President Donald Trump is standing by his decision to pose with a Bible outside St. Johnâ€™s Church in Washington on Monday â€• a stunt that drew swift and harsh rebukes from two of the cityâ€™s top prelates.
â€œMost religious leaders loved it,â€ Trump insisted in a Fox News radio interview about a photo shoot that took place after law enforcement officers forcefully dispersed a peaceful demonstration against the police killing of George Floyd.
â€œI think it was very symbolic. I did hold up a Bible. I think thatâ€™s a good thing, not a bad thing, and many religious leaders loved it,â€ Trump told the showâ€™s host, Fox anchor Brian Kilmeade, on Wednesday.
â€œWhy wouldnâ€™t they love it? Iâ€™m standing in front of a church that went through trauma â€• to put it mildly,â€ Trump said.
Trump pointed specifically to the support heâ€™s received from evangelist Franklin GrahamÂ andÂ Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor, for posing in front of the historic Episcopal church, which was damaged during Sunday protests against police brutality toward Black Americans.
Trump also tried to distance himself from the aggressive maneuvers used by police to clear protesters from Lafayette Square, a park near St. Johnâ€™s Church, to allow Trump passage to the photo op.Â The president insisted that officers didnâ€™t use tear gas on the protesters, although they did, at least according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionâ€™sÂ definition of tear gas and other riot control agents.
â€œThey didnâ€™t use tear gas. They didnâ€™t use â€• they moved them out,â€ Trump said. â€œNow when I went, I didnâ€™t say move them out. I didnâ€™t know who was there.â€
In a Facebook post that avoided any mention of the force used on protesters, Graham said that he was â€œnot at allâ€ offended by Trumpâ€™s actions. Graham said Trump demonstrated that the â€œburning, looting, and vandalism of the nationâ€™s capital â€” including this historic house of worshipâ€”mattered, and that the lawlessness had to end.â€
Graham added that he found it â€œunbelievableâ€ that members of the clergy have been some of the presidentâ€™s harshest critics.Â They â€œshould be thanking him rather than criticizing him!â€ Graham wrote.
Trump said â€œmany other peopleâ€ thought his display at St. Johnâ€™s was great.Â â€œItâ€™s only the other side that didnâ€™t like it,â€ Trump said. â€œYou know, the opposing â€• the opposition party, as the expression goes.â€
Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde told HuffPost on Monday that although she was upset about the parish buildingâ€™s being damaged, itâ€™s much more important to focus on the systemic pattern of racism that the protesters are trying to highlight.
The Rev. Gini Gerbasi, an Episcopal priest, told HuffPost that she was in the crowd of people that was tear-gassed and driven away by police. She called what happened â€œgrotesque and offensive and sacrilegious.â€Â
But the presidentâ€™s closest evangelical allies â€• Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Latino evangelical leader the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, evangelical public relations consultant the Rev. Johnnie Moore â€• have rallied around him.Â
Perkins praised Trump forÂ â€œsending a message that heâ€™s not going to be intimidated, that our government is not in hiding,â€ according to the Associated Press.Â The only thing Perkins said he would have personally done differently is to ask a multiracial group of pastors to offer a prayer for the nation.
John Fea, a historian of American evangelicalism at Messiah College, said he thinks Trumpâ€™s closest advisers are looking at his actions through the lens of Romans 13,Â a Bible passage that exhorts Christians to submit to authority. These verses haveÂ been cited in the pastÂ by Trumpâ€™s close evangelical allies, whom Fea has nicknamed the â€œcourt evangelicals,â€ to justify support for policies that appear to contradict Jesusâ€™s teachings about compassion.
In addition, conservative evangelicals have a tendency to believe that culture war issues and the goal of winning souls through evangelism are more important than questions of social justice, Fea said.
â€œCourt evangelicals will always place abortion, religious liberty and conservative Supreme Court justices over care and concern for the poor, the marginalized, the stranger (immigrants) and those who are the victim of systemic racism,â€ Fea said. â€œThey will condemn individual acts of racism, but they do not believe in systemic or structural racism.â€
More broadly, even though some rank-and-file white evangelicals are disgusted by what Trump did at St. Johnâ€™s Church, that wonâ€™t change how they vote, Fea said.
â€œThey will still vote for Trump in 2020 because he holds the right views on the social issues … that many evangelicals believe are non-negotiables when it comes to choosing a candidate,â€ Fea said.
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