You don't have to be religious to be offended by President Donald Trump's decision to stage a photo op in front of St. John's Episcopal Church. Trump holding a Bible outside the historic "church of the presidents" was just as grotesque as his previous forays into public professions of religiosity.
Remember his claim that "nothing beats the Bible, not even 'The Art of the Deal.'" He also insisted that he liked to take Holy Communion, or as he put it: "When I drink my little wine - which is about the only wine I drink - and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed."
On Tuesday, Trump's prospective Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, took a swipe at the president's display of the Good Book, saying: "I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it. If he opened it he could have learned something."
Trump had it coming, but I wonder whether Biden might have been wiser not to accuse Trump, in effect, of being a bad Christian. Implying that Trump is ignorant of the teachings contained in Holy Writ is a dicier proposition that accusing him of exploiting religion for political ends, which Trump obviously has done.
Trump did it again Tuesday when he traveled to a Roman Catholic shrine dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II, a visit that originally had been planned in connection with Trump's signing an executive order on religious freedom.
The presidential candidates' battle over the Bible comes against the backdrop of attempts by liberals and conservatives in a variety of Christian denominations to declare some political views unholy.
I'm most familiar with the debate in Roman Catholic circles over whether a given politician is faithful to church teachings. Liberal Catholics find fault with conservatives such as former House Speaker Paul Ryan because they supposedly depart from the church's social teachings, which mostly overlap with political liberalism. Conservative Catholics are more likely to hurl their anathemas at Catholic politicians who support abortion rights or same-sex marriage. (Last year a priest in South Carolina refused to allow Biden, a pro-choice Catholic, to receive Communion.)
But if Catholic teaching is subject to a variety of interpretations, so is the Bible. (A former colleague who decided to read the Bible from cover to cover remarked after a few months that "there's a lot of weird stuff in that book.")
Biden made it clear that Trump should read passages in the Bible that promote the idea that "we are all called to love one another as we love ourselves." Indeed, there are several such passages, including a saying in Matthew's Gospel in which Jesus counsels that if someone sues to take away your tunic, you should let him have your cloak as well. But the Bible also includes some passages that might be more to Trump's liking, such as the ones dealing with God smiting - Trump might say "dominating" - various people.
All of which suggests that Biden should keep away from suggesting that Trump's a bad Christian or needs to sign up for a Bible study. It's enough to point out that Trump is using religion for political ends.
And maybe it's better for Biden if even that critique comes from others. It turns out that religious leaders are able and willing to call out the president. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., said she was "outraged" by Trump's stunt. The bishop explained: "I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing (the area) with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop."
Budde's Roman Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, issued a similar statement denouncing Trump's visit to the shrine to John Paul II.
"I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people, even those with whom we might disagree," Gregory said.
Trump supporters no doubt will see these prelates as meddlesome priests. But when it comes to exposing Trump's exploitation of religion, they pack a more powerful punch than Biden ever could.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times' senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.
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