'The Bible is not a prop': Religious leaders, lawmakers outraged over Trump church visit

The widely criticized photo op was the president's idea because he "wanted the visual," sources told NBC News.

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By Rebecca Shabad, Geoff Bennett, Monica Alba and Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and religious leaders — including the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington — voiced outrage after police used tear gas against peaceful protesters outside the White House before President Donald Trump's photo op at nearby St. John's Episcopal Church on Monday evening.

Bishop Mariann Budde said Tuesday that Trump held up the Bible in front of St. John's "as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position."

Budde, in an interview with Craig Melvin on NBC's "TODAY" show, said that what Trump did in front of the church she oversees "was an abuse of the spiritual tools and symbols of our traditions and of our sacred space."

"He didn't come to church to pray, he didn't come to church to offer condolences to those who are grieving," she said. "He didn't come to commit to healing our nation, all the things that we would expect and long for from the highest leader in the land."

Budde said Trump didn't inform the diocese about his visit to the church. Asked if he is a frequent worshipper at the church, Budde responded: "No, never. The only time that President Trump has been at St. John's church as president was on the morning of his inauguration."

(Trump has visited the church twice since being elected president.)

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The Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest and author, said in a statement, "Using the Bible as a prop while talking about sending in the military, bragging about how your country is the greatest in the world, and publicly mocking people on a daily basis, is pretty much the opposite of all Jesus stood for."

He added: "Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. And God is not a plaything."

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said in a statement Monday, "Seeing President Trump stand in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church while holding a Bible in response to calls for racial justice — right after using military force to clear peaceful protesters out of the area — is one of the most flagrant misuses of religion I have ever seen. This only underscores the president's complete lack of compassion for Black Americans and the lethal consequences of racism."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement that Trump is "ripping" the country apart when Americans are crying out for unity over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week in police custody.

"Tear-gassing peaceful protesters without provocation just so that the president could pose for photos outside a church dishonors every value that faith teaches us. We call upon the president, law enforcement and all entrusted with responsibility to respect the dignity and rights of all Americans,” Pelosi and Schumer said.

The two Democratic leaders said the nation needs "real leadership" during this challenging time and added, "The president’s continued fanning of the flames of discord, bigotry and violence is cowardly, weak and dangerous."

The fierce reaction came after U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops around 6:30 p.m. ET began using tear gas and flash bangs against protesters demonstrating peacefully around Lafayette Square next to the White House, sending the crowd running in all directions. Trump delivered brief remarks in the White House Rose Garden as this unfolded just steps away, and said that he will fight to protect the rights of peaceful protesters.

After the president made his statement, it became clear that the crowd was dispersed because he and other White House officials walked over to St. John’s church across the street and Trump took photos outside of it, holding a Bible.

"What the hell did we just watch?!" tweeted Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla.

"Fascism in the flesh," tweeted Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

Several other lawmakers also described Trump as fascist, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who tweeted: "The fascist speech Donald Trump just delivered verged on a declaration of war against American citizens. I fear for our country tonight and will not stop defending America against Trump’s assault."

Addressing Trump directly about the police tear-gassing peaceful demonstrators, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., tweeted, "The Bible can’t help you if you don’t open it."

"He handled the Bible like the ape handled the bone in '2001:A Space Odyssey.'"

Republicans, meanwhile, rallied behind Trump.

"Historic moment as @POTUS Trump reclaims St. John’s Church for America! God Bless America!!" tweeted Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

"Incredibly powerful moment as @realDonaldTrump walked to St. John's Church, where every past president since Madison has prayed for the wellbeing of our country. We must come together as a country, and I thank @POTUS for leading the effort to protect law and order," tweeted Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.

The walk Trump made "through the burned out and graffiti-covered Lafayette Park," Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, tweeted, "was a powerful reminder that Americans will not be intimidated by lawlessness and violence."

Sources told NBC News that Trump's unannounced walk to the church "was his idea" because he "wanted the visual." The president was frustrated by news reports that Secret Service officers ushered him to the White House bunker during Friday night's unrest.

One source told NBC that the church visit was meant to make Trump look strong and in charge — in that it had all the elements of “pushing protesters out of his space, sending in the troops, leaving the White House, and visiting a church." Sources told NBC the White House thinks the photo op was successful and "went great."

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Asked for comment about the use of force on a peaceful demonstration, White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement: "The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7:00 pm curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police."

Several journalists covering the protests in the park report that they did not hear any such warnings.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser blasted Trump for what police did to demonstrators outside the White House, which occurred before the 7 p.m. ET curfew she had instituted for the city.

"I imposed a curfew at 7 pm. A full 25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult. Shameful! DC residents — Go home. Be safe," Bowser tweeted.

Jacob Gardenswartz contributed.