BOTH President Donald Trump and candidate Joe Biden visited churches on Monday — though “visit” is a poor descriptor of what Trump did. Consistent with his life pattern, he didn’t actually enter a church. Rather, he positioned his body in front of St. John’s Episcopal and held a Bible aloft, like a trophy, for the cameras.
Though in the physical vicinity of a place of worship, Trump betrayed no trace of piety. Asked his thoughts as he brandished the book he has never read, he defaulted to rally slogans: “We have a great country. ... It’s coming back strong. ... Greater than ever before.”
No, the nation is weaker than ever before — beset by a rampant epidemic, an economic shock of unprecedented severity and widespread rioting. Sixty million Americans are under curfew. We are wracked by racial strife, bitter polarization and mutual suspicion. Trust in institutions and even in the democratic process itself is at record low levels. We are whipsawed by rumors and conspiracy theories. Those who say they are “extremely proud” to be Americans has declined from 70% in 2003 to 45% today. Americans are watching wanton violence sweep the nation, and while they sympathize with the peaceful protesters, they are appalled at the breakdown of order. Yet, when they turn to the nation’s leader, they find only an arsonist.
If ever there were a moment that called for genuine prayer and reflection, this is it. Instead of preening in front of St. John’s, Trump could have requested that the church be opened. He could have invited black pastors, mayors, members of Congress and others to a worship service.
A little humility would go a long way toward pacifying the terrible cycle we’re in. In fact, the president’s fear of seeming weak is proving an accelerant to the chaos. This president responded to the worst racist crime of this century, the deliberate strangulation of George Floyd, with a few pro forma statements of concern. This was followed by furious threats of “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers” to crush “lawlessness.” On his call with governors, Trump expressed no outrage over Floyd, but he did thunder that the governors risked “looking like fools.” He practically invited his supporters to confront the protesters in Lafayette Square: “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” Worst of all, the president tweeted a 1960s racist taunt from a Miami police chief: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Across the nation, some law enforcement officers are demonstrating grace in the midst of this mayhem. Police in Santa Cruz, Calif., took a knee with protesters. In North Dakota, officers held hands with marchers. In New York City, police applauded protesters. And in Flint, Mich., the county sheriff and his men joined the demonstration.
This reflects the widespread awareness that what happened to George Floyd was an atrocity and also that rioters exploiting the situation do not vitiate the horror of what was done. It is not weakness to recognize the need for reform in how police treat black suspects. It is simple justice.
Of course, no civilized society can tolerate widespread rioting and looting. But rioters and marauders are opportunists. Without the cover of genuine protesters thronging the streets, their lawlessness would stand naked. What would defuse the situation so that protesters could disband in good conscience? They need respect. They need to believe that reform is coming. Vast majorities of Americans are on their side. And yet, the message they are getting from the White House is one of contempt.
Nor is it a matter only of the wrong words. Peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park were attacked on the president’s behalf. National guard and other units used tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and mounted police to drive them from the park.
Biden actually entered a church on Monday, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Del. It wasn’t a prayer service, but a meeting with faith leaders. Biden listened for over an hour. When it was his turn to speak, Biden asked for a moment of prayer. He quoted Kierkegaard to the effect that, “Faith sees best in the dark,” adding, “and it’s been pretty dark.” He promised to take the problem of police brutality seriously and mentioned that it is not limited to white officers. When the time came for a photo op, Biden chose to drop to one knee.
It wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t Biden “owning” anybody. It was just quiet decency. It was what used to be normal — and can be again.