Why Trump’s Bible stunt proves monarchy is the best form of government
I am still not quite sure why I am supposed to be more angry about it than the barbaric arson attack on it, but I had to admit that President Trump’s now infamous stunt at the historic St John’s Episcopal Church did leave me uneasy.
The furious responses from the Christian left missed the mark for me. A friend at my church reminded her Facebook friends that the Bible is “a radical call to justice & mercy” and not to be employed as “a prop to support your political ideology”. True, but surely there was more symbolism at play here than just Trump’s political ideology…and that’s if Trump can even be said to have a political ideology.
The normally clear-eyed Rev. Giles Fraser accused Trump of having “turned the divine into his little pet creature.” Which seems to imply that the divine can in fact be turned into a pet creature. Somehow I don’t think God would be much detained by the allegedly tiny hands of the President. Fraser’s real point is that the idea of the Bible can be wielded by the oppressor, as opposed to the liberating qualities of its actual content. He compares Trump to that godfather of all Christian Pharisees, Emperor Constantine; just as Trump kept the Good Book firmly shut for the duration of his video, and has probably scarcely read a page of it in his life, Constantine presided over the Nicene Creed, which fast-forwards from Bethlehem to Golgotha and so skips any of that inconvenient “blessed are the meek” stuff.
The thing is…I rather like Constantine. The Creed is a theological anchor in the whirring melee of the modern churches, and Christendom — thus the world — as we know it simply wouldn’t exist without him. Perhaps we’d have had a purer Christianity without him, but we might not have a Christianity at all. And so even if I despair at the sight of this modern-day, bargain bucket Constantine clenching what he’ll never understand, and fully cognisant of the harm he has done, I’m never going to deny the good working through his unknowing fists. The Taiwanese might agree, for instance, as might in time the Tibetans.
But the gesture was nonetheless troubling. Tucker Carlson provided a strong case for the defence, even though in his otherwise sharply critical broadcast Trump was the fiddling Nero, not the conquering Constantine. “It was a declaration that this country, our national symbols, our oldest institutions will not be desecrated and defeated by nihilistic destruction.” And that’s what Giles misses. For all his fascinating transfiguration from tribal Corbynista to Boris-backing communitarian, he forgets the importance of political community, and that every society needs its totems. This is not just any church, it is the Church of the Presidents. Services at St John’s have been attended by every President since Madison, who began sitting at the famous ‘President’s pew’. The most frequent presidential congregant was Lincoln, who joined evening prayer habitually during the Civil War, a kind of Commander’s Gethsemane amid America’s Passion. Patriots and friends of America have yearned for Trump to convey understanding that his elections makes him part of something bigger than himself. Maybe this was him trying to do it. There is a simple symbolic logic in the President walking into the vicinity of the Church of the Presidents and reclaiming it for the nation.
But there’s the rub. When half the American population — and all of those protesting, in good faith or not — looked at the President in front of this boarded-up national shrine, holding aloft the tome that underpins their civilisational mores, they didn’t see their President. They saw only Trump; a man who is unwilling to or incapable of embodying the nation; a Goliath, not a David. That it appealed to the base of ‘Christian nationalists’ who helped propel him to power is part of the problem. It isn’t wrong to do so, but when you represent a population of 327million, you have to tell the whole story, not just part of it.
And the stories need to run slightly deeper than surface level. They have to ring true. One of the most moving moments of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral pageant was the cranes being respectfully lowered as the boat bearing his coffin travelled down the Thames. It came out in a 2015 documentary that the dockers were ‘bribed’ (paid) to enact this tribute as the great man was not highly regarded among the unionised workforce. If that’s a fly in the ointment of that particular moment, then the revelation that protestors — including clergy — were tear-gassed off the premises of St John’s, Lafayette Square to enable the stunt completely destroys any capacity it might have had to reach beyond its immediate target audience. Narratives can cope with or are even strengthened by tension — the ‘chivalrous warrior’, or the ‘lovable rogue’; contradictions break them. A narrative that doesn’t work leaves oxygen for counter-narratives to thrive: that Trump is ignorant and a fake Christian; that Trump is triumphalist and racist; that Trump is…all about Trump.
That this battle of perceptions was still raging come the 67th anniversary of our Queen’s coronation was what finally hit me about the source of my own disquiet. From a monarchist perspective, the President’s stunt wasn’t right — it wasn’t even wrong. The joy of constitutional monarchy is that it separates the executive from the ceremonial aspects of government — the “efficient” from the “dignified” to credit a mind far greater than mine. The idea of Trump living up to either part of Bagehot’s dualism is laughable, but at least under a monarchy he wouldn’t have to. He could leave the ceremony to the Boss, someone who undoubtedly does know her Bible, and could probably get by in French too. The last time Queen Elizabeth II transmitted her version of strength and resilience to her people in a time of crisis even republicans were tearing up.
Of course, ultimately institutions are only as good as the individuals peopling them. Presidents can run a nice line in national unity — it’s not hard to imagine Obama headlining a folksy reconciliation service at St John’s after the minor repair work had been carried out. And monarchs can overreach in their attempts to expand their body politic: constitutional conservatives still wince at Prince Charles’ suggestion of being ‘Defender of Faith’. We may well see a King Charles who struggles with the task of representing a still-divided United Kingdom, in which case the boot will be on the other Atlantic foot.
But at least he’ll have had the benefit of learning from the best, and for many Americans right now it is hard to conceive of worse than government of the Donald, by the Donald, for the Donald.