The President’s Photo-Op and Our Need for Repentance

By Elisabeth Rain Kincaid

One of the strangest images of this strange time will undoubtedly be that of the president of the United States standing in front of a boarded and burned Episcopal church (St. John’s, Lafayette Square), awkwardly clutching a Bible for a staged photo-op. As the story behind the picture has emerged, the photo appears even stranger.

First, the White House did not seek or receive permission from the parish or the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for the photo-shoot. Rather, the use of the church’s grounds was denounced in stinging tones as an act of anti-gospel appropriation by the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington.

Worse, though, in order to gain access to the front of the church, police fired a chemical spray at the peaceful protesters, forcing them to disperse. These protesters included an Episcopal priest from a neighboring parish. The irony was compounded by the fact that this photo-op followed the president’s speech in the Rose Garden in which he promised to deploy military forces to replace local action in states which are “not under control.”


In Jeremiah 7, God tells the prophet to go and stand in the gate of the Lord’s House and call out to the passers-by, warning all who enter: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (7:3). He describes what true amendment requires: rejection of the sins of murder, idolatry, adultery, and robbery in favor of the actions which the Lord loves, namely, “if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt” (7:5-6).

In contrast, those who do not repent, who fail to hear the prophet’s true message, fall into the trap of trusting “in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (7:4).  Despite their evil actions, they believe that they are safe because they enter the Temple of God and call upon his name — not knowing that the Lord sees and marks all of what they do and rejects them because of their actions, despite their performance of false piety (7:11).

In the photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, President Trump positioned himself in the place of the prophet Jeremiah — at the gates of the House of the Lord. However, the message to which he called us was the very message that the Prophet Jeremiah declared the Lord condemned. Behind a façade of piety, the president promises a false safety through his military threats against protesters and his consistent attempts to drum up support from Christian grievances regarding lost social capital and cultural influence. Like those entering the temple and closing their ears to Jeremiah’s indictment, his crude use of the visible signs of the Christian faith encouraged those who prefer to say, “This is the house of the Lord” rather than listen to what the Lord actually says.

In this image the Church has been presented in stark terms with a choice. Do we seek to protect our own influence by siding with those in power, even though they view Christians and Christianity as a means to their own ends? Or do we side with those who seek justice, and pay the price of unjust users of power: the protesters fleeing the public square in response to the sudden deployment of chemical irritants? The answer, for anybody with a superficial knowledge of the scriptures the president was holding, seems obvious: we serve a God who “opposes the proud” while he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

However, while it is easy to condemn the violation of the message of the gospel that the photo-op represents, it is important for the Church to remember that the reason the President chose to appear in this way is simple and utilitarian: this type of appropriation of the Church has worked in the past and he thought it would work now. As abhorrent as his actions are, they only worked because in the past we, as the Church, have failed to rebuke and challenge exactly this type of appropriation and have not made it clear that we choose justice and love over safety and power.

White Christians are responsible because we have let the president and other Americans believe that the Church was the building, rather than people of God on the move with those in the square. There are many ways that the Church in America needs to repent, change, and grow, many of which the protests across our country are making plain. The president’s shameful demonstration throws into bold relief another area of needed repentance. We have allowed the powerful to believe that not only can the things of God be co-opted to promote injustice, but that this is what we want. We must ensure that this never happens again, by making clearer than ever before whose servants we are and which way we follow.

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is assistant professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.


Editor’s note: This essay has been updated to refer to a chemical spray, rather than tear gas, being used against the protesters. 

About The Author

Elisabeth is assistant professor of moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. She received her PhD in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, where her dissertation focused on reclaiming the theological jurisprudence of the 16th-century Spanish theologian and legal scholar, Francisco Suárez.

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I believe the tear gas story has been proven false. In a climate like the one we are living in, the question is whether the truth really matters. We are watching forces unleashed that have a mind of their own. One person sees life investments destroyed, old women beaten, black store owners robbed by professional rioters, and wants to support peaceful demonstrations. The other focuses on presidential actions, ‘systemic racism’, the police as ‘warrior not guardian’, and on it goes. The real question is whether and how these two sides can find any charitable common ground.

Jacob Imber

I agree that accuracy is important. But does substituting “smoke bombs and flash grenades” for “tear gas” materially change the truth of this account? I think not.

Jacob Imber

While we’re discussing “whether the the truth really matters,” it’s helpful to admit that often our knowledge is incomplete or contradictory. For instance, although no police agency has admitted using tear gas, reporters and protesters said a chemical irritant of some kind was used to clear a path for the president and his associates. So, it’s going a bit too far to say, “the tear gas story has been proven false.”

Thank you for raising the question of the use of tear gas. The article has been updated to reflect the latest reporting from the New York Times.
I would note, though, that the mention of tear gas was based on first hand reports from those against whom the police turned. Even if the police used some other chemical agent that wasn’t technically tear gas, we can understand how civilians experiencing its effects might fail to realize such fine distinctions.

They used pepper spray. Radley Balko has been writing about this here in this thread: I see that the article has been updated to refer, correctly, to chemical spray. I fail to see how that changes the situation, or impacts the main thrust of Kincaid’s piece. Indeed, to quote Balko again, in a tongue-in-cheek response to someone who was at the protest describing their experience: “Yes, but you were hit with an organic irritant, not a synthetic one. So this invalidates the effects you felt, proves that the news media are liars, and validates Trump as a great and… Read more »

Indie Pereira

It is rather pedantic to expect the priest on the scene who was ministering to non-violent protestors whose eyes were burning to be able to distinguish the exact weapon used against them. Any weapon used against non-violent protestors to clear a path for an opportunistic photo op that co-opts the church for a message that is antithetical to the gospel of Christ should be so offensive that a minor error from a priest who is not an expert in weapons would be quietly corrected but certainly not condemned.


Did you not see the actual scene. It is true…as usual the President is lying. The vcamera tells the truth.

Elisabeth Kincaid

Thanks Fr. Chris,I see that the report has changed since yesterday to “some form of chemical spray” (according to the NYT). I have asked the editors to update the post accordingly

christopher r seitz

You are welcome, Elizabeth. My chief concern is as I try to express it above. Not what kind of device was used by police. I should have started a new paragraph. People are wedded to their narratives. If I were searching about for common ground it would be an agreed policy about track record of any racist or violent action on the part of police, and removal. Minneapolis had a history. Most cops are hard working, sacrificial, quasi social workers, mocking my own contributions in this difficult terrain. This incident has caused a tidal wave of gratuitous violence. That is… Read more »

Fr. Dale Coleman

I think you are mixed up on “church”. It is not just a building. It is a sacred space. This is what Trump trampled on. The church has been consecrated to the Lord as a sacred space. You are confusing ecclesia and kuriakon. The first means the people called out of the world to be the Lord’s people. St. Paul uses the first with this meaning in I Corinthians 5:18; and the second “of the Lord’s” is in I Corinthians 5:20. We get church, better kirk from this word. It is the Lord’s possession. Much of what you wrote is… Read more »

Fr. Dale Coleman

CORRECTION! It is 1 Corinthians 11:18 and 11:20, not 5:18 and 5:20. I must have gotten this wrong when I stood outside my church with the Book of Mormon. Which is not helpful.


Please pray for St Louis Captain David Dorn and his loved ones. May he rest in peace.

I think if one were to ask the President why he walked over to St. John’s Church with a Bible, after expressing his intention to do everything in his power to restore law and order, he would say that he did it to express his support for our most cherished institutions which are coming under attack. (Remember that rioters set fire to St. John’s Church the night before. Where is the outrage over that?) How do the acts of violence that are being committed nightly have anything to do with honoring or seeking justice for George Floyd? They don’t. The… Read more »

David Sinclair

He did it as a photo op to deceive his base.


Sigh! Since when does a person need permission to take a photo in front of a church? This is not a campaign ad for his reelection. Rather it is a bold statement that we need what the Bible says we need to live in a society that’s worth living in. The thugs, criminals, and evil people who set fire to this house of warship need the Bible in their lives. Our country, ordained into existence by our Heavenly Father, needs the content of the Bible back in every aspect of its existence. Liberalism in politics and theology run contrary to… Read more »

David Sinclair

He did it as a photo op to deceive his base into thinking how Godly he is. The arrogant expression on his face shows this is just another act of Fake News, which is every word that comes from his mouth.

Doug Simmons

I wasn’t involved with Anglican/Episcopal thought and discussions in the late 90’s, but as I read this article criticizing the actions of the current president for taking a photo op in front of St. John’s (without permission from rector or bishop), I am curious about something. Was there complaint from rector, bishop or other church community representative when President Clinton took a photo op waving a Bible in front of the same sign during the Lewinski debacle? If not then, why now? Does it reflect the further polticization of the Episcopal leadership in the Progressive/Leftist direction of the past two… Read more »

Holly Melloch

Supporting the thoughtful comments of Doug,Dale and Robert. Perhaps the church needs to be concerned with having a pro life stance and not ignore what is happening to black and other babies at Planned Parenthood (founded by racist Margaret Sanger)I will always support politically PRO-LIFE candidates.

Charlie Clauss

Clinton’s picture was taken at Foundry United Methodist Church after the church service he attended.

David Grayson Duggan

The Bp of DC, Ms. Budde, has found a convenient whipping boy to advance her socialist political agenda. If she would take the beam out of her eye (litigation to confiscate the funds of the Soper Trust) perhaps she would see that the arsonists who set fire to St. John’s Lafayette Square are no more morally justified in their rage than the Jacobins who torched hundreds of churches during the Reign of Terror. Take a trip to St. Emilion East of Bordeaux for an example of what I mean. And enjoy the wine while you’re there.

David Sinclair

And you attack her because she doesn’t embrace your ultra-right wing viewpoints. I hate to tell you but Jesus Christ was not a conservative.

I Harris

Is St. John’s Episcopal Church the “House of the Lord” or a place to gather to worship the Lord. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit dwells in you?” 1 Corinthians 3:16

carol albritton

be sure you know what you are talking about before printing.

Thank you for your concern. We stand behind every word of this.

David Sinclair

Fortunately, everyone realizes that this was just another act of hypocrisy from someone who has demonstrated again and again that he is in no way shape or form a follower of Jesus Christ. His refusal to say the Apostles’ Creed at Senator McCain’s funeral, and his behavior in general, has proven that. There was a wonderful cartoon a while back of him looking at a Cross and saying that it was a giant “T” in his honor. I have written to the Bishop of Washington and asked her to offer the rite for the Restoring of Things Profaned from BOS… Read more »

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