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Bishop, Joe Biden angered by Trump's use of Washington church for photo op

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., has sharply criticized President Donald Trump for staging a visit to the historic St. John's Church across from the White House, where he held up a Bible after authorities had cleared the area of peaceful protesters.

Rev. Mariann Budde said Trump's visit to church wasn't about 'spiritual aspirations'

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across from the White House on Monday evening. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington sharply criticized President Donald Trump for staging a visit to the historic St. John's Church across from the White House, where he held up a Bible after authorities had cleared the area of peaceful protesters.

The Rev. Mariann Budde, whose diocese St. John's belongs to, said she was "outraged" by Trump's visit and noted that he didn't pray while stopping by the church, a landmark known for its regular visits from sitting presidents since the early 19th century.

"He didn't come to church to pray, he didn't come to church to offer condolences to those who are grieving, he didn't come to commit to healing our nation – all the things we would expect and long for from the highest leader in the land," Budde said on NBC's Today.

Trump's visit "did not serve the spiritual aspirations or the needed moral leadership," she added. "It did not address the grievous wounds that we're dealing with and the agony of our country."

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Former vice-president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee who is poised to take on Trump in the Nov. 3 election, blasted the president for the display in a wide-ranging speech on Tuesday.

Speaking of the Bible, Biden said: "I just wish he opened it once a while instead of brandishing it. If he opened it, he could have learned something."

Budde said the church had no advance warning of his visit.

Trump's walk was preceded by federal forces using tear gas to clear a Washington park of protesters.

Tear gas floats in the air as a line of police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church near the White House on Monday. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

The scene in and around the White House appeared to be carefully orchestrated. As the crowd of protesters grew, Attorney General William Barr arrived in Lafayette Park to look over at the demonstrations and the swarm of law enforcement. Once his path was cleared, Trump, who rarely attends church, then walked through the park and held up a Bible, posing for photos with a group of advisors.

Biden expressed dismay at tear gas being used on "peaceful protesters" near "the doorstep of the people's house, the White House."

Some Republicans such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse also took issue with the series of events in Trump's appearance at the church. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement that he was "against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop."

Visit was to church hit by arson

As protests nationwide flared following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, St. John's suffered minor damage Sunday night from a fire in the church basement. Budde said "our suffering was minimal" compared with businesses that were destroyed by recent looting, even as she defended the goals of peaceful protesters responding to Floyd's killing.

"We can rebuild the church. We can replace the furnishings of a nursery," she said, referring to the damaged area. "We can't bring a man's life back."

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The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, issued his own statement, saying that Trump had "used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes."

"This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us," added Curry, the first African American to hold that leadership post for U.S. Episcopalians.

The White House portrayed the walk as one that projected strength:

Budde took her position at the church in Washington in 2011 after spending 18 years in Minneapolis.

"I want to build up the liberal church again so we can be a legitimate conversation partner in the public arena," she told the Washington Post at the time.

The bishop, who last year joined other Washington National Cathedral leaders in a statement that excoriated Trump's "racialized rhetoric," firmly aligned her faith with the goals of peaceful protesters driven by Floyd's death to decry systemic racism.

With files from CBC News

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