Myth “Today”: Reading Media and Religion into the Cultural Politics of the Times

On June 1, 2020, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, stood in front of an Anglican church across the street from the White House and held up a copy of the Bible for a photograph.  This incident became, within days, a signal event in the contentious, roiling history of Trump politics.  As time has gone by, it looks more and more like this incident was a turning point that might well be remembered as the beginning of the end of the Trump administration (though probably not the “Trump project[1].”)

It was far from an anodyne act.  American Presidents have always held Bibles.  But this president, holding that Bible, in that place, at that moment in time, yielded a surplus of meaning.  It was an act of mediation, a visual articulation of a certain argument.  And, it was the result of an entire performance which was in fact a performative mediation.  It was evidence of the extent to which our politics today happen in a context of “deep mediatization” (Couldry and Hepp, 2018) under a performative and constructive regime of “hypermediation” (Echchaibi, 2017) through affective engagement (Papacharizi, 2015; Hoover, 2019).

And, most significantly here, it was a mediation that was coded by, afforded by, challenged by, and made possible by, religion.   It was a  moment that (in spite of many interpretations that coded it as merely “political”) could not have happened, made sense, or made any difference, were it not for the deep articulation of religion into it.  To understand the “religion” in it affords understanding of the trajectories of meaning that preceded it and which flow from it and which will continue to do so.

Observers from “the media” (i.e., journalists) and from “media scholarship” (my colleagues in the fields devoted to the academic study of media in relation to culture) have historically had a difficult time “seeing” religion (Hoover, 2017).  Of course, we all “see” it in the sense that when its explicit symbols or ideas are shown or spoken of, we can see them.  But, we have a harder time seeing it when it appears in ways that are less explicit or where it is in interaction with other things, like politics (or for that matter about capital or class struggle).  We prefer to see those things as “only” about politics, not about religion. That is, that the only analysis necessary is one that focuses on the politics.

This myopia makes it difficult to see the full meaning and import of an incident like President Trump’s Bible photo-op.  There was much more going on there than met the eye. And while there were journalistic and public-scholarly attempts to interpret it in terms of religion, those only barely scratched the surface of its meaning and its implications.

In fact, it was a veritable intellectual feast of opportunities for reflection on contemporary media, mediation, mediatization, mythmaking, social semiotics, cultural politics and religion, but only if we looked hard enough. To do so, we needed to move beyond some of our received shibboleths (in journalism and in media theory and research) about what religion is and how it works.  The events of June 1 give us an opportunity to consider four of them.

The first of these is the idea that religion has either “gone away” or is “going away.”  Most elite and academic discourse continues to look for evidence of a long-predicted “secularization” process in modern Western societies.  Often, this has been read quite superficially, i.e., that religion would simply “fade away” as societies achieved greater levels of enlightenment and education and people no longer found religion necessary (for a thorough review, see Introduction, Calhoun et al., 2011).  An elementary Marxian version has further coded religion as mere “ideology” and anticipated that it would be increasingly incompatible with modern consciousness (Morgan, 2013).  Well, the story now seems quite different.  Yes, you can describe much of what has happened in the world of religion as “secularization” (declines in formal religious observance, increasing privatization and individuation of faith, etc.) but religion has persisted, even flourished (Gorski, 2019).  And, there are good reasons to argue that it has been transformed by media and mediation into something new and quite different (Hoover, 2020).

Second, both journalists and scholars have made the mistake of expecting that religion is only, or mostly, about faith, belief, doctrine, piety, discipline, spirituality, etc. Religion scholars call this the “essentialist fallacy.” Today, as we see vividly in the example we are considering here, religion is less about faith and belief and more about public symbolism of social and cultural politics.  This is a situation that has been developing for a long time.  And this is where the myth of “secularization” has most led us all astray.  Most of us elites have been taught to think about the 20th Century as one long epoch of secularization and rationalization.  For us, the signal event came at the turn of the 20th Century, when the residual forces of religious revanchism, in the form of the Fundamentalist movement, were finally and definitively quashed, most notably in the “Scopes monkey trial” of 1925.

Conservative Christianity learned from the experience of its marginalization in the early 20th century but the lesson was not that it must continue to stay quietly at the side.  Instead, conservative Christian leaders began to build a new, public—and this is significant here—mediated front.  This was rooted in the marginal and sectarian spaces of religious media such as the “Fundamentalist radio preachers” and in prodigious print publishing but found increasingly public force and face at mid-century with the emergence most notably of Billy Graham and his public and media ministries.  A key turn, though, was in the 1970s when Jerry Falwell and other leaders led Fundamentalist Christians out of their political quietude and began to forge them into a significant political force.  And, let me say again, this turn was based in, articulated by, and largely defined by media.  So, while we should not doubt that most conservative Christians are faithful believers, that is not all they are and that is not the most important thing about them in the context of contemporary public life.

The third shibboleth we must discard is the idea that as they are deployed and circulated in public, religious symbols need only be interpreted denotatively.  That is, that they are semiotically closed.  Barthes, Sassure, and Pierce have helped us understand the extent to which signs and symbols can also function in other ways, including connotatively (NB Barthes, 1972). But our tendency is to only see religious symbols in terms of their denotative meanings.  We have a hard time thinking of them as in any sense “open.”  Thus, Trump holding the Bible is only the symbol of the Bible and its taken-for-grantedness as a sacred text.  We can of course criticize this symbol in those terms (“look, he’s holding it upside down,” or “I doubt he’s ever read it”). But, as I will argue, the deployment of that symbol in that context needs to be understood as more than that, and that even its denotation moves beyond a first-order reading.

Because of the deep, century-long history of the articulation of religious imagery into contemporary means and contexts of mediation and hypermediation, and because of the century-long articulation of religion into cultural and social politics, religious symbols are today articulated into media circulations in complex and layered ways (Morgan, 2007).

The fourth shibboleth of religion held by journalistic and public scholarly discourse is that religion serves to elide or obscure “true interests” in the social and structural sphere.  Class interests are of course the most notable of these, and the elementary Marxian view I noted earlier also contributes here to the idea that religion is primarily ideological and that it functions to misdirect people’s attention from what really should matter to them.  The problem here is that there is much evidence (including from outside the specifics of contemporary American politics) that people can be motivated, even to risk life and limb, by things other than their manifest material interests.  We can argue about whether the final logic in fact still needs to be critiqued in terms of fundamental interests (Garnham, 1995).  Indeed, I’d agree that today’s “Trump voter” fails to see the extent to which their needs are actually being met by his policies. And, their focus on the religious/cultural/political outcomes (court nominees, etc.) may not be the most important thing for them to be thinking about when they vote. But, they disagree, and they are motivated, and they march and contribute, and vote, based on the less “material” and more “cultural” interests, and they helped swing the 2016 election, and we all now live with the consequences. That is and should be of deep interest to culturalist media scholarship.

My project here is a careful media-cultural analysis of the Trump/Bible event and the various trajectories of meaning-making, imaginaries, and political/cultural purpose that circulate in, through, and from it. A deep reading of it reveals much about contemporary media, religion, and politics.  Through such an analysis, we can move through and beyond the conceptual “dead ends” represented by the above shibboleths and move toward an analytical purchase that places media, religion, and cultural politics in relation to one another in contemporary political cultures in the U.S. and beyond.

Returning to the incident itself, we should begin with the fact that there was more to it than the simple gesture of the raised Bible.  It was a larger cultural performance staged in, through, and with the object of, mediation.  This larger trajectory is made obvious as well by an incident the next day.  On June 2, Trump engaged in a second symbolic performance (or simply extended the one of the day before) by travelling—accompanied by the first lady—to a shrine dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II.  This event became entangled in the first, and in the cultural politics of the growing protests for racial justice, by the fact that protestors showed up to confront them at the shrine, and—more significantly—by the fact that the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, like Anglican Bishop Mariann Budd the day before, quickly condemned the visit.  The Catholic Bishop, Wilton Gregory, is one of the most prominent black Bishops in the Catholic Church.  He specifically singled out the Knights of Columbus (a powerful conservative lay Catholic organization), which owns the shrine, for allowing the visit to happen.

Bishop Gregory’s condemnation further connected Trump’s acts of construction with the politics of the worldwide racial justice protests.  It also explicitly labeled the gestures as political and as an attempt to link religion with politics visually and through mediation. The calculation of the visit’s performative staging was further demonstrated by the fact that pool press photography was not allowed inside the shrine, but Administration photographers—perhaps from the First Lady’s office—were allowed in and several staged images were circulated in friendly media and the First Lady’s Instagram account.  Like the Bible image from the day before, these were—aesthetically—clearly polemical.  Both of the POTUS and FLOTUS bodies appear stiff and posed. The First Lady is inappropriately dressed, the President appears in his iconic posture of angry resolve, though in one they are both shown kneeling at the shrine’s altar.

These two gestures (the Bible and John Paul moments) combine in some subsequent accounts.  Broader trajectories of argument and meaning-making flow from each.  And, as we shall see, these trajectories reveal much about the nature of the construct binding media, religion, and culture in today’s politics.  The fact that this constellation of constructive moments were not simply “left aside” or forgotten in the rush of events, is worth considering.  The Trump-Bible incident continued to appear in news stories and in new and opinion accounts for several weeks, and promises to retain some measure of this iconicity into the future.  As a measure of this durability, to the right is an editorial cartoon from the Washington Post, July 4, 2020 by Anne Telnaes.

Its durability is that it was not “merely” a “symbolic” act or acts.  It was, in fact, an interpolation of “soft” gestures of symbolism and imaginaries with “hard” gestures of militarization, police violence, constitutional powers, and political intentions. It had in it, it “said,” it invoked, all of those things.  It is instructive to note that, in this moment, roiling controversies about Presidential power and prerogative, the portent of autocratic rule and hard electoral politics came to be focused around the aspiration of a “photo-op.”  That this is plausible is a testament to our mediatic (and hypermediatic) moment.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s later mea culpa for participating in the walk across the square—his apology itself an historic event—is about something as seemingly ephemeral as a photographic opportunity—and is taken as plausibly so.  Of course, it was not just about a photograph, but the fact that the act of photography—as political rhetoric—is now commonplace is evidence of how deeply mediatized our politics have become, and—and this is critical to culturalist scholarship—how they’ve become deeply mediatized.

And, of course, these were not just “any” photographs.  The “Bible” picture, and the less-iconic images from the Catholic shrine, were intended to mean.  They were intended to “want” things (Mitchell, 2005, but see also Zelizer, 2010) from us. And again, they were intended to mean—and were interpreted as meaning—more than their denotations.  Among the arguments they made were about an iconic rendering of “religion” as a currency of politics.   On the first level, then, we learn from these incidents that religion is a significant currency of political exchange, and that its currency can be realized through mediation in broader cultural markets.

Most subsequent coverage of the incidents (and helpfully to our inquiries here, there was quite a lot) suggested that the President wanted to make a particular kind of statement.  He felt on the defensive with the roiling protests in Washington and was unused to not being able to direct the political talking points of the day.  He was further troubled by the symbolism of being bunkered in the White House and by reports that he and his family had been taken to a secure shelter for their safety over the weekend.  On Monday morning, then, he felt it necessary to project strength, and resolve, and to symbolically “break out” of the White House.  According to accounts, over the course of the day those intentions coalesced into a well-publicized walk across Lafayette Square to the nearby St. John’s Church.

This was, then, a calculated cultural performance, one that would only work if it were mediated.  Its central acts (the march to the church—described by Attorney General Barr as the “right of a President”—and the gesture of holding up the Bible) were symbolic/media gestures, intended to invoke broader imaginaries of interest and value.  The particular constellation of cultural gestures is significant.  First, the symbolic (and actual physical) clearing and cleansing of the space—interpreted by some of the actors as a sacred space in both religious and “secular” terms.  Second, the march itself, with the president in the lead, accompanied by his putatively powerful administration, including—very significantly from a visual standpoint—the General in his battle fatigues.  Third, the President’s pose in front of the church (as Bishop Budde pointed out, he didn’t go there to go in or to pray) with the Bible.  Importantly, there was a fourth gestural moment: the widely-reported provenance and status of the Bible itself.  It was brought to the scene by First Daughter Ivanka Trump in an expensive handbag, handed to the President once he arrived and then awkwardly held aloft.

But it was all quite awkward.  It is an open and equivocal set of symbols and gestures[2].  The fact of its construction was obvious in its presentation.  Everyone was made to know that it was made possible by violence.  The specifics were clear at the time (the sounds of street clashes as peaceful demonstrators were suddenly charged without warning by the police could be heard by the press gathered to hear a statement by the President and were audible in the recordings).  The bodies depicted walking through the newly-cleared square appear not to be in any particular formation, just a group seemingly recently emerged from a conference room, walking down the street (reminiscent of a group of academics roused from a late-morning conference panel to proceed down the hall to the buffet).  General Milley stands out in his battle fatigues, as does the President, though only because he is at the center.  Attorney-General Barr wears no tie.  In subsequent photos, press secretary Keyleigh McEnany stands awkwardly with the group, a violation of formal protocol in almost any organization.

And then, the complete incoherence of Trump’s manipulation of the Bible itself.  It has been handed to him.  Some images show him looking at it oddly, and the final image—the central purported purpose of the entire effort—where he holds it up, in his right hand, like a prize he’s just won at a raffle.  A reporter asks him, “is that your Bible?”  He replies “…it is a Bible.”

A cultural analysis of this performance must recognize how a superficial or first-level account of what it attempted is rather banal and commonplace.  Most observers from the professional media to interested and politically-aware citizens could “read” what was intended.  The President wished to project power and resolve against the demonstrations (which for conservative ears he could portray as threatening violence and instability and also the portent of military intervention or full militarization).  He could do so with a ritual clearing and a walk. And—in what must have seemed to the advisors in the Oval Office to be a brilliant act of political parsimony—he could make the object of the clearing and the walk a gesture toward his religious base.  This all made sense on one level.  It is a superficial level that we can all read. It is an intention that most observers understand in its own terms.  However, we should note—and it is significant here—that the commentary about the performance from supporters and critics alike, was a mixture of confirmation of the act on its own terms (for example, Robert Barr’s and Keyleigh McEnany’s accounts) and evaluation of it as an act and its relative success or failure in achieving its goals.

As is the case with most events in the age of hypermediation, we, as the objects of these mediations, engage in both consumption of mediated texts and tropes and in practices of evaluation, curation, and appreciation of them.  We are reflexive. We consume and we observe ourselves (and others) consuming.  This incident proved to be open to—and to stimulate—extensive discourse.  We all accept (in a certain way) that it makes sense for a political figure to arrange to have a certain image made and circulated.  The question is, how successful was the image, in relation to the effort it took to make it?  How good an image-maker is this or that leader?  This, of course, (and this is an example of mediatization of politics) becomes one of the qualities expected of contemporary political figures. How good are they at “media?”

So, how do we evaluate the image of the President, the Bible and the church?  In an age where the material and structural sources of the provenance of a thing like an image are necessarily transparent, the question becomes “how coherent is this image, and for whom?”  It was clearly intended for, and consumed by, different audiences.  As a performance it performed power and violence, an act of geographic “claiming” and boundary-building, suppression of certain bodies and elevation of others, an assertion of authority for its own sake, and ultimately the production of the intended image.  The open-ness and transparency of the whole cycle was important.  The construction of the visual text was intended to be visible.  Again, this is an affordance of the hypermediatic moment.  All actors in the cycle of symbolic production and circulation are reflexively engaged.

We can illustrate this by turning to an analysis of religious meaning in the performance.  On June 3, The Guardian carried a story about how people presumed to be members of Trump’s religious “base” consumed the Bible incident. It included this passage.

“My whole family was flabbergasted,” said Benjamin Horbowy, 37.

The Horbowys had gathered in Tallahassee, Florida, to watch live as Trump walked from the White House to St John’s. “My mother just shouted out, ‘God give him strength! He’s doing a Jericho walk!’”

A Jericho walk, in some evangelical circles, refers to the biblical book of Joshua, where God commanded the Israelites to walk seven times around the opposing city of Jericho, whose walls then came crashing down.

Horbowy already supported Trump politically – he heads the local chapter of a pro- Trump motorcycle club and is campaigning for a seat in Florida’s state senate – but when Trump lifted the Bible, Horbowy and his family felt overcome spiritually.

“My mother started crying. She comes from Pentecostal background, and she started speaking in tongues. I haven’t heard her speak in tongues in years,” he said. “I thought, look at my president! He’s establishing the Lord’s kingdom in the world.” (Guardian, 2020)

Here, then, is a moment of consumption that depends on the performative open-ness of the Trump Bible incident.  A superficial or denotive expectation of the presentation of the sign (Tump holds Bible) would expect it to be read as a gesture toward his base, and perhaps nothing more (and in fact that his how much of the journalistic commentary interpreted it). Here we can see contemporary practices of reflexive consumption interpolating Trump’s performative/constructive act in a deeper and more meaningful (to these readers) level.  Interestingly, this moment of consumption also depends on a hypermediatic blending of millenarian religious expectation (something we think of as backward or archaic) with modern modes of consumptive practice. These readers of Trump’s act saw it for what it was—an aspired moment of media construction—and interpreted it on its own terms, but not in a framework of conventional imagined “interests” but through an imaginary that infused it with other registers or levels of meaning.  And—importantly—engaged in these practices of visual consumption in and through media and processes of mediation rather unproblematically.

That there are these kinds of interpretive registers for consumption of the Trump/Bible performance is not the only way in which we might judge its complexity and multivalent character.  It also exhibited a range of contradictions.  Imaginaries are on one level all about contradictions.  As Anderson suggested in his germinal work (1983), there is a distance between the range of structural, cultural, and political conditions that define the modern state and the imaginative resources that in a sense perfect it as an expression of nation.  More recent work along these lines has pointed out that this is not limited to the kind of unitary project Anderson described, but that we can see imagination and imaginaries functioning in a range of registers and in layered ways to address the distance between certain actually-existing conditions and the normative expressions that can be perfected in imagination.

Cultural studies is in a way all about addressing such contradictions.  It is about accounting for the ways that various expressions emergent from culture enable senses or “structures of feeling” that can overcome, forget, elide, or resolve contradictions.

The complexity of the Trump/Bible cycle almost demands a culturalist analysis of this kind. The contradictions within it are not only in the obvious tensions between the various political positions that it attempted to advocate or address, but also in a range of other cultural and social positions, some of which were generally obvious and others which were obvious to particular groups or communities, and still others which would become more generally obvious through the public-ness of the effort and its reception.  And religion is further interpolated into these events by virtue of the fact that many of each of these types of contradiction were themselves layered articulations of “the religious” into and out of these meaning systems.   These matters are complex, but culturalist analysis must aspire to careful interpretation of the complex.

To review some of these contradictions.  First, the setting.  Trump’s and Barr’s definition of the place, St. John’s Church, was that it was denotatively a center of American civil religion and thus arguably a geography that would rightly serve as a backdrop for a broad symbolic act of political locating.  This contradicted the reality (noted by some journalists) that it was in fact a congregation whose progressive theology and social ministries were in direct conflict with the policies of the Trump administration.  Thus, a first-order denotative violation of the “sacred space” of the church in service of profane politics was only one of the contradictions embedded in this act. And the deeper and more complex reading depends on a deeper reading and understanding of the nature of contemporary religion and religious politics.

A second—and more searing—contradiction was widely noted:  that the performance was made possible by violence.  A first-order analysis of the violence (which was widely circulated) noted its contradiction to the implicit “message” of the Bible and of “church”[3].  Trump’s and Barr’s aspiration to make the clearing of the square something symbolic of power, authority, action, boundaries, and the claiming of territory was however read differently in different religious registers, as the quote above demonstrated.  But there were other framings in conservative religion as well, with many conservative Christians expressing support for Trump’s efforts to “restore order.”

There was also a contradiction in the formal performance of geographic boundary-building or claiming.  Lafayette Square was frequently described in the news accounts as a gathering place for public-making and public expression.  Its contiguity to the White House has given it this status for over a century.  The performance of violent clearing, followed by the odd procession of Administration officials, presented then a contradiction between the sacrality of the space as a feature of historic American democratic participation, and its profanation by an expression of power by the state.  It was thus a contradiction rooted in civic or “civil” religion, but which was nonetheless intelligible as a discourse of “the sacred.”

Also embedded in this performance is the long-standing and long-noted contradiction between Trump’s  personal image and the attempted normative image here of submission to the power of God or the authority of the Bible.  The equivocal nature of this visual gesture was obvious in the awkwardness of the moment (“…is that your Bible?”).  There is much to unpack here.  On a denotative level of signs, Trump the man seems so contradictory to the aspired normative model of Christian manhood and fatherhood.  The contradiction between Trump and the values of his Evangelical base has been broadly noted and remains one of the most confusing features of the Trump era for many observers (Posner, 2020).  This is one of the most complexly-layered (as well as portentous and politically-significant) features of the religious-symbolic circulations around Trump and religion.  On a pure level of political interest, as has been widely noted, his Evangelical “base” is able to forgive much of who he is for what he has done for them (Weiss, 2018).  But the explanation or the justification goes much deeper as suggested by the earlier quotations from The Guardian. Indeed, there exists on the Christian right a complex imaginary that codes Trump’s very defects as measures of his significance in God’s plan for America (Hoover, 2020).  Christian theological circles, most notably Dominion theology, envision a religion- and God-centered America where political figures, even ones as flawed as Trump, are seen as part of a millenarian future for the country (Ingersoll, 2015).  And—tellingly—the more symbolically ambivalent he appears denotatively, the more he is seen in these quarters as a powerful instrument of divine purpose.

An account of participants at Trump rallies by Jeff Sharlet (2020) in Vanity Fair soon after this incident provides evidence of another register of Trump’s religious meaning to his base.  Sharlet describes what he sees as a contemporary Gnosticism in the way certain Trump followers think of him. They are motivated to understand the forces in the world as a battle between those that are deployed by elites and—more importantly to these followers—those that are unseen, mysterious, and intentionally shielded from view.  They see Trump as a champion in a new, contemporary, mystery cult, devoted to the destruction of the power of the “deep state” which has fallen into hideous corruption.  (This bears much in common with the higher-profile “Q-Anon” conspiracy and it is not clear they are distinct).  What is most interesting to those of us focused on media, though, is Sharlet’s finding that the practical materiality of media—their particular functions, characteristics, and affordances, are read into this worldview as containing specific power—obvious only to those who have eyes to see. Mediatic performances provide the keys to this special knowledge.  Sharlet describes the special meanings these people see in Trump’s tweets:

“The tweets?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Pastor Dave. “They matter.”

“Right,” I say.

“They mean things,” he explains. He points. There: a shirt. And there, up in the seats. Another shirt. And there, and there, and there. As if repetition itself is all the proof needed.

“It’s not a joke?” I ask Dave. The shirts seem like a rebuke to Black Lives Matter.

“No!” Dave isn’t offended. It’s unthinkable that anyone down here, so close to Trump’s podium, could really believe that. “It’s like—” he looks for a word.

“Scripture?” I say.

“Yes,” he says with a youth pastor’s grin. “Like Scripture.” Every tweet, every misspelling, every typo, every strange capitalization—especially the capitalizations, says Dave—has meaning. “The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn’t make mistakes.” The message of the shirt to Dave is: Study the layers. “Trump is known as a five-dimension chess player,” Dave says later. And he’s sending us clues. About the Democrats and Ukraine and his plans. “There are major operations going on,” Dave tells me months later, suggesting that Trump is using COVID-19 field hospitals as “a cover” to rescue children from sex trafficking.[4]

It is critical here to see how the open-ness of the performance of the sign is everything.  The imaginaries that support these various views of Trump-as-religious-icon variously depend on—or are at least not invalidated by—the contradictions between his persona and his significance to religious-political purpose. And this is also a complexly-layered moment of hypermediatic mediatization.  Trump’s image, his lodgment within cultural practices of excess and decadence, are after all mediatized images and expressions.  Religious audiences have access to those constructions and symbolic framings.  His positionality as a “media figure” is central to their image of him, and gives additional frisson to the meaning construction of him as someone who is significant on a broader framework of social and political action.  The media made the man—and the mythology.

Some broader theoretical insights begin to emerge in our exploration of these events.  We can draw from the deployment and circulation of Trump’s performance at St. John’s Church the basic lesson that it is best not to fall into the shibboleth of seeing religiously-coded signs as closed.  But there is much more here.  Their denotative status is of course important, but is not rooted in the authority of the sign.  In fact, one of the most significant implications of the “media age” for religion is in its effects on authority (Hoover, 2016).  Religious authority can no longer aspire to control its own signs and symbols.  They flow out into the culture and are increasingly the property of reflexive practices of engagement and circulation.  Religious symbols retain some of their denotative meaning, but it is now a shared social meaning.  Their status in public circulation depends on their plausibility as symbols but this is always a negotiation, always partial, always conditional and contextual.

To refer back to Barthes, we could say that the Trump/Bible image need not be closed in its own terms, need not be denotative. The contradictions I’ve discussed (obvious to most of the interpretive communities to which it matters) are rendered too pressing by the social and political conditions of the moment. Instead its connotative performance becomes denotative for certain specific attention publics.  The meaning is, again, in the performance.  This drives processes and practices of mediation and the larger theoretical questions related to hypermediation and mediatization to the center as we try to account for it.

So we can think of the Trump/Bible performance at St. John’s Church on June 1 as a complex and layered moment of meaning circulation.  What we’ve considered so far has us understanding it as a complex interplay of symbols, symbolic performance, circulation, reception, and re-circulation.  And, it derives its significance from the fact that it is about real, tangible, interests and motivations expressing themselves in real time.  They are not just any symbols, symbolic performances, circulations, receptions, and re-circulations. They are these ones—instantiated by and linked to the social moment.  It also suggests that we must understand it in terms of its cultural, political and religious elements understood historiographically. They have specific and known provenances and trajectories.  We can’t have a full grasp of it without this more complete analysis.

But the June 1 performance at St. John’s church and the June 2 performance at the John Paul II shrine were intended to be connected, and a trajectory that cuts through them has proven to point to other—also complex and layered—registers of meaning, intent, and aspiration.  A first-level analysis of the June 2 visit to the shrine was that it was a rather self-evident gesture towards another, slightly less integrated part of Trump’s religious “coalition”: conservative Catholics.  The broader plausibility of Trump politics depends on this coalition and is rooted in his administration’s efforts to satisfy these religious interests through nominees to the federal courts and other measures focused on reproductive rights, gender relations, gay and transgender rights, and the broad and diffuse grievance over “religious liberty” (Fea, 2018).

This package of issues includes some that are expressible in concrete policy and others that are less concrete and exist more in the realm of social imaginaries.  The desire to limit access to abortion—something that conservative Catholic and Protestant interests share—is expressible in concrete terms.  The related issue of access to contraceptive services—something of more interest to Catholics than to Protestants—is also expressible in concrete policy.  The other issues are broader in terms of their implications and the ways that the conservative Christian interests experience them.  The Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage was a specific moment and is a specific issue, of course, but it is assumed by most—including those on the right—that it is now settled law, so the “interest” in it shifts then to a posture of resistance and grievance related to its deployment and its implications for broader social acceptance of gay people.  The other concerns, which are demonstrably integral to the conservative Christian package of interests, are less clearly articulated into policy and are expressed and expressible more in the realm of imaginaries and the “imagined communities” these various groups wish to inhabit.  They are structures of feeling or ways of feeling.  (I will provide a tentative framing of how to understand the broader context of these imaginaries presently.)

This makes the project of crafting, expressing, deploying, and circulating symbolic resources critical. Those are the ways and places that social imaginaries happen.  The Trump/Bible/John Paul II Shrine cycle of symbolic performance was thus coded in relation to this project of imagination.  The interests to whom these events “mattered” each articulated them in its own way, and these contrasting interpretations then became and will continue to be, important markers of and resources to the political agonism of the Trump (and post-Trump) era.

The visit to the John Paul II shrine and its aftermath points to another learning, something that should be obvious by now.  A complex and productive moment like the June 1 and 2 cycle of performances provides complex and layered affordances and trajectories of meaning and action.  We’ve already seen how the thematic system of these two acts and their deployment of affect invoked a complicated and layered set of interests, emotions, and purposes, focused around an aspiration to demonstrate certain things about power and resolve and to direct that aspiration in a way that defines meaning and identity boundaries among various competing publics.  But, its productivity flowed well beyond, which we can see by looking at one specific trajectory flowing out of the June 2 visit to the John Paull II shrine.

We’ve already noted that the Catholic Archbishop, Wilton Gregory, entered into the fray by condemning the Knights of Columbus for allowing their shrine to be used for blatant political purpose.  He was clearly inferring that the gesture of the visit was intended to address the growing public movement for racial justice arising as a response to the police killing of George Floyd.  The landscape of that movement had clearly isolated and positioned the President, who had then further positioned himself as a critic of the protests for racial justice that had spread across the world.  Thus the President’s intent in performing these public acts of location self-evidently invoking religion and “the religious” was broadly legible to most observers, and a protest against one of these gestures clearly positioned Bishop Gregory.

One of the responses to the Bishop pointed to yet another level of meaning and trajectory of religious/political struggle.  According to coverage by Religion News Service, a few days after Gregory’s criticism of Trump, a conservative Catholic group released a video criticizing him and calling him “an accused homosexual,” “a Marxist,” and “an African Queen.”  The story went on to identify the source of the video:

Church Militant, a Catholic website known for its incendiary editorial style and whose mission is to “battle against sin, the devil and the demonic,” published the video, which criticizes Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the first African American to head the Archdiocese of Washington, for his clashes with President Donald Trump.

Michael Voris, the founder of Church Militant, repeatedly refers to Gregory as “the African Queen” throughout the video. He also accuses the archbishop of lying when the cleric criticized the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington for hosting Trump last week. (Jenkins, 2020).

Several things are immediately evident, of course.  First, the criticism of a prominent Black official specifically in terms of his race is not new, and a common challenge such leaders face.  The references to “the devil and the demonic” in the organization’s mission statement of course point to archaic and reactionary Catholic theology with deep roots, but also invokes some of the spirit of the modern cultic Gnosticism noted earlier by Jeff Sharlet among Trump supporters.

Some other things are less obvious except as we might look more carefully at the evolving geographies of religious politics.  “Church Militant” is a label that codes a movement of conservative revanchism within Catholicism whose most prominent figure is former Trump advisor Steven Bannon (Teitelbaum, 2020; Gaffey, 2017).  A thorough exploration of this specific movement is beyond my purpose here, but it is worth noting that Bannon has extensive media experience and media holdings, and continues to be an active producer of media products that I have elsewhere described as “affective infrastructures” supporting new religious/political formations in contemporary nationalist and populist politics (Hoover, 2019).  For our explorations here, however, the significant thing is that this Catholic group chose to invoke a set of tropes related to Bishop Gregory that point toward a broader purpose.

The activism of Bannon and the Church Militant group is consonant with a larger set of religious interests and movements emerging globally that form a new kind of religious nationalism (Hoover, 2020).[5]  Newly-prominent in the Post-Brexit, Post-Trump eras of neo-populist politics, these groups link across various national contexts.  American Evangelicals make league with conservative Orthodox forces in Putin’s Russia.  Newly political Pentecostals in Bolsonaro’s Brazil link with both of the former groups.  Militant Catholicism is an important source of support for Duda in Poland.  And it is not only Christian movements. There are interesting linkages as well into the Hindutva movements in Modi’s India.

Roger Friedland (2002) describes the outlines of what seems to drive contemporary religious nationalisms.  All are driven by an interest in returning the nation to the geography of religion, and most notably, this involves extensive constructive efforts in registers of imagination and affect.  Friedland observes that questions of sex and gender roles seem always at the heart of these movements.  I have elsewhere (Hoover, 2020) developed an argument that in these contemporary religious-nationalist movements of the “neo-populist” era, we can identify three primary goals. First, there is the desire to imaginatively and nostalgically celebrate and recreate lost halcyon pasts.  These are, of course, deeply marked by race and traditionalist constructions of racial difference and exceptionalism.  Second, there is a deep concern with, and focus on, gender, gender relations, and the domestic sphere.  This involves, of course, particular political positions regarding such things as gay, transgender, women’s, and reproductive rights.  Finally, there is a compelling desire to once again “mark” the culture with religion.  That these movements would thus be deeply interconnected with the deployment of the symbolic resources and affordances of the hypermediatic age is not surprising.  But, one can see in them the kind of material connection with mediation we’ve identified with the Trump supporters above.  “Deep mediatization,” of this kind then, implies that layered systems and political-economies of media production are deeply articulated into the imaginative media practices that make politics happen.

This emergent religious nationalism’s presence within the Trump movement can also help explain other anomalies.  There has been a good deal of attention to the question of what motivates William Barr to continue as Trump’s Attorney General when he has had to engage in activities that perplex many in the legal world.   Barr’s project at justice has confused many.  As many accounts note, he has always held the “unitary executive” view of Presidential power, which gives that branch extra weight vis a vis the other branches.  But to what end?  It is becoming clearer that there is a larger—religiously inflected—purpose to Barr.  Mattithias Schwartz (2020), in an expansive profile in the New York Times Magazine, provides this explanation, quoting someone who worked with Barr in a previous administration:

“….he is committed to the “hierarchical” and “authoritarian” premise that “a top-down ordering of society will produce a more moral society.” That isn’t too far away from what Barr himself articulated in a 2019 speech at the University of Notre Dame. In Barr’s view, piety lay at the heart of the founders’ model of self-government, which depended on religious values to restrain human passions. “The founding generation were Christians,” Barr said. Goodness flows from “a transcendent Supreme Being” through “individual morality” to form “the social order.” Reason and experience merely serve to confirm the infallible divine law. That law, he said, is under threat from “militant secularists,” including “so-called progressives,” who call on the state “to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.” At their feet, Barr places mental illness, drug overdoses, violence and suicide. All these things, he said, are getting worse. All are “the bitter results of the new secular age.”

This places Barr, arguably the most important single figure in the Trump Administration besides the President himself, in league with a number of the religious forces we’ve seen here.  His motivation is a religious one, though not rooted in “faith” so much as in the kind of politicized religiosity I attributed to Jerry Falwell and the other conservative Christian leaders I discussed earlier.  This has echoes of the Domnionist view of state authority, of course, but also places him squarely in the kind of religious nationalism Roger Friedlander points to—and I identified within some of the most significant contemporary political formations.  Barr doesn’t say so explicitly, but this would be the reason, for example, that his Justice Department would take the positions it has in recent Supreme Court cases dealing with civil rights, and explains his keen interest in the “religious liberty” movement.  And Barr is not the only one.   Secretary of State Pompeo is of a similar mind,[6] and is very forthcoming about his views of an expansive religion-infused role of government and leadership, as can be seen in this video on the official Department of State website.  This means that, lurking beneath the chaos of the Trump era, exists a broad agonistic project connected with a religious-nationalist purpose very much rooted in the meanings and motivations identified by Friedland.  In additional to Barr and Pompeo, others in the Trump circle can be identified with this politics, including of course the Vice President, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and White House Counsels Pat Cipolone and Jay Sekulow.  This nationalist project is also  implicit in the religion agenda of the current U.S. Supreme Court (which is dominated by conservative Catholics), and in such prominent political forces as the conservative Christian fellowship “the Family” that links members of Congress and other senior officials in the U.S. government as depicted in the 2019 Netflix series of the same name.

This religious-nationalist strain within contemporary conservative politics deserves a more extensive treatment than I can give it here.  Let me make clear that I am not lifting up these individuals and groups simply because of their religiosity.  This is not directly rooted in questions of their faith or belief. Rather, this is about their engagement in a broader nationalist imaginary that desires a religiously-marked government and public sphere, and one directed at the three symbolic centers I noted earlier: a nostalgia for a remembered past, a commitment to traditionalist ideas about the domestic sphere including gender relations and resistance to advancements in LGBTQ rights, and a desire to once again “mark” the culture with religion.  And, it is essential to note that this project of imagination is absolutely dependent on media and mediation.

We can see, then, that the criticism of Bishop Gregory by means of both racial and homophobic slurs is more than just a trivial matter of bigotry.  It codes much larger and more portentous global efforts in religious politics.  It is about pointing to a particular imaginary—a “neo-traditionalist” one—where a Black body in a position of authority standing against the aspired purpose of religiously-imagined senses of identity and nationhood, must be “othered” (and no figurative “holds” are barred) both for its Black-ness and further identified with a putative project of undoing the idealized imaginary of domestic identity—a kind of heimat—for which conservative Christians must carry a legitimate (in their view) grievance.  He is a Black “other”—an interloper in the halls of power in the church—and he must necessarily also be identified with a broader project of undoing the idealized, gendered domestic by means of promoting gay rights.  And—and I cannot emphasize this enough—as a project of imaginaries, these forces depend heavily on, and are effectively coded within, media circulations, and are thus rightly the concern of culturalist media scholarship.


Thus, the trajectories of interest and meaning that flow into and out of the mediated performances on June 1 and June 2 transcend the denotative and first-order meanings of their various manipulated signs.  My goal here has been to attempt to account for the way that religion was involved in these various acts.  They were, on a superficial level, very much about religion.  But they demanded an analysis that would look for complex, layered, and often subtle ways that they were more than just “about religion.”  They provided a rich inventory of signs and practices that pointed to a complex array of meanings, purposes, and associations both within their own logics and pointing to trajectories beyond.

My primary purpose has been to use this cycle of events to explore the ways that interpretation and analysis might take account of both media and religion and understand the ways that each of them, and their interactions, might be more significant in our scholarship about contemporary culture and politics.  I’ve said that media scholarship needs to take religion more seriously and understand and analyze it more carefully. There is not a long or deep scholarly literature about this in the field.  Culturalist media scholarship has ignored religion far too long and has done so at the peril of not being able to fully or seriously account for important social and cultural developments.  This has been a problem for many years, but has come to a head with the post-2015 politics of the North Atlantic West.  Regardless of what happens next with populist politics, the interests, movements, gestures, and media affordances that have come into relief in the Trump/Johnson/Putin/Bolsonaro era are not going away. They will merit careful scholarly attention.  I would hope this analysis would provide signposts for such work, and would demonstrate that serious scholarship at the boundary of media and religion can address the most pressing and timely issues facing scholarship in contemporary culture and can yield deeper insights and learnings than is possible without it.

To review the learnings here, we can begin by noting again the point I’ve made throughout, that careful scholarly attention to the questions of media and religion depend on understanding the way that religion is layered into other social and cultural forces in subtle and often complex ways. We’ve seen, for example, that the events of June 1 and 2 coded important political forces and interests by means of invocation of religion in several different registers. There were, of course, the obvious and denotative registers of the symbols and gestures. But, as we’ve seen, these were not seamless, rather there were seams all around them. The fissures and the intentions and aspirations were written all over them, and were easily read both by those who were antagonistic and were supportive of Trump.  The facile reading by antagonists and skeptics, that this ham-handed gesture, where Trump’s actual engagement with faith was again shown to be tenuous, missed the depth of the point.  Others who were more supportive could read it as a gesture in the “right” direction at least, and still others, as we saw, could read special compelling signs and symbols into it.  We should not forget that what affords this multivalent reading and structuration are characteristics of the age, which I’ve called “hypermediatic.”  They involve an integration and interpolation of media materialities, practices, technologies, and systems into these complex cultural/political projects.  This is a kind of “deep mediatization” but one that we must interpret through the complexity and transparency of its forces, gestures, and technologies.  We can also see within this event cycle the functioning of “affect.”  These are impulses, discourses, and potent moments of association and articulation that exist as much on the level of social imaginary as in material and structural spheres.  They are not disconnected from their “bases,” but there is much more going on here.

A second area of learning from this analysis is the necessity of abandoning the easy expectation that we should read religious signs denotatively.  They are not closed in contemporary discourse and in hypermediative cultures, they are “open,” often read on levels far removed from their provenance from history, authority or doctrine.  In the media age, as I have said, religions have essentially lost control over their own symbols. Those symbols have become differentiated, relativized, and “branded.”  But the event under consideration here suggests that this dissociation from authority does not render these symbols irreligious or religiously “meaningless.”  Instead, as we can see here, they become denotatively meaningful in new ways in new registers and new contexts.  Further, the intelligibility of these readings and renderings can become legible to us, as scholarly observers, through careful historiographic inquiry and through attention to detail in religious, cultural, political, and media history.

Third, these open signs and symbols of contemporary religion can be read in multiple ways and by multiple publics.  Careful cultural analysis can help us unpack these readings and understand their relationships to contemporary politics and culture.  Media analysis lets us see how media technologies, affordances, and practices further code these symbolic discourses and add value for certain publics in certain situations.  Most obvious here, of course, are those Trump supporters who read special signs and symbolic resources into his tweets.  But there are other, often more subtle, examples.

Fourth, these interpretive logics suggest that the role of media in these imaginative renderings of politics bear much common with work which has suggested that we think of media as “infrastructures of affect” (Papacharizi, 2015; Hoover, 2019) or “sensational forms” (Meyer, 2011).  This is based in a deep history of visual religion and on a prodigious production of religious media across the past century or more that has instantiated “the mediatic” into “the religious.”  It is not just that religious traditions have lost control, it is that mediatic traditions of religion have become plausible and “authentic” to certain publics and in certain places.  It is no longer a question (for some) whether mediated religion is “authentic.”

Fifth, additional registers of cultural politics are written into, and emerge out of, these imaginative renderings.  The notable example here is that of the way that emergent (racialized) religious-nationalist impulses can find plausible articulation in these deployments of media and mediation.  For such movements, the ability to articulate “imaginaries” of cultural value and political purpose makes the “infrastructures of affect” afforded by hypermediation vital.  The world that these nationalists wish to inhabit is in actuality a “…way we never were,” a set of relations that are not possible.  Where they are possible is in the imaginative realities of sensational media forms.

Let me close by returning to the issue of whether we should look at these forces and impulses as purely religious or purely social or political or cultural.  That is, is it possible to analyze incidents like the ones we considered here without taking the “religion” in them into account?  Can we explain “religion” for example entirely in social or socio-functionalist terms?  Following Weber’s lead, could we not say that religion is nothing but a proxy for “class?”  Let me submit that this is really the wrong question.  To begin, what would be the necessity of “explaining away” religion in the first place? But beyond that, I hope my discussion here has demonstrated that taking religion seriously and visible in our interpretations enhances and deepens scholarship on at least two levels. First, religion is a social fact. It is a system of cultural practice and meaning-making that exists in explicit forms across cultures.  It clearly motivates people to action, and functions as a point of identity and meaning-construction for adherents.  Second, it is increasingly obvious that religion is interpolated with media (and has been in the West since at least the time of the printing revolution).  Religion and media are inter-related on many levels (as we’ve seen here).  And though it is beyond the scope of this discussion, there is ample evidence that to the extent that religion is persisting and evolving in late modernity, it is doing so in and through media. This has been shown in the emergence of new religious forms outside the boundaries of tradition, institution and authority.  But, it can also be seen here, where rather more conventional religious impulses and ideas (the ones associated with racially-coded religious nationalism, for example) can find force and affect through mediated religious imaginaries.

In short, there is a great deal of work to be done by media scholarship to begin to catch up to mediated religion.  But this task is justified both on its own terms—the need to expand knowledge through understanding the social world—and in the critical political and social challenges posed by and addressed by the kinds of forces we’ve looked at here.

Originally published in the International Journal of Communication 14 (2020)

Works Cited

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[1] As the argument I am developing here is in some ways addressed to my colleagues in the field of media studies, I feel I should add a thought about this.  As I say, I am advocating that the field take religion more seriously, and begin to understand it in more complex and layered terms than we typically have.  Should the Trump presidency turn out to be one term only, there will be a temptation to think of it—and of the role of religion in it—as a “temporary political fever” that has now been broken.  And therefore the necessity of looking into dimensions of it—including the religious ones—is no longer necessary.  Need I point out that our inattention to religion left us unable to account for the culture of Trump this time around, and there is no reason to believe that the formations that came into relief over the past five years will “go away” now, and may roil politics for years to come?

[2] And its open-ness and equivocation is clearer when read through the frame of religion.

[3] Though, of course, there is violence in the Bible, and “church” through history has not been unequivocally a sign of peace—yet another layer present here.  This history was in fact one valence of the larger BLM reckoning, with the complicity of white churches and their theology in slavery and oppression emerging as a theme in the discourse.

[4] NB also the parallels to Meyer’s (2011) important work on media as “sensational forms.”

[5] It is worth noting that among Bannon’s productions are some that articulate the imaginary of religious nationalism very directly. This worldview and its mediation by means of “affective infrastructures” (Hoover, 2019) is beyond the scope of this effort, but well-deserving of more complete treatment.  They help locate this movement within the historiography of American religious history and politics, already noted here.  For just a taste, here is a passage from the narration of Bannon’s film The Torchbearer.  The narrator is Phil Robertson, who may be remembered as the “grandfather” in the popular Duck Dynasty franchise who was separated from that show for his public professions of anti-gay bias.  The script has Robertson reflecting on American history from this revisionist nationalist point of view.  Here is an account of how the film deals with the repudiation that Fundamentalism suffered early in the last century:

Robertson says the Scopes trial on the teaching of evolution, during which H.L. Mencken mocked religious opponents of teaching evolution in schools, was “a watershed event that would slowly unravel the bond that wove the Creator into the very fabric of American life. God would be cast out of the public square, out of education, out of national discourse, out of the popular culture altogether.”

[6] Significant to my argument here, Pompeo and Barr come from distinct religious backgrounds.  Barr is Catholic, Pompeo Evangelical Protestant.  This also reinforces my argument that pure denotation of religion as “faith” or “belief” is inadequate.

By Stewart Hoover

Stewart Hoover is director of the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder.