WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mainstream U.S. Protestant and Catholic leaders sharply criticized President Donald Trump on Tuesday, a day after peaceful protesters were forcibly displaced for a staged presidential photo in front of a church near the White House.
Trump won the 2016 presidential election with strong support from white Catholics and evangelical Christians. Just months ahead of the November elections, when he hopes to win a second term, Trump has been trying to appeal to those voters with the photo in front of the Episcopal church, a visit Tuesday to a shrine to Pope John Paul II, and an executive order directing U.S. agencies to “protect” religious freedom overseas.
But religious leaders have condemned the administration’s treatment of Americans protesting the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American who died after a white policeman pinned his neck under a knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25.
Police on horseback and armed soldiers on Monday evening used tear gas and rubber bullets to push protesters back before Trump walked from the White House across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by fire amid protests on Sunday evening. In front of the church, Trump held up a Bible.
Trump has called for state governors to crack down on the thousands protesting Floyd's death around the country, and threatened here to send in the U.S. military.
John Paul, the head of the Catholic church for nearly 40 years, 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,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the top Catholic leader in the nation’s capital, said in a statement Tuesday.
Hundreds of shouting protesters lined the street near the monument to the pope, holding signs that read, “Racist in Chief,” “Trump Mocks Christ” and “Our Church is not a Photo Op.”
Susan Gunn, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, a Catholic group that helped organize the protest, said she was disappointed that Trump had not used either occasion to try to bring people together.
“Our society’s splintering. We are in the middle of a pandemic with 100,000 dead,” she said speaking of the coronavirus outbreak, which she noted has disproportionately affected people of color.
“President Trump identifies himself as a Christian and avid reader of the Bible. And I just call him and all of our hurting communities to remember the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself,” Gunn said.
Bishop Michael Curry, the chief pastor and chief executive of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, also criticized Trump for using a church building and the Bible for partisan purposes.
“We need our president, and all who hold office, to be moral leaders,” he said in a statement. “For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be ‘one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.’”
Trump won strong support from white evangelical Christians in the 2016 presidential election, while white Catholics backed him by 60%, according to Pew Research Center.
Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, condemned Trump’s decision to use the Catholic shrine as a political backdrop.
“Denouncing this outrage cannot, however, distract us from the deep wounds of structural racism and white supremacy that have been reopened by the killing of George Floyd,” she said in a statement.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Makini Brice; Editing by Leslie Adler