WASHINGTON — After peaceful protesters were forced away with rubber bullets and tear gas, President Trump delivered a message on Monday that seemed squarely aimed at his most loyal base of support — white evangelicals.
Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Church, where a small basement fire had broken out during protests a day earlier, and casually hoisted a Bible over his head as the cameras flashed. He vowed to keep America great.
But the unsubtle nod to his ardent supporters may have backfired, as religious leaders, Democrats, and some Republicans excoriated the photo op, even as some high-profile evangelicals rushed to Trump’s defense.
The abrupt scene of piety, juxtaposed with the forced dispersal of protesters who had their hands up or were kneeling in honor of George Floyd just moments earlier, did not exactly give an impression of holiness. The president did not open the Holy Book, say a prayer, call on Americans to come together through the power of faith, or even go inside the church to survey the damage. And the Bible he was holding? It didn’t even belong to him.
“We literally teach people, don’t put the Bible on your fireplace mantle to look as if you’ve read it,” said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. “Sometimes it’s a good thing for evangelical leaders to put a little daylight between them and the president.”
The blowback from some faith leaders who warned against using the Bible as a political prop suggests Trump’s bid to fire up the supporters he relies on the most may have fallen short as their support is showing some signs of slipping in recent polls.
“The Bible is a book we should hold only with fear and trembling, given to us that in it we might find eternal life,” J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement. “Our only agenda should be to advance God’s kingdom, proclaim his gospel, or find rest for our souls.”
White evangelicals helped to propel Trump to the presidency in 2016, and many have remained his steadfast supporters, viewing his commitment to nominating conservative judges and opposing abortion as redeeming a president who has been divorced twice and has never presented himself as very religious.
“There’s a particular resonance for a lot of Trump supporters, a sense that he’ll protect Christians,” said Thomas Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University who has written extensively about evangelicals. “I suspect that Trump is trying to connect the dots between those issues and the vandalism and looting.”
The White House cast the moment as a success, with one aide tweeting a video clip of the president’s dramatic walk over to the church set to inspirational music. And Trump’s most ardent evangelical defenders have said they appreciated his gesture. Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said he was “grateful” to Trump for visiting the church, and evangelist Franklin Graham publicly thanked the president for the move.
Reed, however, attempted to distance Trump from the decision to force out the protesters ahead of the photo opportunity, even though the president talked of wanting to “dominate” protesters seconds before heading over. “In terms of clearing the protesters and the demonstrators, I don’t think the president made that decision,” Reed said. Reports Tuesday said Attorney General William Barr ordered the protesters be removed.
Trump’s Bible-hoisting event drew out the subtle divisions in the way he is viewed by evangelicals and coincided with polling indicating slipping approval among them as the president grapples with the protests and the coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans.
Late last year, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal from office, and its editor, Daniel Harrell, on Tuesday described the photo op as “problematic,” especially in the context of the killing of Floyd and the use of overwhelming force to clear a path for the president.
“It was a misuse of what at least we as evangelicals believe that the Bible teaches, the promotion of peace and justice and reconciliation,” said Harrell.
It also drew a rebuke from Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a Republican who has been vocal about his own evangelical faith.
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police,” Sasse said Tuesday. “But there is a fundamental — a Constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo-op that treats the word of God as a political prop.”
Other Christian leaders have been more scathing. Mariann Budde, who oversees St. John’s as the Episcopal bishop of Washington, told The Washington Post she was “outraged” by the incident. In an event outside St. John’s on Tuesday, dozens of Black pastors condemned the crackdown on protesters. “He held a Bible in his hand, but we know that he doesn’t hold it in his heart,” said the Rev. George C. Gilbert Jr. “Because in the Bible we’re taught that God stands always with the least, the lost, and the left out.”
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who has advised Trump, conceded that the circumstances around the photo did not make for the best image. But, he argued, the symbol stands. “I can’t judge his heart, but I did see the president of the United States of America holding up a Bible,” Rodriguez said. “To me that conveys a message that, ‘I hope this nation turns to God.’”
On Tuesday, Trump continued his religious emphasis by visiting the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, drawing a sharp rebuke from Washington’s Catholic archbishop, Wilton D. Gregory, after Monday’s incident. “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,” Gregory said of the late pope.
Evangelicals have forgiven Trump for some religious gaffes during the 2016 campaign that betrayed his relative unfamiliarity with the Bible. He mispronounced a famous part of the New Testament and claimed he had never asked God’s forgiveness for anything. He called the Bible his “favorite” book but would not cite any specific verses that he liked in an interview, saying it was “personal.”
He has also been involved in numerous scandals — including the accusation that he had a porn star paid off to stay silent about their alleged affair — that put his personal life at odds with Christian teachings. That has left evangelicals with mixed feelings, but not enough to stop many from supporting him.
“They’ve been willing to set aside concerns over President Trump, the person, in favor of President Trump, the policies,” Harrell said.
The president’s appeal isn’t that he is particularly spiritual, but that he signaled a willingness to fight for conservative evangelicals against what they perceive as liberal encroachment on their values, argued Peter Wehner, an evangelical and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.
“The key to their attachment to them is they believe he’s going to bring a gun to a cultural knife fight,” Wehner said.
For Steve Grunwald, a Trump supporter and a part-time evangelical pastor at Cornerstone Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wis., Monday’s photo-op was a display of exactly that kind of support. “At least he had the courage to go there and do that,” he said.
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.