President Trump has defiled two of the foundations of Christian belief – the Bible, which Protestants regard as a sacred text and the inspired word of God, and the Papacy – not Pope Francis, but the Papacy itself – the very foundation of the Roman Catholic Church and its unifying force.
The Bible, though, is a perplexing book of mixed messages but a fun read. It is, in parts, fulmination, mythology, vengeance, sex manual, smite and smote, cookbook, whale story, plagues, food fest and shipwreck. That is, until the revisionist Jesus comes along and turns it into a love-thy-neighbor story, magic show, wine-making course and massive fish-fry on a beach.
Stained glass windows and inspirational paintings were designed to convey Biblical stories because people, in those days, couldn’t read and took literal meaning of the visuals before them, as many still do. The apostles, also, were not very good reporters.
The Papacy, historically the bedrock of Catholicism, is similarly baffling. The Church traces its beginning, and the founding of Christianity, to Jesus’ declamation to St. Peter, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” (Matthew 16:18)
Early Christians, literally, followers of Christ, at least those who were brave enough to admit it, spent the next 300-or-so years hiding in catacombs and fending off lions until they were finally allowed to emerge into the sunlight and formally establish a church.
From there the story gets a little murky, for the Papacy became more about politics and power than the spiritual kingdom promised by Jesus.
For example, the Papacy became kind of a trophy that for centuries was passed among competing Italian and French nobility, foremost among them, the Medici family, which made their fortune as Papal bankers.
When the Lorenzo d’Medici was installed as a Pope – one of four Medicis to ascend to the Papal throne – among the first things he did was to name his nine-year-old nephew Cardinal of Florence as a way of keeping control in the family. Back then, priestly ordination and celibacy were not included in the Papal job description.
Then came the moment of truth. Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, along with the Italian Renaissance — ironically, financed in large measure by the Medici family as reborn patrons of the arts — arrived at nearly the same moment and turned Christianity on its head. With Guttenberg’s introduction of books, people learned to read, liberating direct control of thought from the Church. Things haven’t been the same since.
Yet the Bible and the Papacy endure as two unshakable foundations of faith.
But to Trump, the fundamentals of Christian belief have different meanings, which is to say, no meaning at all.
They are symbols for a symbol-minded president who views them as props for photo-ops and political purchase. Just what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)
Jesus was talking about separation of church and state. It is enshrined in the First Amendment. And there is a reason why it is the First Amendment, above all others (sorry about that, gun crazies). And that is because the Founding Fathers, dead and gone, and still causing us heartburn, were throwing off the theocratic grip of religious repression and domination by a church. They rejected an accommodating blur of government and religion.
And as in the early Roman days, the White House nomenclators cleared a path, using non-lethal but nevertheless deterrent military munitions, so that Trump could approach St. John’s Episcopal Church, which he rarely does, and hoist a Bible, shamelessly, for the cameras.
The use of the nation’s military against innocent protesters on American soil just might be Trump’s most despotic act yet.
Could the administration’s treacherous display of force against its own citizens be an early warning of what might happen if Trump loses in November?
Listen carefully, and the sounds you hear in the background might mimic the jackboot footsteps of Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein, or Pol Pot, or Trump’s good buddy, Kim Jong-Un. Trump, through his own blind ineptitude, is now trapped in an autocrat’s heavily protected fortress in the nation’s capital, the White House.
And simultaneously in tribute and retribution, one of the District’s main boulevards, 16th Street Northwest, leading directly to the White House, has been refashioned into a massive billboard with huge yellow lettering, “Black Lives Matter.” Mayor Muriel Bowser has renamed the street “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” flipping the bird to Trump for his attempt to militarize the turf she governs.
The wedge of Trump janissaries was directed from the FBI command post by William Barr, the attorney general, who believes in conquering the streets with armed might but who, in dyspeptic moments, resembles a bullfrog peeping through a cake of ice. The ACLU and Black Lives Matter have filed federal lawsuits against Trump and Barr over the removal of protesters from Trump’s pathway.
Onward and upward to Northeast Washington and the Shrine of St. Pope John Paul II, obviously to give evangelical Catholics something reverent to crow about just as Trump had pandered to Protestants by elevating their sacred book Heavenward. Pope John Paul was a revered rock star during his lifetime, and the First Lady, Melania, after all, is identified as Catholic.
Does anybody really believe Trump’s baloney? Well, yes, and no.
The night that Lafayette Square flared into Tiananmen Square, Trump had both defenders and critics within the faith community.
That eminent Trump apologist and evangelist, Franklin Graham, son of Billy, continued the family’s lickspittle relationship with the White House and its foot-walk proximity to St. John’s.
“That’s his backyard,” Graham was quoted as saying. “He has any right to walk there anytime he wants. I was glad to see him stand in front of that church and hold up the word of God.”
Dr. Robert Jeffress, the Elmer Gantry of the Dallas Baptist megachurch, one of Trump’s staunchest supporters among the Biblical absolutists (that means he believes Jonah actually lived in a whale’s belly), was absolutely enthralled by Trump’s performance.
“I thought it was completely appropriate for the president to stand in front of that church,” Jeffress was quoted as saying. “And by holding up that Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it’s despicable, but God also hates lawlessness.”
On the other hand. . .
Trump’s imperious strut across Lafayette Square, to the accompaniment of armed troops and a protective shower of military fireworks, drew ire and fire across the ecumenical gamut.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Washington’s first black Roman Catholic archbishop, scolded Trump for his visit to the shrine honoring St. Pope John Paul II.
“I find 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,” Gregory said in a statement. (The Washington Post reported that the shrine is under control of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, whose lawyer is White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.)
The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, slammed Trump for posturing in front of the historic St. John’s with the Bible as a crowd-pleaser for his evangelical base.
“Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” Budde said. “We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”
But get a load of the statement that was issued on that incendiary night by a White House spokesman named Judd Deere, who rarely, if ever, appears before reporters but who seems to handle propaganda writing chores:
“At a time when President Trump has called on all Americans to join him in prayer for the [George] Floyd family and for our Nation, it’s cowardly and disgusting to question the President’s deeply-held faith or motives for paying his respects to one of our oldest and historic churches.
“President Trump believes in God, he believes in this country, and he believes in her people, and under his leadership we will come together and emerge stronger than before.”
Pass the barf bag, please.