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President Trump Visits John Paul II Shrine To Promote International Religious Freedom


President Trump today went to an important religious site, his second such visit in two days. Last night the president made the short walk from the White House to the historic St. John's Church. Today he went to the St. John Paul II Shrine here in Washington. In both cases, the president intended to send a message. In both cases, the visits were controversial. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: To his critics, President Trump's visit today to the St. John Paul II Shrine looked very much like a photo op. It shows up in his schedule at the last minute. In a time of national crisis when the president's leadership is being questioned, he visits a shrine to a beloved man, a saint. In fact, the visit was scheduled some time ago. He was to sign an executive order at the shrine to commit the government to uphold religious freedom. Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser to the president, said everything about the president's visit was perfectly appropriate.

JOHNNIE MOORE: There is a profound amount of symbolic significance in the fact that prior to signing the substantive policy action, the president and the first lady went and paid their respect to an iconic leader in the past who's literally changed the world that we're inherited.

GJELTEN: But still, the timing didn't look good coming after last night's photo op at St. John's Episcopal Church. Federal agents aggressively pushed protesters out of the way so the president could get there, and his message was hardly conciliatory. He held up a Bible, but he didn't open it, didn't quote it, and he said nothing remotely biblical. The White House didn't bother to tell the church leaders the president was coming. The Episcopal bishop of Washington, Mariann Edgar Budde, was furious.

MARIANN EDGAR BUDDE: I was outraged that he felt that he had the license to do that and that he would abuse our sacred temples and our sacred space in that way. If they had asked us, I would have said no. I would not have permitted that.

GJELTEN: But Johnnie Moore says President Trump's walkabout to St. John's was entirely defensible, even courageous.

MOORE: I think in his way, he was saying, this is how seriously I'm taking it. Despite all the anxiety in the country, I'm going to walk right out of the White House. I'm going to walk right across that park. I'm going to go stand next to that church that some bad actors attempted to burn down.

GJELTEN: It was in the context of the controversy over the St. John's visit that today's visit to the John Paul II Shrine became controversial. When the Catholic Archbishop of Washington Wilton Gregory heard about it, he, like Bishop Budde, reacted with fury. I find it baffling and reprehensible, he said, that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated. The shrine is run not by the Catholic Church but by the Knights of Columbus, a conservative lay group. Kathleen Sprows Cummings, an expert on American Catholicism at Notre Dame University, says the problem with President Trump's visit to the shrine is that it didn't honor the late pope's memory given the president's divisive rhetoric.

KATHLEEN SPROWS CUMMINGS: Shrines are often used as photo ops. They're not only sacred spaces, but they're spaces that are used to send messages. But what is appalling is the way that his message is so incongruous with the way John Paul II lives his life.

GJELTEN: As for today's executive order on religious freedom, it outlines a number of specific steps the government can undertake to put the promotion of religious freedom at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG THIEF SONG, "NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.