July-August 2020 Church & State Magazine | Featured

On the evening of June 1, President Donald Trump decided to take a little walk. Surrounded by cabinet members, his daughter Ivanka and a phalanx of heavily armed police, he left the White House and strolled one block to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Once there, he stood in front of the church for a few minutes while holding up a Bible. News photographers snapped pictures.

The event was odd on several levels. No one at the church had invited Trump. Once there, he met with no one on staff. He didn’t even enter the building, which had earlier been the site of a small fire set by a vandal. He just did a photo-op and left.

Even worse, to many observers, is what happened before Trump’s strut when people were forcibly cleared from the area. 

Lafayette Square, a seven-acre pub­­lic park across the street from the White House, is often the site of public protests. Indeed, by June 1 people had been gathering in the park for days to denounce police brutality in the wake of the death of a black man, George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis. A police officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged with murder in the incident. Video showed Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck while Floyd pleaded for help and said he couldn’t breathe.

Protests, some of which turned violent, erupted in a number of cities after video of the incident was released. While the majority of the D.C. protests were peaceful, Trump responded to them by cowering in a fortified bunker inside the White House. Apparently angered by tweets that accused him of ineffectiveness in the face of yet another crisis, Trump decided to promote law-and-order themes and threatened to unleash the military if the protests continued.

Prior to visiting the church, Trump gave a speech during which he urged the nation’s governors to “dominate your city and your state” and vowed, “In Washington, we’re going to do something people haven’t seen before.”

The walk, then, was symbolic. Trump needed to appear in public to show he could control the city. But he had nowhere to go, hence the trip to St. John’s.

To get Trump to the church, it was necessary to clear protesters from the area. Accordingly, Attorney General William Barr ordered a show of force. Members of the Secret Service, U.S. Park Police, the D.C. National Guard and police from Arlington, Va., confronted the protesters, launched chemical irritants and hit them with rubber bullets.

'Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. And God is not a plaything.' -- The Rev. James Martin

Faith leaders were appalled over what had happened – among those in the crowd was the Rev. Virginia Gerbasi of an Episcopal church in the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C., who was hit with gas – and sharply criticized Trump for using such aggressive tactics to stage a photo-op. They insisted that the vast majority of protesters had been peaceful, and that there had been no vocal order to disperse before the police acted.

The Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., was 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.”

While Christian nationalist leaders predictably applauded Trump’s stunt, many mainstream and progressive faith leaders joined Budde in blasting him.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, issued a statement saying, “Trump’s policies and actions are both religious hypocrisy and political insanity.”

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, tweeted, “Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. And God is not a plaything.”

The Rev. Bernice King, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, tweeted, “We cannot continue to allow tragic history to repeat itself. Religion used to enforce white supremacist structures and systems. Military used in response to protests against racism and to enforce white supremacist structures and systems. This nation has been here before.”         

The following day, Trump visited a Catholic shrine honoring Pope John Paul II on the grounds of Catholic University of America. But even this visit was not without controversy. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., was critical, asserting, “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. Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”

Commentators from the secular world were equally critical of the Trump stunt. Steve Benen, blogger for MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (and a former Americans United staff member), called it “quite possibly the most ridiculous presidential photo-op in the history of presidential photo-ops.”

Syndicated columnist George F. Will was also not a fan. Will compared what he called “the Battle of Lafayette Square” to an inglorious incident during the presidency of Herbert Hoover on July 28, 1932, when thousands of World War I veterans who had camped in the nation’s capital in the hopes of getting a bonus were driven away with tear gas.

Speaking of Trump’s stroll, Will wrote, “The purpose of the clearing, achieved with flash-bang grenades and chemicals, was to enable the Bible-brandishing commander in chief to stand in front of a church for the purpose of stroking the portion of his political base that is composed of Evangelical Christians who relish rendering their souls unto this particular Caesar. Unfurl the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.”

As days passed and Americans recoiled at the sight of protesters being attacked, right-wing media outlets tried to rewrite what had happened. First they asserted that the crowd had been violent. News media accounts, however, indicated that the protest that night was largely peaceful.

The far right then tried to argue that the protesters hadn’t been gassed but merely hit with smoke bombs. The American Family Association, linking to an article in The Federalist, issued an email asserting that the media had made up the tear gas story to embarrass Trump.

However, reporters soon discovered the truth. Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service reported that the pepper-based chemical irritants used are classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as tear gas.

People who were hit with the gas identified it as an irritant, not mere smoke. Among them was Gerbasi, who described people choking and stumbling around because their eyes were forced shut or watering.

“I’m not a chemist, but what I saw with my own eyes were clouds of smoke,” she said. “I saw people with tears pouring out of their eyes, their eyes red and swollen.”

Will the Trump administration be held accountable for its overly aggressive response to peaceful protests? Perhaps. On June 4, several organizations, including Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, sued Barr and other members of Trump administration in federal court, alleging that their actions had violated the First Amendment rights of the protesters.

“We won’t be silenced by tear gas and rubber bullets,” April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter D.C., said in a statement. “What happened to our members Monday evening, here in the nation’s capital, was an affront to all our rights.”

Nor are the American people buying Trump’s attempt to portray himself as pious. A June 6-7 poll by Politi­co/Morning Consult found that only 27 percent of registered voters said they somewhat or strongly agree that Trump is personally religious; 55 percent somewhat or strongly disagree.

Incidents like the June 1 debacle likely explain why.