By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Last Monday Trump provided a vivid personification of triumphalism in religion and politics when he led a phalanx of cops, military personnel and his staff from the White House across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church, after using tear gas to clear the route of protesters. Then Trump posed in front of the church sanctimoniously holding aloft a Bible.
That picture is worth a thousand words. It’s unabashed triumphalism in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil that pit God’s will to reconcile and redeem humanity against Satan’s will to divide and conquer. The picture depicts how Satan has been winning the popularity contest by doing a convincing imitation of God in politics and in the church.
The ascendancy of evil over good in politics became evident when most white Christians elected Trump in 2016. But that could change. The photo op has deeply offended many Christians who considered it a step too far in denigrating their faith. It may inspire some who voted for Trump in 2016 to change their vote this November.
On Tuesday I posted Trump’s photo op at St. John’s church on my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/rcbarnesjr and received a firestorm of responses. They reveal how divided we are as a nation. Most voters still claim to be Christians, but most white Christians still support a man whose egregious immorality is the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus.
I’m an independent in my politics and have been accused of being a radical right libertarian by Democrats and a wild-eyed liberal by Republicans for advocating the greatest commandment as a moral imperative of our politics. It requires promoting a politics of reconciliation based on balancing divisive partisan objectives with providing for the common good. It should be a common word of faith and politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Our partisan politics have become so divided and hostile that there is no understanding of the common good beyond partisan identity politics. A majority of white evangelicals consider Trump their political messiah and have sacrificed Jesus on the altar of Republican politics, while Democrats remain committed to the leftist political objectives of their minority constituents.
Partisan political differences are expected, but when they are based on conflicting concepts of God’s will they can become intractable. American Christians are split between the distorted evangelical doctrines of Trump’s supporters and the altruistic teachings of Jesus. It’s a conflict in concepts of political legitimacy that’s undermining the fabric of American democracy.
The Bible uses triumphalist images of good and evil. The Book of Revelation is an apocalyptic writing that some believe predicts the end times. Revelation 13:5 may cause fundamentalists some discomfort since Trump fits the description of the Beast; but whether or not Trump is heralding the end times, he’s a clear and present danger to American democracy.
For a detailed description of the events leading up to and following Trump’s photo op at St. John’s Episcopal church on June 1, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/inside-the-push-to-tear-gas-protesters-ahead-of-a-trump-photo-op/2020/06/01/4b0f7b50-a46c-11ea-bb20-ebf0921f3bbd_story.html.
The Episcopal bishop for Washington reacted to Trump’s photo op at St. John’s Episcopal church by saying that “everything he has said and done is to inflame violence.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/bishop-budde-trump-church/2020/06/01/20ca70f8-a466-11ea-b619-3f9133bbb482_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most.
Trump used triumphalist language on toughness in his national broadcast on June 1: "Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets," he said. "If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them," he said. "One law and order, and that is what it is, one law. We have one, beautiful law," he said. And then, on ground where police had forcefully cleared peaceful protesters just minutes before, Trump strode across Lafayette Park -- accompanied by a slew of police officers and Secret Service -- for a staged photo-op in front of the historic St. John's Church and hold up a Bible. "It's a Bible," Trump said, to clear up any confusion. ,,,Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. "Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination. Likewise, Minneapolis was great (thank you President Trump!)." "Trump was angered by coverage depicting him holed up in an underground bunker. He told aides on Monday he wanted to be seen outside the White House gates, according to a person familiar with the matter, which is part of what drove the decision to stage the photo-op at St. John's Church." Why did it drive Trump crazy? Because his idea of strength and toughness is deeply distorted, twisted and gnarled over many decades of grievance and bravado. See, for Trump, being strong and being tough is tied directly to winning, to dominating, to using overwhelming force to get a desired result. In his mind, might makes right. And the world is split between people willing to use their power over others and those too afraid to exert it.
,,,Donald Trump thinks strength and toughness is about domination. About winning. About the powerful rolling over those less powerful. Of course, as any emotionally mature person understands, might doesn't, in fact, make right. Toughness is not always about exerting your dominance because you can. True strength is rooted in the actions you don't take, the ability to understand that brute force should be your last resort, not your first instinct. ...Donald Trump doesn't know that.” See https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/02/politics/donald-trump-protests-dc-church-photo/index.html.
Robert Kagan has suggested that Trump’s aggressive talk on toughness and dominating the streets may be a prelude to invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 that would allow Trump to deploy U.S. military forces throughout the U.S. Kagan noted, “Anyone concerned about the state of America’s democracy ought to have been troubled Monday at the sight of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, striding behind Donald Trump during his presidential show of force at Lafayette Square. Dressed in combat fatigues and walking with Attorney General William P. Barr, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and others, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer did more than make himself part of the tableau of Trump’s photo op and campaign commercial. Milley gave tangible meaning to the president’s threat to deploy the U.S. military to put down “domestic terror” in the United States. His presence also raised questions about the military’s role as the country heads toward November and what the president has already declared could be “the greatest Rigged Election in history.”
The president’s call for military deployments against protesters was not some random Trumpian effusion. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper advised the nation’s governors to “dominate the battlespace,” by which he meant American cities. Prominent Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), a close Trump ally and presidential aspirant, called for deploying “the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry — whatever it takes,” against the “insurrectionists,” a deliberate reference to the Insurrection Act of 1807, which gives the president broad powers to deploy federal troops. Trump tweeted that Cotton’s suggestions were “100% Correct.” This is the context in which Milley appeared with the president in his battle fatigues.
Dictators rule by controlling the “power ministries”: the domestic police and intelligence services, foreign intelligence services, and armed forces. U.S. democracy has been sustained by a strong tradition of ensuring that the power ministries serve the Constitution and the broader interests of the American people, not the political and personal interests of the individual in the White House. ...The only thing preventing their use to undermine democracy is the refusal of the Cabinet, Congress, the courts and the military to let a president abuse his power in this way. ...But what is the military leadership to do when a duly elected president gives it a plausibly legal order to deploy in the United States? And what if that order comes after a contested election that the president has declared “rigged,” due to alleged foreign meddling or some alleged domestic fraud? When protesters gather in the streets, and the “law and order” president orders the military to move against that “insurrection” and “domestic terror,” will the fate of our democratic experiment depend on the military refusing to obey?
...If you believe that Trump would never do such a thing, or that the others would never let him, then you can go back to sleep. Maybe the image of Milley in battle fatigues outside the White House was just a passing moment, or maybe it will turn out to be the first in a series of pictures in some future history text about the undermining of American democracy. But if you’re not sure which, perhaps it’s not too early to start sounding the alarm. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-mark-milley-striding-behind-trump-through-lafayette-square-was-so-troubling/2020/06/02/81ef5388-a503-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most.
On how Trump’s Bible photo op splits white evangelical loyalists into two camps, see https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/04/trumps-bible-photo-op-splits-white-evangelicals.
Griffin Oleynick, a Dante scholar, has consigned Trump’s triumphalism to the sixth circle of Dante’s hell. “What else but boundless egoism (and, by consequence, de facto atheism) could explain the petty thuggery with which Trump (reportedly via the order of Attorney General Bill Barr) violently dispersed peaceful, legitimate protestors without warning? And after the protestors were gone? “He did not pray,” said Episcopal Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. “He held up his Bible after speaking an inflammatory militarized approach to the wounds of our nation.” What attitude could possibly explain such a blasphemous gesture but Trump’s great disdain—gran dispitto—both for the sacred content of the book he likely never reads, and for all people of good will who strive daily to live by its precepts? The answer is clear: Trump believes in nothing and no one but himself. It’s time all Christians admitted it.
Thankfully, some have. This week a growing chorus of religious leaders—including Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, who called Trump’s short visit to the John Paul II National Shrine the following day “baffling” and “reprehensible”—began issuing more pointed critiques of the president. That’s good news, and more forceful condemnation is certainly welcome. But we shouldn’t just look to our religious leaders to admonish Trump. Nor is anger and outrage the only religious response available to us. Trump continues to succeed in bluffing his way through his presidency in part because of the image of power and violence we allow him to project.”
...Trump’s words and actions—often delivered via Twitter, often agrammatical, often misspelled—are calibrated to enrage and frighten us. But they don’t project real power. Just the opposite. Trump is comically, hopelessly pathetic. He’s weak. We need to keep saying so, so that we actually believe it. Because it’s actually true.
Dante would have agreed with C. S. Lewis: if there’s one thing the Devil can’t stand, it’s being mocked. Because that’s what evil is, in essence: a mockery of the good, the opposite of the real. In Dante’s view, evil is properly understood as a parody of the triune God of Love, whose very essence is being-in-relation.
We shouldn’t let Trump scare us. He’s the one who’s afraid, acting out and saying stupid things because he knows he can be beaten. See https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/sixth-circle?utm_source=Main+Reader+List&utm_campaign=b5b8711a91-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_03_16_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_407bf353a2-b5b8711a91-92511949.
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