The burning of the Church of the Presidents
During the protests in Washington, D.C., arsonists set fire to St. John’s Church – across Lafayette Square from the White House.
The Episcopal place of worship has come to be known as the Church of the Presidents – or more simply and poetically as “The Church on Lafayette Square.” Every President since James Madison has participated in services in the iconic yellow building – with the exception of President Kennedy, who was assassinated just before his scheduled visit to St. John’s.
It was built specifically to serve the newly constructed Presidential Mansion on the opposite side of the square. It was assumed by the Founders that most, if not all, presidents would likely be Episcopalians. That idea was short-lived when Unitarian Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency.
St. John’s was where President Lincoln would humbly take up the back pew to pray and meditate during his Civil War visits. He would occasionally come when the Church was empty and quiet. One can imagine that Lincoln was seeking what he called “the angels of our better nature” as the nation was gripped in the throes of the bloodiest conflict in American history.
I have a personal association with the Church since I was a parishioner during my days in Washington. It was the site of my marriage – with the reception across the street at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel. President Ford was a regular attendee – and my wife and I would often be sitting behind or near the President – who would arrive with no fanfare. Just him, his wife and a couple of secret service agents. He was just another parishioner. It was a surreal experience.
The mere idea of torching a house of God – and one so intimately connected to our nation’s history – is an act of heinous depravity of the first order. It is evidence of unspeakable evil that can consume the heart and soul of morally malignant human beings.
On the other hand, the evil is no less than when those same individuals burn, destroy and loot the shops and homes of innocent Americans – and even kill. The individuals and organizations that promote, participate and even tolerate such actions are a cancer in our body politic.
Fortunately, the fire at St. John’s was confined to one room – the nursery where young children are attended to during Sunday services. The room was gutted, but early reports indicate that the fire did not spread to the sanctuary or create any structural problems. Considering the age and the wooden construction of the building, that might be considered a miracle.
Hopefully, St. John’s will continue to be a sanctum sanctorum for the moral elevation of America’s Presidents for centuries to come.
So, there ‘tis.