WASHINGTON — Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde was relaxing at home on Monday evening when suddenly, she said, “my phone was just lighting up.”
In an interview, the spiritual leader for the Washington area’s 88 Episcopal congregations recalled her stunned amazement as she turned on the television to see President Trump walking from the White House to pose in front of St. John’s Church. Within hours, she was condemning the president’s appearance on national television.
And on Tuesday, as Mr. Trump prepared to visit the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a few miles from St. John’s, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, denounced the event in similar terms, calling it “baffling and reprehensible.”
Both prelates criticized the president for what they said was his opportunistic attempt to embrace faith in a moment of crisis — an extraordinary accusation for church officials used to welcoming government officials to their places of worship.
Bishop Budde and Archbishop Gregory are both known for their commitment to social justice. But the twin statements from two different branches of Christianity had a significant effect, winning applause from liberals but denunciations from Trump supporters as disrespectful.
Speaking to Anderson Cooper of CNN on Monday night, Bishop Budde said she was “outraged” that the president had used St. John’s as a “prop,” noting that he visited “without permission” or advance warning. On Tuesday, Bishop Budde added in an interview that Mr. Trump had been “acting like an authoritarian dictator” when he walked to the church from the White House after security officers cleared away protesters with tear gas. “And then he held up a Bible …” she added incredulously, before finding herself at a loss for words.
She said that she had spoken out on behalf of her broader religious community to “make sure that the image of the president standing in front of St. John’s holding a bible in his hand was not the definitive word that night, that that was not going to go unchallenged.”
Archbishop Gregory, arguably the most important African-American Catholic in the country, made his views known through a statement released on Tuesday, just before Mr. Trump arrived at the shrine, the largest Catholic church in North America.
“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility wold 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,” Archbishop Gregory wrote. He added that Pope John Paul II “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.”
Bishop Budde, 60, and Archbishop Gregory, 72, are both groundbreaking figures: In 2011, she became the first woman to lead the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes the National Cathedral. Archbishop Gregory is the first African-American to hold his position, which he assumed just over a year ago. His appointment by Pope Francis to Washington, a prominent archdiocese, puts him in line to become the country’s first African-American cardinal. The Archdiocese of Washington did not respond to a request to interview him.
In a statement on Sunday, Archbishop Gregory decried the “horror of George Floyd’s death,” referring to the unarmed African-American man who was killed after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck, the episode that has set off more than a week of protests across the United States. Archbishop Gregory said the incident “reveals the virus of racism among us once again even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.”
The National Shrine is run by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization with ties to conservative Washington and to Mr. Trump’s orbit. Shortly after the president’s visit, the shrine released a statement on its Twitter account clarifying that the White House “originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom,” which he did later in the day.
In a statement, Brian Burch, the president of the conservative group CatholicVote, defended the president’s visit to the shrine as appropriate and criticized Archbishop Gregory. He called it “regrettable that the Archbishop of Washington chose this occasion to engage in a partisan attack on the president, especially when the country is in desperate need of healing and unity.”
And during an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser, bristled at criticism that the president was using religious sites as a prop.
Arguing that Mr. Trump has made religious liberty a priority of his presidency, she took aim at Bishop Budde personally, saying: “That is not, quote, her church, that is not, quote, her Bible,” Ms. Conway said. “We don’t look into other people’s hearts and souls and discern and judge what their faith is.”
While many conservative white evangelicals and Catholics have championed Mr. Trump as a hero for religious liberty and against abortion, other more liberal Christians have worked to set a different moral agenda and fight Mr. Trump’s policies on everything from immigration to abortion.
Bishop Budde said that she strongly supported the peaceful protests nationwide, and that she had visited St. John’s on Saturday “to set up hospitality and make sure people know we are here for them, even though there had been vandalism the night before.” A small fire set in the church’s nursery had not done serious damage, she said, adding, “That comes with the territory, especially when people are angry.”
She added that she felt a particularly deep connection to the protests because of her previous 18 years of service as a rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, the city that has been engulfed by the outrage sweeping the nation. “My oldest son and his family live there, and they were among the first ones out protesting,” Bishop Budde said.
When she was elected to Washington, Bishop Budde’s consecration ceremony featured a drumming procession by a Native American group, a song in Spanish and gospel readings in Igbo, a Nigerian language, to honor the diversity of the Washington region.
She stepped into the role as a relatively unknown parish priest from Minnesota. “In that sense, she had not had anything like a national profile, and then all of the sudden steps into this unbelievably public episcopate,” said Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who made history as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Bishop Budde’s soft-spoken style “makes you listen to every world and winds up being more powerful than someone who is ranting and raving,” Bishop Robinson said. “It is one of the gifts that many women have brought to the ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.”
On Tuesday morning, several Washington-area pastors stood in front of St. John’s, near where Mr. Trump had posed the night before, and called for an end to police brutality.