Yesterday afternoon was surely one of the odder moments in the history of presidential churchgoing. Returning from midday golf game at the Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County, Virginia, the President stopped at McLean Bible Church at 2:20 pm to appear in a regularly scheduled Sunday service that started at 1:00 pm. The church is about 11 miles from the golf course. He was at the church for fifteen minutes, and in the service for only a portion of that.
The White House said that the purpose of the visit was to visit with the church’s pastor, David Platt, and pray for victims of Friday’s deadly mass shooting in Virginia Beach. Yet, while Trump was in the church there were no public prayers for the victims of the Virginia Beach shooting. Rather, Platt seemed to understand that the visit was linked to the special national day of prayer for the president that Franklin Graham and others had declared. Given that the president was being criticized in the morning for not attending church on his day, it is reasonable to conclude as historian John Fea has that that was a key reason behind the president’s church visit.
While Platt is generally being praised for offering a prayer for the president and other leaders that was not an endorsement of Trump, the White House defined the meaning of the the event in the media. Most reports have stated that the purpose of the visit was to pray for the victims of Friday’s shooting, and the 170-some miles between the church and the location of the shooting is lost on those unfamiliar with Virginia.
Platt did not endorse Graham’s designation of June 2 as a “SPECIAL Day of Prayer for the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, that God would protect, strengthen, embolden, and direct him.” The extemporaneous prayer Platt offered while standing next to the President did not focus on the Graham’s key themes of protection and emboldening, nor did it speak of the president as being attacked. But the optic of the prayer, with the president looking weary and slightly disheveled while a young pastor prays with a hand on the president’s back and proving useful to those who wanted to see the president being prayed for in a church on this day.
When a president goes to church, the broader significance of the event is more about place (what church did he attend?) and image (how will the public remember it?) than it is about anything that is said.
(This was President Trump’s third visit to a regular Sunday service this year. He attended St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House in Washington, D.C. on March 17 and the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida on Easter Sunday, April 21.)