Informal evangelical Christian advisers to President Donald Trump have long championed religious freedom as a key issue that should be embraced by the administration, often arguing passionately against government infringement on religious activities.
That’s why some have framed the president’s recent (June 1) photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, in which he held aloft a Bible for cameras, as an expression of support for religious freedom.
“(Trump) walked FOR the protection of the right of peaceful protest,” Johnnie Moore, who helped organize the Trump campaign’s evangelical advisory board in 2016 and now serves as a commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in an email to Religion News Service. “He walked AGAINST the violent anarchists and looters who were disrupting those peaceful protests and dishonoring the memory of George Floyd.”
Other evangelical supporters of the president such as Franklin Graham and Texas pastor Robert Jeffress have also praised Trump’s walk to St. John’s, calling it an “important statement” and “absolutely correct.”
Moore and others have less to say about what happened before the president’s visit to the church — when police working with the federal government forced hundreds of demonstrators away from Lafayette Square and expelled clergy from church property.
An Episcopal priest and a seminarian say they were passing out water to demonstrators from the grounds of St. John’s as part of an effort organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington when they were forced off church grounds as law enforcement broke up the protest. They said police used shields and pepper-based irritants — which the CDC says are also referred to as tear gas — that left them coughing and tending to swollen, red, tear-stained eyes.
RNS reached out to several evangelical leaders who are known to advise the president informally to ask about the treatment of clergy by law enforcement. Most did not reply, and only one — the Rev. Tony Suarez, who serves as a vice president at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference — offered a conditional rebuke of police actions.
“If the members of the clergy were there by the request of the church or by the invitation of the parish or archdiocese, and they were there in that type of capacity, no, they should not have been removed,” Suarez told RNS on Friday.
He later added: “It’s extremely unfortunate what happened to them.”
Suarez’s remarks echoed those of NHCLC President Samuel Rodriguez, who told The Washington Post that the president held the holy text “like a boss” but also expressed concerned about protesters.
“I hope peaceful protesters were not moved away with tear-gassing,” Rodriguez said.
Trump administration officials have offered conflicting accounts as to why Lafayette Square was cleared. Initial reports from the White House alleged the expulsion was to enforce a 7 p.m. curfew in Washington, but Barr later claimed that the operation was part of an existing plan to expand the security perimeter around the White House and alleged that there were violent protesters. The attorney general also insisted that there was “no correlation” between Trump’s visit to the church and the decision to clear the park and defiantly claimed officials did not use tear gas.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Monday (June 8) that there are “No regrets on the part of this White House” regarding the clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square.
“We stand by those actions,” she said.
The demonstrators in the park — who included at least one Methodist minister — have been described as acting peacefully during the confrontation with police, although an investigation from The Washington Post uncovered a few incidents of protesters hurling water bottles and eggs at police. The same investigation also noted that canisters labeled as “CS” gas — which are almost universally described as tear gas — were found at the scene by journalists, and footage from the day shows metals cans emitting yellow-green smoke.
Even if the park was cleared to make way for Trump, Suarez said that is not uncommon.
“If it had been the (anti-abortion rally) March for Life, if it had been immigration reform … if the president was coming through, they would have cleared the area,” he said. “Do they have to use tear gas, if that’s what they used? I don’t know, but these are extreme circumstances.”
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Source: Religion News Service