Trump’s Habit of Unusual Brief Visits to Churches

Looking over website activity I was reminded that I’d written a post on June 3, 2019, entitled “Trump’s Unusual Brief Visit to Church.” I wrote then:

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.

Clearly stronger words than “unusual” and “odder” are needed to describe the president’s tear-gas-cleared walk from the White House to the outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church yesterday evening. But it does fit the pattern seen last June.

Another example is the trip he and the First Lady made this morning to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine where they admired a wreath placed earlier for them in front of an outdoor statue of the saintly pope, bowed in prayer, and left without making any remarks or speaking on camera to any officials. Strikingly they were not accompanied by any shrine officials or other Catholics in their visit to the shrine. It was almost as if being seen with them was toxic, especially after Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s strong statement shortly before the president’s arrival that that the shrine’s hosting the visit was “baffling and reprehensible.”

After the visit, the First Lady, did post pictures on Twitter and Instagram that showed them standing before the altar, and talking to two shrine officials in the shrine’s Redemptor Hominis Church and praying before a relic of Saint John Paul II in the Luminous Mysteries Chapel.

The president’s visit to the shrine was linked to signing an executive order on international religious freedom. It had been scheduled long before the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd and the protests that have raged in many cities. But the way it was carried out in the wake of these events was nothing if not unusual.

In studying the history of presidential churchgoing for a book on the politics of religious space in Washington, D.C.,, I have encountered many instances where clergy sought to capitalize on the presence of the president. But few instances have come to mind where a president sought to so brazenly to use churches.

Pastor David Platt handled that as best as he could when he learned in the middle of a service last June that the president would be stopping by. Since then, however, Trump seemed to have decided that clergy and public worship are unnecessary when he wishes to join the iconography of religion to his cause. He does appear to recognize, however, the symbolic capital of religious space in the nation’s capital.

[This post was updated on June 3, 2020, to include the posts from Mrs. Trump’s social media accounts.]

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