By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler

Open Bible
Open Bible

That was my immediate reaction on the evening of Monday, June 1, after I saw the now infamous footage of President Donald Trump awkwardly posing with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church across the street from the White House, minutes after military police and other federal and local law enforcement had cleared peaceful anti-racism protesters from the area using violent tactics, including flash and smoke grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas. The president had just finished a speech in the White House Rose Garden where he claimed to be “your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters” and said that the U.S. military could be deployed to suppress violence. The unfolding events have already been labeled as a “defining moment” of the Trump presidency.

In addition to the strong reaction from political leaders and even military officials, the backlash from the religious community was immediate. Bishop Mariann Budde, who is a leader for Episcopalians in the Washington area — including St. John’s Church — appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN that evening to respond. She said, “I am outraged. The president did not pray when he came to St. John’s, nor as you just articulated, did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now. And in particular, that of the people of color in our nation, who wonder if anyone ever — anyone in public power will ever acknowledge their sacred words. And who are rightfully demanding an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country. And I just want the world to know that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this president. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love.”

Christian leaders from a multitude of traditions also made their voices heard. The Rev. Dr. James Forbes called the display “shameful” and “blasphemous.” Father James Martin said on Twitter, “Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. God is not your plaything.” Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore said he was “brokenhearted and alarmed” by the president’s actions, and the Rev. Dr. William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove called the act “obscene.” Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, called the photo op a “manipulative” act of “desecration.”

I’m hesitant to draw even further attention to this stunt, as it did seem calculated to take the emphasis off the protests and put it back on the president. Our outrage needs to remain focused on racism and its many insidious manifestations in our society that continue to traumatize our Black brothers and sisters so that we can begin to dismantle unjust policies and systems through anti-racist action. As I wrote earlier this week, I have a personal commitment — and BJC has an institutional commitment — to stand against and call out white supremacy in our work for religious liberty.

But the swift and emphatic rejection of the cruel and bizarre display of power mixed with civil religion by a wide variety of religious leaders causes me to pause and ask: why? Why did this so offend our collective conscience?

First, the symbolism was not subtle. It was an obvious co-opting of religion as a political tool. Though he said he was going to “pay [his] respects to a very, very special place,” President Trump did not even attempt to show that his visit was anything but a photo op. The White House did not notify the church that it was going to be paying a visit and made no effort to arrange a tour of the damage with church leaders. He made no statement, and he only answered when asked by a reporter what he was thinking at that moment, “This is a great country.”

For many, the display had nothing to do with Christianity, but instead was an egregious example of Christian nationalism with its attempted merging of religious authority and political authority. According to a statement of Christians who are standing against Christian nationalism, that merging of authority is “idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.”

The fact that peaceful protesters, including clergy and seminarians, were violently cleared from the space by St. John’s Church to make room for the stunt is not only hypocritical but also intensifies the harm of the misuse of the Bible and the church in this instance. Jesus preached a nonviolent message that sided with the powerless over the powerful (Matthew 5) — one completely at odds with the misuse of power on display Monday evening.

If Christians do not distance themselves from the misuse of their faith for political reasons, they risk not only tarnishing Christianity’s reputation with the general public but distorting the gospel beyond recognition. This kind of power-broker Christianity has been used to perpetuate racial subjugation for generations and has contributed greatly to the trauma and pain in our streets right now.

Christian leaders have a choice now about which side they will be on — the oppressed or the oppressors — and I believe we saw that choice made in the strong rebuke of the president’s actions.

We also should not miss the beautiful and powerful displays of religion in public life and religious liberty on display at St. John’s Church this week. An overlooked part of this story is the response of the church to vandalism it sustained during the protests. After a small fire was set and then quickly extinguished in the basement of the church’s parish hall on Sunday night, the church leaders were quick to divert attention back to the protests and express their solidarity. Then, they immediately put out a call for volunteers on the church’s Facebook page to join them “ to gather together in front of our church each day this week to stand in prayerful solidarity and witness for racial justice and healing.” Even with their church boarded up, they took their ministry outside and continued to “be church” to the protesters.

I saw religious liberty at work in the powerful advocacy of Bishop Budde and others this week. We should not take for granted that religious leaders can go on national news to rebuke a president’s actions without fearing for their lives. It’s a freedom that people in many countries do not have. We cannot take faith freedom for granted, particularly in this time when many of our civil liberties are being threatened. Preserving faith freedom for all is an active decision that each generation must reaffirm and fight for.

Today, there is a choice for Christians to make: will we choose Christian nationalism, a perversion of Christianity that provides cover for white nationalism and claims power through violent actions against peaceful protesters to stage a photo op with the Bible as a prop? Or, will we choose Christianity, the one shown by St. John’s Church this week, with anti-racist action and works of justice and mercy? Our faith and our religious liberty are at stake.

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC.

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