‘‘I’M JUST going to pay my respects to a very special place,” President Trump announced at a press briefing outside the White House on Monday. He then walked through Lafayette Park and across the road to St John’s, the Episcopal church, boarded up after demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd turned violent at the weekend. Protests against “that man” by the Rector of St John’s, Georgetown, the Bishop of Washington, and the Presiding Bishop seem, at first sight, to be an over-reaction. No one needs permission to stand in front of a church. Their response, though, was prompted by horror at the image that the President was attempting to send to his supporters: that he, the Church, and God were on the side of the forces of law and order, despite the evidence suggesting that those forces had been responsible for the unlawful death of yet another African-American.
It is instructive to watch footage of the whole episode, as the President walks through the park surrounded by 40-odd staffers and secret-servicemen and -women. He is posed in front of the St John’s notice, then moved to where some boarded-up windows can be seen. He seems unsure of the book in his hand, checking it repeatedly, and when a reporter calls out “Is that your Bible?” he corrects her: “It’s a Bible.” He says nothing about the church, breaking his silence only to praise the United States: “We have the greatest country in the world. We’re going to keep it nice and safe.” Then he calls senior colleagues into shot for a line-up.
The President’s actions pander to the view that, in the US, violence against the person, both the killing of Mr Floyd and the injuries inflicted by the police on hundreds of those protesting about his death, can be justified by the defence of property. Damage and looting must be stopped, but peace will not be restored while police use the same sort of disproportionate violence as sparked the protests in the first place. Minutes before Mr Trump’s church visit, the police had cleared noisy but peaceful protesters out of the way with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The episode shines a new light on the debate about the place of buildings, triggered by the pandemic. There is no fault in having an affection for a building, or in wanting to make use of one again. But the book that Mr Trump was holding tells how the ancient significance of the temple, a building, was assumed by a person, Jesus Christ, and, through him, all people. St John’s may well be very special; but so was Mr Floyd, and it is he who should be mourned.