A couple of unfortunate things happened March 8 during President Trump’s hurried visit to tornado-ravaged Opelika, Alabama, ostensibly to reassure and comfort survivors.
The unfortunate things were: (1) he signed Bibles, and (2) people there literally viewed his visit as a “godsend.”
The Bible-signing in a Christian church raised eyebrows because of church-state issues and because it was an unusual, perhaps unprecedented, official activity choice for a sitting president. The “godsend” part is disquieting because it shows that faithful people still insist on believing in supernatural causes for events that have obvious material causes.
Certainly, the president’s handlers recognized the public relations value of the president appearing in Opelika the day the devastating tornado struck (23 local residents were killed, including 10 in one family), and being seen expressing the nation’s condolences. But God had nothing to do with the visit, or the tornado, a natural event fully explained by meteorology. This was realpoltik, meaning cynical politics, in action.
Also, since the president’s past behavior has indicated near zero interest in things religious (unless politically beneficial), other very plausible material explanations for his quickly executed Alabama trip (he previously planned to go to his golf resort in Florida) emerged. During the visit he would be able to do two things he constantly reveals he revels in: (1) being the center of adoring attention anywhere, and (2) pandering to Christian evangelicals, who comprise a significant share of his voter base. What better way to maximize both aims than by personally signing Bibles of local evangelicals and their children?
Because the Bible-signing schtick was so unusual and vaguely inappropriate for a secular republic, it was very widely covered in news media, and invariably the fact that he signed the holy book was in the headline over stories about the trip in newspapers, magazines and online news sites. It was clearly a public relations coup. Indeed, a single post about the trip by Michael Stone in the Progressive Secular Humanist blog garnered more than 27,000 hits by my last count.And the president, unsurprisingly, seemed energized by the exercise.
As he signed a 12-year-old boy’s Bible during his visit to Opelika’s Southern Baptist church, “the crowd of onlookers erupted in applause … One church volunteer, Ada Ingram, told the reporters that Trump’s visit was a blessing,” the Washington Post reported.
“I think it’s a godsend,” Ingram added.
The president told local volunteers when he arrived in Opelika, according to a Politico story: “We couldn’t get here fast enough. I wanted to come the day it happened.”
There’s three core takeaways from all of this political posturing: (1) the president will do anything, no matter how inappropriate to the gravity of his office, to curry favor with his political base, (2) his burning desire to rush to Opelika was not authentic, because if he was actually a compassionate person at heart, he would also have rushed to Charlottesville, Virginia, the year before when neo-Nazi white supremacists rallied against people of color and Jews, and one of them fatally ran over a local protestor with his car, and (3) since “supernatural” beings and spheres are not confirmably existant, the president’s visit to Opelika wasn’t a “blessing” or “godsend”; it was a nakedly self-serving political gambit.
So things always do happen for a reason, just never a supernatural one. One problem with thinking the opposite is that people then ascribe nonsensical fantasies to blatantly selfish acts in the real world, and are deceived.