Julia Mourão Permoser is visiting professor of political science at the University of Vienna and senior research fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Innsbruck. Her research focuses on the relationship between migration, religion, liberalism, and the European Union. Her publications have appeared in the European Journal of Migration and Law, Religion, State, and Society and the Journal of European Public Policy, among others.
On June 2, 2020, the park in front of the White House became the scenery of an appalling episode of police brutality and abuse of power, as law enforcement agents violently dispersed a crowd of peaceful protesters in order to clear the way for President Trump to pose for photographs holding a Bible in front of a nearby church.
This event was reproachable on many levels—from the perfidy of responding to protests against police brutality with more police brutality, all the way to the president’s manifest disregard for the constitutional right to free speech. But while much has been written about Mr. Trump’s actions, commentators have not dwelled on one important aspect of this photo-op, namely its use of religion to communicate a racist message.
By holding up a Bible to communicate his disavowal of legitimate racial grievances, and combining it with the use of force and the utterance of threats of violence, Mr. Trump has not only used this religious object as a prop, but effectively deployed it as an artifact of white supremacy.
The President and the Bible
The President’s Bible photo-op was set up in order to send a message of intimidation towards protesters. Just before walking over to the church, Mr. Trump told reporters that he was “the president of law and order” and threatened to send the military to “dominate” protesters. His walk was preceded by an extraordinarily brutal action by the police, who used tear gas, pepper spray, and physical violence against peaceful demonstrators. The whole context made it abundantly clear that the president aimed to communicate his disavowal of African Americans’ grievances and instigate a climate of fear among protesters.
This is interesting, since most African Americans in the United States are religious people and many of them are Christian. In fact, as data collected by the Pew Research Center shows, African Americans are on average more strongly religious than white Americans: They are more likely to say that they believe in God, that religion is important to their lives, and that they attend church and pray regularly. And yet, upon looking at those photographs, any informed observer immediately understands their discriminatory undertones.
The question thus poses itself: Why did the president choose to hold a Bible in front of a church as a way of intimidating the protesters and communicating his racial bias? I believe that Trump’s use of the Bible in this infamous photo-op reflects a particular way in which the far right, both in the United States and beyond, uses religion as an instrument of identity politics. While much attention has been paid to morality policy issues (chief among them abortion) as a reason for white evangelicals and other moral conservatives’ support for Trump, it is the mixture of identity politics and morality policy that constitutes the basis for his electoral success. And this mixture is not specific to Mr. Trump, but rather characterizes the strategy of populist far-right leaders throughout the globe today.
Religion, Identity, and Morality
President Trump’s actions were met by strong criticism by several clerics. For example, the Bishop overseeing the church where the photo-op took place, Mariann Edgar Budde, argued that the president’s message was "antithetical to the teachings of Jesus," who, she added, was committed to nonviolence. Other clerics called it “a sacrilege.”
However, these critical reactions should not blind us to the historically strong connection between religion and racism in white supremacy movements. The oldest hate group in America, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was a fraternity dedicated not only to white supremacy but also to nationalism and religious faith. It is not by chance that one of the key symbols of the KKK is a burning cross. In the minds of early Klansmen, the flames are a reminder that God would “redeem and regenerate the world” and a sign that Christ is “the light of the world that vanquished darkness and evil.” President Trump’s appropriation of a religious symbol to signify racial intolerance is therefore not new, but rather builds upon the well-established material culture of white supremacy in America.
Unlike these Klansmen, however, Mr. Trump does not stand out for his devotion to God. The fact that Mr. Trump did not enter the church, did not read from the Bible, or indeed say anything that related to religion or faith were all revealing of his instrumental motives. By using the Bible and the church, Trump was not making a statement of faith; he was sending a message to a particular audience.
But let’s be clear: Those mobilized by Mr. Trump’s stunt are not necessarily organized white supremacists or deeply religious people (although some of his supporters certainly fall into these categories). Rather, they are all those who feel threatened by demands for racial justice. For them, it is irrelevant whether Trump acts as a true Christian or not. What matters is that he signifies that “he’s one of us” and that he is intent on preserving the status quo. While white evangelicals support Trump primarily because of his commitment to defending their interests on moral issues, there is a wider subset of white Americans who support Mr. Trump because he is committed to defending whiteness.
As is well known, white evangelicals are an important group within Mr. Trump’s base. Trump won white born-again evangelicals with more than 75% of the vote in the 2016 election and, according to poll data, his approval rating with them remained at 75% by the middle of 2019. For many observers, the key to understanding support for Trump among white evangelicals is his combination of libertarianism in economic policy with restrictive public moralism—both of which fit perfectly with evangelical political theology.
But well beyond white evangelicals, data from the Pew Research Center on American attitudes towards racial inequality show staggering levels of Americans who turn a blind eye to the existence of racism in their country. Thus, in a survey conducted at the beginning of 2019, while 78% of blacks agreed with the statement that “our country hasn’t gone far enough in giving blacks equal rights with whites,” only 37% of whites said the same. Among white Republicans, the numbers are even lower, with only 15% agreeing with the above statement. For white Republicans, not only is there no need for more racial equality, but indeed America has already gone too far. 77% of white Republicans thus subscribe to the statement that “when it comes to racial discrimination, the bigger problem for the country today is people seeing discrimination where it does not exist.” So we see how, when Mr. Trump walks down to St. John’s Episcopal Church to send a religiously coated message of support to those white citizens who feel threatened by movements for racial equality and black liberation, he is sure to find a receptive audience.
Beyond America: The Far Right's Use of Religion
The far right’s use of religion as a tool of identity politics can also be observed outside the United States. Far-right leaders such as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Matteo Salvini of Italy have all made similarly instrumental appeals to religion. In the European context, this opportunist use of religion is often related to the social tensions created by immigration. In this context, the politicization of religion serves the function of mobilizing feelings of belonging among the majority population. This is possible even in a period in which religious belief in and affiliation with the dominant Catholic Church is waning because religion is used here not as a marker of belief, but rather as a cultural reference that is deeply embedded in many people’s definition of national identity. Thus, Mr. Salvini, whose Lega Nord party has historically entertained links to paganism, now makes appearances holding the rosary at his anti-immigration rallies. Similarly, the long-time leader of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, made repeated appearances holding a big wooden crucifix to rally against Muslim immigrants.
In sum, Trump’s Bible photo-op inserts itself in a larger pattern of far-right manipulation of religious symbols for the purposes of identity politics. Throughout the globe, far-right leaders are utilizing similar mechanisms to mobilize support. The coherence between their strategies in disparate places should serve as a warning to all of us concerned with matters of public culture that the role of religion in politics reaches well beyond the realm of morality policies. More attention should be paid to the way in which understated connections between religious and racial identity interact to create fertile ground for demagogues.