The famous social critic Samuel Johnson reminded us that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. That may be so, but Johnson should have added that religion is usually the first.

Under increasing criticism for his inability to lead during what has become one of the most challenging periods in American history, President Donald Trump decided last night to wave a Bible – literally.

Apparently provoked by people on social media who implied that he was behaving cowardly for hunkering down in a White House bunker in the face of protesters in D.C. who demanded an end to police violence against black Americans, Trump responded: He decided to stroll to a nearby church and hold up a Bible for a few moments, an action that required that peaceful protesters first be tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets to get them out of the way. After the photo op, Trump returned to his bunker.

Officials at the church in question, St. John’s Episcopal, said they had nothing to do with the visit, during which Trump did not even enter the building or meet with officials there.

The Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., was clearly furious over Trump’s actions.

“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 said.

She added, “Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence. I am beyond. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us and has just used one of the most sacred symbols of the Judeo-Christian tradition. … No one knew this was happening. I don’t want President Trump speaking for St. John’s.”

Asked by a reporter if the Bible he hoisted was his, all Trump would say was, “It’s a Bible.”

Trump has another visit to a religious site on his schedule for today. This time, his handlers had the sense to find a more welcoming venue – a Catholic shrine at the conservative Catholic University of America.

Trump clearly hopes to cover up his inability to comfort our nation during a time of great sorrow and pain by assuming the mantle of religion. Yet we can see this for what it is: more pandering to his Christian nationalist base. Moderate and progressive religious leaders are lifting their voices in opposition to Trump and his policies. (The fact that an Episcopal priest was among those gassed last night doesn’t help Trump.)

More than 100,000 of our fellow citizens are dead of coronavirus, 40 million Americans are out of work and our cities are being torn apart after yet another black man was murdered by police who ignored his pleas for a gasp of air. It’s a set of circumstances that would challenge even the most rhetorically gifted and insightful of presidents. Trump lacks those gifts so all he can do is return to his standard script of fostering division, issuing crude tweets and engaging in racist dog whistles – and then attempting to cover up his failures by playing the religion card.

It’s disgraceful, and no American – from the most devout believer to the most committed atheist – should fall for this offensive stunt.

Photo: Screenshot from C-SPAN