President Trump toured the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington before signing an order to promote religious freedom Tuesday, marking his second visit to a Christian site in as many days amid nationwide protests over police brutality.
Mr. Trump and first lady Melania Trump laid a wreath and stood quietly in front of a statue of the late pope before entering the shrine in the Northeast section of the nation’s capital.
The president visited the Luminous Mysteries Chapel, the John Paul II blood relic and the Madonna icon before returning to the White House to sign an order on “advancing international religious freedom.”
Protesters greeted the president with obscenity-laced signs and one-fingered salutes on his ride to the shrine. Democrats and some clergy members accused him of exploiting symbols of faith.
Mr. Trump is facing criticism over his decision to hold up a Bible in front of the cameras outside St. John’s Episcopal Church Monday evening. Before the photo-op, police used horse-mounted patrol, smoke canisters and pepper balls to clear protesters out of Lafayette Park and its perimeter near the White House.
“What is that? That has no place, and it’s time for us to do away with that. A time to heal. The book of Ecclesiastes,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, lifting her own Bible during a bill-signing ceremony at the Capitol.
Politics watchers said Mr. Trump’s religious trips aren’t difficult to interpret: They are a clear signal to religious conservatives who could make or break his fortunes in November.
“Even in times of tumult and crisis, Trump trying to show his commitment to them. It’s like the list of conservative justices that he released in 2016,” said Julian Zelizer, a politics professor at Princeton University.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said he supported Mr. Trump’s walk to the church. He said faith is important as the nation seeks healing and that churches were shuttered while liquor stores and abortion clinics remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m glad he did it,” Mr. Reed told C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”
Mr. Trump has courted evangelicals and religious conservatives as vital blocs of support. He has pushed their policy priorities and nominated judges they favor, though he is more likely to be found at one of his golf resorts than in church pews on a given Sunday.
In 2016, he was mocked for referring to an epistle in the New Testament as “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians” during an address at Liberty University.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden said Mr. Trump ought to thumb through the pages of his Bible.
“I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it,” said Mr. Biden, who is poised to face Mr. Trump in November’s presidential election. “If he opened it, he could have learned something: We’re all called to love one another as we love ourselves.”
A pair of Senate Republicans also signaled that they were uneasy with the staging at the church.
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, said there is no right to riot, “but there is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo-op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, told a Politico event, “Obviously if your question is, ‘Should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo-op?’ The answer is no.”
The Park Police said it did not use tear gas at Lafayette Park — despite many reports — and that some protesters were hurling bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids before they were warned to clear out.
Mr. Trump followed the raucous trip to St. John’s with a quieter stop at the shrine near Catholic University on Tuesday.
Protesters greeted the president’s motorcade with pointed signs saying “You Suck” or “Dump Trump” alongside messages about the national debate on racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a white officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
In a statement, the St. John Paul II National Shrine said the White House initially scheduled the visit as a backdrop for the executive order signing. It also noted that the late pope was “a tireless advocate of religious liberty through his pontificate.”
“International religious freedom receives widespread bipartisan support, including unanimous passage of legislation in defense of persecuted Christians and religious minorities around the world,” the statement said. “The shrine welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II.”
Yet Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory blasted the visit in the wake of Monday’s scene at the Episcopal church.
“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people, even those with whom we might disagree,” he said. “St. Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”
Brian Burch, president of the conservative nonprofit Catholic Vote, hit back by saying “millions of Catholics in the United States, including many within the archbishop’s own flock, are grateful for today’s executive order.”
The Trump administration also chafed at criticism from Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. She said Mr. Trump is welcome to pray at St. John’s but that she couldn’t abide by the “symbolic” gesture outside of the church on Monday evening.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said the church, a historic fixture in Washington, does not belong to the Episcopal bishop.
“We don’t look into other people’s hearts and souls, and discern and judge what their faith is, why the president felt compelled to walk there, why he held that Bible,” Mrs. Conway told Fox News.
⦁ Dave Boyer, Seth McLaughlin and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.