Bishop Denounces President Trump's 'Incendiary' Photo-Op at St. John's Church amid Protests

Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde said Trump "just used a Bible and a church of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for"

White House protests
Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators, shooting tear gas next to St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House on Monday. Photo: JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty

The Trump administration's use of force Monday to clear peaceful protesters in front of the White House so the president could be photographed at a nearby church was met with fierce backlash from local religious leaders.

"In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation," tweeted Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington who oversees the St. John's Episcopal Church that Donald Trump briefly visited Monday night.

Law enforcement used tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets and smoke canisters on Monday to clear the demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square, next to the White House.

Attorney General Bill Barr directly ordered law enforcement to clear the protesters, The Washington Post reported, though according to the Wall Street Journal federal officials had already intended to create a larger perimeter around the White House given heated protests over the weekend.

Monday's aggressive move cleared a path for Trump to make the short walk to St. John's, which has been visited by generations of presidents. There he held a Bible for the cameras and took some photos before returning home.

A reporter asked Trump, "Is that your Bible?" He responded: "It's a Bible." (His daughter and top aide, Ivanka Trump, brought the Bible in question with her from the White House, according to the Journal.)

Budde tweeted that Trump "just used a Bible and a church of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for."

"The President did not come to pray; he did not lament the death of George Floyd or acknowledge the collective agony of people of color in our nation," she wrote. "He did not attempt to heal or bring calm to our troubled land."

She was even more blunt in an appearance on CNN: "He sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. I am outraged."

On Tuesday morning Trump, 73, also visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., drawing more sharp words from local religious leaders.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who leads the Archdiocese of Washington and is the highest-ranking African-American bishop in the country, condemned Trump's visit in a statement released before the president arrived at the shrine.

“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's statement read.

Gregory continued, drawing on St. Pope John Paul II's teachings and practices, which he says are stark in comparison to Trump's.

"Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings," Gregory said. "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."

Greg Brewer, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, said he was "shaken" to see Trump use law enforcement to drive back peaceful protesters outside the White House in order to make his trip to the church.

"This is blasphemy in real time," Brewer tweeted.

The move had its supporters, however.

“It was illustrative that rioters won’t prevail,” senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway later said, according to the Journal.

One billionaire Trump donor, Phil Ruffin, told the paper: "He should show strength, and I think he has."

Donald Trump
Donald Trump walks to St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House on June 1, 2020 after military police forcibly cleared peaceful protesters from areas outside the White House. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images
White House protests
United States Park Police pushes back protestors near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continue. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty

Trump's short trip to St. John's came after a televised address from the Rose Garden in which he declared himself to the American people as "your president of law and order."

"I am your president of law and order and an ally to peaceful protesters," Trump said. "Our country always wins."

"We are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country," he said. "We will end it now."

He also threatened to deploy the military to states in order to stomp out protests — a statement made after he called governors "weak" earlier in the day in response to the days of unrest around the country.

Protests have roiled dozens of U.S. cities since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The unarmed Floyd, 46, was recorded pleading for air while a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, well after Floyd had gone visibly still.

"I can't breathe," Floyd told the officers, according to the footage. All four police involved were soon fired and the officer kneeling on Floyd, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with three-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter but has not entered a plea.

White House protests
Military police officers are restraining a protestor near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continue. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty
White House protests
Police officers hold a perimeter near the White House as demonstrators gather to protest the killing of George Floyd on June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty

Protesters and police have clashed around the country. While many of the demonstrations have been peaceful, some have descended into violence and looting, with businesses ransacked and burned and police vehicles burning in the street.

The White House blamed the chaos on "radical" leftists and criticized the response of former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's likely opponent in November's election, and some local leaders.

While Trump has said he stands in solidarity with Floyd's family, he has focused on the protesters and the moments of violence — arguing the proper response is a dominating show of force in kind.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker told Trump on the Monday morning call with governors that he was "extraordinarily concerned" about the president's words.

"The rhetoric that's coming out of the White House is making it worse," Pritzker told Trump. "I need to say that people are feeling real pain out there and we’ve got to have national leadership in calling for calm and making sure that we’re addressing the concerns of the legitimate peaceful protesters. That will help us to bring order."

Biden, 77, joined religious leaders in denouncing Trump's actions Monday.

He said Tuesday morning that people across the country were “crying out for leadership” to "unite us and bring us together."

"I just wish he opened it [the Bible] once in a while instead of brandishing it," Biden said. "If he opened it, he could’ve learned something. We’re all called to love one another as we love ourselves. It’s really hard work, but it’s the work of America.”

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