The fire would have been enough to make this a memorable week for St. John’s Episcopal Church. On Sunday evening, the church basement was briefly engulfed in flames during ongoing protests—the first time a fire had been set on the more-than-200-year-old church’s property, according to the Rev. Rob Fisher, the church’s rector. Then, things got worse. On Monday afternoon, police used chemical agents to disperse peaceful protesters in the park in front of the church so the president could stroll over to pose for photographs holding a Bible. “This church has had so many experiences that have been remarkable and inspiring and historic,” Fisher told me on Thursday. “But nothing like what we’ve experienced this week.”
Faith leaders and politicians reacted swiftly to the president’s use of St. John’s as a backdrop for the bizarre photo-op on Monday. The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Mariann Budde, lambasted the unannounced visit on Good Morning America and the Today show. “I am outraged,” she told the Washington Post. “I … was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop.” But there was a tinge of irony to some of the backlash, given this particular church’s long history as a backdrop for the public performance of presidential piety. St. John’s calls itself “the church of the presidents,” and its relationship with the family across Lafayette Square—and its reverence for the office of the presidency—has been part of its self-conception since the start.
The church sits directly across from the White House and was the second building constructed on Lafayette Square. Before the church even opened in 1816, its leaders offered President James Madison the chance to select a permanent “president’s pew” in the church. Madison told the committee to choose for him, and they chose one in the most expensive section of the church. (At the time, it was common practice for churches to sell pew space.) The “president’s pew” still exists—it’s No. 54—and the church has been attended at least once by every man who has served as president. The church’s role as a quasi-official site of presidential worship expanded in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt arranged for a private prayer service to be held at the church on the morning of his first inauguration, a tradition that continues.
Over the years, the church has often served as a site for public prayer with a political valence. Abraham Lincoln sought quiet there during the Civil War. Lyndon B. Johnson visited the church the day after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. George H.W. Bush gathered with Cabinet members for a communion service to pray for the success of Operation Desert Storm, the day that U.S.–led forces invaded Kuwait and Iraq. After the release of the Mueller report last year, Robert Mueller was photographed leaving the church “looking forward, not back,” as Robin Givhan wrote in a Washington Post column analyzing the brief appearance.
Associated so closely with a seat of power, St. John’s has historically served as a home for the city’s elite. The Rev. Luis León, rector of the church from 1994 to 2018, recalled walking down 16th Street and overhearing a young man point out the church to his girlfriend. “That’s St. John’s, where the president attends, but you and I can’t belong to it,” León recalled the man saying. “Only the high-powered people can belong there.” (León says he interjected to correct him and invite him to church.) Today, St. John’s takes the broadly progressive stances of its denomination and maintains ministries to feed the homeless and provide aid to refugees. But that conversation reinforced for León that “the public perception was of it being a society church.”
More than social class, however, St. John’s has long symbolized a kind of old-Washington civility that represents either dignity or toadying, depending on your view. St. John’s prides itself on being a place where Republicans and Democrats can worship together, where Mueller can attend church on the same Sunday as a man he charged with witness tampering. “I see people I know are doing battle during the week, and they come together and love each other on Sunday,” Fisher said. “I love to see a person I know is on one side giving Communion to a person on the other side.”
Is it possible to speak truth to power if “power” is your core membership? It’s an inevitable dilemma for congregations like St. John’s, or Trinity Wall Street, another historic Episcopal church in a location synonymous with the establishment. But the fact that there is a well-established protocol for presidential churchgoing—for better or for worse—serves to highlight what was so unusual about the president’s visit on Monday.
For one, it was the first time in history that a president has visited the church without prayer playing any role in the visit. No clergy were present, and no one even opened the Bible that Trump handled so awkwardly for the cameras. That stood out to Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer at the Washington National Cathedral, another Episcopal church in the capital with a long relationship to the presidency. “Presidents go to the cathedral all the time,” he said. “But they’re usually going to pray, to speak, or to offer a message of some sort. None of that was what we saw this week [at St. John’s]. What we saw was propaganda.” Eckstrom said that if the president had requested a visit to, say, read from Psalm 23, a well-known poem of comfort, the National Cathedral would likely have accommodated it.
Fisher said that St. John’s, too, would have been open to some kind of visit from the president this week under the right conditions. After all, the church has demonstrated an openness to symbolic appearances by presidents of both parties for more than 200 years. “It has always been a balancing act,” Fisher said. “I worry about that getting me in trouble because I don’t want to imply [that the relationship] is over. I don’t think that. But it’s a balancing act that has always taken work on both sides of the park.” Fisher said he has received no communication from the White House this week, either before or after the president’s unannounced visit.
Instead, law enforcement gassed peaceful protesters—including clergy members handing out water and supplies—so that the president could conduct a totally nonreligious performance of solidarity with Christians that managed to alienate the leaders of a church who see it as a part of their mission to get along with the president. It was a remarkable, and wholly unnecessary, act of aggression. Trump bulldozed the door to St. John’s when the key was sitting right in front of him.