, often with the enthusiastic support of sold-out faith leaders, is especially dismal.
Americans still have the liberty to change the channel, or turn off the TV, or take to the streets. Tragically, one of our countrymen has lost that freedom.
His name was George Floyd.
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political strategist based in Baltimore. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)