Amidst crises, Trump sees religion as a political life-preserver

With increasing frequency, Mr. "Two Corinthians" sees matters of faith as a political life-preserver. As a strategic matter, it's likely to fail.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump signs a Bible as he greets people at Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Alabama, on March 8, 2019, while touring areas where tornadoes killed 23 people in Lee County.Carolyn Kaster / AP
Get the Msnbc newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Steve Benen

In the fall, facing an impeachment crisis, Donald Trump turned to religion. The president called into a Fox News program in October to insist there's a Christian revival underway in the United States, and it was the result of "everybody" knowing that "the Russian witch hunt was a faux, phony fraud. And we got rid of that. And then they came up with this Ukrainian story that was made up by Adam Schiff."

Why would White House scandals lead to a Christian revival? No one had any idea, but the president insisted this made sense.

More recently, with polls showing Trump losing support among key religious groups, the president held a hastily thrown together White House event in which he declared houses of worship "essential" during the pandemic crisis. The president added that he'd override governors that kept houses or worship closed in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As a substantive matter, this was meaningless theater. It's not up to Trump to decide who and what is deemed "essential" at the state level, and he lacked the authority to mandate open religious services.

But behind in the polls and facing multiple crises, the president apparently sees matters of faith as a political life-preserver. There was more evidence of this today.

President Donald Trump toured a Catholic shrine on Tuesday in his second straight religious-themed appearance as the nation grappled with widespread unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Critics said the president was misusing religious symbols for partisan purposes. The White House said Trump and first lady Melania Trump were observing a "moment of remembrance," laying a wreath in a quiet visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.

The visit, of course, came less than a day after Trump briefly posed with a Bible at St. John's Episcopal Church -- after peaceful protestors were removed by force from Lafayette Square, clearing a path for the president's photo-op.

The Republican did not go inside the church; he did not read from the Bible; he did not pray or engage in any form of worship; he didn't even visit with a pastor. Trump did, however, seem to check a box.

Evidently, the president is of the opinion that he'll politically persevere so long as he effectively says, "The health, economic, and social crises may look catastrophic, but don't worry, I'm religious."

Part of the problem with this is that Trump is almost certainly not religious. As is well known, the president -- a thrice-married former casino owner -- claimed to go to a New York church that rarely saw him. Asked if he's ever asked God for forgiveness, he said, "I don't think so." Asked whether he's drawn more to the New or Old Testaments, Trump replied, "Both."

And, of course, there was the whole "Two Corinthians" incident.

The other part of the problem is that people who are religious don't seem to appreciate Trump's religious exploits. Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a statement this morning, "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."

The Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest and author, added in a statement, "Using the Bible as a prop while talking about sending in the military, bragging about how your country is the greatest in the world, and publicly mocking people on a daily basis, is pretty much the opposite of all Jesus stood for.... 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. And God is not a plaything."