Trump tries religious gestures to hike support amid protests

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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visit Saint John Paul II National Shrine, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON – Cloaking himself in religion for the second day in a row, President Donald Trump sought Tuesday to seize the moral authority to justify his hard line against demonstrators protesting the killing of another black man in police custody and at the same time mobilize his religious conservative base.

Trump signed an executive order on international religious freedom Tuesday and traveled to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, where he and the first lady laid a ceremonial wreath and observed “a moment of remembrance.”

A day earlier, he had held up a Bible and posed for photos in front of a historic church across from the White House that had suffered fire damage from protesters. He strode through Lafayette Park to the church after authorities forcefully broke up peaceful protests there.

Trump’s religious outreach marked his latest efforts in a series of overtures to mobilize conservative voters of faith, particularly the white evangelical Christians who are among his most loyal supporters. The furious, politically charged response to his gestures from less pro-Trump faith leaders, however, suggested his efforts to lock in one part of his base could backfire by turning off other religious voters.

Tuesday's shrine visit was originally set as a venue for Trump to sign the religious freedom order, which he ended up signing during a private event in the Oval Office. But his tweets made clear what was on his mind as he spent much of the morning urging Republicans to vote in primaries on Tuesday that he vowed would “lead to big victories on November 3rd."

“SILENT MAJORITY!” he tweeted.

Trump has turned to religion as he seeks to project strength and quell violent protests that have spread across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But religious leaders across denominations accused Trump of trying to coopt religion in an attempt to project leadership at a time of deep national strife.

The Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said she was “outraged” by Trump’s Monday visit to St. John's Church and noted that Trump didn’t pray while visiting the landmark that has been visited by sitting presidents since the early 19th century. The church sustained minor fire damage during protests Sunday night.