The events of the past few weeks have unmasked the quick recourse to violence that infuses the American psyche. The national bent toward violence as a means of dealing with difference and dissent has now been set in sharp relief by a presidential threat of violence, followed by an exertion of violence. In short order, the President declared that he would use the military to dominate the streets, in order to restore law and order, and then followed a path cleared by the forceful dispersal of protestors from St. John’s Episcopal Church – so that he could be photographed holding up a Bible in front of it. Although Mr. Trump said nothing, the crude message of the photo was unmistakable: “The violence that I threaten and exert is sanctioned by Christianity’s sacred text and by the God it speaks of.”
Step back and let this sink in. Our country’s head of state and his security forces drove protesters from the grounds of a church and then occupied that space briefly for the purpose of political gain, without consulting or informing the religious personnel who had authority over that space – as if he exercised as much authority in sacred space as he does in the secular sphere.
The Founders were keenly sensitive to the tyrannical practices of the European monarchs, who utilized religious institutions as tools of the state and used force to suppress religious dissenters (like the Pilgrims). That is why they placed limitations on the Executive Branch and why Jefferson argued for a wall of separation between the Church and the State. Presidents do not have the right to enter sacred space as if they have carte blanche to use it as they see fit. By overriding those who steward sacred space, such executives imply that they are above divine authority. This is the essence of arrogant tyranny. It is sacrilegious, as it profanes sacred space (that is, does not give due reverence). And it is blasphemous, when sacred objects and symbols, like the Bible, are blatantly used for political ends. Every citizen ought to be alarmed. A leader of state who believes he owes no reverence to the sacred – whether or not he is a religious adherent – is capable of doing anything.
The Founders also worried over a standing army, which many believed could be used by the President against his own people – as was the practice of European tyrants. They believed, rather, that a citizen militia would provide an adequate defense and, for this reason maintained a minuscule regular force that garrisoned only a few forts and outposts during the early years of the Republic. Mr. Trump’s threat to utilize the military against U.S. citizens therefore steps into deeply troubling waters.
Mr. Trump is the kind of tyrannical president the Founders tried to protect democracy from. It remains to be seen whether the Constitution they bequeathed to us will enable our democracy to overcome it.
Daniel Hawk is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ashland Theological Seminary, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and a member of the ACN Steering Committee.