For nearly 200 years, St. John’s Episcopal Church has welcomed presidents from the White House across the street.
But where other presidents came to pray, Donald Trump came to pose.
Protected by a phalanx of heavily armed officers, Trump walked across Lafayette Square to the church after nearby protesters were gassed and forcibly moved.
For several minutes, he stood in front of St. John’s, brandishing a Bible like a salesman in a bad infommercial.
It was another “Oh my God, is this really happening?” moment in an administration that has provided a plethora of them.
To many Christians, even conservatives ones, Monday’s stunt was surreal, even sacrilegious. “Blasphemy in real time,” one bishop tweeted.
Blasphemous or not, the moment perfectly captured Trump’s approach to religion. He relies more on images than substance, prefers demonstrations of power over piety, and readily uses religious symbols to fight a winner-take-all culture war.
He has taken credit for people saying “Merry Christmas,” a nonsensical claim that is nonetheless hyped as a victory in the “War on Christmas.”
He has turned the National Prayer Breakfast into a gripe fest, settling scores with political rivals and mocking entertainers.
He has insulted religious leaders who dare challenge him, including the Pope.
These brouhahas aren’t distractions from Trump’s larger message to conservative Christians. They are the message. He is the strongman willing to fight for them, a modern Constantine the Great.
And he expects conservative Christians to fight for him.
But the President and his political advisers have grown concerned about his standing among religious conservatives.
And that, as much as anything, may have prompted the photo op at St. John’s.
Some evangelicals say they like a tough-guy president
This President has shown little, if any, interest in personal piety, famously saying that he has never asked God for forgiveness, a cornerstone of Christianity. He rarely attends church outside of Christmas and Easter.
But to some white Christians who saw their influence dip during the Obama administration, Trump has been a godsend.
One praised the way he held the Bible “like a boss” in Lafayette Square.
“I will never forget seeing [Trump] slowly & in-total-command walk … across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church defying those who aim to derail our national healing by spreading fear, hate & anarchy,” tweeted Johnnie Moore, the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee.
As the scholar Kristin Kobes du Mez has noted, Trump has tapped into some evangelicals’ admiration for tough guys and preference for a Christianity that muscles out other faiths.
“I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and staunch Trump ally. “And I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”
But others say Trump is misusing religion for political purposes
Other Christians, however, call Trump’s expressions of Christianity antithetical to the actual tenets of the faith. Jesus, after all, said blessed are the peacemakers.
In his 9 years as a bishop, Gregory Brewer told CNN he can’t recall ever accusing someone of blasphemy. Then came Trump’s photo op at St. John’s.
“If you believe Scripture is inspired by God and you misuse Scripture, that is a crime against God,” Brewer said.
Ironically, minutes earlier in a Rose Garden speech, Trump had accused the protesters themselves of “crimes against God.”
The day after he visited St. John’s, Trump visited another religious site. With first lady Melania Trump, the President posed for photos in front of the John Paul II National Shrine in Washington.
It was unclear why the President was there. The shrine said the White House told them Trump would sign an executive order on religious freedom, but that plan was scrapped. Trump later signed it at the White House.
A White House official told CNN on background that the President’s visit was to commemorate the 41st anniversary of St. John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Poland. But neither the president nor anyone else at the shrine made mention of the anniversary.
Instead, it appeared that Trump again was using a religious backdrop, in this case a large statue of Pope John Paul II, for a photo op.
Washington’s Catholic leader, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, blasted Trump and the shrine.
“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow it self to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles,” Gregory said in a statement. Gregory is African American and a strong voice on racial relations, but he is not a flamethrower. And it is extremely unusual for the Archbishop of Washington to criticize the president so harshly.
A warning for modern-day Christians
As another Catholic bishop noted, the gospel read at Masses around the world on Tuesday contained a sharp warning about religious hypocrisy and secular power.
“As Trump visits the St. John Paul II National Shrine today, I hope someone proclaims today’s Gospel (Mark 12:13-17) where Herodians and Pharisees are called out for their hypocrisy,” tweeted Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky.
Brewer, the Episcopal bishop, said the Scripture reading also contains a warning for Christians today.
Asked if Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus said they should give Caesar what is his, but render onto God what belongs to God.
“Jesus is saying: Be careful – another power is trying to claim your allegiance,” Brewer told CNN. “It’s a situation that nearly every generation of Christians has had to face.”
Trump’s photo-op poses another question for American Christians: Do they want a president who brandishes the Bible like a weapon, or one who actually reads it?