Rioters Who Torched St. John's Church Were Torching Civil Rights Landmark


It’s not easy to understand the mental process behind busting up a Starbucks, but the whole thing can be assimilated if you try hard enough.

All right, so it’s a capitalist enterprise. It’s there. The coffee is mediocre and the plate-glass windows are 15-feet high. They make a pretty impressive bang-crash-tinkle when you pitch a brick through them. Then you get to tear down that siren logo and think you’ve struck a blow against capitalism.

What I won’t get is trying to torch a church.

Not just any church. St. John’s Episcopal Church, just north of the White House off of Lafayette Square, has been visited by every president since James Madison. Some of them have worshipped there. It’s a part of our nation’s fabric — culturally, religiously and historically.

Maybe that’s what the catch was: the old, ossified, white supremacist America being torched as a symbolic gesture. Maybe that’s why rioters lit the basement aflame and defaced the exterior of the church on Sunday. That’ll pave the way for … something.

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But therein lay the problem: By doing that, they were also attacking a civil rights landmark.

St. John’s also happened to be the church that President Trump walked to on Monday after his remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House. He appeared there with his Bible and several members of his cabinet and staff — including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

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Before the event Monday, the press secretary addressed the role that the church played in the movement when she was asked a question about how the so-called “Church of the Presidents” was targeted.

“I think it’s important to go through a little bit of this, but Rev. John C. Harper was the St. John’s rector many centuries ago — at least decades — centuries, and a few decades ago,” McEnany said. (Harper was rector from 1963 until 1993.)

“And here’s what he was told — he was told he needed to close St. John’s because he couldn’t leave it open for the March on Washington because, quote, ‘it might be a bloodbath.’ But he stood boldly,” McEnany said.

“He stood boldly, and he stood on the side of justice. And on the day the March on Washington happened, here’s what was sung from that church: ‘One family on Earth are we / Throughout its widest span / O help us everywhere to see the brotherhood of man.”

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For those uninitiated in the hymns of the Church of England, that’s from “Our Father, Thy Dear Name Doth Show.”

McEnany noted that this was the march that culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“And that church, the same church that was burning last night, here is what they said — taking that bold stance to support Martin Luther King, they said this:

‘This church building is open, as it has always been, [so] all who want to worship here. The ministry of this parish is extended to any who seek it. Our fellowship with one another has no limitations whatsoever.’

“That church supported the bold civil rights moments of the March on Washington, which began at the Lincoln Memorial.”

McEnany stated what should be the blindingly obvious: “That doesn’t honor the legacy of George Floyd. It doesn’t further the cause.”

George Floyd’s death is an American tragedy. We may disagree on how to express our disgust, our anger and our frustration over it. We may disagree over what it represents. But we can all, hopefully, agree on the fact that torching a historic church isn’t the way to honor his legacy.

How are rioters to claim the mantle of civil rights when they’re willing to torch the sites that, in those tenuous years, served as an oasis of Christian brotherly love and understanding?

In John C. Harper’s obituary in The New York Times, it was noted how he “helped shift St. John’s from a ‘society church,’ with pew rentals and a congregation composed of only the most socially prominent, to a church that played an important role in the community. The church organized programs to feed and clothe the needy, to house the homeless in local hostels and to counsel drug and alcohol addicts.”

“During the Vietnam War, when many downtown businesses and churches were shuttered, Dr. Harper opened the church to protesters for refuge. From his office, he witnessed antiwar rallies and the tear-gassing of demonstrators, encampments of the poor and homeless in Lafayette Park and civil rights demonstrations.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church survived the turbulent 1960s, and it did so in a society where the headwinds that faced a man like John C. Harper were much stronger.

On Sunday, it was almost burned down by someone or some group of people who thought, inasmuch as they were even thinking to begin with, it had something to do with the death of George Floyd.

CORRECTION, May 15, 2023: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Kayleigh McEnany.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture