On June 1, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of peaceful protesters gathered in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park so that Donald Trump could clumsy fondle a Bible for the news cameras in front of the announcement board at St. John’s Episcopalian Church for a few moments. The next day, the president and first lady visited a monument dedicated to Pope John Paul II for even more stony-faced photo ops, prompting much hand-wringing about using religious backdrops for displays of dominance at a time of civic unrest. But what that hand-wringing ignores is the fact that Trump’s photo-ops are a magnified version of a political tradition older than America itself: creating the illusion of piety in service of gaining power.
In his 1962 lecture at Brown University, Eugene Rostow, the then-dean of Yale Law School, coined the term “ceremonial deism” to describe American religious gestures that were “so conventional and uncontroversial as to be constitutional.” In 1984, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan used the term again in Lynch v. Donnelly, a case involving the use of a manger scene on town property. In Brennan’s opinion, religious displays served secular, symbolic purposes so deeply ingrained in the fabric of Americana that they simply couldn’t be expressed without invoking religious symbolism. For example, phrases like “In God We Trust” work to “serve such wholly secular purposes as solemnizing public occasions, or inspiring commitment to meet some national challenge in a manner that simply could not be fully served in our culture if government were limited to purely nonreligious phrases.”
Photographs of presidents kneeling in prayer or standing in communion with religious leaders also act as signifiers that the politician pictured is a good person who follows the rules and guidelines for moral decency laid out in the Bible. Less than 24 hours after Trump brutalized protesters so he could hold a Bible upside down in front of an Episcopalian church, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was whipping out her own Bible at a press conference, clumsily (and selectively) quoting from Ecclesiastes in order to pay lip service to the idea of the nation “healing” from the police violence that sparked a week of protests and continues as police shoot, tear gas, and beat unarmed protesters around the country. Pelosi’s announcement of plans for change was flimsy, but brandishing the Bible, she gave the impression that she answers to a higher authority than Trump. On June 1, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was also photographed at a church, kneeling with black religious leaders in Wilmington, Delaware; the photographs seemingly meant to show Democratic voters that he is on the side of both God and the black community in this time of protest.
Though the visual symbolism that ties religious power to the head of state long precedes the United States, American politicians have used it as shorthand for virtue since the advent of the photograph. In 1864, as the country was ripped apart by the Civil War, Lincoln was photographed reading a book that is often identified as the Bible to his son, a public signifier that he and his family were looking to God for answers. In 1950, Harry Truman became the first U.S. president to meet and be photographed with Baptist minister Billy Graham, who then used the visit as an opportunity to leverage his meeting with the president for further political clout by posing for the press kneeling in prayer, ostensibly for the future of post-WWII America, on the White House lawn. After that meeting, every succeeding president would be photographed with Graham, right up to Barack Obama. Graham was also photographed alongside Trump in 2013, at Graham’s 95th birthday celebration.
Even before there were photographs, there was pressure for American presidents to appear pious. After being vilified as an “atheist and a libertine” during the hard-fought presidential campaign of 1800, slave-owner Thomas Jefferson publicly accepted a “mammoth” block of cheese from abolitionist Baptist preacher John Leland at the White House in communion for their shared aim of religious liberty. Leland was also instrumental in garnering support from religious communities for the election of James Madison. In pre-revolutionary America, Puritan minister/politicians used the “election sermon” to create what early American literature scholar Alan Silva calls an “official rhetorical to train his auditors to create a ‘language of crisis’ whenever dissent occur[ed] in the colony,” which in turn allowed for a common “language of assimilation,” or shared sense of piety that “allow[ed]...the Puritans to believe they [had] achieved consensus.”
The tradition of using a religious backdrop to create the illusion of shared moral consensus continued into the modern political era, and politicians from both sides use images of Christian worship to relay the message that they are on the side of good. And as is so often the case during his political tenure, Trump has taken what seemed like an innocuous, if disingenuous, piece of Americana and exploited it to reveal the more sinister aspect of our cultural foundations lying beneath. Prayer photo-ops always create binaries of “good” and “bad,” which carelessly widen divides rather than offering any real solutions for closing them.
In a departure from photographs of other presidents, Trump presents himself less like a humble supplicant and as the religious leader, centered in the photograph, brandishing the Bible like a weapon to divide the country into factions—with Trump and God or against Trump and God. And while many clergy members spoke out against Trump’s violent photo-op, white evangelicals undoubtedly loved it because the gesture clearly reinforces America’s foundation of Purtinical divides of one right side and one wrong side, or as Trump-supporting Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress puts it, order against “lawlessness,” per the Atlantic:
“I thought it was completely appropriate for the president to stand in front of that church,” Jeffress told me. “And by holding up the Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it’s despicable—but God also hates lawlessness.”
And in an interview with Fox Radio, Trump responded to those clergy who chastised him for using a church as a photo-op by further segmenting American Christians into those who are with him, God, and lawfulness, and those who oppose:
“Most religious leaders loved it. I heard Franklin Graham this morning thought it was great. I heard many other people think it was great. And it’s only the other side that didn’t like it. You know, the opposing — the opposition party as the expression goes.”
From its origins as a place where England stashed its religious fanatics, America has a long history of believing that whatever we decide, God condones, from burning witches to slavery to winning the Super Bowl. But our national need for ceremonial deism in the form of assurances that leaders love and abide by the Christian God does not and has never unified the country under a common umbrella of morality. Instead, America’s “harmless” tradition of decisive ceremonial deism creates a perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to declare himself the arbiter of God-sanctioned brutality.