The head of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has denounced President Donald Trump’s decision to pose in front of the historic St. John’s Church, located near the White House, that recently suffered fire damage during protests against the killing of George Floyd.
On Monday, U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops cleared the pathway from the White House to the church, reportedly using tear gas and pushing peaceful protesters aside, before Trump walked to the church holding a Bible and giving some brief comments.
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde responded on Facebook, expressing outrage over the president’s decision to use the church as a backdrop.
“The President just used a Bible and one of the churches of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for,” stated Budde, the Facebook post getting as of Tuesday morning more than 13,000 likes and 52,000 shares.
“To do so, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. I am outraged.”
Budde went on to say that she did not “support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation.”
“In faithfulness to our Savior who lived a life of non-violence and sacrificial love, we align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others through the sacred act of peaceful protest,” she continued.
Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry also denounced Trump's move.
"[H]e 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," Curry said.
"The bible teaches us that 'God is love.' Jesus of Nazareth taught, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' The prophet Micah taught that the Lord requires us to 'do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.' The bible the President held up and the church that he stood in front of represent the values of love, of justice, of compassion, and of a way to heal our hurts.
"We need our President, and all who hold office, to be moral leaders who help us to be a people and nation living these values. For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be 'one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.'"
Several journalists, including NBC News Reporter Garrett Haake, reported that protesters were peaceful in their demonstrations. But WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein said the Park Police told him the officers were "pelted with water bottles." So they used smoke canisters, not tear gas, to disburse the crowd. "Another factor was that protesters had climbed on top of the structure at the north end of Lafayette Square that had been burned the day before," Augenstein wrote on Twitter.
Other security officials have yet to confirm if they used tear gas but witnesses reported that tear gas had been thrown at them.
The Rev. Gini Gerbasi, rector at St. John's Episcopal Church in Georgetown, said she was at Lafayette Square with other clergy, passing out water and snacks when police began "pushing protestors off of H Street."
"They started using tear gas and folks were running at us for eyewashes or water or wet paper towels," she described on Facebook. "Suddenly, around 6:30, there was more tear gas, more concussion grenades, and I think I saw someone hit by a rubber bullet - he was grasping his stomach and there was a mark on his shirt. The police in their riot gear were literally walking onto the St. John's, Lafayette Square patio with these metal shields, pushing people off the patio and driving them back.
"WE WERE DRIVEN OFF OF THE PATIO AT ST. JOHN'S - a place of peace and respite and medical care throughout the day - SO THAT MAN COULD HAVE A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH!!! PEOPLE WERE HURT SO THAT HE COULD POSE IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH WITH A BIBLE!"
Others, including evangelical Trump administration adviser Johnnie Moore, were more sympathetic toward the president’s actions.
“I will never forget seeing [Trump] slowly & in-total-command walk from the [White House] across Lafayette Square to St. John's Church defying those who aim to derail our national healing by spreading fear, hate & anarchy. After just saying, ‘I will keep you safe,’” tweeted Moore.
Evangelist Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, also commended Trump for his walking to the church.
“Trump made a statement by walking through Lafayette Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church that had been vandalized and partially burned Sunday night,” stated Graham in a Facebook post, which as of Tuesday morning has gotten over 130,000 likes and 40,000 loves.
“He surprised those following him by holding up a Bible in front of the church. Thank you President Trump. God and His Word are the only hope for our nation.”
For its part, the White House posted a 29-second video to Twitter highlighting the walk Trump took to the church and his holding up of a Bible while outside the sanctuary.
The video included soaring music and also showed Trump walking by a line of police in riot gear. As of Tuesday morning, it has gotten more than 38,000 likes and 22,000 retweets.
On Sunday evening, St. John’s Church was the victim of vandalism during protests, with a fire set in the basement nursery and graffiti sprayed on its walls.
“We are fortunate that the damage to the buildings is limited,” said church rector the Rev. Robert Fisher in a letter to parishioners on Sunday.
“Thankfully, there is no damage inside either of the buildings. This morning we secured, as best we could, our most valuable items.”
Later Monday evening, Trump said in a speech that violent mobs and rioters have been engaging in "acts of domestic terror" and that he will be "taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America" by "immobilizing all federal resources, civilian and military to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights."
"I swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation, and that is exactly what I will do. All Americans are rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd," Trump said. "My administration is fully committed that for George and his family, justice will be served. He will not have died in vain. But we cannot allow the righteous prize and peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob. The biggest victims of the rioting are peace loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as they are President, I will fight to keep them safe. I will fight to protect you. I am your President of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters."