President Donald Trump made his second visit to a religious site in as many days on Tuesday with a visit to the John Paul II National Shrine in Washington alongside first lady Melania Trump. Later Tuesday, Trump will sign an executive order on international religious freedom.
His photo-op outside St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House on Monday came only after protesters — and some members of the church’s clergy — were pushed back using tear gas and flash bangs. The episode drew sharp criticism from the bishop who oversees the church, who called it a “charade.”
Ahead of the President’s Tuesday visit, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory released a sharply worded statement criticizing Trump and the shrine for hosting him.
“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. The first African American archbishop of Washington also added that Saint Pope John Paul II “certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrence to silence, scatter, or intimidate … for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”
The President and first lady’s visit inside the shrine was closed to press, but the two emerged outside for three minutes, where they stood beside a sculpture of Saint Pope John Paul II and a wreath. They stood solemnly, the first lady in sunglasses, and held hands. The President smiled briefly before they moved to stand in front of the sculpture for a moment before returning inside.
The President and his political advisers have grown concerned about his standing slipping with religious conservatives, people familiar with the matter say. Trump himself has fixated in his standing with evangelicals throughout his presidency, and has been worried by recent polls showing a slide in confidence related to his handling of coronavirus.
The concern among Trump’s political advisers about his standing with voters of faith comes five months before the general election. The presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is a practicing Catholic who regularly attends Mass and weaves religion into his public life. Biden spoke with black leaders at a church in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday.
Trump has not been a frequent church-goer over the course of his presidency. He is visiting the shrine in Washington on Tuesday in part to commemorate the 100th birthday of the late Pope John Paul II, who was born on May 18, 1920. It’s also the 41st anniversary of John Paul II’s historic mass at Victory Square in Warsaw.
Melania Trump is the nation’s second Catholic first lady after Jacqueline Kennedy.
Trump has made 20 visits to churches since taking office, as well as the Inauguration Day service at St. John’s hours before he was sworn in as President. That includes 11 attendances at church services, four visits to churches after natural disasters, and one political speech at an Evangelicals for Trump coalition event earlier this year.
While he said he watched live-streams from a selection of megachurches during the coronavirus lockdown, he hasn’t attended an in-person service since he declared houses of worship essential. He attended a Christmas Eve service at a mega church in West Palm Beach, eschewing the traditional stone Episcopal church he typically attends and where he held his third wedding, due to Melania Trump receiving a Woman of Distinction award in February from a college affiliated with the church.
Before that, Trump has visited a large evangelical church in McLean, Virginia, coming directly from his golf course and wearing golf shoes. He previously went to St. John’s for a St. Patrick’s Day service and for the traditional inauguration prayer session. He’s attended Easter and Christmas services in Palm Beach.
The Episcopal Bishop of Washington called into CNN Monday night to tell Anderson Cooper she was “outraged” by the St. John’s photo op. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde called the event “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”
On CNN the next morning, Budde described the event as a “charade.”
“Let me be clear: he did not come to pray. He did not come to express remorse or consolation, he did not come to share the grief or to provide hope to the thousands of young people who are gathered in the park that day,” she said.
As Trump was standing in front of the building holding a Bible aloft, he was asked whether it was his family’s Bible.
“It’s a Bible,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence, a devout Christian, wasn’t there.
With an eye toward evangelical and white Catholic voters, Trump announced two weeks ago that churches and other places of worship would be deemed “essential” and that he would override governors who sought to prevent their reopening.
“The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of Democratic governors,” Trump said in late May as he was leaving the White House to visit a ventilator factory in Michigan. “I want to get our churches open. We will take a very strong position on that very soon.”
A day later, he did just that by stepping into the White House briefing room and declaring houses of worship essential, using language that appealed directly to evangelicals.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right. So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,” he said.
The move did not have unanimous agreement among his coronavirus task force, one source told CNN. A battle had been raging internally over how detailed the guidance for reopening places of worship should be, with the President’s political advisers arguing the proposals offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were too complex and would slow the opening of churches, possibly hurting Trump’s standing with evangelicals who felt stay-at-home restrictions had limited their religious freedoms.
Some advocated for issuing no guidance at all and allowing churches, mosques and other places of worship make their own decisions.
After watching coverage on Fox News that criticized how liquor stores and abortion clinics were considered essential services, Trump decided churches should be too — a move that later drew praise from several evangelical leaders.
But some of his health experts expressed concern about how quickly they were moving.
“Maybe they can’t go this week if there’s high number of Covid cases,” Dr. Deborah Birx told reporters after the President had left the briefing room that day. “Maybe they wait another week. But there is a way to social distance, like you are here, in places of worship.”
Any decision on reopening churches was considered highly sensitive among Trump’s advisers because of its political ramifications. Trump has enjoyed strong support among white Christian groups, even when his behavior seemed opposed to their ideals.
But polls over the last few months, including a Pew Research Center survey, have shown a downturn among those groups on how he’s handled the coronavirus outbreak. The Pew poll showed a slide in confidence among white Evangelicals, white Catholics and white non-evangelical Protestants — though a majority in the three categories still gave Trump high marks for his coronavirus performance.
Though he once pushed to reopen the nation in time for Easter Sunday services — another move viewed as an appeal to religious voters — Trump himself did not attend church the Sunday after he declared he would override governors who refused to open theirs.
Instead, he was seen golfing at his club outside Washington.