WASHINGTON – Within a 24-hour period, President Donald Trump has made two visits to Christian religious sites. On Monday, Trump visited an historic church near the White House, and on Tuesday he laid a wreath at a shrine in honor of Saint Pope John Paul II.
Both events offered Trump an opportunity to highlight his administration's support for Christians in the United States and around the world, long a priority for the president, who won 81% of white evangelical Protestant voters in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump's 2020 reelection effort has already created at least two campaign advisory boards specifically aimed at shoring up Trump's support among Christians: Evangelicals for Trump launched on Jan. 3, and Catholics for Trump on Apr. 2.
Nonetheless, both of Trump's visits to Christian sites this week were fraught with controversy.
Rather than garner praise from prominent Christians, both events drew condemnation from the leaders of their respective denominations.They accused Trump of using holy spaces as political props.
They also objected to Trump's demand that police and soldiers crack down on protests that have erupted across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
The more controversial of Trump's two visits was on Monday night. At around 6:30 p.m., riot police and military police abruptly and violently cleared out a peaceful crowd of protesters near the White House with pepper spray and rubber bullets, more than a half-hour before the start of a citywide curfew in Washington.
While this was happening, Trump was giving a hastily arranged public address inside the White House Rose Garden, where he threatened to deploy active-duty troops to U.S. cities if local leaders did not succeed in quelling the protests, some of which have turned violent.
At first it was unclear why police outside the White House were suddenly firing rubber bullets and throwing pepper spray canisters at protesters.
But moments after Trump finished his address, the president and a retinue of staffers emerged from the White House gates, crossed the cleared-out square on foot, and arrived at St. John's Church. The historic Episcopal Church had suffered minor damage in protests the night before.
Standing in front of the church, Trump held aloft a Bible that his daughter Ivanka Trump had reportedly brought with her from the White House. Brandishing the Bible like a sword, Trump posed for photographs with staff and said, "We have the greatest country in the world, we'll keep it nice and safe."
The White House group included top military officers dressed in battle fatigues, Cabinet secretaries, Secret Service snipers and West Wing aides. After the photos, they all walked back to the White House through a phalanx of riot police.
The Park Police later said that the escalation in tactics at Lafayette Park was triggered by protesters throwing things at the police, and was unrelated to Trump's walk moments later.
In a statement to CNBC about the event, the Trump campaign said the president "made a powerful statement that God will always prevail by standing before the burned church, Bible in hand."
But at St. John's Church, the clergy and parishioners said they were shocked. No one had told them the president would be visiting their church, and it soon emerged that some of the people who were forcibly removed to clear the square for were clergy members affiliated with St. John's.
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington, told the Religion News Service Trump's event left her "outraged."
"The symbolism of him holding a Bible … as a prop and standing in front of our church as a backdrop when everything that he has said is antithetical to the teachings of our traditions and what we stand for as a church — I was horrified," she said.
The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said in a statement: "This evening, the President of the United States stood in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, lifted up a Bible, and had pictures of himself taken. In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us."
On Capitol Hill Tuesday, even loyal Republicans struggled to defend Trump's apparent photo op.
"I don't think I've ever been to an event where I've stood outside a building and held up a Bible like that before, and I'm a person who reads the Bible every day," Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford told reporters.
"I don't think I've ever done that, so it didn't make sense in that context. Visiting that site, I thought was significant," Lankford said. "The time, I didn't think was helpful. If [Trump had] gone the next morning, when there weren't folks out there, that would have been a better time."
Any suggestion of a schism between the White House and faith communities right now comes at a particularly fraught time for Trump's reelection campaign. A series of recent polls show the president losing ground among Christian voters, and they have reportedly triggered alarm bells within the Trump 2020 campaign.
Christians have long been a pillar of Trump's political base, with white evangelical Christians making up a major slice of the U.S. electorate, roughly one-quarter of all voters in 2016.
But this year Christians may be especially important to Trump because his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, is currently leading in both national polls and in most battleground state polls.
Biden has also shown that, as a candidate, he can cut into Trump's support among white, working-class voters, making voters who reliably vote Republican, like evangelical Christians, all the more important in Trump's path to victory.
"The President has an extraordinary record on conservative and faith issues," said Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews. "He has appointed over 190 solid, conservative federal judges, including two exemplary Supreme Court justices. He has defended religious freedoms and stood as the most pro-life president we've ever had."
Ahead of November, said Matthews, "Our faith-based coalitions will engage and mobilize voters for whom these issues are important."
After his controversial trip to St. John's on Monday, Trump had two more scheduled events on Tuesday designed to highlight his administration's support for Christians.
First, Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited a shrine in Northeast Washington, erected to honor the late Pope John Paul II. The shrine is not operated directly by the Catholic Church, but by the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization known for its conservative political bent.
But just as Trump was arriving at the shrine, Washington's Catholic Archbishop, Wilton Gregory, slammed Trump's visit in a statement to the press.
"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 said.
"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," Gregory said. "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."
Later in the day, Trump signed an Executive Order at the White House directing the Secretary of State to dedicate taxpayer funds to protecting and promoting "religious freedom" abroad.
"Religious freedom" is a phrase and an issue that has been embraced by evangelical Christians in the United States. In practice, it usually refers to protecting Christian minorities in majority Muslim nations.
This week is not the first time that Trump has seemingly struggled to hit the right note with Christian leaders and voters.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump marketed himself as a devout Christian. But he frequently revealed his own unfamiliarity with the practice and teachings of the Christian faith.
During a speech at conservative Liberty University in January of 2016, Trump fumbled as he tried to cite Scripture.
"Two Corinthians 3:17, that's the whole ballgame. ... Is that the one you like?" Trump asked the crowd of students. "Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."
The audience snickered, acutely aware that the chapter Trump was trying to quote is known as "Second Corinthians" — not "Two Corinthians."
At other points in the 2016 campaign, Trump said that he had never asked God for forgiveness, effectively revealing that he had never practiced a basic pillar of Christian faith.
"I have great relationship with God. I have great relationship with the Evangelicals," Trump said in an interview with CNN shortly before the 2016 Iowa caucuses.
"I like to be good. I don't like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don't do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad," Trump said.
If 2016 is any indication, Trump's stumbles are unlikely to seriously harm his support among evangelical Christians in November. An April survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that Trump's favorability rating among evangelical Protestants still exceeds his overall approval rating by more than 20 points.