If it seems like it was only days ago that Donald Trump was demanding governors open churches despite the threat of the coronavirus, that’s because it was. From Rand Paul to William Barr to Mike Pence, Republicans have been ready and more than willing to label attempts to protect public health by limiting church services as “tyranny,” “beyond the pale,” and “a war on values.”
Oddly enough, none of those voices were raised when Donald Trump drove priests away from St. John’s Episcopal church with tear gas and armed troops, or when he commandeered that church for a photo op, or when that church was absorbed within Trump’s extended Yellow Zone as he built a fence around Lafayette Park. There were also no cries of “tyranny” when federal police kept Bishop Mariann Budde—the same bishop who protested Trump’s un-Christian use of the church—from returning to St. John’s on Wednesday to hold a vigil in support of protesters.
In a Thursday afternoon press appearance, Attorney General William Barr rewrote the history of the events on Monday evening yet again as he claimed that he had already made the decision to “expand the perimeter” around the White House well in advance of troops blasting protesters from the area. In Barr’s telling, he personally saw “projectiles” being thrown from the protesters—a claim that has been denied by reporters on the scene. Barr also claimed that protesters were “interfering with the operation” of the federal government. So there was no choice but to blast the crowd with rubber bullets, flash-bangs, and tear gas, driving the protesters from the square and the priests from their church. Barr admitted that some of the protesters might have been peaceful and … so what?
That Trump then decided to stroll over for a photo op was, according to Barr, a mere coincidence. After all, Trump “should be able to walk outside the White House and walk to the 'church of presidents’” any time he wants … apparently no matter how many people have to be hurt to make that happen.
According to Mother Jones, Bishop Budde declared that Trump’s use of the church as a background for his Bible-fondling was a “symbolic misuse of the most sacred texts of our tradition.” On Wednesday, the Episcopal bishop planned a vigil in front of the church as a demonstration of solidarity with protesters. But both the bishop and the worshipers who came to participate were held outside the new Wall of Fear. Unable to reach the church, and with nowhere to gather so that Budde could address the group, the vigil ended before it began.
When protesters on the scene objected to cameras that had been following the event, and the media attention Budde was getting, she responded by sitting down on the pavement to begin a lengthy discussion with the protesters around her.
Though Trump and Barr blocked the bishop and church members from holding their vigil, other members of the clergy and pastors of other churches found their way to where Budde was sitting.
What started out as an attempt to demonstrate solidarity and support became … a moment of solidarity and support.