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Trump risks potential backlash from evangelicals with 'tone-deaf' Bible photo-op

Posted June 3, 2020 11:14 a.m. EDT

— As he brandished an unopened Bible in front of the boarded-up St. John's Episcopal Church across the street from the White House Monday evening, President Donald Trump delivered an unspoken message to white evangelical Christians: Remember, I'm on your side.

The question is whether enough of them will be on his side in November. Trump continues to enjoy overwhelming support among evangelical voters, but there are signs that support is cracking on the margins. A recent Pew study indicates that fewer white evangelicals approve of his response to the coronavirus. Staunch supporters like evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress have publicly said that the President was "absolutely correct" in appearing in front of the church, and Trump himself claimed Wednesday that "most religious leaders loved it." But other evangelical leaders told CNN there's more ambivalence among the faithful.

On Tuesday, Pat Robertson, the 90-year-old televangelist, appeared to give voice to that ambivalence, when he criticized Trump for threatening to send in federal troops to states where protests have turned violent.

"You just don't do that, Mr. President," Robertson said on Tuesday's episode of The 700 Club, his long-running television show. "It isn't cool!"

The demonstration at St. John's comes with clear political risk for Trump. A man not known for his strong faith, the President was in danger of prompting a backlash among his pious Christian backers for using the Bible as a prop. On Monday, Trump did not read from the Bible nor offer words of prayer for the cameras gathered around. He did not mention that protesters and even some of St. John's clergy were pushed back using tear gas and flash bangs ahead of his visit.

His most direct link to evangelicals, Vice President Mike Pence, was not even with him. And his appearance was criticized by the Episcopal bishop of Washington, Mariann Edgar Budde, as a "charade."

Some evangelical leaders said that many in their community may see the move as a stunt that failed to address the underlying issues involved with George Floyd's death and exploiting religious symbolism.

"What he did comes off as tone-deaf," said Costi Hinn, a conservative evangelical pastor and author in Arizona. "The word of God is not powerful in a picture. It's powerful when it's opened up. If you really want to leverage the power of God's word, let it be heard."

When asked about Trump's appearance at the church, Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention said the Bible "is the word of the living God and should be treated with reverence and awe." Moore said he was "brokenhearted and alarmed" by everything from the death of Floyd to Trump's response.

"More important than politics and optics is that all of us should be listening to what the Bible says -- about the preciousness of human life, about the sins of racism and injustice, about the need for safety and calm and justice in the civil arena, all of it," said Moore, who is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the SBC.

Even some of Trump's Republican allies in Congress expressed disagreement with Trump's decision to attend the church. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a Southern Baptist, told reporters Tuesday he was not comfortable with the images of protesters being disbursed by force before Trump visited the church, while Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, an evangelical Presbyterian agreed in a statement.

"I'm against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop," said Sasse.

Hunter Baker, a professor at the evangelical Union University, said the divide among evangelicals on Trump's photo op at St. John's would likely track with how those voters already view the President. Baker said that many of the white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016 view the Republican president as a friend and champion for traditionalists -- and that his decision to stand in front of a damaged church demonstrated that commitment.

"Others are offended by what they see as lip service or, worse, some kind of cynical game being played to keep Christians on board politically," said Baker, a scholar of faith and American politics. "Those of us in the church are really twisted up about him."

The President appears to have recognized a need to shore up support from religious voters. He signed a new executive order Tuesday purporting to advance religious freedom internationally. Earlier in the day, Trump also appeared at the Catholic national shrine of St. John Paul II in Washington. That visit prompted a sharp response from the Catholic archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory.

"I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree," Gregory said.

But among evangelicals, there may be more forgiveness for Trump engaging in what Baker calls the "classic American civil religion," by which civic leaders have melded religious symbolism and ideas with a wide variety of political goals -- from abolition and temperance to anti-Communism and the war on terror. For white evangelicals, as well as conservative Catholics and orthodox members of other faiths, Trump's support for parts of the social conservative agenda has produced a political marriage of convenience between them and the President, who rarely attends church services.

The greater emphasis among younger evangelicals on fixing America's racial divide threatens that marriage -- and the President's muted response to those concerns since Floyd's death -- could contribute to what Baker described as a "cynical" view of Trump among them.

"With Trump, it's not easy to be proud of him," said Baker.

Hinn said that while he and others in his community appreciate the advances the Trump administration has made on issues that evangelicals care about, the moment requires "balance" and listening on the part of leaders, including the President.

"No politician should peddle religion for any purpose whatsoever, and when I see our President grab a Bible and do a photo op, while I'm encouraged that he wants to make a statement and that he's standing with the church, I want to see the same President go and meet with leaders of the black community, and take a photo with them to show them he is in unity with them," Hinn said.

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