When Donald Trump faces political challenges he doesn't know how to deal with, he routinely tries to use religion as a shield. Last fall, for example, facing an impeachment crisis, the president told Fox News there was 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."
Why would White House scandals lead to a Christian revival? No one had any idea, but Trump insisted this made sense.
In the spring, as the nation struggled with the coronavirus pandemic, the president again turned to matters of faith to bolster his political standing, issuing a meaningless declaration that deemed houses of worship "essential" during the crisis. Soon 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 next day, he visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine for no apparent reason.
It had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: Trump was flailing, so he tried to stabilize his standing by shamelessly exploiting and politicizing matters of faith.
This week, however, there was a tactical shift. The president isn't just using religion as a shield; now he's using it as a sword.
President Donald Trump billed his trip to Ohio Thursday as a chance to promote economic recovery, but he quickly pivoted to a deeply personal attack on Joe Biden, even questioning without foundation the former vice president's faith in God. Even for a president known for his blunt criticism, Trump's remarks stood out and they signaled how contentious the campaign may get over the coming months.
In a rambling series of attacks, the Republican targeted his Democratic rival as someone who'll "hurt the Bible" and "hurt God." Trump quickly added, in reference to Biden, "He's against God."
This coincided with the Trump campaign using a photo of Biden praying in a church to attack him as weak.
In a different era, this would be seen through a very different lens. Biden is, after all, only the fourth Roman Catholic to ever receive a major-party presidential nomination -- if elected, the Delaware Democrat would be only the second Roman Catholic president in American history -- and having his Protestant rival target him as someone who's against God and the Bible would traditionally have been seen as an anti-Catholic smear.
But given the circumstances, that's probably not what's happening here: Trump hasn't given this nearly enough thought to even understand the theological history. All the president seems to believe is that many American voters are religious, so if he lies about Biden's religiosity, maybe it'll help him win.
Will it work? That seems unlikely. For one thing, the attacks are hopelessly bonkers: Trump wants Americans to believe that Biden is both too weak to be president and strong enough to be able to "hurt" God and Scripture. For another, as Biden himself explained yesterday, his faith has been the "bedrock foundation" of his life -- something his critics have never before questioned.
But let's also not forget just how little credibility Trump has in this area. 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'd ever asked God for forgiveness, the Republican said, "I don't think so." Asked whether he was drawn more to the New or Old Testaments, Trump replied, "Both."
And, of course, there was the whole "Two Corinthians" incident.
It's hard to think of a worse political messenger for Trump's ugly message.